Embedding Learning

In The Principal, Michael Fullan makes the distinction between instructional leadership and learning leadership. Instructional leadership, though well-intentioned as a strategy, creates the persona of the principal as the expert instructor and evaluator. In this role, the principal espouses knowledge and attempts to pass this along through individual teacher evaluation and feedback systems. This probably also involves large group, one-size-fits-all professional development.

A learning leader, in contrast, learns alongside the faculty. This leader is a master manager in terms of creating systems and structures that allow for collaboration and embedded continuous learning. The learning leader’s primary role is to develop ‘group efficacy’ by focusing on the group, not the individual. Most importantly, it’s leader remains a learner, someone who models redefinition, refinement and failure.

In my own leadership journey, I have experienced this all too well. Years ago, as a fledgling assistant principal, I was shocked at how little impact faculty meeting presentations or individual goal-setting had on creating any lasting change. Mind you, these were interactive presentations that involved discussion and creation, and goal-setting was personalized and centered on school goals. Yet all too often, most teachers went back to their classrooms and did what they did.

Things improved greatly once we built a master schedule that embedded common planning time into the school day. Teams met daily to plan together, learn together and engage in dissonance together. Still, the efficacy of the team varied greatly, so we added another layer.

Once our admin team became a regular part of team meetings, we really started to grow as a collaborative culture. Though we were largely listening members who attended only once every 2-3 weeks and did not set agendas, we became an integral part of the dialogue. We engaged in regular professional conversations with teams of colleagues and we were part of the planning and goal-setting process. Between team meetings and regular walkthroughs, we knew our programs inside/out, which helped us communicate accurately with the community and cross-pollinate ideas across departments. We were also able to promote fidelity to our mission, assessment philosophy and other school initiatives. And when needed, we were able to help groups function more positively.

We were proud of our structures and our ability to build a culture of collaboration. In fact, I’m still proud of our work in this regard.

However, once we added learning coaches to the structure, things really started to move!

Fullan writes that instructional leadership is a myth because we learn more from our peers than authority figures. Thus, by nature of position, people will learn less from their principal. Certainly, in my own experience, there were times of deflation where I was left wondering why teachers didn’t engage in an idea I had. If all ideas are created equal, why were mine less so?

  • though I was a regular member, I didn’t attend every meeting
  • I was a member of multiple teams, so I could not follow through on implementation of ideas
  • some of it probably was positional, as Fullan notes

Learning coaches, however, can become an integral part of the team. In my last year as principal, I worked closely with a literacy coach and a technology coach, who worked closely with our teams, meeting regularly and setting team goals. The growth in our teams was phenomenal (both in literacy and technology) and we all learned together – teacher, coach and principal.

More importantly, ideas were implemented with the guidance of coaches, so teachers received continuous, job embedded support.

Most importantly, the impact on student learning was tangible and real. Even when one wasn’t in love with a structure (such as Writers Workshop in place of direct instruction), we could not argue the impact it had on student writing.

For years, principals have been schooled to develop the capacity of the individual teacher.  Fullan points out the futility of such exercises, focusing the learning leader on the group so that the leader becomes “the curator of positive contagion…who models learning, but also shapes the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis.”

Lean In

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In our profession, we often create a deficit-based climate because we focus on what we are not doing rather than on what we are doing. We are constantly looking for areas of growth, and it is common to feel inadequate. In fact, in the blog post “Focus on Your Strengths,” the author notes that it is almost impossible to feel successful as an educator because teaching requires three very distinct and different traits. Hence, we may be strong in two of the three, yet constantly focus on our deficit. Instead of comparing our weaknesses to other’s strengths, he suggests we should recognize our own strengths.  

While it is valid to want to learn and grow and to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is also valid to do so while leaning in to our strengths.  

What strengths do you have and what contributions do you make to our profession because of your strengths?

In the same vein, this is a valid strategy to use with students.  In assessment, ask what they are currently doing well and how can they build upon their strengths and successes?  Lean in to their strengths and they will likely be more motivated, more engaged and therefore make greater gains.

It is exhausting to be constantly seeking what isn’t there.  It creates negativity for all parties and strips away joy and passion.  A colleague recently left me a beautiful closing line to a letter: lean in.

Lean in to the work.  Lean in to what you cannot do.  Lean in to your strengths. Whatever the interpretation, lean in.  I promise, you will learn more, grow more and laugh more!

Reshaping the Future or The Law of 90/10

A couple of days ago, while searching for writing exercises for my Workshop, I came across one titled “Reshaping the Past” on Poets & Writers Tools for Writers.  

  • In Mary Karr’s new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that “from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.” Think of a significant event from your past that you’ve written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these “secondary” events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.

The idea of shaping the past strikes me as interesting, particularly as I have spent years of my poetry exploring perception as truth.  Interestingly though, as I attempted the exercise, it wasn’t the past I was trying to reshape, but the future I was trying to form.

As I think about this prompt and the idea of focus, it is entirely true that we can reshape our past by rewriting (or rethinking it).  However, we can also go a step further and form our future with what we focus upon.

At the moment for example, I am mired in the stress of being new.  As international educators, when we move, we also change jobs, change schools and change communities, all which fall in the Top 20 categories of major life stressors.  

Our New Look

Oddly, for the past few days, I have been consumed with furniture.  More specifically, my dislike of our furniture, which is perfectly functional but not to our taste.  I regret selling all of our nice things in Kuwait rather than shipping them.  I go back and forth between “living with what we have” and spending vast amounts of money so that we can be happy in our space (particularly, as when we left Kuwait and gave away copious amounts of things, we committed to being minimalist in our new home).  

Yet, by focusing on my furniture and spending time mourning what I gave away, I am shaping my present reality in a negative way.  I am forgetting all of the good things that we have here.  The fact that we live in a great community, that our girls have lots of playmates, that we have a spacious villa, that we have a new life to create.  I am literally consumed with my furniture questions.  And to what expense?

The furniture issue will be resolved and it is fairly minor.  Yet, I wonder how many other minor things consume us, shape our experience and change our attitudes and perspectives?  

In life, do we see the 90% good or the 10% challenge?

In my previous role as a principal, I often reminded our faculty (and myself) of the 90/10 rule or the idea that we often spend 90% of our time on 10% of the problem, thereby thinking that the 10% represents the majority.  For example, we may spend 90% of our time working with challenging behaviors in our classroom and forget that the other 90% of the students are not challenging.

Our thoughts and feelings become reality.  Our perspectives and beliefs live in our biology and can significantly impact our future health.  So what if, rather than simply try to “reshape the past,” we change what we see in the present?  At any given moment, there are 2 or 3 or even 10 other options that will “shape” the meaning of our future, and I’m pretty sure I want my future to be about more than furniture…

Peace: A Fortuitous Endeavor

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Last October, I learned about and experienced an exercise in the U-Theory developed by Otto Scharmer. It’s difficult to explain the U-Theory as it is largely experiential; however, it is defined “firstly as a framework, secondly as a method for leading profound change, and thirdly as a way of being – connecting to the more authentic or higher aspects of our self.”  

February took me on an accreditation visit to a school that had a profound impact upon me.  This school was founded in 1923 by a nun and aims to educate the hearts and minds of its students.  I love this, and what is most impressive is that its mission has not changed in almost 100 years.  In one conversation with one of the Sisters in which I was complimenting the mission, she stated so simply that, “Peace begins in schools.”

Peace begins in schools.

These words return to me often and as an educator, I think we have a profound responsibility in this age of disparity to educate our students for a more peaceful and compassionate world.  

In the spring, a wonderful mentor and leader David Chojnacki, introduced me to the Charter for Compassion, a belief in a compassionate and peaceful world, and I immediately joined the movement.  After engaging in one of their online calls, I was invited to host a Charter Salon, or what I am terming a Peace Salon, a salon that hopes to “open up the door to new ideas, new approaches for our efforts to bring about a peaceful world by fostering a compassionate world.”  I love this idea of coming together to explore ideas on peace.  While I will host a salon in person, I’m also curious about what ideas we have in this digital space.

  • What actions can we take in our lives to foster more peace and compassion?
  • If peace begins in schools, how do we ensure we are meeting this worthy mission?
  • What does education for peace look like?
  • What ideas does this inspire?

As I reflect upon what became a year of inspiration, I attribute it to the U-Theory.  Once I became attuned to “what wanted to happen” I encountered the experiences I needed to affirm a passion, one that I will continue to strive towards as I allow the future to emerge,

For Change: “Just Keep Nipping Away”

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If you missed tonight’s Rugby World Cup 2015 South Africa versus Japan game, you missed a “rugby miracle,” rugby history, sports history.  In an epic game, Japan, the underdog, won the game.  But they didn’t just win and they certainly didn’t get lucky.  As one commentator said, “They weren’t lucky; they worked incredibly hard…”

This was the first game Japan, a tier 2 or tier 3 team, had ever played against South Africa, who are rated among the top three teams in the world.  And they won.  In the last minutes of the game.  Because they refused to stop and, as one commentator noted repeatedly, “they just kept nipping away.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 9.42.11 PMAn astounding game to watch, Japan got a penalty kick seconds before the end of the game.  But did they take it and go for what would still have been a historic draw?  No! They went for the try.  And 4-5 minutes later, they won because they refused to quit. It was a glorious win, but it wasn’t glamorous.  They pushed forward and were taken down.  Passed the ball and went down again.  And again and again.  But they “kept battering away” until they scored the try and made world cup and rugby history.

Not only have they inspired rugby fans and ensured that this will be a memorable World Cup 2015.  Their bravery in not taking the draw is inspiring from any perspective.  Whether we are striving for change in our profession, peace in our world, or simply trying to raise compassionate children, Japan showed us that no matter how small a chance, we can succeed.  We should not settle.  We deserve to go for the win.

#courage #RWC2015 #JPN

Inspiring Thought

Yesterday, we ran a positive opening convocation.  I say positive because the room was filled with energy, people were exchanging ideas and “cross-pollinating” and, based on feedback, the session generated hallway talk after.  In fact, one person told me that he’d overheard three or four conversations inspired by the convocation as he passed through one of the halls.

This makes me happy because the goal of learning should always be to inspire thought.  If just one person is left thinking, I’m happy.  Whether we agree or disagree, the thinking, talking and reflection is what helps us learn and grow.

Certainly, it should be our goal to inspire this same type of thinking in our students, so that they are left “buzzing” after their time with us.

Posing questions is one of the best ways to inspire thought, and using protocols from sources such as Critical Friends and Thinking Collaborative can allow for increased engagement, voices from all learners and ultimately, more learning.

An essential question for everyday should be this: Have I inspired thought today?

On Leaving

I recently left my home of 10 years.  As much as I love it, I can’t believe it was my home for this long.  You see, Kuwait is generally more transient, and most people leave within 2-4 years.

Yet, my ten years seems like a flash – a most significant flash.  Kuwait is where I met my husband.  Where I had both of my daughters.  Where I started my tenure in school leadership.  Where I started and ended my MFA in poetry.  Where I loved my school more deeply than I can describe.  Where I have felt most at home than any other place I’ve been or lived.

Many people asked how I felt upon leaving, expecting either deep sadness or extreme joy. My answer: I leave with love and gratitude.

It is time for my family to move on, and with that knowledge, comes a certain nostalgia.  I will always love Kuwait for what it is, the people, and what it has given me.  Yet, it is time to go.  Thus, I leave with love and gratitude.

It is a most satisfying feeling to leave a place with deep appreciation and high expectation for the future.  We expats live a transitory life.  Still, I can say to Kuwait and ASK, that I will “love you forever [and] like you for always” while anticipating with great excitement the many futures unfolding.

Some Kind of Ride by Brian Andreas

What are we really saying?

Each week since before Mia was born, I’ve received a BabyCenter tip of the week.  These are great little insights that arrive at just the right time.  This week, I got the below message about body language:

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 9.36.39 PM

It’s so true.  Often, I’ll say something while I am distracted and then wonder why my girls don’t listen, until I remember to practice being present.

These same truths about body language apply to leadership.  My most recent mentor is a counselor and she would often speak to us about how body language speaks more volumes than any words we use.

If our body language tells the truth, it’s probably best that our words do as well. Otherwise, we risk sending mixed messages and causing confusion, be it in parenting, relationships or professional situations.

 

There’s No Place Like “Home”

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I’m home for the first time in almost five years, which is the longest I’ve been gone without visiting.  Maybe this is the reason why I am noticing more changes than in the past.  Subtle changes like an increase in self-service and a decrease in customer service.  Other not so subtle things, like an increased polarity of perspective.

Other things don’t change at all.  Friendships that slip straight back into normal conversation, as if it hasn’t been three, five or seven years.

Still, I feel more foreign here than I do where I just came from, though where I came from is no longer home, and I find myself slipping into defensive mode about my most recent “home” and my soon to be new “home.”

There are so many misperceptions about the world,  When I lived in Taiwan, my students commonly thought that Americans didn’t love their children as much as Asian parents because of the movie Clueless – apparently, because the main character has a lot of freedom, my students perceived Americans as unconcerned about their children. Obviously, this perception is ridiculous, and I am sure we perceive ourselves as very caring parents.

The perceptions about the Middle East are equally unfounded.  Yet, it’s difficult and somewhat exhausting to try to explain how wonderful the Middle East is.  Or Taiwan. Or Sweden.  Or England.  All places, I very much consider as home.

My whole life, I have encountered questions about my “homes,” my ethnicity and my experiences.  The questions are generally well-meaning, but they are not always respectful.  This time home, I find myself floundering for patience and missing the people with whom I share common experiences.

Regardless of where we are from or what we believe, we are not so different from one another.  I wonder at what point, we can accept this and stop trying to compare and compete?