Reputations: Easy to Get.… Hard to Lose….

I’ve been struggling with this post for a while now.

I’ve thought a lot about personal and professional growth for most of my career, and one of the difficulties I’ve had has been getting my head around reputations by which we become identified – both positive and negative.

I’ve read a few posts (including Judgement or Talent – Harry Potter and Leadership by @jordantinney and Professional Learning and Employee Support by Tom Grant) which do a better job of articulating thoughts about the importance of support than I ever could; however, I have not been able to escape the desire to put something down about reputations.

A few years ago, a Principal colleague and I were speculating about the upcoming period in which administrators would receive the news as to their assignments for the next school year. Some of us would be staying put, while some would be on the move to new schools and become part of new teams. As the conversation started to lead towards the compositions of teams and who we thought would be a good fit in each school, the conversation began to head towards the uncomfortable topic of character and reputations. Before we went any further, he commented that he didn’t want to perpetuate any unfair reputations or rumours.

That comment has stuck in my head ever since, and I recently had the opportunity to share with him how important it was to me.

Sometimes it’s just a single comment (true or inaccurate) from one person and sometimes it is discussions within a group that can catapult a person’s reputation, and as a result their career, in a number of different directions, positive and negative.

How many of us are aware of the reputations we carry with us in our day-to-day work? While many will say that they don’t care, as leaders we have a responsibility to our colleagues, to our staff, and to our organizations to propel everyone, including ourselves, forward in a positive direction.

I think about how reputations stick, at times unfairly, with little opportunity to change the perceptions of others.

I think about mistakes we make early and later in our career.

How often are people placed in a position in which they take on new tasks or responsibilities only to falter in approach and consequently results? How do we regard those who try new things or think “outside the box?” Do those who work above, or alongside, wait for people to falter and then criticize or reprimand? Do we label due to a singular or series of instances, without providing an opportunity to learn and move forward positively? Do we have an uneven playing field in which some are encouraged regardless while some are ignored or faulted.

How do we help the people with whom we work improve and grow? How do we help our organizations improve and grow?

When considering leadership and succession planning, we sometimes look around and comment on the lack of or weaknesses of potential leaders in the field with the requisite skills, experiences, and abilities required to fill our needs. The common commentaries are often focused on poor hiring and poor character. However, we also need to consider what WE do to support and develop from within – not just who we regard as the top staff but ALL staff.

We all learn from experience, and sometimes those learning opportunities need to be identified for us. Sometimes we need help to get over the hump. I can’t think of a better way for this to occur but from a position of relationship and support. The importance of relationships has been something I’ve always kept in the forefront [post].

The Principal mentioned above recently shared with me the difficult conversations he had with one of his colleagues. He pointed out some of the reputation that had been following him around, and in turn his colleague shared some personal information of which no one was aware but provided context to how he operated. Nevertheless, from that point on he has made a conscious effort to try to avoid the things which feed the reputation that has developed over the years, and perhaps, if people have been paying attention, those changes have been noticed.

Another Principal colleague recently shared a similar story in which he also had one of those difficult conversations with a colleague who couldn’t understand the cause of the problems she was having with staff and students. He capitalized on an opportunity to help her understand how some of the approaches she was using were unintentionally short-circuiting relationships, and he used that as an opportunity to work with her and offer support so that she wouldn’t be trying to turn things around on her own.

However, it’s unfortunate how long people can go on without anyone caring enough to intervene AND offer and provide needed support. Sometimes it’s due to lack of relationships. Sometimes it’s a perception of roles and responsibilities. Sometimes it’s because people have already been written off. Sometimes it is wanting to communicate and work only with the “rock stars.”  Sometimes there’s no problem at all… just a perception that’s been created by others.

With students our understanding, by and large, is that they will make mistakes and will need help to learn and move forward.  We also understand the importance of advocating for the misunderstood.  Many of us acknowledge our role in these regards.

Why should it not be the same for our colleagues and staff?

It’s good for the people with whom we work, it’s good for our organizations… and it’s good for reputations.

(photo credit: Joe Houghton via photo pin cc)

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To be globally competitive, we should all begin to use chopsticks…. (Yong Zhao)

Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon, wasn’t serious when he tweeted the above statement with a link to a post on his blog. Yong Zhao’s blog post was a reaction to an article that pointed to a correlation between countries which had high PISA scores but few natural resources. However, it is interesting that 4 of the top 5 PISA countries (Shanghai – China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong – China, Singapore) are Asian.

In reality, what is important is each country’s acknowledgement that “education matters.”

I recently watched a video on education reform in Shanghai, China.

While there are varying perceptions about teaching and learning in China and other Asian countries, it is the efforts towards educational change depicted in this video which I find interesting.

The video begins stating that over the last three decades in Shanghai special attention has been focused on education funding for young people and education policy. Throughout the journey of improving education, problems arose, but on each occasion, in response, new education policy was created to address each of those problems.

The video goes on to highlight an approach used to improve weak schools in Shanghai entitled “Empowered Administration.”

Empowered Administration includes:

  • A stronger school or educational institution is contracted to strengthen a weaker school
  • The strong school or institution provides administrative and pedagogical guidance
  • Such institutions are generally composed of retired school principals and teachers

Empowered Administration includes four partners:

  • the Shanghai municipal government
  • the external partner (school or firm)
  • the district education authority which finances the endeavour
  • an external evaluation body to independently assess the results of the project

In Shanghai it was felt that the issues in the weaker schools included administration that did not know how to run modern schools, did not have strong theoretical foundations, and had, “not followed the changes in technology and modernization,” and, as a result, were behind current practices.

Their approach dispatched strong management teams to lower performing schools.

In one school depicted, a weakness identified was in teachers who came to class without a lesson plan and not having prepared much. As a result, one of the focuses became the need to improve the quality of the teaching staff. The teaching profession is described in the video as a, “conservative and insulated occupation,” acknowledging that it is difficult to change behaviours that have already been formed.

A mentor administrator shown in the video uses his “success education” philosophy, which he had used to turn around a previous school. His “success education” philosophy has three main points:

  • All students are viewed as potential high achievers
  • Developing student self-confidence is the key
  • Intensive teacher mentorship is the strategy

In Shanghai there was recognition that change in approaches to teaching needed to be systematic and lasting. The system of sending in teachers to work one on one with other teachers would often result in immediate change; however, teachers would usually revert back to their former ways of teaching after a period of time.

As a part of providing ongoing support, non-governmental consulting firms were contracted to provide regular and on-going support directly to teachers, and included regular communication with school principals. These firms were usually staffed by retired administrators and teachers.

The Shanghai experience, I believe, offers some interesting considerations for the work we do in improving schools.

The focus on education funding and education policy, I believe, is important. I also believe that these two foci cannot be exclusive of each other. Increasing funding to continue doing what we’ve always done doesn’t make sense for educational improvement. Moreover, policy should focus and guide us in our efforts to organize and allocate resources (who should contribute to the design of educational policy is a whole different topic for a completely separate post).

However, in our system, accurately identifying the “weaker schools” is difficult, controversial, and gives rise to conflict diverting from the issues and solutions, just as does identifying weaker administrators or weaker teachers. The annual Fraser Institute rankings of schools in our province are a good example of a ranking system that probably divides the education community more than improves it. These types of rankings, especially based on limited criteria not widely acknowledged by the profession, have not helped improve our system, and after many years of controversy will not likely be embraced by educators in the near future.

Perhaps for our purposes the focus is not on weaknesses, which speaks to a deficit model, but rather opportunities to share and capitalize on the successful experiences of others towards continuous improvement. In our District we have, on a small-scale, approached that type of work through collegial conferencing projects, and to a lesser degree action research.

I notice some similarities between the Shanghai narrative and the framework in Michael Fullan’s, The Moral Imperative Realized. Fullan identifies the value and importance of administrators and educators working together as partners to link schools, help each other, and ultimately improve the whole system. Out of Fullan’s book I pulled out important aspects necessary for change which spoke to me at that time, including the importance of relationships [Post: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships], building capacity [Post: On Building Capacity], and recruiting and hiring teachers possessing strong foundations on which to build [Post: Don’t Wait for Superman].

I believe there is merit to supporting administrators and teachers with some sort of system of mentorship or collegial sharing. I don’t believe that teachers recently graduated from university training are ready to be classified as “master teachers” any more than newer administrators (Vice-Principals, Principals, and Board Office Administrators) have immediately developed all the skills necessary to address each responsibility resulting in immediate success. Becoming stronger teachers and stronger administrators comes with learning from experience and each other, mixed with some trial and error. I appreciate Fullan’s advocacy for the importance of encouraging, “risk taking, learning, and sharing of successful practices while intervening in a non-punitive manner.”

Districts use educators in a variety of capacities to support school-based educators, including positions such as helping teachers, mentors, consultants, department heads, district administrators, directors of instruction, etc. Each district will have its own model which they believe is the best fit to move the organization forward. However, attention also needs to be focused on ensuring that the model is efficient and truly addresses the needs of the district, schools, educators, and students, especially given a time of limited resources.

Ideally, we should see ourselves continuously striving to improve the work we do in providing improved and superior learning situations focused on success for each student.

… we just need to ensure we have the correct framework and tools in which to do so.

It’s a good thing my kids already know how to use chopsticks. BYOC.

 

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(photo credit: sizima via photopin cc)

 


Don’t Wait for Superman

Update:  links to other blogs for those “Applying & Hiring” here.

I just finished the last chapter, System Leaders, of The Moral Imperative Realized. Fullan begins the chapter with identifying three forms of “system leadership”:

    1. school leaders who link to other schools
    2. school leaders who take positions that oversee/help other schools
    3. system leaders who lead and direct whole system reform

Fullan later uses Ontario, with reference to Finland, Singapore, etc, as an example of linking moral purpose and strategy to illustrate the importance of all leaders working together to focus on eight important and necessary components:

    1. A small number of ambitious goals
    2. A guiding coalition at the top
    3. High standards and expectations
    4. Investment in leadership and capacity building related to instruction
    5. Mobilizing data and effective practices as a strategy for improvement
    6. Intervention in a nonpunitive manner
    7. Being vigilant about distracters
    8. Being transparent, relentless, and increasingly challenging

It is important not to take each of these statements in isolation, but to further explore the meaning Fullan attributes to each of these components. In particular, for me, I find value in Fullan’s further expansion on the sixth component to, “encourage risk taking, learning, and sharing of successful practices while intervening in a nonpunitive manner.” This particular strategy, Fullan explains, is, “deliberately light on judgment.” This is linked to a question posed in a previous post about Chapter 3 [here], “are leaders allowed to make mistakes, learn from errors, and move forward having learned… or do leaders fear criticism and backlash from above?”

Early in the book, Fullan references the movie Waiting for “Superman”, and in this chapter he emphasizes that there is no Superman coming, and that we need to be doing the work ourselves. He reminds us that “creating dramatically better leadership and working conditions with associated capacity building prior to and during one’s career” is imperative.

Fullan states that Finland, Singapore, South Korea, and, in some cases, Canada, have, “figured out that the quality of the teacher force and moral purpose realized are one and the same.” Fullan references a report (McKinsey & Company, 2010) examining the teaching profession in the United States compared to Finland, South Korea, and Singapore. In these three countries the teaching force is made up of the “30+ group” (100% of teachers in these countries are made up of the top 30% of university graduates plus “suitability to teach”). The research used in this report suggests that in the U.S. 23% of teachers come from the highest university ranks, and only, “9% of the top-third of college graduates” intended to enter the teaching profession.

Fullan acknowledges that improving pay and financial incentives is necessary, but is not the only solution to achieving the desired results. Fullan continues to include the following factors which the remaining 91% identified that they value in a job:

    • Quality of co-workers
    • Prestige
    • Challenging work environment
    • High quality training

These are also some of the qualities the 91% found lacking in the teaching profession, and some of the factors Fullan indicates are necessary to fully realize the moral imperative.

@LynHilt [here], @PeterJory [here], and @jvbevacqua [here] recently posted their thoughts on interviewing and hiring. I also recently read a brief article entitled Behind the Mask: How to Effectively Evaluate a Candidate Before Interviewing which offers some great reminders when screening applications.

In this last year, the “other duties as assigned” as per my administrative contract has included hiring teachers to the District’s Teacher-on-Call list. This is one of the responsibilities I do find interesting. However, recruitment, selection, and hiring is not a perfect science. We continue to adjust our practices in our efforts to increase the reliability of our decisions.

Our process for considering applicants currently includes several stages, with further screening before contemplating a move through to each stage.  There are so many factors to consider at each point in the process. However, I believe that above all, the candidates considered must have demonstrated excellent qualities in all areas of the classroom, including instruction, assessment, and connections with students. We also look for the personal and personable qualities the applicant brings to the job. We further consider what the applicant brings and can contribute to the school and community.

We sometimes get feedback that these are “just” Teacher-on-Call positions, some of these applicants “might” improve over time, and as a result some of our concerns should not be a big deal.  However, it is ultimately important to remember that shaping employees is more difficult once they’re in, so it is important to ensure that applicants considered and hired have strong foundations on which to build.

Recently, a guest blogger on Dangerously Irrelevant [here] and @chriswejr [here] commented on teacher education programs. However, it was a panel discussion at a symposium last month, which included @janetstewart, that especially extended my thinking further.

One of the questions posed to the panel included a query as to what needs to be done to raise the teaching profession. Separate from comments regarding our present workforce, some of the points which stood out for me included the notion that we shouldn’t be assuming that universities and teacher education programs will inspire students to meet our needs and thus provide the quality applicants we require.

We do however, I believe, need to, in conjunction with Post-Secondary, continue to encourage our best teachers to take on university students for their student-teaching placements, and provide the mentorship and guidance necessary to further strengthen our teaching ranks.

The panel affirmed that recruitment, selection, and hiring practices have not changed much despite changing times. However, it was pointed out that if we’re not entirely getting the people we want, we need to ensure that we target the right people.

The panel challenged us to consider the value and importance of attracting, encouraging, and inspiring the brightest high school students to the profession.  I’ve always enjoyed observing the students I’ve known over the years who found their passions early in life – the students who put their energies into pursuing their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, musicians, artists, athletes, mechanics, chefs, etc.  What a system we could have if we mobilized a large number of youth early, passionate about pursuing the goal of becoming teachers.  Imagine the energy, enthusiasm, and excitement as an increased number of our students approach and enter their post-secondary lives with the passion to be teachers already instilled.

In order to begin approaching this goal, one of the significant pieces which needs to be in place, in part, is to ensure that we have engaging and innovative role models in the classroom who will help grow this cause.

Ultimately, we need to inspire and attract the best to the profession – whatever we determine constitutes the “best.” Improving the system is hard work. It takes time, and it takes persistence. However, what a missed opportunity if we don’t make every effort to put the strategies in place to do so.

Update:  links to other blogs for those “Applying & Hiring” here.

photo credit: Xurble via photopin cc


On Building Capacity

I previously posted thoughts on the importance of relationships after reading Chapter 1 of Fullan’s The Moral Imperative Realized (here).

In Chapter 3, School and District Symbiosis, Fullan emphasizes the importance of not only school leadership but district leadership as well, as the whole district needs to work together on realizing the moral imperative. In this chapter he provides examples of experiences in the Sanger Unified School District, Fort Bend Independent School District, Ottawa Catholic District School Board, and the York Region District School Board. Fullan explains that there are similarities in the experiences in each of these districts, including focus, “on a small number of goals and corresponding powerful strategies that they employ in concert.” It was not books on management or research studies that guided them, but practice, learning from experience, and learning from others.

Fullan goes on to identify “two big forces for change” – “mutual allegiance” and “collaborative competition.” In this concept, educators, and importantly school leaders, work as partners across districts for improvement of all schools and ultimately the system.

Among the points that Fullan draws our attention to in the experiences of each of these districts, my thoughts continue to be drawn to the importance of district leaders, school leaders, and, in particular, capacity building.

District leadership and school leadership working in concert towards common goals is so important, and, in my mind, capacity building is crucial in any change and improvement venture. Presumably, each educator appointed to a leadership position has something in their experience, skillset, or character that successfully saw them selected and appointed – most importantly, the ability to serve as instructional/educational leaders. However, no individual is fully equipped, at the beginning of a new position, to address every issue that comes along with the job without error. Each leader likely has a strong foundation on which to build further skills needed to be successful, and thus the importance of capacity building cannot be ignored.

Fullan states, “success is created by a process that builds capacity and ownership through cumulative learning and commitment.” Therefore, a sink or swim mentality does not ultimately improve a system, nor does a focus on a select group of leaders while ignoring others. Reprimanding is also probably not a good strategy when something goes awry. So, among the questions I would consider are:

    • What are the skills needed in the leaders to effect change/improve the system?
    • What/where are the gaps?
    • How are the gaps identified in each situation?
    • Who identifies the gaps?
    • What are the strategies needed to best improve and build the capacity of each leader?
    • Are leaders allowed to make mistakes, learn from errors, and move forward having learned… or do leaders fear criticism and backlash from above?

I also think about the composition of administrative teams. Each person brings a different skillset and experience to the table. The importance of assembling teams in which the strengths and personalities of all members complement each other cannot be underestimated. There is value in a collaborative and consultative approach in assembling teams. Who better to contribute to assembling great teams, but building leaders themselves?

…and what a great way to begin the process of building capacity.


Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

I’ve been reading Michael Fullan’s, The Moral Imperative Realized.

Fullan states in the Preface that, “the moral imperative focuses on raising the bar and closing the gap in student learning and achievement for all children regardless of background.” He later explains that the success of principals and the success of the district are “closely intertwined,” and that, “the success of peers among peers is crucial.”

In the first chapter, Fullan outlines the six basics needed to make the moral imperative a strategy:

      1. Make a personal commitment
      2. Build relationships
      3. Focus on implementation
      4. Develop the collaborative
      5. Connect to the outside
      6. Be relentless (and divert distracters)

“Build Relationships” speaks to me. I have always believed that a leader’s greatest influence comes more from relationships than position. However, what I often witness and experience suggests that not all agree, especially when subject to the airs some carry with position. Position does not make a person suddenly superior or smarter. That person just has power and sometimes a higher salary.

Some of the statements from this section of Fullan’s book that stand out include:

“…emotional intelligence is building a relationship with someone you don’t like, and who doesn’t like you.”

“If you are to have any chance of progressing, you have to have enough empathy for their situation so that you can relate to them.”

“…you will need to build relationships with diverse people.”

“…if you want to challenge someone to do better, you’d better build a relationship first.”

“It is impressive because you understand their perspective even if it is not yours.”

Fullan references Yarrow (2009), in State of Mind: America’s Teaching Corps, who found that teachers in the US at the time could be categorized into 3 groups:

Disheartened (40%)

Idealists (23%)

Contented (37%)

Fullan contends that the principal must relate to all three groups. In order to accomplish results, the essence of the mindset for the moral imperative includes:

    1. Leaders facing terrible situations will have to lead with respect. Put differently, they will have to convey respect before people have earned it.
    2. Leaders need to do everything possible to create conditions that make people lovable (mainly by creating circumstances that favor success).
    3. And then leaders must deal firmly with what’s left over.

I believe that this applies to all leaders in education – senior administrators, district staff, school administrators, teachers, support staff, students, and parents. I wonder how often some leaders skip to #3, without considering #1 and #2, as if everyone are the “left overs.”

Far too often we encounter the sense of superiority or disdain one group, or individual, has for another, whether it be senior administrators and district staff towards school administrators, school administrators towards teaching or support staff, teachers towards support staff or students, parents towards school administration or staff, leaders in one school towards the leaders in another, experienced teachers towards younger teachers, union towards employer, etc. Sometimes feelings and behaviours are overt. Sometimes there are attempts to keep them in check, but often still come out in body language or tone of voice.

We need to move beyond any airs of superiority we may have, and focus on improving relationships. Yes, the design of our educational organizations is hierarchical, but we each must continue to grow our relationships in working together to ultimately improve the work we do with students.