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Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

sculptureIt is interesting what stands out in one’s mind years later.

I was thinking this past weekend about a talk I heard Chris Kelly, the then Superintendent of Richmond School District, give at the BCPVPA Short Course about 15 years ago. The BCPVPA Short Course is generally for new administrators. At the time, I was an aspiring vice-principal.

Chris brought to the podium a kinetic chrome figurine like the one above. I remember these as popular at the time, a regular “executive” gift for one to put on their desk.  They were the kind of figurines that you had to carefully balance one part on the other, or it would fall.   Chris said it was one shared with him by a principal in his school district.

He used the sculpture to talk about the balancing act of leadership.  As someone just entering the school vice-principalship at the time, I am reminded of the phrase, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Chris spoke about the great balancing act of school and district leadership – with so many competing interests – the Ministry, the District, parents, teachers, students, and others.  And the amazing diversity of the work, one minute you can be talking about reading strategies with a teacher, the next you are thrown in the midst of a parent squabble related to custody, then you are off to support the music production, and the next you are disciplining students for smoking on school property.  The good leaders are those who are able to keep it all in balance.

That talk and that notion has stuck with me for fifteen years.  I was used to teaching in my classroom, and there were largely defined start and end times to work – classes were built around a bell schedule and my work was largely defined by lessons, units and courses.  The biggest shift I found moving into school administration is that work was rarely “done”.  At some point one has to leave it where it is, and pick it up tomorrow.  I have found this continue in district leadership.

As a teacher, I could often be very concrete with the answer, “So what did you do today?”  As a school, and now district administrator,  I find this more difficult.  It is not that there is not a lot of work, or that one is not making a difference, there is just a lot that is ongoing.  There seems to be a lot more that does not tie-up nicely.  I find there is a continual ongoing nature of the topics, whether they are parent concerns, budget recommendations, curriculum implementation or ongoing working with the Board.

I look at the variety of tasks that our school administrators complete, and look at what my own days looks like – and diverse would be an understatement.  Chris’ notion of balance is still very much alive for me.  I often think positions like the one I currently have are like being a juggler at the circus, working to make sure all the balls stay in the air.

Our best leaders in schools and districts are able to balance all of these priorities without ever looking “busy”.  They always have time for a question, rarely look rushed or flustered, and recognize that each encounter, no matter how significant it is for them, might be pivotal for the person they are interacting with.

I often think of Chris’ chrome balancing figurine.  It feels like the story of my life – an endless balancing act.

 

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dennis sparks

I started my teaching career in the infancy of the Internet information age. At the time, information on how to improve one’s practice was scarce.  I relied heavily on books, monthly magazines, face-to-face professional development opportunities and the advice and mentorship of colleagues. Over the first several years of my career a few individuals became key influencers. I am sure it is similar in other professions, but I would look to several educational leaders with great awe and admiration — they were the “rock stars” of education in my books.  The list was quite short. There was Barrie Bennett (he is responsible for me using and overusing the place mat activity); Richard DuFour (Mr. Professional Learning Communities); Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton (when I stand away from the item I am talking about to separate myself from the data, they are responsible) and Dennis Sparks (his regular articles for the National Staff Development Council were a source of information and inspiration).  If I were building a Mount Rushmore for my education gurus, they would definitely be the leading candidates.

I have had the chance to interact with each of them in recent years, and it was with nervous anticipation when I responded to a recent interview request from Dennis Sparks.  In the Internet age, many education authors who have made their living off of books and presentations have struggled to figure out a new model. Why I love Dennis (and others like Bruce Wellman and Grant Wiggins) is they have embraced the blogosphere where they share information for free knowing that it will actually increase their credibility and ability to secure presentations, or sell books.

Dennis has a great blog here and he “gets” it; as on his blog and on Twitter he is fully engaged with his audience. I shared some of my thinking with Dennis, which he published in a recent post.  You can read the full post here.  Below, I have reprinted some of his questions and my answers:

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity. They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control. This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know of any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students. How will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves. They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often become distracted. That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller. I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents and the community.

Sometimes, teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger. As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy, we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

My thanks to Dennis for inspiring me early on in my career and for continuing to be someone who pushes my thinking to this day. Having leaders like him engaged in professional learning in our digital world brings depth and credibility to it.

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I find one of my important jobs is getting the ‘tension’ right between schools and the district. Tension is often a word with negative connotations, but it provides a necessary balance throughout the system. People look at me questioningly when I acknowledge and even encourage healthy tension between competing interests (but we are all teammates in the bigger picture).  At each hierarchical level, whether provincial government, school district, school or classroom, there needs to be autonomy to be innovative and creative to meet specific needs. But, the work must be connected because we are more than a collection of independent contractors and a sum of ideas. I described some of this in a previous post on flexibility.

When faced with a topic or issue, I regularly consider if something is primarily a school focus or a district decision.  There are many issues that districts should simply stay out of, and leave to schools who are more nimble and quicker to make changes as required.  Further, for new initiatives to take hold, they often come from passionate teachers, schools or communities and not from a district decree.

Schools tend to look at issues through the lens of the school first and foremost; a district takes a more global view of the school district as a whole and, as a district leader, this is the perspective I take, for example, when a school wants to start a new program.  The case is often made “how it is right for the community,” and I then take into consideration the impact the new program would have on other schools and the district as a whole. Some programs that have been suggested would have done very well, but would have also moved student populations and emptied out other schools — good for the school but bad for the district.  It is also very easy in a district job to think we know best and make more decisions centrally (but we would NEVER want the provincial government to do that with school districts).  There are other times where the district can help transform a community by suggesting the consideration of a new program.  The placement of programs like French Immersion, for example, are often crucial ones for a district to make as they look at the larger view of community interests and population trends.

As a principal, the ‘tension’ was in wanting to be encouraging of innovation, but also wanting to ensure, as a school, we were moving in a common direction.  As a district leader, the ‘tension’ is more in trying to set direction for the district but giving the freedom and flexibility to schools to each have their own “signature” one that is informed but rarely prescribed by the District.

I will often talk about our commitment to inquiry, self-regulation, social-emotional learning and digital literacy.  And, at each school, these ideas will take on different shapes and direction. I use this blog and other opportunities to engage, discuss and draw connections between the different approaches to the same larger goals.  All our schools develop their own narrative, but they are part of a bigger story.  Similarly, I feel that our district is part of a larger provincial story – one of a highly achieving system looking towards where it needs to go next.

I have often heard teachers and administrators say of their districts “I don’t know where we are going.” Hopefully, I am finding ways to be clear about where we are going, but not prescribing a single narrow path to get there. I will continue to consider whether we are getting the ‘tension’ right.

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I am often asked “just what is the Culture of Yes?”  Although the ‘culture’ continues to evolve, it is still the belief system as I set out to define in my address on my first day as Superintendent:

It is the “culture of yes”, we have and will continue to foster — one that embraces new ideas and new ways to look at learning and organize learning; a “culture of yes” that supports innovation and creativity for both learners and teachers, knowing this is how we will continue to evolve.  It is a “culture of yes” that touches on the passions we entered the profession with, and that may have sometimes been lost along the way, but hopefully, found again.

It was interesting to see Seth Godin, who I have often referenced, take up a similar theme in his recent post, On Behalf of Yes:

Yes, it’s okay to ship your work.

Yes, you’re capable of making a difference.

Yes, it’s important.

Yes, you can ignore that critic.

Yes, your bravery is worth it.

Yes, we believe in you.

Yes, you can do even better.

Yes.

Yes is an opportunity and yes is an obligation. The closer we get to people who are confronting the resistance on their way to making a ruckus, the more they let us in, the greater our obligation is to focus on the yes.

There will always be a surplus of people eager to criticize, nitpick or recommend caution. Your job, at least right now, is to reinforce the power of the yes.

Seth’s blog brings to mind a story I recently heard regarding innovation and education in England.  The government proposed to their education system they could apply to have any rules, laws, etc. suspended in the name of innovation (there is currently a similar initiative in BC).  Those who wanted to ‘not comply’ had to make application to the government with the appropriate rationale.  The project’s one major finding was over 80% of applications received were unnecessary. Why? Because the rules that hundreds of educators had applied to have suspended didn’t actually exist.  I think this general challenge is also true in British Columbia — we believe we are more restricted by laws, rules and legislation than we actually are (possibly by rules that don’t exist, as well) thereby justifying the belief that innovation is not possible and we continue to accept the Status Quo.

In education, more than any other profession, we need to continue to promote YES; “yes” for the teacher embracing formative assessment discouraged by the parent who claims this is not how they were assessed in school; “yes” for the school that cannot re-imagine their programs in their current, highly successful system; “yes” for the people to take the risk knowing the road to change is long and challenging.

And, it is certainly nice to know there are others pushing  for YES.

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fish

I often speak and write about how the principalship and the superintendency need to look different in the era of social media. And, while it can be difficult to distill  ideas to a few key points, a recent post from Brian Verhoeven does a great job of summarizing what that leadership looks like, and while the post was not specific about schools or school systems, I think the messages are right on for our system.

Verhoeven’s post summarizes a discussion by authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant of Humanize:  How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.  The messages and the five key points about what makes a good organizational leader are very straightforward (my own thoughts are added below each point):

1.  They provide clear direction.

This list rings true for our education system.  Districts should set direction for schools, schools set direction for classes, and then leaders should step back and not micro-manage.  This action allows staff autonomy to find their own solutions, with superintendents and principals providing clarity of direction, and not necessarily all the answers.

2.  They use positive language when things change. They embrace change.

Principals and superintendents are often regarded and turned to in times of change, whether the changes are from government, in demographics, or in our understanding of teaching and learning, we always need to be out front and curious, with change not for the sake of change, but for different and better.

3.  They are transparent and share information freely.

The era of control is over, or almost over.  In the era of the instant, spending time thinking about “managing the message” has passed.  There is an expectation of timeliness and that we remove the secretive nature of the work.  Information is just that; the job of leaders it to make sense and direction of that information.

4.  They reinforce the value of experimentation—even failure.

The quote I often use, borrowed from a former colleague in Coquitlam, is that “you don’t have to be sick to get better.”  For us, in the West Vancouver school district, it is the notion and practice of a ‘culture of yes’, of thoughtful experimentation, and risk-taking, knowing we do not move forward unless we leave our comfort zone.  The best school and district leaders are supportive of staff and students taking the risk, quick to give praise when it works out, but just as quick to shelter those taking risks from criticism when it doesn’t.

5.  They talk aloud sharing their rationale and understanding with the team. They leverage the expertise of others to help them solve the tough problems.

Although the final decision is often made by one, along the way there are huge opportunities to leverage the brainpower of the room (whether that be a physical or digital room) to help ensure the best decisions are made. And, with such powerful and accessible networks, we would be remiss not to take advantage of this opportunity to make the best possible decisions.

A very straightforward, five-point list. Yes, but a very effective way of showing what we need today in educational leadership.

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In a recent session with Al Bertani and Jane Creasy from the Innovation Unit (out of the United Kingdom) they shared a 21st Century Leadership Framework for transformation based on work outcomes from The Hay Group.   What I liked about the Framework is that it isn’t just a business model adopted for education, but an education model that aligns with the system transformation currently being widely discussed around the world.   Here is a summary slide of the key competencies:

Each of the nine areas are further broken down into three descriptors. I find these 27 points to be very helpful in self-assessment as I look at my own leadership.  It is also helpful to think of our team in the district, and the importance of the complimentary skills they bring to the table in covering these key areas. Below are the 27 descriptors as well as a rudimentary self-evaluation; points in green are what I see as areas of strength, red is for areas of growth:

Collaborative

•Engages others actively in co-defining the path to change
•Proactively builds strong relationships with peers and others
•Manages conflict and reconciles differences
Visionary
•Develops a sense of urgency to stimulate action for transformation
•Communicates a clear and compelling sense of direction
•Generates enthusiasm and commitment in others

Energetic

•Maintains energy in driving the transformation process
•Sustains active engagement, and stays the course in the transformation process
•Calibrates the pace of transformation efforts to ensure progress
Confident and Courageous
•Believes they can make a difference as a leader
•Provides a forthright and accurate assessment of their own skills and abilities
•Challenges the status quo, even when it is personally risky to do so
Resilient
•Manages their emotions in difficult situations
•Places problems and challenges into proper perspective
•Recovers rapidly after setbacks
Outward Facing
•Eager to learn and be exposed to new ideas
•Models tolerance, curiosity, and inquiry
•Actively seeks out connections, resources, and partnerships to support transformation efforts
Politically Astute
•Analyzes the motives and interests of constituencies and stakeholders
•Matches influence strategies for the circumstance and constituency
•Builds alliances and coalitions with individuals, groups, and organizations
Systems Thinker
•Sees connections between and among systems and sub-systems
•Conceptualizes trends, patterns, and issues across boundaries
•Demonstrates tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty during the transformation process
Technologically Literate
•Effectively uses technology and a variety of social media to promote transformation
•Understands how to communicate and lead in a hyper-connected world
•Leverages creative approaches and designs using technology support
  ,
Whether a student, teacher or parent, it is important for each of us to look at what we bring to the table, be honest about our areas of strength, and build strong teams across roles and geography to lead system transformation.
In their recent book As One,  James Quigley and Mehrdad Baghai make the case that “our world is as much about cooperation as it is about conflict; as much about collaboration as competition. Yet our knowledge of collective behavior is still relatively slim.”
I have heard many presenters (including myself) exclaim that it is an exciting time to be in education. However, in leading system transformation, we need to bring collective action, capitalizing on our individual strengths to turn this excitement into something more tangible.

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We have just launched a new teacher leadership series in West Vancouver.  Building on some of the fine work that has come out of other districts, over the next several months, we are bringing teachers and administrators together to explore the attributes and opportunities of leading learning.

To support the conversations, all participants are reading the latest book from James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Truth About Leadership.  Kouzes and Posner have been powerful forces in the discussion about leadership for the last 30 years, and this new book is a reaffirming roadmap.

They write:

as much as the context of leadership has changed (in the last three decades), the content of leadership has not changed much at all.  The fundamental behaviours, actions, and practices of leaders have remained essentially the same since we first started researching and writing about leadership

There are many lists on leadership — but I do like the lists of “truths” that Kouzes and Posner share:

1. You make a difference

2. Credibility is the foundation of leadership

3.  Values drive commitment

4.  Focusing on the future sets leaders apart

5.  You can’t do it alone

6.  Trust rules

7.  Challenge is the crucible for greatness

8.  You either lead by example or you don’t lead at all

9.  The best leaders are the best learners

10.  Leadership is an affair of the heart

Given the title of my blog, this quote from their book also resonates with me regarding leadership:

You have to say yes to begin things.  You have to say yes to your beliefs, you have to say yes to big dreams, you have to say yes to difficult challenges, you have to say yes to collaboration, you have to say yes to trust, you have to say yes to learning, you have to say yes to setting the examples, and you have to say yes to your heart.

Our commitment to investing in “leading learning”, — bringing together interested teachers and administrators on a regular basis, is not breaking new ground — there are excellent models in almost all districts.  It is, however, exciting as we build our program and structures within the West Vancouver context; particularly, given the current, global conversations about what teaching, learning and schooling should look like in the future.

Our first session was well-received — and the commitment here is that this series is not a one-off — this work is too important and it will be part of what we do moving forward; I left with confidence in new strategies to try as I work with staff, students and leading learning in West Vancouver.

For those interested in a greater sense of the work we are doing, the full slide deck from the opening session Leading Learning – Building Understanding for Leaders is embedded below:

Thanks to our facilitators: Sue Elliott, Audrey Hobbs-Johnson and Nancy Hinds.

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