Teach & Serve II, No. 17 – Questions, Answers and Gaps

Teach & Serve II, No. 17 – Questions, Answers and Gaps

November 30, 2016

It’s just so much easier to only consult yourself and it feels good. You are the leader. You have all the answers. Cue the swelling violins.

As educational leaders – classroom teachers or administrators or counselors or staff members – we sometimes believe our job is to make everyone happy. We sometimes think that, to be successful, we must be all things to all people. We want to have all the answers. We often strive to fill every gap, reasoning that, if we fail in doing so, we fail in being good leaders.

This is a mindset that we ought to question. It is foolish. It is self-defeating. It is dangerous.

Operating from it will inevitably damage one’s credibility and hamstring one’s leadership.

Leaders find themselves clinging to this philosophy by reading their own press and listening too much to the own voices. Frequently, leaders feel responsible for not only the success of the endeavors being led, but also for how people feel as they are being led. And that’s okay. It’s what leaders do with those impulses that can define them.

gapLeaders sometimes think they must have every answer, pull every correct lever, do it all on their own. Leadership can be lonely, sure, but leaders who isolate themselves from those they lead – and this is as true of administrators as it is of classroom teachers – can quickly find themselves in an echo chamber that reverberates with one message: “Yours is the most important voice.”

When we feel as though we, alone, have all the answers, we already have one foot down the rabbit hole. Very effective leaders who believe this become less effective very quickly. And less effective leaders fall into this trap all too readily.

It’s just so much easier to only consult yourself and it feels good. You are the leader. You have all the answers. Cue the swelling violins.

Here’s the thing: real leaders understand they don’t have all the answers. They know that they cannot have all the answers.

Real leaders embrace the idea that there are gaps all around them that they cannot and should not try to fill on their own. They revel in the fact that only together, working with colleagues, with students, with families, can challenges be negotiated, hurdles overcome and gaps filled. Real leaders look for the gaps and then empower people to fill them in. And, when necessary, the allow themselves to be directed to pick up a shovel and move dirt.

Weak leaders do the opposite. They fear an environment where they don’t have all the answers – where there are gaps – and, when gaps are pointed out to them, they rush to fill them with whatever materials they have on hand. They need to fill them because gaps indicate to them that they are not doing the job, that there are unhappy people, that they don’t have all the answers.

Strong leaders know they do not have all the answers. They create an environment that recognizes that gaps are normal. Gaps are natural. Gaps are opportunities.

Strong leaders look for opportunities to ask questions that unite. Weak leaders look to answer all questions before they are even asked.

EduQuote of the Week: November 28 – December 4, 2016

Learning is not by chance. It must be sought with ardor and diligence.

Abigail Adams

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Teach & Serve II, No. 16 – Give Thanks for THAT?

Teach & Serve II, No. 16 – Give Thanks for THAT?

November 23, 2016

We work with kids, they are going to challenge us. More often than not, their challenges can be channeled (if we are skilled) into positive results. Give thanks.

As we gather this week for Thanksgiving in the United States, our thoughts, hopefully, turn to those things for which we are grateful: family, friends, good health, good jobs… It is my sincere wish that you have many, many things in your life for which you are thankful and that they come to mind readily and easily.

thanksBriefly, because I should be making pumpkin pies for our feast here, I would like to challenge us to be thankful for some other things, things that do not readily come to mind, things that we might, more likely, rather disdain than praise.

I would like to challenge us to be thankful for:

The difficult parent conversation because many of these conversations lead us to reassessing how we work with parents. In my experience, not all but most of these conversations happen because the parents love their kids and want to help. Even the most difficult talks can (and often do) teach us something. Think back. Have you changed your approach, your policies, your demeanor because of a conversation like this? Give thanks.

The challenging student because I would rather have a student challenge me than simply sit there. I would rather have a student fired up about something than a room full of disaffected ones. I would rather have a student make me consider how I deal with challenging students in the first place. We work with kids, they are going to challenge us. More often than not, their challenges can be channeled (if we are skilled) into positive results. Give thanks.

The unreasonable colleague because most of the people with whom I work only seem unreasonable until I understand their reasons. When I work with a colleague whose opinions are outside my own, I have an opportunity to learn something about that colleague and, perhaps, something about myself. When I simply avoid people because I find them “unreasonable” I wonder how many people I end up having to avoid… Give thanks.

The inconvenient and inappropriate question because sometimes the out-of-left-field, how-could-you-possibly-have-asked-that-question is exactly the question that needs to be asked. As teachers and leaders, we are sometimes so goal oriented, we forget to slow down and ask outside-the-box questions. We avoid delaying to ask big questions. Someone should ask those and we should give space for them to be asked. Give thanks.

The times when time runs out because, as leaders, we often impose deadlines. When the deadlines imposed upon us run out and we are late, we sometimes think those deadlines we missed were unreasonable. How about the deadlines we, ourselves, impose? How reasonable are they? Give thanks.

The dismissal because every dismissal, of a student, staff member or teacher, grants us the opportunity to ask: “did I do everything I could to keep this person around? Did the school do all it could?” Those are terrific questions to ask. Give thanks.

The late-night cry because getting emotional about our work, getting upset, breaking down, reminds us that we care. Give thanks.

Give thanks for the work. Give thanks for the kids. Give thanks for your colleagues. Give thanks for the challenges.

Give thanks.

EduQuote of the Week: November 21 – November 27, 2016

If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness. It will change your life mightily.

Gerald Good

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Teach & Serve II, No. 15 – Principle or Principal?

Teach & Serve II, No. 15 – Principle or Principal

November 16, 2016

Excellent principals know when not to be principal

When I was a kid (and I am sure I am not alone here), the spelling of “principal” was taught to me this way: “The principal is your ‘pal.’ That’s why when you spell the word, it ends with ‘p-a-l.” I don’t know why that elementary school explanation has stuck with me all these years, but it has and, bracketing the connotatively male association with the word “pal,” this memory brings a smile to my face.

principalThis week, I am spending time at a gathering for principals of schools through the Jesuit Schools Network of the US and Canada. It is my fourth time working with this group and I find myself impressed and humbled by much of what I see and hear. These are dedicated women and men who work – some of them tirelessly – on behalf of the students at the schools, on behalf of the communities they serve. Most of these principals are creative, passionate and driven. They are searching to improve, striving to learn, and, in some cases, struggling with the expectations of the job.

The expectations placed on principals are incredible and, it seems, ever expanding.

I am most struck by those who do the job well. I have spent time in the “center seat.” I am more than familiar with the challenge. Serving as a good principal is tough and the best ones make it look easy.

There is a through line that connects the best principles and, if you’ll forgive a little word play, it is found in the homonyms “principal” and “principle.”

The best principals I have encountered understand that good leadership involves knowing when to be “principal” and when to step back from that predilection. The best principals I know understand that they often need to exercise leadership from the “principal” position – the primary position. They know that they sometimes must make the hard call, the quick and decisive one. They know that they sometimes have to speak their mind, convey the decision, anticipate the outcome and let the chips fall. They know being a principal means they will sometimes (are you seeing a theme?) move authoritatively and swiftly.

But they know that they don’t always have to make decisions in that manner or lead in the way.

The best principals understand that they don’t always have to be the principal person in the room, in the process, in the decision.

Excellent principals know when not to be principal.

As for “principle,” it should be obvious that the best principals (much like the best leaders) lead from their principles and that their principles are in line with the missions of their institutions. These principals have a set of operating instructions hardwired. They do not deviate from them except in extreme circumstance and with cause. And, critically, when they diverge from them, they know they are doing it. They know why they are doing it. They communicate to others what has happened to cause them to do it.

The best principals I know are examples of servant leadership. The best principals I know lead boldly. They teach boldly. The inspire boldness.

I am spending time this week with many of the best principals I know. They are women and men, pals, of the highest principle.

EduQuote of the Week: November 14 – November 20, 2016

Education is what allows you to stand out.

Ellen Ochoa

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Teach & Serve II, No. 14 – Negative/Positive

Teach & Serve II, No. 14 – Negative/Positive

November 9, 2016

Part of leadership is to put the positive in perspective while confronting the negative and sorting through it for truth.

A good friend of mine said something very interesting to me a few weeks back: “The negative opinion can seem to be the more informed opinion. Be careful with that.” I’ve considered this comment more than once in the subsequent weeks since he said it and I have not only come to believe that is it true, I also believe that how a leader thinks about this statement says much about how that leader leads overall.

Certainly, leadership gathers reaction. Leadership inspires reaction. Leadership ignites reaction.

And, yes, leaders must contend with the reactions of those being lead – both the positive and the negative reactions. Part of leadership is to put the positive in perspective while confronting the negative and sorting through it for truth. Upon which kind of reaction does a leader spend the most time? Upon which should a leader spend the most time?

positive-negativeThere is a reason – and it is a bad one – that the old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is shared with such regularity: because it is true. Those who complain often and loudly get audience, get recognition, get traction. Those who make arguments find themselves in principals’ offices, whether to be heard or to be reprimanded. Those who express the negative are too frequently regarded among the intelligentsia of faculties and staffs.

Remember, negative opinions are not the most informed, but they often seem that way.

Why is that? Whose responsibility is that?

I believe the responsibility, while it is shared, falls far more on the leader than the complainer. How the leader addresses and repairs the squeaky wheel is critical. And how the leader proceeds in the face of negativity and complaints says far more about the leader than the constituents.

If the leader gives equal weight to each complaint with limited ability to discern what is actually central and informed and what is not, the doesn’t speak well of her leadership. If the leader gives too little weight or cannot distinguish what should be handled and what should be turfed, that, too, is a significant problem.

But the leaders who feel that every negative opinion must be addressed, countered, taken on and confronted because there is a sneaking suspicion that the rationale behind complaints is somehow better reasoned and, therefore, has more validity that other thoughts is just wrong minded.

It can feel as though negativity is sharper, smarter, better developed than positivity, but that simply is not the case. How a leader deals with the predilection in himself and others to jump to this conclusion can make or break the leader in critical moments and at critical times because complaints can underscore crisis. The leaders’ response to them can promote crisis.

Watch leaders you admire handle negativity. Watch leaders around you address complaint. They will be confronted by both. What they do when confronted tells a story.

Of course, so do responses to praise, but that’s a post for another day…

 

 

EduQuote of the Week: November 7 – November 13, 2016

Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.

Thomas Jefferson

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Teach & Serve II, No. 13 – Have a Mission

Teach & Serve II, No. 13 – Have a Mission

November 2, 2016

There’s a good question for the day: why are you in education?

Let’s bracket something we (hopefully!) know: our jobs working with students, their families, our colleagues and fellow teachers in education are really wonderful. We are lucky to have them; blessed to do the work. In many instances – more often than not, I trust – our work is life supporting and life giving. Being in education is a good gig.

However, those of us in the work know that these jobs we do can also be challenging. They can be frustrating. They can be hard.

When the work gets to us and when those with whom we work drive us down (yes, it happens), where do we turn? What keeps us going? How do we recharge?

startwithwhyCertainly we can turn to colleagues. We can rely on family. We can touch base with students. We can center ourselves with friends. All of these people can be sources of great support and can help carry us through the more difficult moments in the work.

But I am not sure they are enough. I am not sure our support structures are enough to rely upon when challenges mount.

To do the work, to do it well, to weather the storms, it would be best if we believed. It would be best if we had faith. It would be best if we embraced the work as our mission.

Our support systems can help us through moments. They can explain and contextualize and assist. But can they tell us why we have chosen this work? Can they tell us why we do what we do?

There’s a good question for the day: why are you in education?

It’s a simple question. Is the answer simple?

My argument? The answer should be simple. Your answer should be direct. Concise. Simple.

Why do you teach? Why do you administrate? Why are you in education?

Can you answer it? Can you do so succinctly?

Your answer is your mission.

Simon Sinek about whom I’ve written before is an author and consultant on leadership. He has written an entire book called Start with Why. I highly recommend it. Though it’s perhaps weighted too much towards business for our purposes as educators, it does reveal a significant truth: those who know why they do what they do tend to be happier, more fulfilled and more successful.

Do you have a mission in your work? Do you have a mission as an educator? Can you state it clearly and simply?

Do you have a mission?