Learning is not by chance. It must be sought with ardor and diligence.
Learning is not by chance. It must be sought with ardor and diligence.
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.
Briefly, 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.
If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness. It will change your life mightily.
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.
This 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.
Education is what allows you to stand out.
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?
There 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…
Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.
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?
Certainly 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?
It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
My concern is … simple: will people develop a love of reading without the physicality of the activity and without its accompanying shrines?
I am so proud of my sister. She has been a children’s librarian for almost 20 years. I’ve seen what she does for kids: she inspires them to read. Through crafts and displays and public readings and activities, she seduces kids to the word. She brings them into the library. She is part of a long tradition of educators who inspire.
I love libraries. I love what they mean. What they are. What they can become. Reading has been something of a religion for me and libraries have been the churches in which I’ve practiced.
What got me hooked on the word? What got me started?
Batman made me read.
This is likely a true statement. I use the word “likely” because who really remembers exactly the moment they turned on to reading. How really recalls the day and time that reading became as important as anything else in life?
I don’t recall the exact second on which my life turned – that second I decided I would be a reader – by I know Batman was the reason.
I was in first grade. I could already read – pretty well, in fact. It was the mid-1970s and teachers were still dividing kids into ability groups. I was in the Dinosaurs with other good readers. I was not in the Lions. I got it. I could read and I liked it. I didn’t love it.
No, I didn’t love reading until the day that I ran headlong into the corner of a brick wall. On the way home from the hospital (6 stitches, don’t you know?), my father bought for me two comic books: Batman Family and Superman Family.
I fell in love with comics on the spot and I fell in love with superheroes. I couldn’t get enough of them.
While comic books were relatively cheap, my parents (wisely knowing the collecting hoarder I might one day become) didn’t always indulge my desire to buy them. Rather, we would hop in the car on many a weekend and head to the Arvada Public Library. There, as I recall, I could check out 3 items a week – whatever I wanted.
That what I wanted were more stories of superheroes was fine by my folks. I checked out comic books (which you could do back then… can you do it now?). I checked out books and records featuring stories of DC and Marvel superheroes. I checked out Little Big Books starring… wait for it… superheroes. The library fed my growing desire for comic book characters all the while powering my growing ability to read and comprehend.
I am not alone in owing libraries for this. Generation after generation learned to love language in just this fashion.
Libraries find themselves (as they ever have, by-the-way) at something of a crossroads, especially the ones in our schools. There is pressure to move them into the 21st Century (whatever that means), to make them media centers, iPad labs, moveable spaces, to take out books.
Hey, let’s draw the line a bit here.
I love me my iPad. I read most books and comics on it now. It’s convenient to be sure. That’s a good thing. But, I have to ask, are kids falling in love with reading using their computers, phones and iPads? Is the same connection to the word developed with a tablet?
Professor Andrew Dillon has done some work on the subject. He’s concerned about the tactile differences and how we are being conditioned. Professor Anne Mangen worries about the recall ability of those using e-readers rather than books. There are concerns.
My concern is much more simple: will people develop a love of reading without the physicality of the activity and without its accompanying shrines?
We have to be careful when we talk about modernizing our libraries. We have to pay attention to what’s come before those thoughts. We have to realize the stakes and they are high. Let’s have high tech rooms, makers’ spaces, robotics labs and technology dens.
But, for education’s sake, let’s have libraries. Let’s have books.
Batman made me read. Libraries fed my habit. I am an educator now who reveres the word.
Is there a through line?
You better believe it.