Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

May 2, 2018

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

It is my strong belief that the overwhelming majority of people want to do well in their work. Even when people are assigned duties they would rather not have or take on responsibilities that are not their first choice of roles, they have a desire to excel or, at least, to perform competently in those positions. To be clear, I am not writing about the critical, “Other Duties as Assigned” roles that we all must share. These are necessary parts of the work on which we collaborate. No, I am writing about those “other” things, the extra ones. The ones we do for more money (which we need) or to complete contracts.

In the work we do in schools, we are, more often than we in administration might like to admit, are asked by higher-ups to take on work that we would not seek out on our own. Often this occurs when we are new in our positions or new to our schools.

“Hey, do you want to make a little more money? Will you coordinate the magazine sale?”

“We want to fill out your contract and parking lot supervisor is available. Can you do it?”

“Well, even though you don’t know anything about tennis, we need a JV coach. Will that work for you?”

The answer to questions like this is typically, “Of course! Bring it on!”

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

The Competency Trap is a two-fold problem. First, those people charged with doing what they do not wish more often than not do great at those roles. Because they are valuable employees who care about the work they do, they accomplish what they are assigned. Most positions like this in schools are cyclic; they are needed each year. The person doing the work can become strongly associated with it. He is the Blood Drive person. She is the Bake Sale Coordinator. Look at what a good job she does. Once we are associated with work we do competently and well it can be difficult to change roles or to leave the work behind even if we wish to.

The second problem lies with administration. Again, the positions we are considering here are not the most desirable or prestigious in our schools. When administrators fill them, they are likely check off the box, happily. That is done. Move on to the next issue. When those doing the work do it well, why would an administrator consider a change? When people meet or exceed expectation and, at the end of the day or the term, when they have done a good job in the role, it becomes difficult to reassign the work. And if can feel unnecessary, even when the person doing the work requests a change.

This, then, is the Competency Trap, and the responsibility for getting out of it falls almost entirely on the administrator or supervisor. We want people to complete good work in the roles they take on, certainly. We do not wish to create a disincentive for good work. When we assign roles and lock people into them without periodic review in which they are the most important participants, the Competency Trap can be in play. We must allow people to express how they are connecting with what they are doing and how valuable (and valued) they feel in the work. If we do not, problems and frustrations will, inevitably, arise.

There are jobs in our schools that are not entirely appealing, but the work must be done. Some of it may feel like drudgery. Some of it may not challenge. We may get placed into positions we would not choose for ourselves for all kinds of reasons. That is the nature of our shared enterprise and that is fine. But, when administration does not pay attention to those in less desirable positions and when people feel stuck in these kinds of jobs and these duties become inextricably linked to their professional personas, the Competency Trap has sprung, and leaders must break out of it for the good of those they lead.

EduQuote of the Week: April 30 – May 1, 2018

No one is more cherished in this world than someone who lightens the burden of another.

– Joseph Addison

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Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 18 – Avengers Forever!

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 18

Avengers Forever!

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


This past week, acclaimed director James Cameron opined about the upcoming film Avengers: Infinity War “I’m hoping we’ll start getting Avenger fatigue here pretty soon. Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell.” Perhaps he is correct. Perhaps a break in the two-to-three Avengers movie a year cycle would serve the movie creating and going public well.

Perhaps. But, well, no. Sorry, Mr. Cameron. I think you are missing the point here.

If you have read even one of these Superheroic Leadership blogs, you know that I do not agree with Cameron on this count. Bring it on, I say. Give me more quality superhero films. Give me more Avengers movies. Give me more stories of people united by faith fighting for a higher cause.

I have not yet seen Avengers: Infinity War. If you are reading this blog the day it is published (Thursday, April 26), rest assured that problem will be corrected by this evening. Since the movie has not even opened at the time of this writing, I cannot say whether or not it is any good (I suspect it is). I cannot say whether or not I will like it (I suspect I will). I cannot say what it is about (but I can guess).

Avengers: Infinity War follows the story told in Captain America: Civil War which featured a fractured Avengers team, split down ideological and emotional lines, fighting with one another and broken apart. Clearly, the find a way to put their differences behind them and come together to battle a greater evil in the upcoming flick.

This trope has been a part of Avengers stories in the comic books going back decades. Conflict fuels narrative and comic writers have gone to the well of breaking up the team only to bring it back together many, many times. In fact, one of the most famous Avengers stories of the past 20 years was an arc entitled “Avengers: Disassembled,” a play on the “Avengers Assemble!” battle cry. The catch to this story along with all the others that have scattered the team to the four winds (including, I have no doubt, Avengers: Infinity War) is that the team always comes back together.

This, of course, is what good teams do. Banded together by a belief in common goals, a good team relies on those goals and their mission to unite them. They may not always agree. They may not always see eye-to-eye. They may fight among themselves. They may even break apart, for a time. But good teams come back together. They work through disagreement. They find common ground in the truths that bind them.

Perhaps the Avengers have something to teach us about disagreement and resolution…

Avengers Assemble!

Teach & Serve III, No. 37 – Fail Better

Teach & Serve III, No. 37 – Fail Better

April 25, 2018

This is what we are called to do: create conditions around us where failure is okay, where challenge is rewarded, where missing the mark is celebrated as a necessary and critical step towards making it.

There is a significant and important thread in current research around achievement and it is something that, back when I was in “teacher school” we never discussed. We would not have thought about it as a function of success and we would, likely, have attempted to create strategies to avoid it.

It is the idea that failure is as important as success in development of a growth mindset.

A few years ago, this was a revolutionary thought and the concept of linking failure to success was outside-the-box thinking. The idea that failure was anything but, well, failure was tough to grasp. Let us be honest: in our work in schools where we pin much (too much) of our opinion on of success on scaled benchmarks and grades and academic achievement and where we as professionals are all-too-often assessed on how our students do, the idea that failure is a good thing can be a difficult sell. More challenging still is the growing understanding that excellent educational leaders create conditions in which failure is planned for, is monitored and is celebrated.

This is the current, best practice research. This is what we are called to do: create conditions around us where failure is okay, where challenge is rewarded, where missing the mark is celebrated as a necessary and critical step towards making it.

Educational leaders understand that this idea applies not only to student mastery work in classrooms, but it also applies to staff work as they attempt new things. Too often we believe that teachers should be able to implement new plans, programs and technologies without a hitch and that growing pains are signs that teachers are not trying hard enough or that professional development around a given topic was lacking. Too infrequently do we build in time to fail and less frequently still do we highlight failures as good steps on the road to successes.

This is not how we have been wired.

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” said Samuel Beckett and can we give the guy a little credit for being way ahead of his time on this?

It is time to rewire. It is time to acknowledge and celebrate failure. It is time to fail better.

EduQuote of the Week: April 23 – 29, 2018

Volunteer Week

Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.

– H. Jackson Brown Jr.

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Teach & Serve III, No. 36 – Look Up In The Sky

Teach & Serve III, No. 36 – Look Up In The Sky

April 18, 2018

The question, then, must be why? Why has Superman remained part of American (and world) consciousness for all these years? Why do we still look up in the sky?

When I was in the first grade, the day before school picture day, I ran into a brick wall – not a metaphor, I, literally, ran headlong into the corner of our house, smashing open my head on solid brick. My father took me to get stitches – seven of them as I recall – and, on the way home, changed my life.

My father was forever changing my life.

He bought me my first two comic books.

Thanks, Dad. Tens of thousands of issues later, I am pot-committed as a comic collector. More important than that, I have become more than an aficionado of comic book collecting and consider myself something of an expert on the study of comic books as an American literary art form.

You read that right: comic books are a form a literature.

The two comics Dad bought me that day featured two of the most famous American literary characters (in any list, they would have to be listed in the top ten): Batman and Superman. In case you’re wondering, I still have the issues – Batman Family #10 and Superman Family #181.

Superman is the longest running, continually published character in American literary history. Let that sink in for a moment. No other creation of any American writer or artist has been in continual publication as long as Superman has. That is something. That is special. That is powerful.

Superman is one of the most recognizable characters in the world, any quick search will convince one of that. And, today, the comic book in which he first appeared reaches its astounding 1000th issue. That is not a typo. Superman’s Action Comics hits number 1000 today.

Superman has not simply appeared in Action Comics, of course. He has starred in his eponymous title and in many, many others. He has starred in a newspaper strip, in radio and television and movies. He has been featured in video games and music and cartoons. He is all but ubiquitous.

The question, then, must be why? Why has Superman remained part of American (and world) consciousness for all these years? Why do we still look up in the sky?

One could discuss Superman as a myth or as the genesis of the superhero or as a stand in for Moses or Jesus Christ. These reasons could be posited as causes for his longevity and I would not argue with them. But I have another.

Superman endures because what he stands for endures. Superman fights a never-ending battle. It is a battle of absolutes. There is good. There is evil. Good people resist evil. They resist temptation. They resist taking the easy way out. Superman stands for all that has been good, is good and can be good again in humanity. Superman, as he beautifully says in the majestic and (in my not-so-humble opinion) misunderstood 2013 film Man of Steel, stands for hope.

He would have made a wonderful educator, this Superman, this hero who fights a never-ending battle, who does not give up, who is a champion of truth. He would have been an amazing teacher, a role model who has endless reserves, who rallies in the face of injustice, who empowers those around him. He would have been a inspiration in a classroom.

Oh, wait. He very much is.

Superman, as I have written about before and in my accompanying blog Superheroic Leadership, inspired me. He inspired me to read. He inspired me, “in his guise as Clark Kent” to write. He inspired me to lead.

Clearly, I am not alone.

1000 issues. 80 years. A massive and recognizable presence in the world.

I guess that is why they call him Superman.

I know this: my life would be much, much different without him.

EduQuote of the Week: April 16 – 22, 2018

Superman Week

For a lot of people, Superman is and has always been America’s hero. He stands for what we believe is the best within us: limitless strength tempered by compassion, that can bear adversity and emerge stronger on the other side. He stands for what we all feel we would like to be able to stand for, when standing is hardest.

– J. Michael Straczynski

Teach & Serve III, No. 35 – The Library

Teach & Serve III, No. 35 – The Library

April 11, 2018

This week is National Library Week and provides an excellent occasion to revisit a past blog… Our libraries may need to adapt and change. But let us be a bit careful.

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. This was the late 1970s and teachers were still dividing kids into ability groups. I was in the Dinosaurs with other good readers – amazing what we remember, is it not? I was not in the Lions. They could not read as well as we Dinosaurs could. I got it.

I could read and I liked it. But I did not love it.

I did not fall in love with reading until the day that I ran headlong into the corner of a brick wall. On the way home from the hospital following 6 stiches, 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 could not get enough of them.

While comic books were relatively cheap, my parents (wisely knowing the collecting hoarder I might one day become) did not 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, makers spaces and, alarmingly, to remove all books.

There are good reasons to pursue this line of thought and there are space pressures in our buildings. Our libraries may need to adapt and change. But let us be a bit careful.

I love me my iPad. I read most books and comics on it now. It is convenient to be sure, 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 when reading on 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 simpler: 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.

We must be careful when we talk about modernizing our libraries. We must pay attention to what’s come before those thoughts. We must realize the stakes and they are high. Let us have high tech rooms, makers spaces, robotics labs and technology dens.

But, for education’s sake, let us also pay attention to libraries. Let us also have books. Let us find places for them in our buildings and in our lives even if they are no longer only housed in the space we previously called “The Library.”

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 there is.

EduQuote of the Week: April 9 – 15, 2018

Library Week

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.

– Lady Bird Johnson

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EduQuote of the Week: April 2 – 8, 2018

Golden Rule Week

In nearly every religion I am aware of, there is a variation of the golden rule. And even for the non-religious, it is a tenet of people who believe in humanistic principles.

– Hillary Clinton

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