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

Teach & Serve III, No. 16

Give Thanks for THAT?

November 22, 2017

An annual Thanksgiving post…

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, 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.

Teach & Serve III, No. 15 – Management and Leadership

Teach & Serve III, No. 15

Management and Leadership

November 15, 2017

Managers direct by telling. Leaders invite by inspiring.

At a leadership seminar a few weeks back, I heard a great story about dealing with one of a school’s most favorite days of the year: Halloween. I was asking the group with which I was working if they had to jump right back into work when they returned from our week-long seminar and one of the members of the cohort said, with noticeable relief, not only did she not have any school-related, weekend responsibilities (our seminar ended on a Friday morning), she did not have to teach Monday or Tuesday of the following week because her school would be closed.

Why? I asked.

Because we don’t want to deal with Halloween, so the principal shuts us down. She said.

What a nifty thing to do. Talk about a great way to deal with what can be a perennial issue at a co-ed high school. Nicely done, I thought.

Nicely managed.

Another conversation I had during that same leadership seminar struck me as well. One of my colleagues on the seminar was talking about a task she had been given. She was to serve on an interview committee for a school presidency. She was emailed a list of questions to ask, told the time frame she had to ask them and ordered to report to an office to interview candidates at a prescribed date. Whoever invited her on the committee missed the mark. Poorly done, I thought.

Poorly led.

There is a difference between leadership and management and school leaders would be well served to understand that and to know when to apply which skill. Good leaders have skills related to leadership and skills related to management. The Venn Diagram between the two overlaps, to be sure. Management and leadership are not polar opposites.  But they are different.

Management deals with the mechanics of getting things done, of making lists and checking off items, of tackling immediate issues. Leadership deals with thinking big picture, challenging boundaries, defining mission.

Managers direct by telling. Leaders invite by inspiring.

The Halloween situation I mentioned above was well handled, well managed. Perhaps dealing with this scenario did not require leadership, but management. Leadership applied here may have asked broader questions, considered why Halloween was an issue at the school, sought to engage outside-the-box thinking for a solution. Likely that would have been an unnecessary approach.

Similarly, the situation with the teacher asked to be on the committee needed more leadership than management. The teacher was managed, to be sure. But the process cried out for leadership, for vision and inclusion, for broader thinking. Applying management was a miss. Though the interview process likely went well, there was a chance for it to be better.

I believe excellent leaders, when confronted by leadership tasks, ask themselves “is this a leadership opportunity or a management situation?” This is a natural question to them. It is automatic. Then they readily apply the best process. Good school leaders know how to balance management and leadership. They know when to employ which. They know that some situations call for leadership. Others call for management. Excellent leaders switch easily through both.

And, when in doubt, err on the side of leadership. Management, while important, should not be a leader’s default position. Leadership should be.

Pretty simple, right?

It’s just like handling Halloween in a high school or setting up an interview committee… But do not believe there is a right way or a wrong way. There is not.

There is a better way or a worse way, though. Good leaders know the difference.

EduQuote of the Week: November 13 – 19, 2017

Geography Awareness Week

There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.

– Josephine Hart

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Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 7 – The Old Order Changeth

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 7

The Old Order Changeth

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

In Avengers #16, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, things are about to change. The roster of the superhero team is about to be re-written. The old order is about to change.

In this issue, Lee coined the phrase “The Old Order Changeth” (in a bastardization of Shakespeare that only Lee could get away with) and this phrase still appears in issues of the comic to this day. In fact, it has appeared in over 115 issues of the title. “The Old Order Changeth” is the catch phrase indicating some heroes are about to move out of Avengers Mansion and others are ready to move in. Reasons for changing up the roster were typically about low sales or the desire to feature a new hero or character.

That’s all well and good.

What I like about this is that changing the roster keeps the Avengers exciting, fresh and, presumably, new.

When the old order changed, it rarely turned over entirely. Rather, stalwarts from one incarnation stayed with the team to shepherd it through the new incarnation. They remained to explain what the Avengers were and what they should be.

I love it.

And that is what leaders do with their teams. They do not surrender to complacency and comfort. They do not settle into routines that are the enemies of creative and courage. Rather, they look to change the order, to bring new people aboard, to offer new opportunities.

And, sometimes, the leader must realize that, for the old order to really “changeth” and for the change to mean anything, the leader herself must go.

It takes Captain America-like bravery to admit that and step aside. Bravery like that in changing the old order must be celebrated.

Teach & Serve III, No. 14 – Highest Duty

Teach & Serve III, No. 14

Highest Duty

November 8, 2017

Leaders support those with whom they work. It is their first and last priority and that mindset informs every priority in between.

I firmly believe that the best leaders serve those they lead just as the best teachers understand they work in service of their students.

I also believe that leaders can only be effective when they are given consent to lead and that classroom teachers are far more effective when the students feel as though they are partners in the learning process.

Yes, some leaders who rely only on authoritarian leadership can push their agendas and compel, by the power of their position, compliance from those who work for them, but I argue that this kind of scenario does not denote leadership.

Leaders support those with whom they work. It is their first and last priority and that mindset informs every priority in between.

Therefore, leaders must be very careful of the structures present in their classrooms and in their schools. They must be aware of the implications policies create in terms of service.

All too often, leaders endorse or create structures and policies that limit their ability to lend needed support. Too frequently, organizations adopt general strictures and broadly apply them at the expense of specific individuals and situations. We tie ourselves in politics, in red tape, and, all too often, in nonsense.

We must cut to the chase: to lead is to serve. To serve is to support. Anything else distracts from our central call as leaders.

What we do in school leadership – as teachers and administrators – is complex work. We need not make our roles to serve more complex by needlessly tying our hands.

A great leader goes to great lengths to provide support. This the highest duty of leadership.

EduQuote of the Week: November 5 – 12, 2017

Sherlock Holmes Weekend

You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Teach & Serve III, No. 13 – Tyranny of the Immediate

Teach & Serve III, No. 13

Tyranny of the Immediate

November 1, 2017

When leadership cannot work itself out from under the pressures of what must be done to address what ought to be done, institutions can suffer from a lack of creativity, a dearth of energy and an absence of vision.

Related imageI had the once-in-a-lifetime chance a couple weeks back to attend a gathering of Jesuit educators in Rio De Janeiro which was challenging, inspiring and paradigm shifting. I am still processing the event and will surely have more to write about it in coming editions of this blog but, for now, I was struck by something powerful and direct, a point so important I wanted to share it.

David Laughlin is the long tenured and accomplished president of St. Louis University High School. Intelligent, driven, smart and savvy, David is someone to whom to listen in whatever venue he speaks. At this event, he was the first of four keynotes and his words were what I have come to expect from him: useful and practical while being visionary and uplifting.

He spoke about challenges facing Catholic and Jesuit schools, to be sure, but many of his points are applicable to schools of all models, shapes and sizes.

What I found immediately striking and all-but universal was this question: how do we as teachers and school leaders work to vision for our schools – to reach for the always in motion horizon – when we suffer from what David called “the tyranny of the immediate.”

There is so much that we do in our work that must be done when it is right in front of us and I use the word “must” intentionally. This kind of immediate work must be done because, if it is not done, the school cannot function. It may not be the most important work. It may not be the most critical work. But it is the work that cannot be put off, cannot wait, cannot be prioritized lower.

Leaders can be overwhelmed by this kind of work. Their leadership can be short-circuited by this tyranny of the immediate. When leadership cannot work itself out from under the pressures of what must be done to address what ought to be done, institutions can suffer from a lack of creativity, a dearth of energy and an absence of vision.

Good leaders free themselves from the tyranny of the immediate. They understand it and the cope with it. They put it as much behind them as they can, as readily as they can.

The tyranny of the immediate can sink a leader and inadequate leaders believe that addressing the immediate effectively is leadership in-and-of-itself.

It is not. It is simply tyranny and not that far from chaos.

Excellent leaders fight the tyranny of the immediate. And they win.

EduQuote of the Week: October 30 – November 5, 2017


We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.

– Stephen King

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EduQuote of the Week: October 23 – 29, 2017

Freedom of Speech Week

By limiting or denying freedom of speech and expression, we take away a lot of potential. We take away thoughts and ideas before they even have the opportunity to hatch. We build a world around negatives – you can’t say, think, or do this or that.

– Jill McCorkle

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Teach & Serve III, No. 11 – Get Out of Your Comfort Zones

Teach & Serve III, No. 11

Get Out of Your Comfort Zones

October 18, 2017

Our schools are places where change is expected. Indeed, change is mandatory. We ought to be aware of when we are not pushing ourselves to change, to adapt and grow, to look at the world through different lenses and in different ways.

In the early months of this school year, I was texting with some former colleagues about rituals around the first days of class. In one of my former lives, I was partially responsible for planning and executing new teacher orientation, something I worked on for almost 10 years. By the end of those years, I was pretty comfortable with what we were doing and innovation was not what I was seeking.

It should have been.

As leaders in schools, we must be aware of when we have settled into a comfort zone, and there are many into which we can sink. And stay.

Perhaps we are comfortable with our preferred decision-making style and, more often than not, make our decisions only from that place. Maybe we are pleased with all the support staff we have around us to the point that we do not feel a need to provide them performance reviews any more. It could be that we have developed close rapport with only a small segment of our staff and we have begun not to look beyond them for input or help.

It could be anything.

When we settle in to patterns as leaders, when we allow ourselves to become too comfortable with who we are and what we are doing, we run the risk of stagnation.

Our schools are places where change is expected. Indeed, change is mandatory. We ought to be aware of when we are not pushing ourselves to change, to adapt and grow, to look at the world through different lenses and in different ways.

There is an entire offshoot of leadership study and organizational structure that deals with discomfort, with creating disequilibrium, with embracing the results of being put of our normal stride.

There is much to be gained by pushing ourselves to be new and different, to alter our approach, to grow in our roles.

First, however, we have to be aware of when we are in comfort zones.

Then we have to get out of them.