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

Halloween

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.

EduQuote of the Week: October 16 – 22, 2017

Teen Read Week

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

– Benjamin Franklin

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Teach & Serve III, No. 10 – Proceed with Caution

Teach & Serve III, No. 10

Proceed with Caution

October 11, 2017

While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

This is a hard one.

I was in high school classrooms for almost 25 years before leaving that work for my current position. I choose the word “classrooms” intentionally as I made certain, even as I transitioned from full time teacher to full time administrator, that I was assigned at least one two semester class every year I worked in secondary education. I felt that was important in terms of keeping me grounded in the real work of the school which is, obviously, working with students.

In those almost 25 years, I am sure I worked with thousands of students. I live in a kind of ambient anxiety about running into them now because I am terrible about remembering them names which is unfortunate. I wish I could remember all the kids I had in class with me, but I simply do not have that kind of bandwidth. Many I know do and I am so impressed by them.

When I consider those years, I have only fond memories of students in my classes, fond memories of all the students whether they worked hard or not, participated well or not, got in trouble or not. I look back on that mass of kids with a smile.

I have always assumed that students who sat in the desks in my classrooms had much the same thoughts about me, if not a pleasant feeling about being in my room, then, at least, an idea that we were in something together, that I respected them and that we shared some good times. It has never occurred to me that some of those students felt as though I did not care about them, did not know them and did not value them.

No. I should write it had never occurred to me, not until last spring.

Facebook is a wonderful tool and I have really enjoyed connecting with people from my past, including students. I made it policy not to “friend” them when they were still in school, but, if they requested after graduation and I remembered who they were (because looking at their pictures always helped!), I accepted. I have had many a conversation through FB with former students and it has been a pleasure to follow their lives in this pretty limited fashion.

As it turns out, some of my former students have even read these blogs on education that I write weekly. I discovered this by seeing the infrequent “likes” they might click after a post and I found out that some are really reading these things when I received a message from a student.

The content of the message was not what I expected. Essentially, the student felt that I bullied her/him in school, that I did not care about her/him, that I made a point of sticking it to her/him. When this student was considering transferring from the school, she/he remembers many teachers trying to change his/her mind. The student is certain I did not recall her/his name.

It was a long message and a powerful one.

I remembered the student quite well. That is the reason I had accepted her/his friend request. This is a student that I would recognize if we ran into each other. This is a student of whom I had warm and fond memories.

This student did not feel the same. Situations I remembered one way, this student recalled in an almost polar opposite fashion. And, to be clear, the student’s perception is reality. While I may believe I never treated a student in the manner this student described, she/he felt treated negatively by me, felt I did not care, felt I was a negative force and a bad teacher.

There is not a thing I can do to go back and change what I did to make this student feel this way, though I very much wish there were.

The benefit of this exchange between us was for me to be more reflective looking back, for me to consider things from my former students’ perspectives and for me to take myself down from the pedestal I have placed myself upon.

The good leaders and teachers I know welcome challenging input, they solicit ways to improve, they listen to those they have hurt and they invite pointed critiques.

Then they grow.

I have grown from reading these comments. Looking forward, I am more aware of how my actions and interactions influence others. Looking back, I am more aware of how my nostalgia colors my view of the past.

These are good things. They are hard things, but good.

Leaders must be cautious when they (as I often do in these posts) pat themselves on the back. Leaders must remember that their actions are interpreted, minute-by-minute, by those with whom they journey. Leaders should never get too comfortable thinking they have it all figured out.

Leaders must proceed with caution, for they are responsible for the perceptions they create.

EduQuote of the Week: October 9 – 15, 2017

Newspaper Week

A newspaper is a public trust, and we will suffer as a society without them.

– Michael Moore

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Teach & Serve III, No. 9 – Who’s in Trouble?

Teach & Serve III, No. 9

Who’s in Trouble?

October 4, 2017

Give me leaders who understand this, leaders who know that the buck (and everything else) does stop with them. Give me leaders who say: “I get it. I will take it.”

In my years as an administrator, one of the teams on which I served to which I wish I could have offered more was the Student Assistance Team.

The Student Assistance Team was made up of administrators and teachers and directors. Anyone on staff could refer a student to this group. It was designed to catch students who might fall through any cracks in our program. It was designed as a place where kids could be discussed, plans could be made, help could be created. It was designed to keep kids on track socially and academically, to respond to their needs and to strengthen the overall community by assisting those who needed the most support.

It was a great work of which to be a part.

Many schools have groups such as this. All schools should have them. Schools ought to be about this. They ought to have these sorts of nets in place. They ought to have people committed to keeping their eyes on as many students as possible. They ought to know that protecting students is as important as teaching them.

Here’s the question: do we have these same kinds of supports for the adults in our buildings?

If we do not, we should think hard about developing them.

As leaders in our schools – as administrators and department chairs – part of our role in serving our staffs is knowing who needs to be served and how. Leaders must be as vigilant about the health and wellbeing of the adults in their charge as they are about the students in their charge.

This is not a lot to expect.

At the end of the equation lies the students. The operators in between the administration and the students are the teachers and staff, the adults in the building. To care about the kids is to care about those who are most closely in contact with them.

Leaders have to know who is in trouble on their staff. Beyond that, they have to try to help those who are in trouble.

When I was as assistant principal, my responsibilities revolved, primarily, around working with the faculty. Looking back, I know there was more I could have done, there were people to whom I could have been much better, colleagues I should have worked with in a far more compassionate way. However, I can say with honesty that I attempted to make it my work to know who the adults in my charge were, how they were and what they needed to be the best version of themselves.

Bringing the best version of themselves to all the did at the school made them better, the experience of the students better, the school better.

How would I ever know if a teacher needed to be non-renewed or replaced if I did not take the time to know them, to hear their perspective, to work with them? How could I advise my principal on hiring and firing if I did not try to engage and understand? How could I help if I did not know who needed help? I tried to connect because I thought it was critical to my role. I could have done better and, in many cases, wish I had, but I did understand that leadership required this of me.

Leaders who do not understand that knowing who on their staff is in trouble is as important as knowing which students might be in trouble are missing something critical.

Take care of those in need, adult and student alike. Make their lives as fulfilled as you can.

That is one of the critical roles of leadership.

EduQuote of the Week: October 2 – 8, 2017

Mental Illness Awareness Week

You, yourself, as much as anyone else deserve love and affection.

– The Buddha

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Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 4 – Take the Short Way Home… It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 4

Take the Short Way Home… It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage

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


Let us put this moment in context. Indiana Jones is racing against time to find the Ark of the Covenant before it can be delivered to Hitler and the Nazis. World War II is brewing. The Allies are good. Nazis are bad. There are decidedly not “some very fine people” among them.

The stakes are life and death.

The work of being a leader is rarely life and death, though it can be. Typically, leaders can arrive at decisions in reasoned and calm fashion, weighing fact and opinions, judging options, making determinations. Leaders often have time in which to lead and space from which to do it.

And those around leaders have opinions. They have suggestions. They have plans of their own, facts and theories and recommendations.

And they should. None of that is bad.

However, there are times when what surrounds decision-making, what encompasses leadership, what slows down the process is too much information, too copious opinions, too many cooks.

Sometimes a leader must simply cut through what is unimportant and superfluous.

Sometimes a leader recognizes that what is happening is distraction and needs to be stopped so a decision can be reached and action can be taken. Being decisive is not always easy. Sometimes there are costs. But leaders know when to act.

Which brings us back to Indiana Jones. World War II. Nazis. Evil.

And a leader who knows what needs to be done.

Read the following as metaphor… and cut through the red tape. Make decisions. Take action.