Teach & Serve No. 26 – Is It Getting Hot in Here?

Teach & Serve 

No. 26 * February 10, 2016


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Is It Getting Hot in Here?

As a learned friend of mine said: “Anyone can call the fire department. Leaders are checking the wiring before the spark ever ignites.”

 

I am not an expert on Peter Senge, the brilliant systems analyst who is currently a senior lecturer at MIT and who is a leading Systems Theory expert, but I am familiar enough with him to say that serious  professionals, educational and otherwise, should know who he is and what he does. In his deeply engrossing book The Fifth Discipline, Senge outlines a concept of how effective and dynamic learning organizations work. He is not talking specifically about schools; Senge is describing organizations that can learn, that can grow and that are dynamic. He is detailing how people can inspired to strive for the common good of the organization – no matter what that organization is or does – and how those organization can exist in a constant and healthy state of reinvention. His conclusions, especially as applied to schools,  are at once exciting and harrowing.

They are exciting because Senge paints a vivid picture of what schools could be if they were built on principles that encouraged educational professionals to consider the school community overall as more important than their individual needs and desires and that supporting the broad vision and work of the school (assuming it is a high performing learning organization) actually has the effect of making their individual lives in it better. Senge’s work is harrowing because of what a tough sell that concept is.

Senge outlines the five disciplines that learning organizations share, hence the title of the book. He also describes what he calls learning disabilities that can hamper learning organizations from reaching their potential. “Learning disabilities” is a bit of an awkward appellation given its current connotation, but Senge published the first edition of The Fifth Discipline in 1990, so he can be forgiven for this.

As I reviewed the book for my work teaching a seminar in Jesuit school leadership this week, I found myself reflecting on Senge’s concept of learning disabilities in general and one of them in particular: The Parable of the Boiling Frog.

boiling-waterSurely, you’ve heard this parable before, yes? If a frog is put in a pot of room temperature water on a stove and the heat is slowly and incrementally increased over a span of time, the frog will not leap from the water even as the temperature approaches the boiling point. It’s not that the frog doesn’t feel the change, the frog does. However, because the change is gradual and incremental, the frog doesn’t sense anything particularly out of the ordinary. He notes the shift in circumstance and moves on. He takes it in stride. He adjusts and adapts. He resets feeling that each rise in temperature is simply the new norm. He doesn’t leave the pot and doesn’t react to the danger until it is far too late.

This isn’t a nice story for the frog, to be sure. It’s kind of disturbing, actually.

But the story is all the more disturbing if we apply it to human systems. Senge says this is one of the learning disabilities that holds human systems back from being truly effective learning organizations. When things get off course in small ways, without major crises or “big” moments or institutional blow ups – when they simply slide downward, slipping inevitably, losing grip and losing focus, people in those systems tend not to notice… until it’s too late.

Can this parable be applied to our academic departments? Does it describe our schools? Have we ever felt as though we were the frog in the boiling water?

I think we would be well served to make a practice of “taking the temperature of the room” and discerning whether our schools, or departments, our PLCs are approaching the boiling point. We would be well served to do this early and to do it often. Looking around the room and asking, “hey, when did it get so hot in here?” may be a necessary thing to do. It may be something that needs to happen at our schools right now. But, if the water is at 210 degrees already, we can’t pat ourselves on the back for turning the burner down now. The closer we get to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the longer it will take the pot to cool. The closer we are to the boiling point, the more likely it is that we’ve done some permanent damage. We might be able to turn down the flame before the water bubbles over, but someone is likely to have already been singed.

Here’s the thing: it’s not particularly insightful, for example, to point out our schools are off track when our students aren’t scoring well on standardized tests they used to ace or that the school is off track when it doesn’t pass its accreditation review with flying colors or that the institution has a problem when enrollment dips 8%. Noting that something needs to change in light of these sorts of problems is kind of like fixing the barn door after the cow has come home… the farmer appreciates the work but isn’t going to get back the hours she spent looking for Bessie.

No, the insight comes in recognition of those problems before they become problems and dealing with them prior to their coming to a head. Leadership is when the potential issues are never allowed to become issues.

As a learned friend of mine said this week: “Anyone can call the fire department. Leaders are checking the wiring before the spark ever ignites.”

Check the wiring. Turn down the flame. Save the frog.

Oh, and read The Fifth Discipline.

 

 

EduQuote of the Week: February 8 – February 14, 2016

door quotes

Although the life of a person is in a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. – Pope Francis

Teach & Serve No. 24 – Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

Teach & Serve 

No. 25 * February 3, 2016


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Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession.

During one year of my administrative career, I served as Acting Principal of my alma mater, the school where I had worked for almost two decades. I could devote an entire series of posts to the perils of the words “Acting” or “Interim” before the word “Principal” and perhaps I one day will. Frankly, being an “acting” anything is an almost impossible challenge and success in the role is dependent upon many factors – especially the support one has from one’s superior.

But that’s a story for another day.

failing-grade-editIn February of the year of my acting principalship, a teacher I knew well and respected, a teacher I had when I was a student (remember, this was my alma mater), a teacher under whom I had worked in any number of capacities in my years at the school approached me. He informed me a student was failing his class and was unlikely to make a passing grade for the semester. This student had failed first semester and grading policy at our school was such that if he passed second semester, his failing grade for first semester – a grade we called the “K” grade – would become a “D” and the student would be awarded whatever grade he earned for second semester. As things stood, I was told, there was “no chance” this student would pass second semester. According to the teacher, the kid was simply not grasping the material. And he had no chance of grasping to a degree by which he could pass the class. The student couldn’t do the work, the teacher informed me. The student as so far behind the curve in terms of the material (in February according to the teacher) that the wouldn’t and couldn’t pass the class.

The class was Algebra I. The student was working very hard.

I should know. The student was my step-son.

And the teacher was convinced, in February, that he should fail the class.

That I was compromised and biased in this situation is obvious. On reflection, I see myself as entirely cowardly as well. I was principal, acting though I might be, and was within my purview to intervene.

I did not.

Allowing that teacher to fail my step-son in February was a mistake and it remains one of the worst professional decisions I have ever made. Frustrated and angry, not at my best and not having taken enough time to reflect on the scenario, to call in the advice of those I trusted and to challenge my step-son’s teacher’s policies, I acknowledged – I didn’t accept – what the teacher was telling me, pulled my step-son out of the class creating a study hall for him though our school didn’t offer study halls (being Acting Principal had to have some privileges) and never looked at my colleague in quite the same manner again.

I have never looked at myself in quite the same way again, either.

My step-son had struggled mightily in this Algebra I class throughout the first semester of his freshman year. During the first semester we tried everything. I spent many a night trying to assist him with the material.  When the limits of my algebra knowledge were reached – and they were reached very quickly, my wife and I hired a number of tutors for my step-son, finding that the fit wasn’t right with most of them. We met with my step-son’s teacher searching for solutions. We explained to the teacher that my step-son had a diagnosed processing disorder and discussed how he best responded to instruction in class. Finally, we settled on a tutor who my step-son liked and to whom he responded well. For a few weeks, my step-son showed some significant signs of improvement, but circumstances changed and this tutor became less effective as assignments wore on. That my step-son’s teacher became increasingly less cooperative with the tutor is a sad but true statement.

So, my step-son failed Algebra I and, by the end of that year, transferred from the school. The teacher who failed him remains. The Acting Principal who let this all go on is no longer at the school.

What came next is what is instructive. Somehow deciding in the first semester of his sophomore year and his new school that he loved math, somehow deciding that he was a gifted math student despite his earlier failure and somehow deciding that he wanted to take an Advanced Placement math course by the time he graduated high school, my step-son took control. He met with his counselors and math teachers and plotted an ambitious schedule of math courses for himself over the remainder of his high school career. This plan included him taking Algebra II and Honors Geometry concurrently during his junior year, taking an online and self-directed Calculus class during the summer between his junior and senior years so that he would be ready to take AP Calculus AB his last year of high school. Oh, and he had to get A’s or B’s in these classes to satisfy his teachers and counselors.

He received all A’s.

Do you see where this is going?

After failing Algebra I, this kid worked as hard as I’ve seen any kid work to get to a senior level, AP math class. And he took the AP test. And he got a 4.

The message here is less about my step-son (and I could write post-after-post about this kid, about the incredible kid he is) than it is about the teacher who failed him.

In February.

While one could make the argument that my step-son’s failure motivated him to work as hard as he did, I contend that that argument is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine what might have happened if that teacher had worked with my step-son for, clearly, my step-son had the drive and the ability to do great things.

As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession. It’s not for us to limit them. We work with them, in every way we can, to help them grow. That’s the mission.

Yes, some students will not meet the standards by which we must judge their performance and, at the end of the day, some will take all we offer and do nothing with it. But, let’s be honest:

Students don’t fail in February, teachers do.

Teach & Serve No. 24 – Sliding Not Deciding

Teach & Serve 

No. 24 * January 27, 2016


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Sliding Not Deciding

Decisions and the processes we go through to make them define who we are as teachers and administrators.

Educational professionals make decisions.

Wait, let me state that another way: educational professionals are often called upon to make decisions. Important ones. No, that’s too strong. One more try here: educational professionals can be called into many situations and scenarios in which decisions must be made. Not quite right. One more attempt: educational professionals are frequently faced with having to make decisions.

Terrible… it seems hard (at least for the purposes of trying to illustrate my point in this post day) to simply and clearly state that teachers and administrators make decisions. I think there are many reasons why this is true, but let’s clear one thing up for purposes of this discussion. Making decisions is different than making choices. Teachers and administrators are asked to make choices constantly. Which book will we read? What unit comes first? Which teacher will have what “other duty as assigned”? And so on and so on. These are choices, not decisions. Choices are important, no question about that, and choices fill our days as teachers and administrators. But decisions are bigger deals. Decisions and the processes we go through to make them define who we are as teachers and administrators.

DecisionsThe longer one spends in education, the more time an individual puts into the job, the more likely she or he is to be asked to make decisions or to take part in some decision making process that will be important to the school. As opposed to choices, the types of decisions to which I am referring here have high stakes, impact and gravitas. These decisions affect our future as educators and the future of our schools. Decisions are about who we are and what we want to be. Decisions can change the course of our professional lives and alter the direction of our institutions.

Decisions are big deals.

So, how to we arrive at them? What process do we employ? What do we do – as individuals and as schools – to make decisions?

My fear is that, often, we don’t. We don’t actually make decisions. Sure, we embark on a process. We have conversations. We weigh the pros and cons. We engage. We talk. Through this, clarity about the direction we might want to go sometimes emerges. Sometimes it does not.

The trouble with decisions is that they are, in fact, big deals and they do, in fact, have a lot at stake in their making. As such, they can cause tension and disagreement. They can foster unrest. They can make us uncomfortable because they are not choices, they are decisions and the ones we make – and how we make them – says something about who we are and charts the course of where we are going.

As administrators and teachers, we are well served to have practiced our decision making process before we actually have to make any decisions. We better know how we make decisions and the manner in which we do so prior to actually making some. At the end of the day, our decisions are just things. They are results. Decisions are made and we and our colleagues agree with them, disagree with them, celebrate them, revile them. Decisions are things. And, frankly, they are less important, sometimes, than the process with how we made them.

As we engage in making decisions, it can be easier to settle. It can be less challenging to ourselves and our communities to ease into decisions, to slide into them. When we know we’re staking a claim for our future, it’s natural to approach with trepidation and caution. With second guessing. Without confidence.

It’s easy to slide into new positions. It’s harder to reach out and take them.

Let us be confident in how we do so, confident in the process we employ and confident in our decisions. Let us practice and make perfect. We will be stronger teachers and administrators when we develop facility making decisions. We will be stronger leaders when we stop sliding into our positions and start deciding them.

Our students and our staffs should know us as decision makers.

Educational professionals make decisions.

Teach & Serve No. 20 – Do or Do Not… Wait, Isn’t There a Try?

Teach & Serve 

No. 20 * December 15, 2015

THE NEXT TEACH & SERVE WILL BE PUBLISHED ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6, 2016.


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DO OR DO NOT… WAIT, ISN’T THERE A TRY?

There’s got to be a “try.”

Unless you live under a rock on the forest moon of Endor (or you’ve intentionally willed yourself to be unaware of these sorts of things), you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters world-wide this week. It’s certain to be a hit with movie goers of all ages, shapes and sizes. It’s likely to be a global phenomenon and I am very much okay with that. Though I truly have tried to keep myself blissfully ignorant of what actually happens in the movie until I see it (preview showing on Thursday 12.17, thank you very much!), I can make a few educated guesses:

It will be full of characters drawn in broad, moral strokes.

Good and evil will be easily identified.

Heroes will lose; heroes will win.

Lines from the movie will be quoted for years to come (this has already started “it’s all true” and “Chewie, we’re home” being two of the tastiest thus far).

Again, I am very good with all of this, especially the quotes which will become part of our culture. Lines from the Star Wars movies have been in our collective consciousness since George Lucas first unspooled A New Hope in 1977 (it was only called “Star Wars” back then, but we won’t go into that kind of geeky minutiae). Most of the lines we volley back-and-forth to each other are iconic, very cool and fun to wrap our heads and tongues around.

But… but, there is one that kind of bothers me as an educator. I understand the point that is being made by the speaker of the quote, and it is, perhaps, the right point in the moment, but I would be very leery of any educator who made this particular quote the cornerstone of her or his educational philosophy.

Do or Do Not

“Do, or do not, there is no try” says Yoda to a despondent Luke Skywalker. Luke has been challenged by Yoda to use the Force to lift Luke’s X-Wing fighter from out of the Dagobah swamp where it crash landed. Luke responds: “I’ll give it a try” which brings on Yoda’s admonition.

So, yes, in this context, I get it. Hey, Luke, don’t just give it a little effort. Be all in or all out. Sure. Yes. Right. Check. In this context, I get it.

However in the context of the work we do with students in classrooms and with our colleagues on our staffs, isn’t there an awful lot of room for “try”? Isn’t that what we want students to do when they are confronted by new possibilities? Don’t we want them to try things out? Don’t we want our students to fearlessly attempt new things precisely because we’ve created environments wherein they are safe to try and fail?

Don’t our colleagues who are early experimenters with new technology or who take on a new mode of instruction or attempt a new kinds of simulation with their students sometimes impress us as much with their failures and their learnings from those failures as they do with their inevitable successes? What if Yoda was there telling them not to try?

C’mon, Yoda! Give us a little space to learn from trying, from failing.

Yoda is pretty hard on Luke and perhaps he has to be as Luke is “our last hope,” but cut the kid a little slack, right? Do you grade on the curve, Professor Yoda, or is it all pass/fail with you. Sure, I get it, it’s going to be pass/fail when Luke gets his hand cut off by Darth Vader and, yes, I know you’ve been training Jedi for 800 years… but, as an educator, perhaps you might take a page from Obi Wan Kenobi’s book. Obi Wan encourages Luke to try, knowing that he will likely, on his first attempts, fail. Obi Wan creates an environment for Luke where it’s okay to fail and to learn from the failure.

Those are the teachers and administrators I want around me: those who set up environments where it’s okay to explore, to fail, to learn and to grow. I want the teachers and administrators who encourage risk, who ask for creativity, who allow students and colleagues to challenge barriers. These are the teachers and administrators who inspire others to be better and to grow.

Of course, if Yoda wanted to join my staff, I’d let him because, hey, he’s Yoda!