People who have spent a significant amount of time studying leadership look to their supervisors, their bosses, their superiors and note a disconnect between the principles of good leadership and what is going on in some of their schools.
I have spent the last three weeks of my professional life with groups of educational professionals who have been sent by their administrations to take part in workshops that are about, on one level or another, leadership. Some have formal leadership roles in their schools – principals, assistant principals, deans of students, department chairs, program directors, coaches – and some have informal leadership in their schools, wielding influence at their institutions in various manners both subtle and overt.
There weeks have been terrific and the overwhelming majority of the people with whom I’ve spent time reassures me that the future of school leadership is in very, very good hands. Committed, conscientious and compassionate, most of the people with whom I’ve worked these last weeks have affected me, have made me think back with great fondness to my years in schools and have inspired me to think what great institutions could be constructed if these people were the building blocks.
Yet, at some point these weeks it occurred to me that back in the “real world,” back at their schools when they are plying their trade in the trenches – as it were – many of these very people who have spent a significant amount of time studying leadership look to their supervisors, their bosses, their superiors and note a disconnect between the principles of good leadership and what is going on in some of their schools.
I have read Simon Sinek (and, if you’re interested in leadership, you should, too – Start with Why is particularly good) and watched his TED talks and one of the maxims I have heard him say is simply true: there is a difference between leaders and those who lead.
Take a look at a school organizational chart. Schools are lousy with formal leaders. From presidents to principals and on down the diagram, there is no shortage of “leaders” in schools. In fact, some schools are shockingly top heavy with leadership.
What there might be a shortage of is people who actually lead.
Show me a school with people in leadership positions who actually lead and I will show you a schools that is unafraid, that is humble, that is ready to innovate, collaborate and change, that is positioned to charge into an unknown future safe in the knowledge that it knows why it does what it does. Show me a school with people who lead and I will show you a school with more fulfilled and empowered employees than not, more teachers energized by their work, more students sharing responsibility their learning, more successful outcomes. Show me a school with leaders who lead and I will show you a school that I would support, a school to which I would send my children, a school in which I would want to serve.
I’ve been thrice blessed over the course of the last 30 days to reconnect with old friends.
We tend to be overly nostalgic about our college years. I had a great time in college, to be sure, but, again, the best years of my life were not concluded when I turned 22. Likewise, we wax poetic about our early years in our first jobs. No, they weren’t really as great as we remember them. I never believed the high school years were the best years of my students’ lives. I cringe when I hear that sentiment voiced at orientations or graduations. I mean the high school years are, literally, spent between the ages of 14 and 18. Am I supposed to believe that my best years were over almost 30 years ago? That would be a depressing thought, indeed.
However, there is something very special about these periods of our lives and about the people with whom we share them, and it’s a platitude I’ve shared with many a student in many a class at many an occasion over the years that I’ve only recently come to know as true.
I’ve been thrice blessed over the course of the last 30 days to reconnect with old friends. I literally almost typed “old, old friends,” but I feared that might imply that the people I am talking about are elderly. They are not. They are my contemporaries which means, by any definition by which I view myself, that they are not old at all!
Interesting to me is that all three of these companions came to me through my educational life. These relationships all spun out of my connection to schools and schooling and the bonds forged over those experiences seem to be stronger than I had previously imagined.
I was treated to an amazing day in Los Angeles by the first of these old friends. It was such an incredible experience of generosity on his part that the whole thing is frankly hard to explain. Suffice it to say that he allowed me to see and touch my own personal Disneyland. Incredible. We reconnected over Facebook a few years ago and hadn’t seen each other for over 25 years before he hosted me (and The Magister) at his home and place of work for 24 indelible hours.
He and I had known each other in high school. I was Schroeder to his Charlie Brown in a production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown when I was a junior and he was a senior. We were on the yearbook staff together. We spent many a night at rehearsals or working on deadlines or at cast parties talking, dreaming about girls, our futures, our place in the world – you know, like high school kids do.
The second old friend was stranded in Colorado when a snowstorm shuttered airports all over his home state of North Carolina. He’d been in Denver for a fact-finding trip, studying exemplary schools on three precise days that I was actually away from my home city! We weren’t going to get to see one another but, as fate would have it, he was stuck in Colorado and I was able to return home before he left. The breakfast we shared on an early Saturday morning was the best meal I’d had in a long, long time.
He had been the Best Man in my first wedding, but we had met years earlier in college. We were selected to be Resident Assistants the same year. We were both English majors. We were both into music, though he was always (and remains) far more talented than I. I was Diamond to his Jade and when we lobbied for and were assigned to be RAs of the same dorm, we wreaked havoc as the greatest tandem ever… at least that’s what we thought.
Traveling to Xavier University on a work trip, I connected with my third old friend, primarily because the organization for which I work had asked him to be the keynote speaker at a major event we hold every third summer. Walking across the Xavier campus on a crisp January morning I could feel my exciting building to see him. Coming into his office – seeing the manner in which it was decorated and feeling the vibe my friend had created, I felt immediately welcomed and sank into comfortable repartee.
He and I were hired the same year at Regis Jesuit High School and he was part-and-parcel to my experience of my early years in education. We spent our work hours together. We spent our off hours together. We had a tight group of friends that shared life, day-in-and-day-out. I was Downbound to his Train, rhythm guitar to his lead piano, melody to his harmony.
Three friends in 30 days. I got to reconnect with three friends in 30 days. Each of the encounters were, in their own way, unexpected. It was something of a lark to see my first friend in Los Angeles. It was incredible luck to see my second friend at home. It was shocking when my boss told me “I have a great idea for a speaker for us…” and suggested my third friend. I got to see three old friends in 30 days. Three friends who had incredible impacts on my life when I was younger. Three friends who came to me through my schooling as a high schooler, a college student and as a teacher.
Seeing them now, as a man in my later 40s, made me realize something I’ve often said to students that I don’t know that I’d ever really experienced and it’s a truth I don’t think it’s just true for me. The connections we make in schools matter. They count. They influence us in how we think, what we believe and who we are.
It’s not that I didn’t know that. It’s not that I needed to learn that lesson. I just don’t know that I had ever experienced it like I did last month.
My high school friend is living his life in the precise manner he wants to. I so admired him in high school because he always seemed so at home in his own skin and comfortable with himself is clearly what he is. Comfortable, warm, generous. If I have any of those qualities, I learned them from him when we were high schoolers.
My college friend is a deeply thoughtful, talented educator. He is driven to make the world around him a better place for his students and his teachers. A devoted family man with a resonant and contagious laugh, he inspired me in college and inspires me now. I wanted to be more like him when we were in college and I want to be more like him now.
My teacher friend is a true contemplative in action, just like he was when we signed our teaching contracts together. Even tempered and spiritual, I was forever in awe of his manner and his grace. His faith guided his life when we were young and still does. I often wondered how to model myself on his example and I still do.
Being in the presence of each of these men was something of a time warp. The intervening years from the last time we’d seen one another to the day we reconnected vanished. With each of them, I felt I was picking up where I’d left off, stepping into a well read and much loved chapter of my favorite novel and reading it all over again.
The friends we make in our youth have great influence on us. They help us conceptualize the world – help us make sense when nothing makes sense. Their example imprints on us. Their approval moves us. Their friendship makes us. Those words we offer as educational professionals about how our school friends will be at our weddings, the births of our children, our funerals, these are true words. I’ve preached them many times and preach them here, again, today.
The connections we make in school matter. There is wonder in them. There is grace.
And I was lucky enough to revisit three such connections in the last month to drive that point home.
Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. – Abraham Lincoln
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.
Surely, 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.
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.
In 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.
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:
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.
The 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.
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, 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!