Teach & Serve IV, No. 11 | Lane Eight

Teach & Serve IV, No. 11

Lane Eight

October 17, 2018

Know their hopes and their fears. Know their weakness and their strengths. Know who they are and what they do.

I was blessed to work with a talented administrator and friend for 20 years. He was the Dean of Students (the man in charge of student discipline) when I was a high school student, was in the role when I returned to my alma mater as a teacher and remained Dean all the years I worked there. From time-to-time, we still meet for breakfast and it is ever a delight to chat with him. He knows his stuff.

I served as a Dean of Students in my time at my alma mater and the two years I did the job were among the toughest ones of my career. Deans of discipline are not made, I think. They are born. I was not born to the work, but my old friend was.

Having that kind of longevity in a job as demanding as this surely indicates more than a little something about his ability for the work. And his character. Last spring, at one of these breakfasts I mentioned previously, I and another colleague sat with him and we got to talking (as we always do) about the work we love and share and what has kept us in it for so long.  

He talked about being connected to the students. That is where his focus was. Among the stories about the latest antics the students pull and the serious challenges that our students face, he spoke of maintaining his connection with the kids. He believes knowing the kids – their lives and their desires, their hopes and their dreams – is what keeps educators like us excited for the work.

He is absolutely right.

My friend was a varsity head swim coach (and an award winning, all-state recognized and honored one at that) for many years. His experience as a coach is, perhaps, more impressive than his experience as an administrator. Over his oatmeal and apples at breakfast that morning he put his theory of working with students succinctly into a perfect swimming metaphor:

“Lane One may win you state championships, but you better know what’s going on in Lane Eight. Lane Eight may never win a point, but it can change your locker room and the whole atmosphere of your team real fast.”

That was it, his philosophy in a nutshell.

Know Lane Eight as well as you know Lane One and, by implication, know the swimmers in every lane in between.

Know their hopes and their fears. Know their weakness and their strengths. Know who they are and what they do.

Know them.

It is simply too easy for us as educators to focus only on the challenging students or to center ourselves entirely on the successful ones. We can too readily find our focus narrowed. We can lose sight of the larger picture. We can miss the forest while barking up the wrong (or the right) trees.

Breadth and scope. All the lanes. All the students. All our colleagues.

In as much as it is possible, we must keep our focus wide.

Because Lane One might bring victory but Lane Eight might bring disaster.

Great advice from a special man.

 

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.

Teach & Serve III, No. 20 – TRANSPARENCY #oneword2018

Teach & Serve III, No. 21 – TRANSPARENCY #oneword2018

January 3, 2018

Leaders who operate from a perspective of transparency take the guesswork out of followership and take the guess work out of who they are… It is easy to know who a transparent leader is. She is not hiding anything.

I love the concept of choosing one word on which to focus for the next twelve months. I am not entirely sure who began the initiative or how the concept got moving. But I am glad that those educators I follow on Twitter have been celebrating it. Their enthusiasm has inspired my own over the last few years and I thought carefully about what I would choose as my guiding word and principle this year.

My One Word for 2018 is TRANSPARENCY.

Talented leaders are brimming with qualities that make them inspirational and effective. They share those qualities freely and without expectation. They serve those with whom they work as part of the vocation of educational leadership they have chosen. And they have many qualities in common.

Of these, the quality I most wish to adopt, expand and emulate in my own life is transparency.

Leaders who are transparent (people who are transparent) in who they are, in what they do and in how they lead do not leave people guessing. They do not make decisions that seem out of the blue, left field or nowhere. They do not catch those around them flatfooted. Leaders who are transparent communicate with those around them consistently and as a matter of course. They are not hiding agendas because they have no agendas to hide. They are up front, genuine and authentic.

Leadership is challenging but so is followership. Followership can be made easier by leaders who are transparent. When followers know what to expect and what is expected of them, when they know what drives leaders’ decision making, when they know what leaders are thinking and why they are thinking it, being a follower is both easier and more fulfilling. Leaders who operate from a perspective of transparency take the guesswork out of followership and take the guess work out of who they are.

It is easy to know who a transparent leader is. She is not hiding anything.

We could use more transparency in our world. We can certainly use transparency in our work.

As I grow in 2018, as I continue to improve myself as a person and as a leader, I will work to be transparent. I will work to be authentic. I will work to be genuine.

I will work on my #oneword2018.

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.

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.

Teach & Serve III, No. 7 – Intimidation

Teach & Serve III, No. 7

Intimidation

September 20, 2017

I do not want to follow a leader who thinks that the best way to engender loyalty is to intimidate those being led.

And I won’t.

I have written about this anecdote before, but I had cause to consider it anew this week.

When I first was hired as an administrator, I had a conversation with my uncle who, for years, had been Dean of the Math Department at a midwestern public university. He had well over 40 professors and adjuncts in his department and there was much to manage.

My uncle, a very bright, very tall man, said to me: “Sometimes, use the height.”

“What’s that?”

“Sometimes use your height.”

I am a tall man as well, taller than my uncle, actually, but I still did not take his meaning.

“When things get out of hand, if I am sitting in a meeting, I just stand up. That tends to quiet the room.”

“Ah,” I said. “Thanks.”

It sounded like a pretty good strategy to me. Rise up. Indicate displeasure. Control the room.

I do not, however, remember ever using this technique. I am sure I did.

15 years later, I wonder about it. I hate to overthink it, but it does seem to me like a move that is meant to intimidate. I am tall. I am taller than you. I exert my authority.

Okay, okay. No big deal. It is not like my uncle pounded on tables (I do not believe he did, anyway) and it is not like I ever did, either (if I did, I have conveniently blocked those times out of my memory).

This is not a bad strategy. It is not offensive. It is just fine especially if one does not find oneself standing up all the time to control a room or reset a meeting. See, I believe the only reason a strategy like that would work in the first place is because those being led respect the leader enough to care what he or she is doing, standing or sitting.

There are some leaders, though, who believe that their leadership originates from a place of power. Some who believe the only reason they are followed at all is because of the title on their lanyard, the name plate on their door, the position they hold. There are some leaders who believe their positions grant them all the authority they need to be leaders, to be called “boss,” to be in charge.

And those leaders, in my opinion, tend to rely on leadership techniques that intimidate, that divide, that defeat. Frankly, though initially those being led might be “defeated” by these tactics, it is my experience that, in the end, leading from intimidation is almost always self-defeating.

Is there a place in leadership to exert one’s authority? Of course there is. Often leaders need to. But if that is the primary mode of operation – if intimidation in leadership is seen as a useful tool, not a last resort – that is a problem.

I do not want to follow a leader who thinks that the best way to engender loyalty is to intimidate those being led.

And I won’t.

Nor will most others. For long.

Teach & Serve III, No. 5 – Embrace the Expectations of Leadership

Teach & Serve III, No. 5

Embrace the Expectations of Leadership

September 6, 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.”

Let us begin this blog with a statement which, I admit, may or may not be true: It is harder now than ever to lead a school.

Again, I admit, there may have been moments in the past, long before my blip on the timeline of the educational game, when school leaders and teachers had it harder than they do currently, but it sure seems like school leaders and teachers deal with an awful lot right now.

School leaders seem to be held accountable for so much. They are held accountable for school culture, for the manner in which their students use social media, for the behavior of the people on their staffs, for the content of the textbooks (digital or otherwise) used in their curricula, for graduation rates, for college and career placements for whether no not students get invited to other students’ parties, for what kids do after dances and proms, for how students might procure alcohol and other materials at school events, for… well, you get the picture.

While some of the above issues may appear more critical than others, please note this: I did not fabricate any of them. All of the above have been issues brought to me or to my colleagues in their work. And the list could be much, much, longer. Some of these issues are, obviously, realistic. They are the things school leaders can and should address. They are things that ought to be on the leader’s proverbial plate. Some of them, however, are unrealistic to the point of being absurd. And, yet, they find their way to the teacher or school leader’s door.

All of this kind of makes you wonder why someone would choose school leadership as a vocation. I cannot answer that musing. I can say this: great teachers and great school leaders embrace the expectations of their position. It is not that they love every moment, or that they agree with the fact that all of these issues (and more) should come to their office doors. No. It is that they understand that these issues – any issues which occur that involve their staffs, their students, their families – are part and parcel to their work. Great leaders do not avoid this kind of responsibility. They take it on. They lean into it. They embrace it.

Schools are complex structures. Those structures involve hundreds (or thousands) of people. Those people, whether they know it or not, rely on great leadership.

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.”

Give me leaders who embrace the expectations, realistic or not, of those they lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 4 – Optimism Can Be a Choice… and It Should Be

Teach & Serve III, No. 4

Optimism Can Be a Choice… and It Should Be

August 30, 2017

Our work is with kids. Our work is for the future. What could be better – or inspire more optimism – than that?

 

We work with kids.

Let us never forget that we work with kids.

I know that seems like a ridiculous directive, remembering we work with kids, but in the midst of the booting up duties at the beginning of the school year, as we set up our LMS’s and our electronic grade books, as we go from meeting-to-meeting and review policies and procedures, the fact that we do all this to get to the good part – the working with kids part – can be lost in the haze.

We should not lose sight of this.

Whether we are teachers or administrators, our work is with students, with kids.

And kids are exciting and excitable. And they are young (at least they are younger than we are). And they are looking at us. All. The. Time.

It is all too easy at the start of the year to be weighed down by the pressure of the work, by the immensity of all the we needs must do and all that we are asked and directed to do. It is all too easy to set high goals for ourselves – and setting those high goals is, of course, critical! – but to see those goals as barriers to cross not benchmarks to achieve. It is all too easy to come into the year tired. Worn out. Pessimistic about the months ahead.

Guard against pessimism.

Remember, the students are watching us. All. The. Time.

In a society that rains pessimism down on them, would it not be refreshing – for them – if they did not receive the same from us? Would it not be wonderful for them to receive from us the reverse?

Optimism is a choice and choosing it over pessimism is a choice that we can and should make over-and-over again.

Our work is with kids. Our work is for the future. What could be better – or inspire more optimism – than that?

It is our choice to give into the morass of pessimism and our choice to embrace the freedom of optimism.

Which would you rather bring to your classroom and context this year?

Teach & Serve III, No. 2 – Playlist 2017-2018

Teach & Serve III, No. 2

Playlist 2017-2018

August 16, 2017

… time to put together the mixtape that will be the soundtrack for the upcoming nine months, the backbeat of the days and weeks and months ahead.

It’s that time of year again: time to put together the mixtape that will be the soundtrack for the upcoming nine months, the backbeat of the days and weeks and months ahead.

In Teach & Serve Volume I a couple years back, I wrote about #OneSong, stealing the idea from my good friend and esteemed educator Sean Gaillard. The playlist is more than one song… it’s a concept album for an entire school year.

How do songs make my playlist? They land there for one of two reasons.

First, I like how they make me feel. In the fall as the year begins, I am searching for energy, excitement and enthusiasm. You won’t find too many ballads on the playlist, but you may find some instrumentals.

Second, the lyrics resonate with me, move me, inspire me and send me a message.

I listen to the playlist all year, adding to it, deleting from, adapting it like any good teacher should do.

Here’s this year’s edition:

What are you listening to this fall?

Teach & Serve III, No. 1 – Teach Boldly, Again!

Teach & Serve III, No. 1

Teach Boldly, Again!

August 9, 2017

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

The beginning of the beginning is ramping up in schools all over the country. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a teacher or administrator knee deep in preparation, cross checking lists of all that needs doing in these opening days and preparing for these early moments of 2016-2017 as best you can.

May I please make a suggestion? No matter what you do in these initial days, no matter the pressure you feel, the demands you take on, the time crunch you suffer, no matter what you do in these days, do it with as much positivity as you can. Go about your work with energy. Greet students and colleagues and families with smiles. Celebrate the beginning of the year. Be bold in your embrace of all the possibilities it brings.

Let boldness be your home base this year.

Teach boldly. Administrate boldly. Coach and direct boldly.

Let that be your rallying cry: teach boldly.

Students respond to boldness. Colleagues are searching for it. We hear that schools should inspire. They should challenge. They should dare. How do these things happen if we ourselves are not bold in our individual rooms and days and works?

Shouldn’t we want to be bold? Wouldn’t we rather be bold than be… well, what’s the alternative? Timid? Reticent? Fearful?

Those aren’t the descriptors for which our work in education calls. None of them are even close.

Be Bold. Be resolute. Be heroic.

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

Your colleagues want to hear what you have to say. Engage them. Be bold.

Administrators, your staffs want to be led. Animate them. Be bold.

Make this year a year for boldness, for courage, for fearlessness.

Your students, colleagues and staffs need this from you. They hurry from class-to-class, assignment-to-assignment, meeting-to-meeting and running that gauntlet is both daunting and draining. When they come to you, when it’s your class, your assignment, your meeting, you can give them what they’ve come to expect, most often a kind of dull proficiency. You can give them reserved professionalism. You can give them cautious platitudes. They won’t be shocked if you do. They’ve seen this before; they know how to respond.

But you have the opportunity, the responsibility to do more and be more. You can animate. You can inspire. You can engage. While they may not know it, your students, colleagues and staffs are thirsting for this. They are thirsty for boldness.

Teach boldly. At the end of the day – at that end of the year – teaching boldly may be the only kind of teaching that truly matters.