Teach & Serve II, No. 19 – Optimism Is a Choice

Teach & Serve II, No. 19 – Optimism Is a Choice

December 14, 2016

If we, as teachers and leaders, do not project optimism about the work, do not project positivism about the road ahead, do not push ourselves to be our best selves, who else will?

The days are short. The nights are long. For the last few weeks, many of us have been up before the sun breaks the velvet cover of night, have been on the road with the first slivers of light shine and have still been at our desks or in our classrooms as darkness begins to fall. The push to Christmas Break can be a challenging one and, though the promise at the end of the push is days off, celebrations of hope with family and friends and a few moments of re-creation, the payoff of these days can seem distant.

So can our own hope and optimism. It can be difficult to maintain a joyous and optimistic outlook when we are as drained as the teachers and students with whom we are journeying. It can be especially difficult this time of year.

Let’s look, then, at the other times of the year – the times when we are not at the end of the semester, the times when we are not buried by our fatigue, the length of the semester, the culmination of days without breaks. On the typical day during the typical week, as teachers and administrators, how conscious are we of maintaining our optimism and our joy? Do we make an effort to project an optimistic and outlook? Do we challenge ourselves to be the most positive person in the room?

We should. We really, really should.

If we, as teachers and leaders, do not project optimism about the work, do not project positivism about the road ahead, do not push ourselves to be our best selves, who else will?

I pose that question wanting you to reflect on it. If we are not positive, who else will be?

As leaders, are we not, in a very real way, responsible for the spirit of our work? Are we not responsible for trying to positively influence the mood of the school? Are we not responsible for how the place feels?

Optimism is a choice and it is a significant one.

As leaders, one of our goals should be to be the person our students and staffs point to and say “she’s so positive. He looks at everything optimistically. I feel better when I am with her.” We should be the “life of the party.” We should be the foundation around which people gather. We should develop the habit of looking on the bright side, of seeing the glass as half full, of always seeking out new and better possibilities. If we inculcate this mindset during the good times, the typical times, the normal times, how much easier will it be for us to be positive when we’re tired, when we’re low, when we are at the end of semesters?

We should be optimistic.

If we are not, can we truly expect others to be?

EduQuote of the Week: December 12 – 18, 2016

No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure. 

Emma Goldman

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Teach & Serve II, No. 18 – Disagreement and Dialogue

Teach & Serve II, No. 18 – Disagreement and Dialogue

December 7, 2016

It’s just so much easier to only consult yourself and it feels good. You are the leader. You have all the answers. Cue the swelling violins.

Picture the scene if you will: it’s towards the end of a long day at the end of a long week at the end of a long month. An extended break lies minutes away, if you can just get out of your classroom or your office. You have a few things to do, but the end is near. You can feel it. You can sense it.

You want it.

As you reach to unplug your device and switch off your light, someone is in your space. This person just wants a few minutes. Just a few.

You’re a good teacher. You’re a good leader. You settle back in.

“What’s up?” You ask.

“I really disagree with that decision you made.” You are told.

What happens next?

Does our body language stiffen? Do our eyes roll? Do we get defensive? Do we evade?

What happens next has a lot to say about what kind of leader you are.

Far too often when decisions are questioned, leaders tend to immediately defend. Leaders tend to immediately explain. Leaders tend to immediately justify.

disagreeIt makes sense (assuming decisions are thought out, thought through and thought about) to defend them. They have been arrived at with consideration. They have been put in place. They have been enacted. Why are they being questioned? It makes sense that we are ready to explain when our decisions are challenged. But is that the right course?

What if we asked questions, instead? What if our approach to disagreement invited dialogue? What if we validated the question of our decision by validating the person asking the question?

“What part of this don’t you like?” we might ask. “Why is this troubling?” we might ask. “What else should we consider?” we might ask.

Often, we don’t ask these questions. We are sometimes more invested in the decision than in the people it affects. We are sometimes worried about what engaging on questions like these says about us as strong leaders. We are sometimes too stubborn to listen.

We should listen. We should engage. We should be less invested.

Hey, some decisions must be made, made quickly and adhered to, but not all. On those decisions where we can talk, where these is give and take, we’d be well advised to do some giving, to encourage some taking. Our leadership is stronger when we can be questioned. Our decisions better when they can be explained.

Those we lead will trust us and our decisions more when we talk through them and engage in healthy dialogue and disagreement about them. They will trust us more when we trust them and illustrate that trust by our openness to this kind of talk.

Imagine if we modeled this. Imagine in our mode of engagement with disagreement became the standard way our schools operated. Imagine what it would be like if constructive conversation was the result of question and if disagreement was not feared and avoided. We know that avoiding small disagreements is the first ingredient in the recipe to create larger ones…

Clearly, the above scene is a set up. You’re tired. You’re looking to leave. You’re ready for a break. However, if we can present our best selves when we are not at our best, how much better can we be when we are? If we are practiced at respecting disagreement and encouraging dialogue as a matter of course, it should not matter if we are at the end of the day or the beginning, at the end of the semester or the start.

When we encourage healthy dissent and constructive dialogue, we shape a collaborative environment. That’s the kind of environment we should desire to build.

EduQuote of the Week: December 5 – 11, 2016

Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.

Daniel Boorstin

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Teach & Serve II, No. 17 – Questions, Answers and Gaps

Teach & Serve II, No. 17 – Questions, Answers and Gaps

November 30, 2016

It’s just so much easier to only consult yourself and it feels good. You are the leader. You have all the answers. Cue the swelling violins.

As educational leaders – classroom teachers or administrators or counselors or staff members – we sometimes believe our job is to make everyone happy. We sometimes think that, to be successful, we must be all things to all people. We want to have all the answers. We often strive to fill every gap, reasoning that, if we fail in doing so, we fail in being good leaders.

This is a mindset that we ought to question. It is foolish. It is self-defeating. It is dangerous.

Operating from it will inevitably damage one’s credibility and hamstring one’s leadership.

Leaders find themselves clinging to this philosophy by reading their own press and listening too much to the own voices. Frequently, leaders feel responsible for not only the success of the endeavors being led, but also for how people feel as they are being led. And that’s okay. It’s what leaders do with those impulses that can define them.

gapLeaders sometimes think they must have every answer, pull every correct lever, do it all on their own. Leadership can be lonely, sure, but leaders who isolate themselves from those they lead – and this is as true of administrators as it is of classroom teachers – can quickly find themselves in an echo chamber that reverberates with one message: “Yours is the most important voice.”

When we feel as though we, alone, have all the answers, we already have one foot down the rabbit hole. Very effective leaders who believe this become less effective very quickly. And less effective leaders fall into this trap all too readily.

It’s just so much easier to only consult yourself and it feels good. You are the leader. You have all the answers. Cue the swelling violins.

Here’s the thing: real leaders understand they don’t have all the answers. They know that they cannot have all the answers.

Real leaders embrace the idea that there are gaps all around them that they cannot and should not try to fill on their own. They revel in the fact that only together, working with colleagues, with students, with families, can challenges be negotiated, hurdles overcome and gaps filled. Real leaders look for the gaps and then empower people to fill them in. And, when necessary, the allow themselves to be directed to pick up a shovel and move dirt.

Weak leaders do the opposite. They fear an environment where they don’t have all the answers – where there are gaps – and, when gaps are pointed out to them, they rush to fill them with whatever materials they have on hand. They need to fill them because gaps indicate to them that they are not doing the job, that there are unhappy people, that they don’t have all the answers.

Strong leaders know they do not have all the answers. They create an environment that recognizes that gaps are normal. Gaps are natural. Gaps are opportunities.

Strong leaders look for opportunities to ask questions that unite. Weak leaders look to answer all questions before they are even asked.

EduQuote of the Week: November 28 – December 4, 2016

Learning is not by chance. It must be sought with ardor and diligence.

Abigail Adams

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

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

November 23, 2016

We work with kids, they are going to challenge us. More often than not, their challenges can be channeled (if we are skilled) into positive results. Give thanks.

As we gather this week for Thanksgiving in the United States, our thoughts, hopefully, turn to those things for which we are grateful: family, friends, good health, good jobs… It is my sincere wish that you have many, many things in your life for which you are thankful and that they come to mind readily and easily.

thanksBriefly, because I should be making pumpkin pies for our feast here, I would like to challenge us to be thankful for some other things, things that do not readily come to mind, things that we might, more likely, rather disdain than praise.

I would like to challenge us to be thankful for:

The difficult parent conversation because many of these conversations lead us to reassessing how we work with parents. In my experience, not all but most of these conversations happen because the parents love their kids and want to help. Even the most difficult talks can (and often do) teach us something. Think back. Have you changed your approach, your policies, your demeanor because of a conversation like this? Give thanks.

The challenging student because I would rather have a student challenge me than simply sit there. I would rather have a student fired up about something than a room full of disaffected ones. I would rather have a student make me consider how I deal with challenging students in the first place. We work with kids, they are going to challenge us. More often than not, their challenges can be channeled (if we are skilled) into positive results. Give thanks.

The unreasonable colleague because most of the people with whom I work only seem unreasonable until I understand their reasons. When I work with a colleague whose opinions are outside my own, I have an opportunity to learn something about that colleague and, perhaps, something about myself. When I simply avoid people because I find them “unreasonable” I wonder how many people I end up having to avoid… Give thanks.

The inconvenient and inappropriate question because sometimes the out-of-left-field, how-could-you-possibly-have-asked-that-question is exactly the question that needs to be asked. As teachers and leaders, we are sometimes so goal oriented, we forget to slow down and ask outside-the-box questions. We avoid delaying to ask big questions. Someone should ask those and we should give space for them to be asked. Give thanks.

The times when time runs out because, as leaders, we often impose deadlines. When the deadlines imposed upon us run out and we are late, we sometimes think those deadlines we missed were unreasonable. How about the deadlines we, ourselves, impose? How reasonable are they? Give thanks.

The dismissal because every dismissal, of a student, staff member or teacher, grants us the opportunity to ask: “did I do everything I could to keep this person around? Did the school do all it could?” Those are terrific questions to ask. Give thanks.

The late-night cry because getting emotional about our work, getting upset, breaking down, reminds us that we care. Give thanks.

Give thanks for the work. Give thanks for the kids. Give thanks for your colleagues. Give thanks for the challenges.

Give thanks.

EduQuote of the Week: November 21 – November 27, 2016

If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness. It will change your life mightily.

Gerald Good

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Teach & Serve II, No. 15 – Principle or Principal?

Teach & Serve II, No. 15 – Principle or Principal

November 16, 2016

Excellent principals know when not to be principal

When I was a kid (and I am sure I am not alone here), the spelling of “principal” was taught to me this way: “The principal is your ‘pal.’ That’s why when you spell the word, it ends with ‘p-a-l.” I don’t know why that elementary school explanation has stuck with me all these years, but it has and, bracketing the connotatively male association with the word “pal,” this memory brings a smile to my face.

principalThis week, I am spending time at a gathering for principals of schools through the Jesuit Schools Network of the US and Canada. It is my fourth time working with this group and I find myself impressed and humbled by much of what I see and hear. These are dedicated women and men who work – some of them tirelessly – on behalf of the students at the schools, on behalf of the communities they serve. Most of these principals are creative, passionate and driven. They are searching to improve, striving to learn, and, in some cases, struggling with the expectations of the job.

The expectations placed on principals are incredible and, it seems, ever expanding.

I am most struck by those who do the job well. I have spent time in the “center seat.” I am more than familiar with the challenge. Serving as a good principal is tough and the best ones make it look easy.

There is a through line that connects the best principles and, if you’ll forgive a little word play, it is found in the homonyms “principal” and “principle.”

The best principals I have encountered understand that good leadership involves knowing when to be “principal” and when to step back from that predilection. The best principals I know understand that they often need to exercise leadership from the “principal” position – the primary position. They know that they sometimes must make the hard call, the quick and decisive one. They know that they sometimes have to speak their mind, convey the decision, anticipate the outcome and let the chips fall. They know being a principal means they will sometimes (are you seeing a theme?) move authoritatively and swiftly.

But they know that they don’t always have to make decisions in that manner or lead in the way.

The best principals understand that they don’t always have to be the principal person in the room, in the process, in the decision.

Excellent principals know when not to be principal.

As for “principle,” it should be obvious that the best principals (much like the best leaders) lead from their principles and that their principles are in line with the missions of their institutions. These principals have a set of operating instructions hardwired. They do not deviate from them except in extreme circumstance and with cause. And, critically, when they diverge from them, they know they are doing it. They know why they are doing it. They communicate to others what has happened to cause them to do it.

The best principals I know are examples of servant leadership. The best principals I know lead boldly. They teach boldly. The inspire boldness.

I am spending time this week with many of the best principals I know. They are women and men, pals, of the highest principle.

EduQuote of the Week: November 14 – November 20, 2016

Education is what allows you to stand out.

Ellen Ochoa

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