Saturday, April 22, 2017

Strategy Matters: Why Working Hard Should Not Be Confused With Delivering Results

Far too often, leaders get caught up in the day to day tasks of leadership. We become almost unconscious about our work, sticking to routine and compliance out of habit, yet losing any intentionality or deliberateness in our work. When we are called on not being intentional or lacking strategy, we tend to respond with this classic statement- "But I am working so hard!" That's why leaders have a responsibility to prioritize their work, to design a strategy for delivering the which they are held accountable for, and implementing a structure to support the work in a way that is centered on delivering results. If we aren't careful, we can work ourselves "to the bone", but never deliver the results we are tasked with producing. There are ways, however, the leaders can avoid this trap that so many fall into so often.

Be Purposeful

Leaders must be purposeful in how they organize, spend, and use their time. In other words, planning is essential. When leaders jump to doing without thinking about what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, what the goals or outcomes are for the work, and how they will get it done, they put themselves in a position of expending effort with no focus on outcomes. Leadership isn't about how hard you try or work. It's about doing the right work at the right time and delivering the right results. Sounds simple? Think again.

Do The Right Work
How do you determine your work priorities? What lens do you use to filter what's immediate and what can wait? What do you do to set goals for the work you complete? How do you determine that what you are working on is in fact the right work-what you should be working on? Do you revisit your assigned deliverables or professional goals routinely? Do you check for alignment between what you are working on and your deliverables? If leaders aren't careful about ensuring they are working on the right work, they can easily spend time working on something that has the possibility of being good work, but not the work you should have been doing.

At The Right Time
How intentional are you about how you organize your work time? Do you block out time on your calendar to ensure you are doing those things that are core activities essential to you accomplishing your goals or delivering outcomes? For a leader, this might mean blocking time off on your calendar to provide written, specific, and robust feedback to subordinates. For example, for a superintendent, it might mean blocking time off on your calendar to plan for your conversation, questions, and look fors when you visit a school and speak with principals. Intention matters. If we aren't deliberate about how we spend our time, it can become the one commodity that keeps us from delivering the results we are tasked with, not because we don't have it, but because we don't use it effectively.

Deliver The Right Results
How do you quantify your effectiveness? What data or evidence are you using to determine if you are delivering the right results? How often do you revisit your professional growth goals and evaluation targets? Do you have them visually posted in your office or routine workspace so that you and your team can see them and ensure your level of awareness is where it should be? Do you revisit them routinely in staff meetings, in conversations with members of your organization, etc.? Are you transparent about your likelihood of success to deliver the result or any obstacles or barriers you are encountering the might compromise your ability to deliver the results your tasked with on time and at a quality level?

I love questions so much more than I love answers. I can only hope y'all feel the same. Above all, I hope you have something to think about to help you deliver the results you need and want to deliver!

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!


Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Power of Thought Partnership & Accountability

As a kid, I always wanted to know from my teachers if we could work in groups. It wasn't because I wanted to have the opportunity to socialize with friends while we worked on our project and it wasn't because I wanted someone else to do the work. Mainly, I wanted to learn from and with others. As an adult, that hasn't changed a bit. In my first principalship, I pushed for our elementary principals group to start our own PLC. I partnered with two other schools to offer a more personalized approach to PD, facilitated by teachers who demonstrated expertise on topics teachers said they wanted to know more about on our late start days. In my second principalship, I was fortunate to work with one of my dearest friends and colleagues, Dr. Michael Waiksnis. We were co-principals. We've often been asked about the co-principalship. Specifically, folks usually want to know a few things: How did that work? It worked fabulously for us. Did you split responsibilities/duties? Nope. We did everything together. We shared an office. We even rode to work together everyday. Did staff or students or parents try to play you against each other? Nope, but we had some specific strategies that we implemented from the onset that provided a clear picture of our unity, which was authentic by the way. Michael and I have been personal friends and colleagues for over 10 years. We have a professional trust and personal relationship that allowed us to work well together. Interestingly enough, we are very different. Our end goal about what we wanted for children as principals was the same, but we often debated and compromised about the ways in which we would move the school forward. In a recent conversation with my former superintendent, we were discussing the coprincipalship and why it worked so well for us. I shared with her that I believed a key element was that we chose to work together and we had a long history of professional trust that was established long before we started our work as coprincipals. Prior to our coprincipalship, we worked on several projects together. We presented together at multiple conferences. We co-authored articles about a variety of topics. We led a district wide Twitter chat on the #irock initiative, a 1 to 1 digital conversion campaign in our district.  We are the cofounders of the first EdCampSC (South Carolina), a project we undertook on a whim after a brainstorming session in our superintendent's office, having never attended one ourselves, and it was successful.  Michael and I were just the right combination for a valuable thought partnership. Our individual strengths seemed to compliment our individual opportunities for growth. It was and continues to be one of the most valuable thought partnerships I've ever had.

As leaders assume new and broader leadership roles, it is not uncommon for the feeling of isolation and activity of solo thinking to become all too normal. That's why I've always sought out someone to think with me. I realize that I have a professional responsibility to grow myself as a leader and having a thought partner, who can also hold me accountable for that growth, is a key to this.  Far too often, leaders see themselves as the experts in the room. Approaching their work with a mindset that because they've held leadership roles, they bring the expertise to the table and are present to add value rather than gain something valuable. I see this quite differently. I don't see myself as an expert in anything, but I believe what I do extremely well is learn. I am, perhaps, an expert learner. One of the many ways I learn is by relying on thought partners to help me think more critically, to push me to think differently, to ask me to consider a different viewpoint, and work to purposefully make my self think in an opposing direction, which is really hard to do by the way. 

Having a thought partner enhances accountability. When you are open enough to consider the ideas and thoughts of others, for the sake of having a great idea, and not deterred by the fact that it may not be your idea and yours alone, it's amazing what can happen. I can recall numerous conversations where I felt very different than Michael about a particular idea he had, but because of our professional trust and my knowledge of Michael's solid work ethic, I compromised, as did he in multiple decisions we made for our school. We are and have always been amazed by the ideas and work that has been born out of our thought partnership. It is always, always, better than any of either of our solo thinking. However, it's important to note that our thought partnership was not directed by anyone else other than ourselves. It began because we both craved collaboration. We needed someone else, who was serving in our roles, to think along side of us-and so we chose each other.

Isn't it ironic that collaboration and it's power is heavily emphasized at the teacher level, but almost virtually non-existent, with the exception of informal networks, at the leader level in education? Why is it that once the pinnacle of leadership is reached, that tendency to view one's self as an expert rather than a lead learning partner is so present? What makes leaders more isolated? How can we alter the structure and behavior of leaders so that leaders have an opportunity to engage in cognitive collaboration? What are the benefits of thought partnership? What keeps leaders from being interested in thought partnering? Could it be egos? Perhaps the risk of professional jealousy? Or is it simply because we've structured leadership work in a way that doesn't support cognitive collaboration at the leadership level?

My challenge to every leader is to find a thought partner. Someone whose thinking you value and respect. Someone who doesn't think just like you. It's quite difficult to grow your thinking if your thought partner is a replicated version of you.  Someone who can push your thinking, even if you don't always agree with them, because you understand that ideas are to be debated, not people. As a leader, what are you doing to avoid the danger of solo thinking and working in isolation? Who is your thought partner? How are you formalizing and making your work together routine rather than rare? How are you growing as a learning leader and not one who believes you are the expert, with no room for growth and openness for new, better, and improved ideas? Great leaders recognize when a learning opportunity is in front of them and capitalize on it because the have a desire to learn all they can to improve their ability to serve and help others. Making room and time for a thought partner is one of the most valuable things I've ever done to improve my leadership.

Thank you Michael!

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Who's Dating the Achievement Gap? It's not Single.

Ask anyone in education what has been the one consistent challenge in schools across America for the last 20 years and I am willing to bet their answer would be three words: The Achievement Gap. For years, much research has been written on how the performance of minority children and children of poverty differs from their white and/or more affluent counterparts. There is no denying that in many of our public schools across America, there is a stark difference in the overall performance between these two groups of children. That is certainly not to say that there aren't exceptions to this general problem. There most certainly are exceptions, as with most things. However, what I continue to be baffled by is why we haven't been courageous enough to have a conversation about the root issues that contribute to the achievement gap. There is a popular narrative that one place educators need to start is by acknowledging their beliefs and biases. While beliefs certainly play a role in our daily practice, we cannot reduce this complex challenge to that simple solution.  We need not only acknowledge that all children can learn, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, but also operationalize it in our daily practice as educators. This means acting with courage when we see or when we hear something that counters that belief. While I am in agreement that an educator's expectations most certainly impacts the performance of their students, I refuse to belief that the achievement gap is simply a problem related to chronic widespread low expectations. In fact, I think we all know that this challenge can not be treated as if it is rooted in a single cause.

The achievement gap has multiple partners. It is not single in nature and can no longer be treated as such. If we are going to get to the core of working to overcome this, we are going to have to address all of its' many partners. As a child, my mother would often tell us, that to solve a problem, you must address the root of the problem. "If you don't get to the root, the problem will just keep coming back," she'd say. I'm of the belief that we've yet to address the root. We know the key factors that contribute to the gap, but we aren't acting on what we know, thus we have a gap. As educators, we often find ourselves on the audit end of the problem, dealing with the result of a multitude of things that happen to or affect young children's developing brains and bodies after they've already happened. The achievement gap can't simply be reduced to poverty either. Instead, we should address the many things that often come with it:

  • Lack of access to quality prenatal care
  • Lack of access to quality health (mental and physical) care
  • Lack of access to quality employment
  • Lack of access to quality economic development
  • Lack of access to quality housing
  • Increased exposure to trauma or adverse childhood experiences
To keep this relatively simple, let's look at the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Remember the children who were and are still suffering from the effects of high levels of lead in the water they drank, bathed with, their parents cooked with, etc. In an earlier blog, I wrote about the impact of lead on the bodies and brains of young children. Exposure to high levels of lead can have a variety of effects on people, none of which happen to be good. Researchers at Virginia Tech conducted a study on the water crisis in Flint. Dr. Marc Edwards is the primary researcher and author of the site that describes the timeline and inquiries that lead to this crisis being exposed. You can read more by clicking here.  Further you can dive into reading about the dangers of lead poisoning by Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital by clicking here The article is titled, Neuropsychological Effects of Lead Poisoning on Child Development. According to this literature, children who have high levels of lead in their bodies are likely to have problems such as:

  • deleted language or motor milestones
  • poor speech articulation
  • poor language usage or understanding
  • difficulty maintaining attention
  • problems with working memory
  • difficulty with problem solving
  • difficulty with coordination (fine and gross)
  • difficulty with behavior

The article goes on to list a number of things that can be done to address this and identifies a few solutions as possible ways to counter lead poisoning. These include things like lead safe housing, education of public, medical, and educational communities, early identification, early behavioral and/or medical treatment, adequate nutrition, and more. What's particularly interesting to me is that miracle teachers are not listed as part of the solution. That's because the medical profession believes in acknowledging the root(s) of the problem, in addition to the symptoms, in order to address an illness. Make no mistake; it's not just about lead poisoning either. Many marginalized communities of poverty have higher rates of chronic asthma, higher rates of poor housing, higher rates of illiteracy, higher rates of emergency room visits, and more. I've read article after article after article. We know what the problems are, but we continue to do an autopsy instead of provide preventive care and continue to place the primary burden to solve the achievement gap soley on the shoulders of educators and educators alone. It's not right. It's not fair and it's not realistic. How much more research do we need to know that living in a high stress environment, with an over exposure to trauma, and a lack of access to quality health care, housing, and employment in an overwhelmingly economically depressed area has a negative impact on student performance? It's not rocket science, but if you need more information on this issue please read some of the articles I've been reading for a real picture of the point I am trying to get across in this post. You can check them out here and here.

Educators, most certainly have a professional and moral obligation to provide students with the highest quality instruction possible. There's no doubt about it. We also have a responsibility to deal with the root causes of the achievement gap to help them do so. We can no longer treat the gap as if it is a singular isolated event. We must be courageous enough to talk about the many other gaps in healthcare, housing, employment, economic development, etc. that accompany it and contribute to it. Moreover, we must be courageous enough to demand others do something about the other gaps that they can impact.  As educators, it is time we ask those in the private sector to join us in this effort. While we can do our best to provide students with a quality educational experience, we are not policy makers, we cannot impact the economic development of our communities, we cannot provide access to quality health care and housing, but there are those who can and should. If we are committed to closing the gap, then asking those who impact the very things that contribute to it, should not come as an unexpected request. In fact, there should be an overwhelming eagerness to address the roots of the issue so that we can work toward solving the problem. To solve this problem, it will require the best of all of us, not just educators. Collectively, we have a responsibility to our communities, and to humanity as a whole. After we are courageous enough to start talking about these root causes, lets be courageous enough to do something about it.  For those of us who are educators, I challenge you to let others know who's dating the achievement gap because it is not single. With the help of everyone, we might just be able to make it monogamous.

Y'all press on now because the children are depending on us-ALL of us.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!