August 27, 2013

Questions.....they're not about you

It's just another day.  When you're a leader, the days are filled with this scenario.  It's what your job is all about really.  People coming to you with questions.  Questions.  It can seem endless some days.  Question after question.  Some are big and very important.  Those seem to bother you less, as a leader you know you are there to answer those questions.  If not right now, you will find the answer.  If you think it will be a growth experience for your team member, then you put them on the path, but either way, leaders get excited about those kinds of questions.  However, there are also the questions you get that can make you shake your head.  Maybe you pull out some hair, or if you are like me and get worried its getting to thin, you leave it there and just let it get grayer at a faster pace.  They are the little questions, questions that you are sure you have answered, or at least confident that anyone that has been hanging around your building should be able to answer.  But they still crop up....and they can drive a leader crazy.  But should it?

We are all busy people.  Our staff is busy carrying out their mission.  I am fond of saying, "teachers are where the rubber meets the road."  I can preach all I want, provide some excellent Professional Development, and support staff with a budget that provides wanted resources, but all comes down to the hard work of the staff to ensure we are completing our mission of student learning.  That is our goal.
So should I get that upset when they come to me with questions I have already answered in the e-mail that went out last week.....or yesterday? When it was something I clearly noted in the last staff meeting?  I suppose I could.  I could send out another e-mail, stating it over again with a couple of exclamation points at the end.  But will that help? Or just chase away questions?

Is suppose it depends on your leadership style.  I prefer a servant leadership style.  I am constantly asking myself, "what can I do to make their job easier?"   This practice comes without spotlights, and recognition is not what its about either. Instead, you are focused on your team and giving them whatever it is they need.  Sometimes......they just need an answer to a question.  

What you have to remember as a leader is that not every answer needs to be given right away.  Not every answer needs to come directly from you.  Sometimes, you should ask the question right back.  Sometimes, you can just show them how to find the answer for themselves.  If it is something you know you have told them, discussed with them, and shared your beliefs on.....well, maybe they are coming to see if you changed you mind.  Many times, they may be hoping you changed your mind.  Either way, there doesn't seem to be a need to get upset.  Take a breath, get some perspective, and try some empathy.

Taking on the leadership role in a school is not an easy matter.  You now have chosen to be the "go to" person for a whole building.  Not just teachers, but for students, parents, school board members, the superintendent and a whole bunch of community members.  You are now seen as thee answer person.  The person who is responsible.  The person with the vision.  The LEADER.  I am hoping you didn't take this role on as a feather in your hat, or because it was the next job on the ladder.  You have taken a role, consciously or not, that is no longer about you.  You are now there to make sure everything goes well and smoothly for everyone else.

My guess is, you knew what you were getting into and that you did it for the right reasons. Yes, even the best leaders get frustrated with the day to day, the wasteful paperwork, the demands on your time by so many people and probably some of the repeated questions.  But if you take a minute, and recall what it was like when you were back in the classroom, with that laser like focus on your students and giving them the best that you had.....well, you can probably remember that you too forgot some of the answers that were provided to you. Information that was shared at a staff meeting (when you were thinking of what to make for dinner for your family), or when the principal popped into a team meeting and shared when classroom budgets needed to be turned in (and you forgot to write it down as you worked on improving lesson plans), or the time when the procedure for posting something to your classroom website was shared in an e-mail (and you accidentally put it in the trash forgetting that the trash is emptied at the end of each semester to save storage space).  It happens to all of us.....and Leaders, instead of taking it personally, step back....put on your empathy shoes.....and remember that they are human too....and our job is to serve them and to clear the that they can become the leaders......tomorrow.  Hopefully, they'll be a leader with empathy and patience.....just like you.

So take on those questions with a smile.  All of them.  Give them the answer they need, even if it is how to find the answer for themselves, and be the leader they can count on. The one they trust enough to go to with the smallest of questions, the questions that are requests for information you already shared, and the questions that are really requests for you to change your mind. Remember, the questions are really more about them and not about you.

August 15, 2013

Who comes first?

There are some epic changes taking place in education nowadays.  I'm sure if you look back through history you will find evidence of changes in education taking place all along.  There are always things being added to the plates of teachers and new curriculum being expected to be taught at schools.  Jamie Vollmer has compiled a nice list of the duties that have been added to the teaching role over time and while it is not complete, it does paint a clear picture of the trend.  But until recently the pressure to not only teach more to our children, but to measure that growth and hold educators accountable for it has never reached the crescendo it has now, and I'm not sure we have even reached the apex of this call for accountability.  And its goal, this accountability craze, to ensure all kids learn at high levels and are prepared for our flattened world economy.
But is that the goal?  There has been a tremendous influx of private business into the education system now and it has grown beyond the "Big Three" publishers that seemed to have the majority of outside influence.  The influx of technology combined with the flattening of the world (maybe the breaking down of walls is a more appropriate analogy) thanks to the internet has opened education up to all sorts of businesses interested in the dollars we have to spend on our goal of education for all.  This doesn't make technology bad, or the internet the root of all things evil, it just means that maybe our focus has shifted, or maybe we have just lost sight of what our goal really is.

The pressure for teachers to be their best is greater than ever, and with the fast paced change in our world and the exponential growth of information in this technology age, teachers are finding themselves to be in a career that requires them to be constantly growing and learning.  Now, to some that may seem offensive, as teachers have always been a group that have pushed themselves to be learners.  But what has changed is the pace at which we must now grow and learn, and the weight of accountability has created fear amongst educators that has shifted their focus and has chased quality educators away from their calling.   The taxpayers have been told they are being ripped off by a system that is failing our children, and so.....heads must roll (thanks market driven media, for your support).  The thing is, teachers are working their tails off to keep up with this change.  They are learning new standards, new strategies, and new tools, all in an effort to reach the goal that teachers set in the first place...... To have all students learning at high levels.  To have all students prepared to be successful in life.  But just like we don't expect kids to learn all they need for life in Kindergarten, we can't expect teachers to learn it all in a year or two.  Steve Jobs and Apple computers didn't create the Mac, iPod, iPhone or the iPad in one year. These were multi-year, multi-person efforts that took time.....that were filled with failed efforts, and that were supported with billions of dollars.  Will we accept that kind of timeline for education?

This push, this demand for excellence, all came about as a concern for kids (I hope).  
What kills me often, is the slander I hear toward educators today, that they are supposedly uncaring, lazy, money hungry unionists that are unqualified and come from low performing colleges and universities that are simply passing them along to collect their tuition dollars.  I'm going to avoid going into too much of a diatribe on that issue, suffice it to say it would seem like a not well thought out choice for someone who is lazy and money hungry to go into a career that costs far more to become licensed in, than it pays to cover that cost.  And if you were thinking of moving up the pay scale, just remember that in many states or districts, the only way to do that is to pay for furthering your education.

Now here is where my thoughts come back to my title of this post.  Teachers, facing all of these things (and many more issues I didn't go into) still come back to their jobs, take on all of the work, spend countless off the clock hours improving their lessons, contacting parents and students,  calling newspapers or even writing articles for the newspapers, or simply trying to learn how to integrate the latest web tool add-on into their classes.....for what?  Children.......Teachers do this, often thankless job, because they care about kids.  
Sure, they want, and I believe deserve, the salaries they earn, and to be honest they get short shrift on that end.  Yes they get pretty good benefits.  But I would challenge anyone to take on the job of teaching students, and think you can get away with being lazy, and not go home exhausted from the challenges this career offers.  So what is so tough about this job?  Isn't it just glorified babysitting?  Whoa!!!

This job is about the future of America and the world. That is what kids are.  Our children are the legacy we leave behind.  I wake up everyday and worry for my children, plan for my children, and think how can I make their day better.  I want for them.  I want them to be happy, I want them to know success, but also to learn from their failures.  I want them to be strong. Strong enough that when they do fall or fail, that they can get back up again, brush themselves off and give it another try.  I want to be the hand that helps them back up, when they feel they don't have the strength to do it on their own, and I want them to be that hand for someone else that feels they don't have the strength to get up.
I want them to see the world with wonder and excitement, and I want them to also see the dangers, and know when to say, "I'll pass on that."  I want them to be understanding, caring, and filled with empathy.  I want them to know hard work, and how much those efforts can pay off.  I want them to know that sometimes your hard work benefits others, and that it can be the most fulfilling feeling you will ever have.  I want my kids to know success, have success and to help others become successful as well.  I want my children to know the meaning of paying it forward.  I want them to know responsibility, and I want them to understand compassion.  I want them to be able to stand on their own, and to know how important it is to be a part of a team.

What many people don't understand is that when an educator says, my children or my kids, they mean all of their kids.  The kids in their classroom, the kids in their school, the kids around the world.  We want these things for our own children that we raise in our homes as well, but we want for all kids, everywhere.  They are the passion that drives us.  They face a tough world and we want them to be prepared. Educators are the "Champions" for kids, for all kids.  It doesn't matter what kind of kids you send us, the weak, the tired, the abused, neglected, challenged, shy, scared, restless, angry or sad..... We are Champions for them all.  Sure, that makes it a challenge for us, but that is what we signed up for, and it is our mission to serve them.  

So who comes first?  Kids.  Our students are why we are here. They provide us the motivation to do better, be better and be their Champions.  We will not be dissuaded or thrown off course by the initiatives, the policies or the banter in the media.
We will not be taken down by the Kryptonite of negative talk, or be scared off by the steady stream of new tools and ideas of what works best. Because when it comes to what's first in's a well known fact by educators. 

Kids come first.

August 2, 2013

#BeachWeek2013 - Making Them All Fit

One of the many joys of traveling across the country with your extended family is that family members like to jockey for position in which vehicle they want to ride in and more importantly who they want to ride with.  This is a carefully choreographed dance as it is easy to step on someone's toes and next thing you know, Grandma is offended and doesn't send you a birthday card.  It usually takes a few hours before the kids determine who they want to ride with, or at least figure out who they just can't tolerate any longer.  It takes a little time for the adults to consider that as well.  So, usually by the first bathroom break, seating arrangements begin to take shape. Now, these arrangements don't always last, depending on who is a sore loser on the license plate game, who is tired of listening to the audiobook, or who isn't sharing the iPad.  So, at times, the parents need to step in and decide who will ride where and with who.

So what's the connection?  Quite often building principals face a similar situation.  No, the teachers don't usually fight over an iPad or who is winning in the fewest students tardy award, but it's not uncommon to have teams within schools that are not working well together.   Sometimes, there is such bad blood, that it is best to split team members up and see if the new mix helps heal teams and even broken relationships so that staff members can become friends even while not being on the same department or grade level team.  Sure, you would obviously want to try to help team members work through problems first, see what can be done to make the team work well together, but sometimes......well, things just don't work out.  Sometimes there is a strong team that has developed more than one strong leader.  The team itself is great and works well together, but you have another team that is need of a leader that knows how to work as a team, that's focused on student learning and knows how to use the data. I know my friend Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) may disagree and he explains why pretty well in his book (p.16), "Making Teamwork Meaningful" written with Parry Graham and Matt Wight, but he also shares why it may be necessary.

The sad thing is, sometimes co-workers see these switches in staffing as disciplinary in nature, when the overwhelming majority of them are not.  Sure, there are probably building leaders that use staffing changes as a disciplinary tool.  It's not a practice quality leaders will use though, as it is often transparent when it is used that way.  What we should be looking for, is to work in a highly effective team.  There is security in being able to rely and trust in your team.  To know they have your back and that they trust that you have theirs.  That may take a large cultural shift, but that starts with leaders and grows by having effective teams.  Besides, too much yelling from the backseat gets really annoying to the driver......but that sounds like a different post.