Category Archives: Fostering Effective Relationships

The Words on the Walls

As I walked into a school, I noticed a sign that something similar to, “For the safety of the school, please stop at the office to sign in.”  Immediately, I felt a tinge of anxiety as I wondered if something was there that would make the building unsafe, and I wondered if the students had ever felt the same.  Maybe most of them weren’t worried, but the sign shouldn’t evoke a feeling of the school being “unsafe”.

I remember listening to Martin Brokenleg earlier this year and he had mentioned this exact idea.  He said to think about the tone we set in the building when we have signs like this, compared to a message of, “We would love all visitors to come to the office so we can welcome you upon your arrival.”  The message was the same, but the difference in words sets a totally different tone once you enter the building.

There are so many little things around our building that we don’t notice and hence the importance of trying to look at things with fresh eyes. We encourage risk taking, yet I have seen signs in schools about the importance of not making mistakes.  Risk taking often comes with mistakes, so which one is it?  Saying something once in awhile is sometimes not as powerful as words on the wall that are there all of the time.

Do the words on the walls encourage a welcoming environment, a sense of community, and  opportunities for innovation? Or do they create a cold environment, that sometimes could pressure a fear of making mistakes, or sometimes even for one’s safety?  Ask your students, ask your community, and ask yourself.  What do the words on the walls tell you about the environment that you are trying to create?

P.S. If the words on the walls create a warm and welcoming environment, but your actions don’t, those words don’t matter either.  It is important to align the two.

Have a bad boss? Ask them for their advice.

I received an interesting question in a workshop the other day that I have heard before, but had never written down.  The question was based on working with an administrator that maybe isn’t the strongest, and how you work with them from a position lower on a traditional hierarchy.  I will have to admit that this isn’t the first time that I have heard this question, and I gave them the best advice I could.  Ask them for help.

So why would you want to ask someone who may be weak at their job or struggle for their advice?

For the same reason that many of us thrive under; the notion of being valued.  Asking someone for their advice in a situation or their help, suggests that you actually value what they have to say and are willing to take the time to listen to them.  This is something that is important and a way that most of us should feel, especially in a culture where we suggest that everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner.

Having spent time being a principal myself, I will openly admit that I had some really tough days on the job, and it is a lot harder to be in that position when you don’t feel valued.  But to me, the need of feeling valued is something that we should try to instil in people, no matter their position or authority.  One of the best things that I see in great leaders (from any position), is that when you see them talking to anyone, no matter if they are “above” or “below” them in the hierarchy of an organization, is that they treat everyone with respect and care.  Bosses need this as well, and when they frustrate us, it is easy to lose perspective.  Everyone wants to be acknowledged and seen for their strengths; that never changes no matter what position you may have.

There are a lot of bad bosses who know they are not doing the best job possible, and sometimes showing that value in them could be the push in the right direction that they need.  It may not always work, but I know that showing that you value someone is usually a safe bet.

 

The People You See Every Single Day

It is easy to connect with people on Twitter.  Many of them people that I have made connections with share a lot of the stuff that I love, and really push my thinking.  There is a real power in that.

And then you go back to your school and sometimes you might feel like no one gets you or wants the same things that you want in education or think differently about the notion of “what’s best for kids.”

But are we sometimes the cause for the disconnect?

It is easy to connect with people on Twitter that you don’t talk to and see everyday.  The relationships in your school though take a lot more work, as does any relationship that you see people every single day. We have to keep asking questions and engaging in conversations.  The worst thing we can do is just say the people we work with don’t get it and give up.  If we are not willing to do it, “they” are not the problem.

I saw something once that said the word “love” is not a noun, but a verb.  It is an action and it takes work to make happen in our world.  It is not just something that exists because we say or hope it does.

The Opportunity To Further Bring Parents Into the Learning

My friend, Mark Renaud, took this short video of me speaking about the opportunity that social media has given to us to change the conversation at home between child and parent.

If social media is used in a thoughtful way to make learning visible, the hope is to change the conversation from “What did you learn today””, followed by the usual “nothing”, to something much more powerful.

Thanks to Mark for sharing this!

3 Things That Have Slowed the Change Process Down in Education (And What We Can Do About It)

There has been a lot of talk on the idea that education as a whole takes a long time to change.  As an educator, this is a challenging notion, since we are seeing many people doing some amazing things that did not exist when I was a student.  Change is happening but sometimes it is hard to see when you are in the middle of the process.

Some things are out of the hands of schools. Budgets and government decisions can make creating new and better learning environments for students tough, but not impossible.  Educators are not powerless, and in some cases, more powerful that ever.  The story of education can not only be told from the perspective of educators, but also from the students that are currently in the system.  Although there is still a lot of work to do (as there always will be in organizations that focus on continuous learning and have an emphasis on becoming “innovative”), there are also opportunities in education, now more than ever, that we will need to take advantage of and create a different path.

Here are some of the challenges we have had in the past and how we can tackle them

1. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. 

Education has traditionally been an isolating profession where we get some time together, but not nearly enough.  Even if we wanted to change this significantly, in most cases, the current physical structures do not allow us to work with other educators.  Some administrators have been very innovative in their planning of teacher prep time and have embedded collaboration time into the regular school day, but it is not necessarily enough to make a significant impact.

How so many educators have shifted this “norm” is by using social media spaces to connect and learn from educators all over the world, and making a significant difference in their own classrooms, and creating much more engaging and empowering learning spaces.  Isolation is now a choice educators make. Where the shift really has to happen is using things like Twitter is for educators to connect and share learning that is happening with educators in their own school.  I challenged people to do the following (as shared in this visual from Meredith Johnson);

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 11.50.26 AM

We need to make this happen and create transparency in our own classrooms.

How does a song like “Gangnam Style” go so viral that most people around the world not only know the words but the dance moves?  Social media.  If a song can spread so quickly, so can great learning.

Make it go viral.

2. A continuous focus on what is wrong, as opposed to what is right.

Think about the traditional practice of what school has done with many of our students.  If they struggle with the subject of math, we often send the more math homework to do at home.  Does this really make sense?  If they are struggling at school, making them struggle at home with the same content is often counterintuitive.  It is not that we shouldn’t struggle, but it is important that we are very thoughtful of how we spend our energy.

The shift that has happened with not only our students, but also our schools, is focusing upon building upon strengths as opposed to focusing solely on weaknesses.  This is imperative as building upon strengths often helps us to not only build competence, but also confidence which leads us to the mindset that we are more open to tackle our other challenges along the way.

I love this quote from Forbes on putting people in the right positions to be successful:

Leadership is a privilege, not a right, and we need to treat it as such. Leadership means encouraging people to live up to their fullest potential and find the path they love. That, and only that, will create a strong culture and sustainable levels of innovation.

Many organizations outside of education are hiring not on need, but finding the best people and empowering them based upon their strengths.  Schools should try to do their best to follow suit and put people to be in the best situations to not only do well, but to lead.

3.  Experience is a very powerful teacher.

I remember sitting and listening to Bruce Dixon at a conference and something he said has always stuck out to me:

In no other profession in the world do you sit and watch someone else do your job for 16 years before you go and do it yourself.

Wow.  That is a powerful message and shows why so many new teachers aren’t coming into school with all of these “innovative ideas” and changing our school system like so many people predicted.  Many educators simply replicate their experience as a student. If you think about it, at least one-third of many teachers educational experience is as a student, not a teacher.  That is a tough thing to overcome, but not impossible.

Innovation has no age barrier, and if we can tweak the experience for educators in their professional learning, they are more likely to change the experience for their students.  Writing ideas about “21st century classrooms” on gigantic pieces of paper with a felt marker is not going to create cultural shifts; changing experiences will.

People are starting to look differently at professional learning, and create experiences that are much different from what I first experienced as a teacher.  I think a major reason for this shift (going back to point 1) is that educators are seeing the shift in practices in so many other organizations, and are trying to create a different practice where more educators are not really focused on teaching as much as they are about learning.  This empathy is crucial since to become a master teacher, you must become a master learner.  

Changing experiences to shift the focus on the learner from the teacher helps to disrupt routine.  If you would want to create an environment where students would want to be a part of your classroom, we have to experience what learning could look like for ourselves and start from a point of empathy.

One shift that was not mentioned was the mindset of looking at obstacles as opportunities. As mentioned earlier, not everything is in our control, but as educators know, they can make an impact every single day.  It is not always easy, and teaching can be a very daunting and tiring job, but I believe that every day we can make a difference if we choose.  Having that mindset is the only way that we will ever truly be able to make a powerful change for ourselves and our students.

“More than better students…better people.”

One of my favourite videos on the power of education, especially in our world today, is the “Speaking Exchange”, which has students from Brazil learning how to speak english from seniors at a retirement home in Chicago. It is a powerful reminder of how we should not only invite “experts” into our schools, but that sharing our expertise with the world also has a tremendous impact on others as well.  I am not only talking about teachers, but students. Their words and actions can make an impact on others if we give them the opportunity.

The words at the end of the video are perfect and encapsulate so much of what I believe about our goals for school.  The video ends with, “More than better students…better people.” Schools need to go beyond and be a part of developing good people alongside our communities to make a difference in our world.  This is paramount.

I was reminded of these words again when I saw this video of the power of team sports and caring for other human beings.  Please take a few minutes to watch, but have some kleenex ready:

This video goes beyond sports and the quote, “We all need someone who knows our mistakes, and loves us anyway” resonated with me deeply.  None of us are perfect but we all deserve to be loved.

I hope you enjoy watching that story as much as I did.

(Thanks to Sarah Garr, here is a version that works in Canada.)

Are you focused on the “stuff” or the person?

Here are two approaches to the same thing…

Let’s say you want educators in your school to start reflective and professional blogs.  One way that you could get them to do it, is by really pushing the value of blogging, show them the “why”, talk about the need for it, and put some real pressure on others to move ahead.  You could probably mandate it (which I have seen done with many initiatives that have failed) and have people do it for awhile, but as soon as they can get out of it, many will.  There are many initiatives out there that would be beneficial to our students, and focusing on how we are so behind, rarely ever puts us ahead.

Now a different approach, and one that I am still working on in my growth.  Let’s say you wanted educators to blog, but you didn’t start at that point.  Maybe you go into classrooms, observe things that are happening, and talk about their positive impact on student learning.  Sit down with the teacher, talk about their strengths, and then share the impact that they could have on the rest of the building on other educators, and perhaps sitting down and writing a blog together could be a way that we could share those strengths with others, and make great teaching and learning go viral.

In each scenario, you could have an educator write a blog, but in the first, we are starting from a deficit model (here are the things we can’t do), and the second, is starting from a place of abundance.

As an administrator, it is important that you know the strengths of each member of your team, before you know their weaknesses.  If you can’t find them, maybe you aren’t looking.  If you dig down deeper into each scenario, the first starts with a focus on the outcome (blogging), but the second starts with a focus on the person.  That is leadership.  Stephen Covey made the simple distinction between management and leadership; we manage “things”, we lead people.

Taking time to find the strengths of individuals is not an expenditure, but an investment, that can come in copious amounts of growth.  In most cases, when people know that they are valued, the distance they are willing to go is much further than when we constantly point out weaknesses.

The Privilege of Kids #EDUin30

This week for the #EDUin30 question, I asked about how you build relationships in your role with students.  The best teachers in the world connect on some personal level with their students.  They do not only know their students, but their students know them.

I talked about this in my post to the response to the question:

Honestly, I remember hating doing supervision.  Teaching was really overwhelming for me and every minute that I had to myself, I really appreciated.  Having to “deal” with kids outside was a pain.  Then one of my administrators talked about the “privilege” we had in connecting with kids during that time and that we should see it as an opportunity as opposed to a burden.  That totally changed my mindset on it early on my career, and after that, I loved supervision.

After that, I would really connect with kids, talk to them about things happening, play basketball with them outside, and would actually walk back into my class rejuvenated.  This was not just kids in my class, but kids all around the school that I did not have the same opportunities to connect with during the day.  It became a privilege and an opportunity in my eyes and made my day so much better.

Nothing changed other than my attitude, and sometimes that’s the most important thing.

5 Ideas for Conversations on Change

“Teachers don’t want to change.”

I hate this statement.

It does more to end a conversation than it does to start it.

It is a comment I have heard far too often, and honestly, believe less and less and seems to be a way of blaming others for lack of growth in an organization.  We only have a finite amount of time in our day, and because of this, simply saying something is better doesn’t mean others agree.  A lack of change in any organization is often more a reflection on leadership than any group of people, or an individual.  The ability to “sell” change and create systems and a culture where trying something different is not only encouraged, but applauded, needs to be something that people in traditional leadership positions needs to constantly focus on.  Learning is something that never stops or stays stagnate, and because of that, organizations must reflect that we are not only in the business of “people”, but also of being open to and leading change.  It is the only constant.

For example, I have heard many conversations from educators wanting to try something new is met with so much bureaucracy and hurdle-jumping, that it is not worth the effort at the end of the day to try something different.  It is almost as if many schools are blocking their own teachers from being great.  The role of people in leadership and support positions is not to control talent, but to unleash it.

So what about those that may still be resistant to change?  How do we work with them.  As I look back to my best leaders, these are some things that I have noticed in their work in helping people move forward as individuals.

1.  Start every conversation focused on “what is best for kids”.

This is Stephen Covey’s focus on “starting with the end in mind”, but it is imperative that the “end” is explicit to people in any conversation.  The majority of educators are there for children, and if a conversation starts with talking about helping children, it helps to keep our focus on the important work that we do.  If as a leader, we are not able to share why something is best for kids, why would or should anyone embrace it anyway?  Conversations in education always need to start from this point.

2.  Listen.

So many people are constantly trying to sell something to someone else, and our conversations can go off track very soon.  If you really want someone else to move forward, it should not start with what you think it is important, but trying to be empathetic of another person’s situation and ideas.  Once you really understand where they are coming from, you have a totally different starting point from when you started in the first place.  It is also imperative that you are able to implement their point of view in your conversations, not simply separate ideas into “what you think” versus “what I think”.  There are common grounds but we need to listen to one another to find them.

3. Focus on where they are, not where you want to be.

Years ago, I started to really think about helping move people from “their point A to their point B”.  If you are able to break something into measurable chunks instead of having a grand vision of where everyone needs to be, it shows that there is a focus more on process, than product, which has become more of an emphasis in our classrooms.  These smaller wins along the way lead to someone building confidence and competence along the way, which helps leads to success.  As much as there is talk about the importance of “embracing failure”, people want to be successful.  We just have to realize that success looks different for different people, and that if we start where someone is instead of focusing on where we think they should be, people are more likely to be successful.

4. Walk away with a plan moving forward.

There are lots of great conversations that end with no action planned.  This is often a huge loss and can be a waste of time in the long run.  At the end of conversations we should look at what we are going to do because of the time we spent together, and also talk about following up in the future.  Writing something down also makes it more likely to happen, because we become more accountable to what we have shared.  Walking away without a mutual plan can often lead to nothing changing long term as there are so many other things that can get in the way.  It is also crucial for “check-ins” throughout the process.  I have seen a lot of schools have “Professional Growth Plans” that are written at the beginning of the year and then discussed at the end of it.  If you only focused on looking at something twice a year, how successful do you think it will be?

5. Support.

Leaders do not only help others find a path to move forward, but they are in the trenches with them throughout the process.  Checking in and seeing how things are going is one aspect, but actually finding powerful resources for someone else, asking them follow-up questions, suggesting professional learning opportunities for them (and even going with them), or a myriad of other opportunities, are crucial in development.  Saying “do this” is not as powerful as saying “let’s do this together”. People are way more likely to be successful in the change process if they know someone has their back throughout it.

Change can be scary and honestly, stress inducing.  The more people know that we are in this work together and that it is all about supporting our students, the more likely individuals, and ultimately organizations, will be successful.

Feedback or noise?

I don’t know if it is because it is basketball season, but stories from coaching and reffing have been popping up in my head in relation to leadership.  As I was listening to someone tell another story about the “squeaky wheel that gets the grease”, I thought about the coaches you would pay attention to when I was officiating basketball, and why you would really listen.

I remember one game in particular, where we were discussing the game plan as officials before we started, and my partner said, “the coach on the visiting team doesn’t say much, but when he does, you need to listen because it is probably legitimate.”  The coach did not argue every call they didn’t like, but they chose to use their voice when they thought it was imperative.  As hard as it is to admit as a former official, there were many coaches that did the exact opposite and were constantly complaining about every single call that was not in their favour.  In a tense environment, it is hard to acknowledge everything coming your way, and the more spread out you are, the harder the job becomes to do well.  Constant complaining is no longer feedback or “picking your battles”, but it can simply become noise that many choose to drown out.

I have read so many articles written on dealing with the “squeaky wheel”, but there are few that discussing how not to be that person.  In a time where a lot of things are either changing or need to change in education, it is easy to complain about how fast or slow things are going, but after awhile, I know that commentary can go unheard if it is just a constant noise.  In the last little while, I have really tried to think about what is important to bring up and push, and what is not necessary at that moment.  There have been times that I wondered how to deal with the squeaky wheel, but I am also thinking about making sure that when I do say something to others, it doesn’t simply become “noise”.