Sunday, October 27, 2013

Promoting Critical Conversations #SVAMP

Conversation (Photo credit: Search Engine People Blog)
Recently, George posed the following questions as part of the SAVMP.
How do you create a culture where  “pushback” is encouraged?
How do you create a team that will give you honest feedback?

These questions shape much of the work that I do as principal. There are so many factors to consider when trying to encourage these critical conversations. What was the culture in the past? How did the previous principals do things? Where are the centers of influence amoung the staff? Who will be honest and forthcoming with the principal?

I believe that things take 2-4 years to become clear to a new principal. During the first few months, there is so much to learn that a principal can only go shallow into the issues. Over time, personalities emerge and things start to become clear. Some staff really do seem to put the needs of the kids above all else - sometimes to their own detriment. The scale slides from there all the way down to those rare staff members who seem to have lost most interest in doing right by kids (I am lucky to have no one like that at my current school).

Much like good teaching, good leadership requires a firm set of principles and a fair amount of differentiation. For example, there are some staff who need little encouragement to come tell me what they think. For others, I may schedule a regular meeting just get them to tell me anything at all. Knowing which strategy to use for which staff member is the key. For some a scheduled meeting is just a setup to miss things; they might need me to come find them on an unscheduled basis if we are going to talk. Again, like a good teacher, I have to solicit and accept feedback in different ways from different people.

A second key factor to promoting critical feedback is being clear about when it is welcome. For years, I have tried to get good at using a decision making matrix like this one that I got from a consultant years ago. There are many variations out there, but the idea is the same. Be explicit about what you want from staff when making decisions. I get better feedback, when I tell people what kind of feedback I am looking for. This even works with editing. I usually tell folks that I am looking for proofreading or content editing or both. Seems to me that most school staff want to know what the principal is looking for.

Decision making styles from the chart are as follows:
Type 1:  Leader announces decision to the team and seeks support but does not ask for any input.
Type 2:  Leader has formulated an opinion about the best alternative for the decision s/he is making, but is testing it with the team to see if s/he is persuaded to rethink it before implementation.
Type 3:   Leader has a decision to make, but does not have an opinion about the best alternative.  S/he is asking the team to provide input and directions to guide decision-making.
Type 4:   This will be the team’s decision.  Leader’s participation and input will be considered along with others, but will not override others’ input.
Type 5:   Leader believes that others are better able to make this decision.  Leader will be a resource and will guide the process, but let the team make the decision without his/her involvement (unless asked) and support their decision.  Leader will ensure that decisions are aligned with policies, strategic direction, legal issues, etc.
Type 6:  Leader acts as if s/he is an outside facilitator. The decision is the team’s.  Leader believes others are better suited to make the decision, but will lead and structure the team’s decision-making process.  Leader will defer to the team’s decision.

It takes time and practice to encourage a school staff to give honest feedback. It is worth it.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Innovation Fork - #SAVMP

For week six of the SAVMP program, we are asked to consider "Roads to Innovation."

One of the questions to consider is: How do you go about creating innovative practices in your schools?

I use a two prong approach to fostering innovation at my school.

Prong one is to share ideas and resources with the staff. In each week's Monday Memo, I share links to interesting sounding tech tips. I sometimes demonstrate a new tool or teaching strategy during staff meetings. Last year, I tried my hand at teaching a class using only new ideas (not particularly successful, but that happens with attempts at innovation). At District PD days, I usually introduce some cool thing that I have been learning about. This first prong is all about sharing information or spreading seeds.

The second prong is where the real action is, sort of. The second prong is to get out of the way. Really, just step aside. Let the teachers do their thing. When a teacher comes to me with a new idea, I listen and offer support. I ask questions when the idea is half-baked. I try to be clear with the teachers that I am asking in order to help them. For some teachers, I say little other than, "Why not?" I often ask the teacher what they want me to do to help. Often, the answer is that they want nothing other than permission. I almost always say yes to a new idea, to an experiment. I am not risk averse. This second prong for creating innovative practice requires that I trust my teachers to be professionals - no problem there.

So, this two-prong approach is not fast, but when it works, change happens - teachers innovate.

I wrote about similar ideas for Leadership Day 2012.

Cross-posted to Connected Principals.

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Frog and Toad: A [Todo] List Lesson #cpchat #ilchallenge #savmp

Not long ago, I was reading Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel, to my son. You know, the book from the early 70's about, well, a frog and toad who have silly, every day hijinks. While the reading level is a stretch for me sometimes, the stories teach some pretty simple lessons about getting along with others, being a good person, and the life and times of a public school principal.

What, Ed leadership lessons from Frog and Toad? Well, yes, sort of. Read on to find out more.

In one great story, "A List," Toad starts his day like principals the world over...

One morning Toad sat in bed. 
"I have many things to do," he said. 
"I will write them all down on a list so that I can remember them." 
Toad wrote on a piece of paper: A list of things to do today
Lesson 1: Write it down or forget it. There are many systems and styles for keeping track of todo lists. I prefer a web service/app called Toodledo. This powerful todo list has a couple of killer features. First, I can use it on the web and on iPad and on iPhone (I think that other devices are supported, too). Second, after learning about Start Dates from Justin Baeder, I love that with Toodledo, I can set it and forget it (I ought to give George Foreman credit here, yes?). In other words, if tonight, I remember that I must schedule end of year conferences with teachers starting on May 15, I can add a task, give it a May 15 start date, and then forget about it until May 15. As long as I've told ToodleDo to hide future tasks, I am set.

The story goes on:

Then Toad wrote other things on the paper. 
"There," said Toad. "Now my day is all written down."
Lesson 2: You must take the first step. Coming up with a great idea to be organized is useless if you don't actually start.

Toad actually engages in one of my favorite, useless, feel good activities:

Then he wrote: Wake up
"I have done that," said Toad, and he crossed out:  
Wake up
Lesson 2a: No lesson here other than remembering that it is the small things in life that can sometimes make us happy.

Toad continues his day and visits Frog.

"Hello," said Frog.
"Look at my list of things to do," said Toad.
"Oh," said Frog, "that is very nice." 
Toad said, "My list tells me that we will go for a walk."
"All right," said Frog. "I am ready."
Lesson 3: Toad actually uses his todo list! How many times has the principal wondered what to work next. Just look at the list. It is that simple (except, of course, when it is incredibly complicated). There may be a corollary here: others may follow if you ask them to do something that is actually written on your list. Maybe if we show them that it is on a list, they will follow. Maybe.

Later in the story, the wind picked up:

"Help!" cried Toad."My list is blowing away. What will I do without my list?"
"Hurry!" said Frog. "We will run and catch it."
"No!" shouted Toad. "I cannot do that."
"Why not?" asked Frog.
"Because," wailed Toad, "running after my list is not one of the things that I wrote on my list of things to do!"
Lesson 4: Uh-oh! This is not good. Principals need to be flexible and responsive. Our todo lists are useful tools, but really - I can just imagine it: Oh, Principal Fliegelman, please deal with these two fighting students. Sorry, not on my todo list today; I will add them in tomorrow. Of course, a principal can't do that. Just recently, Justin Baeder wrote about this in a blog post: the nature of the principalship and the way we have to handle tasks is different from they way most todo systems and apps are designed. Again, we have to be ready to change course any minute - just part of the job.

Moments later Toad gets stuck.

"I cannot remember any of the things that were on my list of things to do. I will just have to sit here and do nothing," said Toad. Toad sat and did nothing. Frog sat with him.
Lessons 5: The list does not make the principal. In fact, this would be a good place to insert ideas about creating systems to help get through a day or working with a wonderful admin assistant who has the principal well trained. Instead, I will share one last lesson.

Lesson 6: A successful principal will have a Frog to sit with.

So, Toad shows us both the value and the pitfalls of the todo list. This principal, for one, learned a lot.