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Ideas and Hope and Energy...Oh my!

In her book Resourceful Leadership, Elizabeth City mentions several "ingredients" for school improvement. Three of these, ideas, hope, and energy, are rather intriguing. I think that these three are particularly interesting because, like most valuable things, they are very rare. Let's consider them one at a time.

Ideas: It makes sense that if the old truism "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten" holds true, absent new ideas, school improvement efforts will likely fall short. Six years ago I came to this job with the notion that schools and their leaders had the necessary ideas, they just faced numerous barriers to implementation. Through my experiences at The Center, I have come realize that we have a tragic dearth of ideas. In fact, many creative souls within the school framework pay a heavy price for even venturing to offer a new idea.

Hope: City describes hope in Resourceful Leadership as the desire to see a situation improve combined with the understanding that you have a role to play in that improvement. Unlike other uses of the word hope (City uses the example of a person telling another 'I hope you feel better') this connotation incorporates both the desire to see improvement AND the recognition that you have a role to play in that improvement. While I am tempted to refer to hope as "efficacy," I can see the importance of desire in the equation. I think that you would have a hard time finding school personnel that did not have a desire for improvement. As to the recognition that every person has a role to play in bringing that improvement to fruition; the jury is still out.

Energy: This ingredient is frequently overlooked. The work of school improvement is exhausting, a full tank of energy is required. I think that Dr. City is referring to collective energy. While some might be tempted to lump energy into another attribute, capacity, I think there is value in the difference. While capacity seems to imply capability, energy refers to the stamina (emotional and physical) required to carry out the work.

I have been doing quite a bit of reading lately about what Ohio is calling the Decision Making Framework. Since we love acronyms in Ohio, sometimes we just say that your CIP must be informed by OIP, but not until your SST has presented the DMF. In my reading, I have not seen a reference to ideas, hope, and energy. Maybe Dr. City ought to create more acronyms.


What are leadership proxies and why are they killing us?

A proxy is one thing that stands for another. A best friend can be the proxy for a groom that is in the military in another country. Most proxies are pale comparisons for the real thing. I think we have established a number of leadership proxies that are collectively harming schools and school leaders.

Efficient, orderly meetings=good meetings: Meetings in schools are haphazard. Rarely can an entire staff come together and complete meaningful business in the time provided. The proxy here is that if a principal can ruthlessly follow the meeting agenda and get through the items, the meeting was worthwhile. The meeting was worthwhile even if the items contained on the agenda were barely worth talking about in the first place. Consider the alternative. Staffs could undertake meaningful, complex, and important issues and not make a dent in resolving them. I think that those were some of the best meetings I have ever attended. Conversations always lasted well beyond the meeting. In some cases, we discussed the issue for weeks in the library, the teacher's lounge, and through e-mail.

Examining achievement data=solid instructional decisions: Data can be tricky. Making decisions based upon "the numbers" has become all the rage. Decisions linked to available achievement data are widely considered to be better than decisions made by other means. The proxy here is that the examination of data usually does not go far enough. On the basis of a single metric, we (usually some sort of standardized achievement test) assign students to intervention, or determine that the student has mastered the standard sufficiently. While I'm very much in favor of using data to make decisions, I think we have totally missed the boat on what qualifies as potent data. For example, based upon the available data, we will assign students to intervention. What data was used to craft the intervention program? Does the intervention work? What is percentage of students receiving this intervention that make progress on the test? If we are going to use, data, lets be thoughtful about it.

While these represent only two of the many leadership proxies that exist in our schools, they serve as examples of ways that we collectively conspire to define success through labeling effective practice, without regard to the products of those practices.


In Praise of Doing Things Right

A colleague of mine has said that management is doing things right but leadership is doing the right things. I struggle with that notion. In a later post, I will chime in on the "management vs. leadership" issue. For the purposes of this post, I want to talk about doing things right.

Doing things right versus doing the right thing is the main point of a popular quip about Stalin. I think it goes something like, "at least the trains run on time." The point of this saying is, I think, that despite the fact that he would summarily arrest, imprison, and execute those who disagreed with him, and stripped back virtually every human freedom, he did make sure that that trains ran on time. In essence, loss of freedom is a small price to pay for punctual transportation.

I think that the problem with that example is that trains running on time is not trivial. How else would you assess the quality of rail transportation? The principalship is somewhat like this example. We may consider much of what principals do to be "trivial" management tasks. Student discipline,resolving disputes between students, making sure that the milk delivery arrives on time, and maintaining orderly hallway traffic all seem trivial until one of those tasks goes undone.

Despite the fact that management is not totally trivial, the tension between doing things right and doing the right things also seems to assume that the scale of "rightness" is either/or. If leadership isn't doing things right, does leadership, then, mean doing things wrong? I reject the notion completely. I think that just as a society can have basic human freedom AND trains that run on time, public schools can have strong instructional leadership AND well-managed buildings.

Leadership and management, together, are necessary for school success. In order for the important conversations about instruction, assessment, and achievement to take place, teachers have to feel confident about the learning climate of the building.


School Improvement, the Ultimate Test of Leadership

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells about the Stockdale Paradox. The point Collins is trying to make is that a paradox exists between holding out hope and confidence while at the same time being able to confront the brutal facts as they currently stand.

Here's the story, Jim Stockdale (you might remember him as Ross Perot's running mate) was a prisoner of war in Vietnam's Hanoi Hilton. While he had no doubt that he would eventually be set free, he knew that it wouldn't happen any time soon. Jim Collins had an opportunity to meet Jim Stockdale and asked him the question "Who didn't make it out?" Stockdale did not hesitate with his answer. He replied "The optimists." You see, the optimists would say "We'll be home for Christmas." When they weren't they said, "We'll be home by Easter." When they missed enough milestones, they died of broken hearts.

It is easy to see the story as a metaphor for leading school improvement efforts. You have to maintain faith that improvements will come; but you also have to realistic in understanding that the improvements will take time.

I have a different moral for this story. While in the prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale would intentionally disfigure himself by cutting himself with a razor or beating himself in the face with a broken leg of a stool. He did this so that he could never be put on television as an example of how well the prisoners were being treated. Even this is not my moral. My moral is the fact that he was able to get other prisoners to disfigure themselves. In my view, true leadership only happens when people follow even though they have a choice not to.

I really liken this kind of leadership to attempting to lead a school improvement effort. Teachers can attend planning sessions, but then go a back to their rooms and do pretty much whatever they want. The job of the leader is to get people to do that which they have the realistic option of not doing.

Think that this is overstating the obvious? Me too. Wish that rather than just pointing out the obvious I would offer some guidance? Stay tuned. Next week, although I won't tell you what always works, I'll tell you what never works, and why not.


Look before you leap

I guess that if there is anything to be learned from the recent financial news, it is that committing resources unwisely has serious consequences. I am quoting somebody (actually somebody's father, probably) is stating "If you don't have time to do it right, you better have time to do it over." I think there is a lesson here for principals who are attempting to forge professional learning communities in their buildings. My guess is that there are few buildings that are tying to create these communities for the first time.

Many principals I know would rather have a root canal than spend time developing strong professional relationships with their staffs. The list of reasons for this condition contains many of our greatest hits:

  • A lack of belief that any tangible results can come from getting to know your colleagues more deeply.
  • A feeling that time is so valuable that "wasting" it on team-building, trust-building, or communications activities detracts from getting something "real" accomplished.
  • School culture causes teachers to find security in their ability to keep their practice private.
  • Relationship building is difficult and fragile work. Principals must take enormous personal risk and weather a great deal of criticism in order to harness the true power of collective wisdom. There is little wonder, then,that many principals would rather just "get through" the staff meeting in a "Town Crier" format rather than invest in true community activities.

These are just a few of the reasons why so many schools "jump" into the work at hand rather than taking the time (and expending the energy) necessary for creating a true collaborative environment. Among the many paradoxes involved with creating PLCs is the notion that real, measurable results are necessary for the group to truly believe that collaboration is worth the effort, while at the same time real, measurable results cannot be achieved without true collaboration.

If you have not had a great deal of experience in leading Professional Learning Communities, or if you are always on the lookout for collaborative activities, check out this site hosted by the National School Reform Faculty. It contains a wealth of information about Critical Friends Groups and offers downloadable activities for staff meetings.