Teaching and Leading is Tough Business…
Reposting this post 4 years later. It’s just as applicable today – in a district of 2 sites and 1,600 students… Teaching is indeed a calling!
Communications over the past couple of weeks has made clear that I’m in a different ball game than I was just a few months ago. As a teacher leader and school administrator, I was visible and made person to person connections with nearly every staff member at least weekly if not every day. People saw me on good days, bad days, during pressure, when joking around, and all of the other times in between. This is clearly not possible in the role I now serve in forcing me to reflect quite a bit about leadership strategies and how to make positive change from a different place in the organization.
The feedback I’ve received over the past few weeks has included a clear call for “getting to know who I am” and gaining a better understanding of the vision for ISD 191. I don’t believe in walking into an organization and pushing for all of my solutions to current issues, and I believe strongly that the collective wisdom of those in the trenches far exceeds what I have packed into this bald head. So how do I answer to this feedback in a district with 15 – 20 sites (depending on how you define a site), 9,500 students, and 1,500 hard-working employees? Reality is – it simply takes more than a couple of months and I need to develop more patience.
This blog is a lens into what happens inside my bald head (and not much more happens there…) and below are some more specific responses to the call for discussion about what is ahead, who I am, and what is being discussed in multiple ISD191 forums. Transparency is the goal here…
This is tough business:
Like everyone else, my first years of teaching included many “smack in the face” lessons about the difficulty of the calling I had jumped into. We all remember our first years in the classroom(unless you’ve suppressed those raw feelings!!). Why do I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything? Have I accomplished anything? My 4th hour is worse today that it was 2 months ago… How do I get students to understand the importance of the Magna Carta? How can I possibly teach writing – it takes me… let’s see… 15 minutes per essay… 160 students… 40 hours to correct them. Huh?? An extra work week outside of my work week just to correct them. I signed up for this?
It doesn’t stop there… I get told my students don’t enjoy my class. I can change that! Now how do I do that? Parents call me when they think I’ve done something horrible to their child. Why don’t they understand that I come to work everyday to help their child and they are being told a slanted story?? How can I possibly meet the needs of each student when they rush past me like on an assembly line? The media says we never do our jobs right. Legislators make laws dictating things that make no sense (ie… let’s be outcome based yet we measure credits by seat time)… How do we align curriculum when the standards change with every election? Why, as a rookie teacher, do I push a cart around to 5 different classrooms, teach 3 different preps, and have the toughest students when my “expert veteran” colleagues get one room, one prep, and all of the honors classes? Why does it seem like negative peer pressure (griping and bullying) is a strong power base for decision-making when we work so hard teaching our students about how bad that is??? Is popular vote really the right way to make decisions when the majority want to maintain practices that are negative and contrary to best practice? Why does it hurt so much to be critiqued about my teaching? Why is it so personal? Whew…
Indeed, teaching is an incredibly challenging and personal profession and this drives many to put up defensive walls simply for emotional survival. It also drives many out of the profession all together. I am grateful that an excellent educator/mentor introduced me to the book The Courage to Teach and other writings by Parker Palmer during those first years in the classroom. Palmer pushes past the questions about what we teach and how we teach to get to the deep questions about who educators are. He has dedicated much of his life to discussing the soul of being a teacher and how to remain healthy in an occupation that largely involves being “beat up for doing what is right only to return the next day for more.” More recently, he launched the Center for Courage & Renewal to serve as a vehicle for helping educators across the globe. I have found Palmer to be refreshing, honest, and real about the profession of teaching. Not only that, but all of his thoughts are just as applicable to leadership. Here are two clips of Palmer discussing how his work on teaching apply to leadership:
Parker Palmer: Teaching and Leading #1
Parker Palmer: Teaching and Leading #2
Times of change:
The new reality for all of us is that change is now constant (see previous posts on change). How does that reduce fear? It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if you are a custodian, teacher, cook, bus driver, board member, or principal – we are in this struggle together. “Leaders” don’t have magical answers for this reality. The best we can do – all of us – is come together to make the best decisions with the best information we can gather as a community. This must be driven by a laser-like focus on the purpose/mission of the organization and a willingness to shed practices that distract us from that focus. Only with a solid commitment to being a learning community focused on the core mission will we have the deep sense of meaning that drives away feelings of fear and mistrust.
What is the vision?
First… what it is not… Let’s get past the premise that there is some magical curriculum, program, or PD initiative that will result in miraculous improvement in student achievement (yes, student achievement is the core mission of this organization). Let’s also get past the assumption that we simply cannot achieve our mission due to external factors that are out of our sphere of influence.
Now… what is it? All ISD 191 students will graduate ready for post-secondary success. There. That’s the vision. Fulfilling that will take some serious teamwork! Some of my thoughts:
First, we accept that this kind of Greatness requires every one of us to look in the mirror and own our personal ability to make a positive impact on the internal culture/behaviors of this organization. Greatness is not a Function of Circumstance. A ton of research is at our fingertips illustrating in detail, the internal culture of Great organizations. It’s really a no brainer. The core principles of great organizations are summarized and put out there for us to replicate. The question is not “where are we going?” Collins makes very clear where we need to go. The question is more about “are we willing” and “how do we execute on those beliefs/values/practices here in 191?”
We also need to work hard to build structures that cultivate a culture of Greatness. I believe strongly in the work of Rick DuFour and his continual push for the PLC framework for doing school business. The blog All Things PLC is a great place to start looking at his work. ISD 191 principals will be reading the book Learning By Doing during the month of January to gain a better collective understanding of this kind of culture. This is NOT a magic bullet curriculum or program. This is a description of how to function and behave day in and day out as a community of learners – students, teachers, principals, board members, and superintendents alike. ISD 191 started moving into PLCs several years ago yet our current practices and behaviors do not reflect what DuFour has carefully described in his work. I believe that I, along with principals and other leaders in 191, are responsible for providing meaningful structures which cultivate the practices DuFour and Collins describe. I accept that responsibility and look forward to moving us further down that continuum.
All around us are educators, schools, and school districts that have embraced comprehensive “Continuous Improvement Frameworks” facilitating a culture that reflects the behaviors described in the literature on PLCs, RtI, differentiating instruction, and organizational Greatness. These are not competing initiatives – they are beliefs carried out in behaviors throughout the entire system. They are a way of doing business. A purposeful, focused, and celebrated culture. It is my intent – and the focus of the current leadership team – to build this kind of collaborative culture of Greatness here in ISD 191. In the spirit of JFK’s speech a few decades ago about our country, what can you do to make this happen here?