Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy in Educational Systems

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In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes about the necessity of “balancing inquiry and advocacy” (p 183-187). When building a learning organization, what is the appropriate level of inquiry about and advocacy for the system?

While I don’t pretend to be an expert in any one educational system, yet alone the many diverse systems in place across the world, this is a question I often wrestle with as an aspiring educational leader.

On one hand, without an in-depth examination into the root causes of systemic challenges, an organization is doomed to repeat prior mistakes and perpetuate a cycle of stagnation, constantly “fixing” the same recurring problems, applying the same methods that have “worked” in the past only to see diminishing results.

Many of us are also familiar with the phrase “paralysis by analysis.” Learning organizations, by their sheer definition, must be able free to learn in order to grow. Learning happens best in a system where stakeholders share a common vision and purpose. Without both, there is no sense of urgency among the people and the system begins to unravel.

At the same time, there is a danger in engaging in vacuous debate, in talking in circles but going nowhere. This experience has frustrated many educators over generations. Nonsystemic inquiry is analogous to a crew team all rowing in competing directions. Despite all the hard work,  the boat isn’t going anywhere.

Endless inquiry is also not practical. Our schools are not ancient Greek civilizations, capable of of an ongoing in-depth exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of every issue that drives the system.

Therefore, implementing a Socrative method of inquiry into the root causes of everything in order to design and enact better solutions is a systemic impossibility. There are simply too many logistical and constraints acting on the system from outside, including limited time and resources.

However, this does not give school systems permission to be inquiry-free. Any system that expects blind obedience in the absence of clarity and focus is a system will become incapable of sustained growth, adaptation, or innovation.

Therefore, while discouraging inquiry may be a comfortable approach for systems leaders in the short term, the rewards will only be temporary. The same problems will re-emerge and become worse over time.

Furthermore, if those that ask the tough questions rarely ascend the leadership hierarchy, a system of strict compliance and blind advocacy emerges. People learn to get along to go along, much to the detriment of the system. If the system consistently crushes those that ask the tough questions, it will never reach it’s full potential and it will become more unhealthy over time.

If we get a cut and it becomes infected, we do not ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. We know enough to go to the doctor and inquire into the root causes of the problem, possibly getting antibiotics or another treatment that will provide a solution to the infection. We do not let the infection spread, taking over more and more of our body, eventually presenting a real threat to the overall health of our system.

Similarly, our school systems should invite a certain level of purposeful inquiry in order to make continual improvements to the system.

In conclusion, a certain level of disagreement and conflict are good for the health of the system as it enables those working in the system to diagnose, treat, and cure potential problems that emerge within the system, not just at a surface level, but at deeper areas of root causality.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

~Brad Hurst

Cognitive Coaching – Level 2 Reflection

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Day 5:

What I learned

I think that overall, I really was able to see the value of paraphrasing, which requires a lot of active listening and paying close attention to context, nonverbal cues, etc. Ultimately, effective paraphrasing seems to be the most effective way to build trust between the coach and coachee. When questions are asked, they should drive the conversation and create a cognitive shift by the coachee. That being said, the actual shift is dictated also by the coachee and their needs. The coach should never direct the coachee to a particular solution, conclusion, or outcome. Also when asking questions, the coach should really listen for the 5 states of mind and try to target the ones that is the lowest and work up to the higher ones as time or opportunity presents itself to do so. During coaching conversations, the coach should also strive to filter out extraneous information and really listen for information that seems to get to the heart of the matter. Lastly, it is important to pay careful attention to the words and phrases being used by the coachee. Many teachers are visual and use visual language and terms, but not all coachees use parallel language, and their cues may be more along the lines of auditory or kinesthetic. The coach needs to strive to mirror this in their paraphrasing and questioning.

How I will use it

I am hoping to work with more of a small group of teachers in the spring to support them in their cooperative learning. Within this context, I believe my initial focus should really be on listening very carefully and trying to really create effective paraphrases that target the state of mind and really capture the heart of the issue to drive the thinking of the coachee.

 

Day 6:

What I learned

The idea around the BMIRS (nonverbal cues) was again addressed. This really reinforced the need to pay attention to subtle gestures and have situational awareness. We also learned about strategies for effective pacing, specifically centered around the need to honor the existing states, while also understanding the feelings, tensions, values, conflicts, etc. of the coachee. The end goal of pacing was to get to the point of the coachee realizing what they are wanting to make happen as a result of the coaching conversation.

How I will use it

As I work more with teachers and begin to coach them more, I must understand that much of what is communicated is unsaid, meaning the words used don’t tell the full story. I need to devote just as much of the thought and attention other clues and can perhaps learn more from that that from the specific words used. Also, in my questioning, I need to think about asking questions that honor the existing state of the coachee, but also drive their thinking to look at things differently and really push them to think in ways that they may not have done on their own.

 

Day 7:

What I learned

Today, we learned about the value the coach leading within the coaching conversation, drawing upon the 5 states of mind and focusing on big ideas in order to create a cognitive shift. Within this framework, it is more valuable for the coachee to be asked questions that focus more on values, beliefs, assumptions, and identity as opposed to mere strategy questions. Any question that requires the coachee to engage in flexible thinking is the most likely to create the cognitive shift among the coachee.

How I will use it

In my questioning, I need to think about asking questions that honor the existing state of the coachee, but also drive their thinking to look at things differently and really push them to think in ways that they may not have done on their own. Without this value-added perception by the coachee, the coachee is unlikely to sacrifice their valuable time to seek ongoing coaching conversations with the coachee.

 

Day 8:

What I learned

Stressed today was the value of mediative questioning, which includes the components of being invitational (approachable voice, plural forms of questioning, tentative language, positive presuppositions, and open-ended questioning), engaging specific cognitive operations, and being intentional. Another powerful point that was made centered around what growth really is, specifically that we remember the things that are undone (push/growth question) and that to get there coaches need to build up layers to the states of mind, then go to the more challenging states of mind that the coachee may be needing support on. An area that I might perhaps struggle, at least initially as a coach, is trying to ensure that the coachee walks out with the sense of closure, comfort, and comprehension. It was stressed that the needs of the coach don’t really matter. If the coachee doesn’t desire a solution or closure, the coach should not push that.

 

How I will use it

This day was the most valuable of all the 8 days of cognitive coaching. It provided the most tools, but is also made me really appreciate all the layers that exist within the context of being an effective cognitive coach. Above all else, I will use the piece about not seeking closure for my own sake most of all. I need to put that aside and really focus on what the needs are of my coachee. Also, in coaching the coachee, I will need to ask questions in a way that supposes the best in my coachee and tries to empower them, while also pushing their thinking to a place they would not get on their own.

 

 

Cognitive Coaching – Level 1 Reflection

 

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Day 1 Reflection:

Here are the major themes I took away from Day 1 of Level 1 Cognitive Coaching training:

Focus of Cognitive CoachingOne of the major insights I had from this day was that the cognitive coaching approach is driven exclusively by the goals and needs of the person being coach, or the “coachee”. As the coach, my primary responsibilities are to listen carefully and ask open-ended questions of the person being coached. Ultimately, I need to push the thinking of the person I am coaching without making myself part of the conversation. This is a much different way of engaging in a conversation, where the interaction tends to be more reciprocal and serves to meet the needs/goals of multiple people. In a coaching conversation, the coach avoids using the word “I” in their questions and statements.

Non-Verbal Communication is Key – One of the other things I realized from our training from Day 1 is just how important non-verbal communication cues are to having an effective coaching conversation. Specifically, the coach has to maintain great eye contact while actively listening to the coachee. In essence, the coach has to be nonverbally present in the conversation and mirror the body language and gestures of the person being coached.

Questioning – I also need to try to think more like a coach, meaning I need to ask clarifying questions, exhibit authentic and genuine curiosity based upon what I am hearing from the coachee. My questions must encourage higher-level thinking and metacognition for the coachee. There has to be a value in the conversation

Trust – It will take time for the coachee to build trust with the coach, especially if the coach has not worked very closely or at all with the coachee in the past. Even if there was a prior relationship, it could be a potential barrier to the conversation, as both are used to engaging in non-coaching conversations. A coaching conversation is different and within our district, the vast majority of our staff has not participated in coaching conversations as a coach or coachee to this point.

Out of all these, I believe trust to be the most important to an effective coaching conversation. Coaches must realize that trust takes a long time to establish and that building is a process. The foundation for trust is mutual respect among the coach and coachee. Both may have a different role, but both roles are important. One is not greater than the other. Perhaps the best way to build trust is by carefully listening, taking a genuine interest in the person being coached, and making the purpose of your conversations exclusively about the goals and needs of the coachee. The coach must avoid temptation to be autobiographical, inquisitive about what “I” am curious about, or solution focused to try to “fix” the issue for the coachee.

 

Day 2 Reflection

Here are the major themes I took away from Day 2 of Level 1 Cognitive Coaching training:

Five States of Mind

Consciousness – focuses on teachers monitoring their own values, intentions, thoughts, and behaviors as well as their effects on others and the environment. The goal in developing this state of mind is to help one develop a strong sense of self and others.

Craftsmanship – involves striving for an achieving mastery, grace, and economy of energy to produce exceptional results. The goal in developing this state of mind is to enhance one’s specificity and elegance.

Efficacy – Building an internal locus of control whereby people are enabled to produce new knowledge, engage in causal thinking, post problems and search for problems to solve, are optimistic and resourceful, self-actualizing and self-modifying.

Flexibility – seeing diverse perspectives of others, comfort with ambiguity, seeking novel approaches, and the capacity to change ones mind as new data emerges. The goal in developing this state of mind is to help build broader and alternative perspectives.

Interdependence – developing a sense of connection to and concern for the community and supporting expanding the capacities of groups and group members.

Rapport This conversation was interesting. We learned that 65% of communication is non-verbal; therefore, it is important that the coach mirrors the nonverbal elements of conversation that the coachee is exhibiting. Specifically, the nonverbal components to be mirrored include: posture, gestures, proximity, muscle tension, and facial expressions. It is especially important for the coach to consciously establish rapport in situations in which the coach anticipates the coachee will be or is showing signs of being tense or anxious.

Planning ConversationsI can see myself needing to use the planning conversation map as I begin to initiate and partake in coaching conversations. The map helps me to have a visual framework to scaffold my coaching conversations. One big take away was that it is crucial for the coach to be ever mindful of what the coachee is thinking about throughout the coaching conversation and to be honest and transparent about the intent/purpose/and goal of the planning conversation. I especially like the questions that Sue provided: Where will it go? How will you know? How will it flow? How will you grow? How will this help you to know?

Pause-Paraphrase-Pause-Pose a Question – I found that being intentional about doing this was not easy, but it really helped me to be sure to listen very carefully, as I knew I wanted to provide a good paraphrase/synopsis of what the main idea or them was that the coachee was talking about. People do not often paraphrase in normal conversation because they are not listening carefully enough and are often more concerned about introducing themselves or their own perspectives into the conversation. Therefore, listening is really the key as it builds trust and buy in to the cognitive coaching process as is really is all about the person being coached. The best listening avoids listening set-asides, such as the coach being autobiographical, asking questions to serve the interests of the coach, and the coach offering up “solutions” to “fix” the problem for the coachee.

 

Day 3 Reflection

Here are the major themes I took away from Day 3 of Level 1 Cognitive Coaching training:

Posing Questions – Today, focused on posing questions that will stimulate the thinking of the coachee through asking mediative questions that target a specific state of mind that the coachee wants support in. In the process of posing our questions, coaches must be careful to avoid seeming interrogative. A coach can accomplish this by steering away from asking the coachee questions that serve selfish purposes for the coach. It is also important for the coach to avoid the perception of being manipulative, intimidating, or having a misguided purpose in their questioning. It truly needs to be selfless and its purpose must be to unselfishly serve the purposes of the coachee only. The best questioning is not interrogative, and promotes the thinking of the coachee at deeper levels than the coachee would be able to engage in without the coach. In essence, the best questioning pushes the coachee to engage in thinking at a level they would not have achieved without the coaching conversation. This creates a value to the conversation that makes the time investment by the coachee meaningful.

Mediative Questioning – Mediative Questions are questions that are invitational, engage specific cognitive operations, and are intentionally asked by the coach.

Elements of Invitation

Approachable Voice – When being invitational in their questioning, the coach be aware of their tone of voice and ensure it is approachable. Again, much of what we communicate is not the specific content of the words we say, but how we say it. Much can be read and interpreted from context and nonverbal cues.

Speaking in Pluralities – Instead of saying “What is the reason for this”, the coach needs to be mindful that providing multiple options for the coachee to choose might lead to a deeper, more open-ended conversation. It also avoids a perception by the coachee that the coach has a definite answer in mind or is leading them to a specific conclusion, but rather that the conversation is open ended and can go wherever the coachee wants to take it. Therefore, a better way to ask this question is “What might be some reasons why…”

Tentative Language – Instead of “is”, say, “might be”. Again, this avoids any perception that the coach thinks they have all the answers or that the conversation is for the purposes of the coach and not the coachee.

Positive Presuppositions – Much of having an effective conversation seems to hinge on mindset. It is crucial that the coachee feels supported for the duration of the conversation. Even if there may be some areas where the coachee needs to improve, it is better to avoid seeming judgmental or interrogative. Assume good intentions.

Open-ended questioning – Where the conversation goes is up to the coachee. It is important for the coach to provide the coachee with options and also the conversation is much more meaningful for the coachee when there is not a final destination and the focus instead is on the journey the conversation takes.

 

Day 4 Reflection

Here are the major themes I took away from Day 4 of Level 1 Cognitive Coaching training:

5 Forms of Feedback 

Judgments, Personal Observations, and Inferences – This type of feedback must be avoided during a coaching conversation. The coach should avoid any misperception that they are being evaluative. Instead, it is the responsibility of the coach to ask appropriate questions to allow the coachee to make his or her own judgments, self-observations, and inferences of themselves.

Data – It would seem appropriate for the coach to visit the classroom of the coachee and based upon desire from the coachee, collect data requested by the coachee specifically about student learning, teaching learning, and teams/systems. It is crucial that the coach and teacher agree upon what data should be collected and the process by which the data will be collected. In this planning conversation, it is important to specify the methodology of data collection. The data can be valuable in many ways, but the purpose of collecting the data should be discussed and mutually agreed upon. As far as the conversation after the data are collected, this is really driven by the needs and goals of the coachee. It is important that the coach not introduce their own judgments or interpretation of the data. It is up to the individual being coached to derive meaning from the data. The role of the coach is to simply show the data and ask mediative questions.

 

 

Can Schools Become Learning Organizations?

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In the article Can Schools Become Learning Organizations?, Nancy Isaacson and Jerry Bamburg frame several conditions that must be met for an educational system to transition into a learning organization. They start by talking about how educators must challenge their pre-existing mental models with the premise that familiar models of doing will only lead to familiar, predictable results. This made me reflect quite a bit on what learning really is.

If not approached strategically and systematically, “learning” can become nothing more than a rudimentary exercise in assembling facts and ideas to build schemas and construct meaning based on incomplete information. We must accept the limitations created by learning that depends on our fractional sensory perceptions, unique life experiences, and differential interactions with others and the world around us.

Taking such an approach to our learning will ensure that anything that we have learned will remain nothing more than a fragmented, compartmentalized assemblage of erroneous information, clouded with our biases and memory limitations. Furthermore, operating within the boundaries of such thinking, we may suffer the illusion of actually understanding the underlying structure of that that which we believe to have learned.

The authors of the article suggest that learning strategically requires thinking systematically, searching for ways to connect disciplines and break up the patterns of thinking that create stagnation and roadblocks to deeper and more meaningful learning. Out of fragmentation, we must search for synergy and seek out an understanding that dives deeper and more fully explores how all the pieces fit together along multiple dimensions and layers of complexity.

Prerequisite to thinking systematically is being willing to learn and grow, understanding that there is more learning out there to discover. After all, the students should not be the only learners in the building. Therefore, organizational learning is also largely about mindset. For a school to become a learning organization, every person in the school must accept the reality that there is much they do not know – yet. This sense of honesty about the limitations of our learning is an essential component to changing the outcomes of our schools.

This is best captured in the following passage from the article:

“Many problems continue to exist because we think they are inevitable, because we don’t want to rock the boat, because we think we will shoulder the blame, because it is someone else’s job to worry about this issue. All of these become reasons why we choose not to tell the truth in a specific situation.”

This pairs well with a quote from chapter 2 of Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline:

“Even if we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant. That very process blocks out any new understandings which might threaten us. The consequence, ‘skilled incompetence’, creates teams full of people who are incredibly proficient at keeping themselves from learning.”

To support the learning needs of the people in the organization, Isaacson and Bamburg argue that schools must give people choice and voice in shaping their professional learning. They suggest that professional learning should be just as much about people as it is about paper. I would argue that a people over paper philosophy would be a welcome change in many schools and potentially a key area for leverage for a school seeking to transition into becoming a learning organization.

Taking such an approach to systemic learning, it is essential for the leaders of a school organization to not view its employees as interchangeable parts of some machine, but rather unique human beings with diverse learning needs and interests. After all, isn’t this how we view the student learners in our buildings?

An unintended consequence of schools creating rigid employee categories is the creation learning fragmentation across these categories. This approach can create unnecessary barriers between employees in different categories and can reduce collaboration and communication between employees across these categories. By blurring the lines of distinction between school leaders, teachers, and learners, a structure and culture of collaboration and idea sharing can grow organically within a school.

An inevitable byproduct of this type of inclusive approach can only enable deeper and more meaningful conversations among all members of the organization. From these conversations, fresh perspectives and new ideas will continually emerge that create additive value to the school’s current understanding and approach to doing business.

In my mind, this is the heart of organizational learning. By introducing and implementing new learning derived from systemic thinking and collaboration, schools can create better educational outcomes and experiences for students and staff and better adapt and keep pace with the rapidly changing world around us.

 

Characteristics of Effective Instructional Leadership

Establish a Focus on Learning over Teaching

The primary purpose of any school is to ensure that every student served learns and achieves. This is why the building was built, why the adults were hired, and why the supplies were purchased. To ensure a high quality educational experience for every student, instructional leaders must critically examine the level of student learning happening in the building on a daily basis. They must engage in frequent learning walks to monitor the level of student learning happening across the building.

Effective instructional leaders critically examine student learning data on an ongoing basis, both formative and summative. They disaggregate achievement data into subgroups, look for patterns and trends, and examine root causes for performance gaps. Most importantly, they cultivate a mindset among their staff of “all means all”, encouraging teachers to use phrasing like “our students” as opposed to “my students” because they recognize that schools are evaluated based on the performance of all students, not just small cohorts of students served in individual classrooms.

 

A focus on relationships

Being an effective instructional leader is largely about creating followers of your vision and that isn’t likely to happen if the people the leader works with do not feel supported and appreciated. Instructional leaders cannot effectively lead while operating in isolation. The responsibilities are too big for any one person to go it alone. School dictators don’t last very long. They get burned trying to convince people to follow them. While people may comply with their orders, they will not be fully committed to them. It will be a constant battle trying to get anything done using such an approach. Therefore, it is essential for leaders to demonstrate a genuine interest in and care for those they serve. They must identify and empower current and emerging leaders in their building, and view themselves as a leader of leaders, not just a leader of all.

 

Simplify and Prioritize

Prior to rolling out any new initiative to staff, effective instructional leaders critically examine any pre-existing initiatives and assess the value-added nature of these initiatives as they relate to creating improved learning outcomes for students. If they are working well, and staff understand and are invested in them, making major changes for the sake of change is inappropriate and a pathway to disaster.

However, if they aren’t working and can’t be salvaged, instructional leaders must take ownership over this and let staff know that efforts will no longer be focused on that work. It will be taken off the plate. One of the most damning indictments of any school system is the number of initiatives that have been allowed to linger around for years on the back burner, despite the fact they may be less effective and with complete disregard for the time they parasitically waste away from the current work that staff should be engaged in.

Effective Instructional leaders have let go of the illusion that teachers can effectively manage many different initiatives simultaneously. They understand that assigning priority and simplifying expectations minimizes the level of confusion and animosity among the staff about the focus of the work. This helps them to build and maintain stronger relationships and trust among their staff. Therefore, to be an effective instructional leader, you must stand for something and, at the same time, not stand for everything.

 

Establish and sustain a clear vision for learning

Teachers working in any school building seek ongoing clarity regarding the future direction and vision for their building. Among the components of any vision for learning must be a message that establishes both a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency about the work that is required to fulfill the vision. Teachers also must understand and be invested in how and why this vision will work. To accomplish this, the details behind achieving the vision should be developed collectively between the instructional leader and his/her leadership team. This will ensure a shared accountability and ownership among staff for the work and increase the likelihood the vision will become reality.

Quick Thoughts on Leadership

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What does it take to be a great leader? First and foremost, I think you really need to understand that without followers, you aren’t really a leader. Leadership can be a very fleeting thing and its important for leaders to understand the fragility of leadership that is built merely around titles and positional authority. Great leaders realize that they must act in a way to be worthy of followers. To do this, leaders must look out for and take a genuine interest in the people they serve and place these interests above their own self-interest.

Simply, leadership isn’t about your own ego. In fact, I believe the truly great leaders are almost devoid of ego. They are action-oriented and hold themselves accountable for results, above anyone else. In essence, they realize that leadership is a calling and its price their own self-interest. Great leaders also realize that they can’t do it alone. They work to build the capacity of leaders around them and empower their followers to become future leaders. They give value to the ideas of their followers, understanding that more voices often shape better ideas.

Finally, leaders lead for a reason. They stand for something. They have a clear vision and target of how to move forward and are willing do the hard work to get there. They work harder than anyone else around them and are willing to get their hands dirty when needed. They have the backs of the people they lead and are supportive of them in times of need, getting their followers to reach their potential and fostering a growth mindset culture that ensures greatness and maximum sustainability beyond their own tenure as a leader.

So, You Want to be a Teacher Leader?

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I’ve been a teacher leader my district for the last two years. This spring, our district made some changes to our teacher leadership model, created some new roles, and modified some existing ones. Along with these changes, the application process for teacher leaders has become more formalized and rigorous.

As part of our process, all existing teacher leader positions will be open for application to any staff in our district. As part of our application process, we were asked to write letters of interest for positions of interest.

As a result, I’ve spent the better part of the last several days reflecting on what it really means to be an effective teacher leader, synthesizing my learning and experiences over the last few years into a meaningful message I could communicate in my application.

Being a person who believes a free exchange of ideas serves to benefit all those who aspire to learn from one another, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about teacher leadership over the last two years

First and foremost, your efforts must be in service to supporting student learning and well being and in improving outcomes for the students you serve.

I became an educator because I believe that it is possible for every student to achieve learning growth, maintain positive relationships with others, and develop a sense of pride and connectedness to our schools.

These beliefs are simply stated; however, they are not simply achieved.

Ensuring that every student achieves such targets and has such experiences in our schools is beyond the scope of any one individual working in a school building. Even the best building principal, if working in isolation, will find such goals nearly impossible to achieve and sustain. Effective school leadership requires systemic, distributed school leadership. It requires a team of individuals with diverse skills and strengths that share a collective commitment to a system and to one another. These individuals must support one another and model a mindset of growth and continuous improvement. They must be your early adopters, your innovators, your flexible thinkers, and your change agents.

Teacher leaders are mentors. 

I began my teaching career at East High School in Des Moines Iowa in 2006. I entered the profession as a very non-traditional 26-year old first-year teacher, having already earned my Master of Arts in Teaching Degree from Drake University. As a result, I believed I was quite capable of navigating the challenging pathways of being a brand new teacher.

Even with benefit of additional years of wisdom and more education than many first-year teachers, my first year of teaching was still very difficult, as I had to learn a great deal in a very short amount of time. The list of items I needed to learn quickly was very long. I had to learn who my administrators were, who my colleagues were, the dynamics and culture of the building, what my curriculum was, what the expectations were, who to go to for what, and most importantly, who my students were and how they could learn best.

My students were in many ways very different than any I had ever worked with before. They were a much more diverse and economically disadvantaged student population than any I had ever encountered. Their needs were quite unique.

Often, being a new teacher with no seniority means you are also given the most difficult teaching assignments and conditions. My experience was no different as I was assigned to teach a section of ELL Science with no translator for most of the year and no ability of my own to speak a foreign language with any level of proficiency. I had to learn how to teach without using many words. I had to adapt.

If I had been completely alone, this task could have been nearly impossible. Thankfully, I wasn’t. I was assigned to a mentor that was very proactive about being inclusive and making time to stop by my room daily before and after school. She really helped me learn what I needed to learn at a pace I could handle, but also in a targeted, timely manner. She ensured I would be successful, helped me maintain a healthy perspective regarding issues outside my control.

Most of all, she helped me to realize that the most important thing that happens in a school system happens within the classroom when teachers are working with the students, helping them learn and achieve.

In the challenging days, which were many, she always knew the right thing to say to help me see the positive, usually to reflect on the good that happened that day. No matter how bad my day was, there was always something good that happened inside the classroom, a moment of learning with a challenging student that I could take home and grow from.

After two years at East High School, I accepted a teaching position in the Johnston Community School District. In many ways, my third year of teaching was more challenging than my first year of teaching. The communities of Johnston and East Des Moines are about as different as it can be in Iowa. Again, I had to acclimate to new students, new colleagues, new personalities, new curricula, new school cultures and dynamics, and more.

Thankfully, there were plenty of teachers willing to support me in my transition to this district. They opened and shared their classrooms with me my first year as I traveled between two buildings and 4 different classrooms.

They shared their ideas and resources with me and went out of their way to help me to be successful.

While I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, in many ways, traveling every day between two buildings and sharing classrooms with so many different teachers over my first several years in Johnston was a blessing in disguise, as I had the opportunity to get to know so many of my colleagues more quickly and to collaborate and share ideas with them.

Eventually, new teachers came after me and I was the one sharing a room with them. I always enjoyed this and it was nice to be able to pay forward so much of the support I had received in my first few years of my career.

However, what I didn’t anticipate was how reciprocally beneficial this experience would continue be for me. 

I’ve learned, and continue to learn, and grow into a better teacher every day I’ve had the opportunity to watch another of my colleagues teach a lesson.

I believe the improvements made in support of our new teacher induction system as a direct result of the work of our mentor coordinators and teacher leaders represent some of the most significant improvements made to teaching and learning within our entire system.

It can be easy for those of us with experience in any district to take for granted all that we have learned over the years just by being in our district. Our comfort and confidence didn’t happen overnight. If we were fortunate, we were able to work with great people that supported us and helped us build that confidence over time.

As teacher leaders, it is now our responsibility to ensure that our new teachers are given even better opportunities to develop their own comfort and confidence in our district.

We must be ever mindful of the learning curves, implementation dips, and challenges our new teachers face on a daily basis as they attempt to assimilate into our district. We must scaffold their experiences and help provide them with ongoing support and training.

We need to put them in the best position to be successful, not just in their first year, but over the course of their career.

We need to work hard to make them feel like a part of our family right away and ensure that they develop a strong sense of connection to our district.

Be a team player.

Over the last two years, I have had the privilege and opportunity to serve as a lead teacher on our Instructional Leadership Team (ILT). While our team hasn’t been perfect, and we haven’t yet accomplished all of our goals, we have made significant progress along our journey to get there. When I think about our first ILT meeting nearly two years ago, with everyone sitting around a room, trying to figure out what teacher leadership was and how we would work together, it’s amazing to consider about how far we have come.

In just a few years, we have accomplished a great deal as a team. We have used student data to more meaningfully drive instruction. We have increased student engagement in learning and technology. We have leveraged classroom visits into creating more meaningful, authentic learning opportunities for our students. We have collaborated together to create interdisciplinary learning activities for our students. We have participated in coaching conversations, both as coaches and coachees, becoming more reflective and intentional about our instructional practices. We have planned and provided more meaningful and authentic professional learning opportunities for our staff. We have implemented high-yield instructional strategies with higher fidelity. We have improved the quality and facilitation of our PLC’s.

In short, our trajectory of growth has rapidly accelerated since the implementation of our TLC model.

While our list of accomplishments has been ambitious and perhaps even impressive, our work is not over. It will never be over. We haven’t yet arrived at our pinnacle of success. We may never arrive there.

However, more important than the final destination is the journey and process to get there. The work is never ending and the work ethic required to be impactful isn’t diminishing.

At its essence, teacher leadership is about cultivating positive relationships.

It’s about building consensus on solutions to complex, systemic challenges. It’s about finding ways to create and sustain a collective commitment to growth, reflection, and continuous improvement. It’s about creating a culture of inclusion, mutual respect, and accountability among all staff. It’s about leading an ongoing examination of our current realities as a building and working collectively toward a more improved desired state. It’s about constantly enrolling teachers in our coaching model and creating stronger sense of urgency among our teachers to improve learning outcomes for every student.

What makes an effective teacher leader?  Personally, as a teacher leader, I have had opportunities to participate and be a part many diverse learning and leadership opportunities over the last few years. Among our team, on the surface, it may not be readily evident how all these opportunities have dramatically shaped the type of leaders we have become.

I know I am not the same teacher leader I was two years ago or even two months ago. I believe these blended learning experiences have shaped me into a much more balanced and effective leader and have helped me develop and even stronger appreciation of the value of diverse perspectives and fresh ideas when working together as a team toward a common goal.

It’s much easier being on the sidelines, critiquing, imagining you’d be a great leader, than it is to actually learn how to effectively lead with a team of diverse individuals on the front lines.

As a team, I believe we were initially too responsive to trying to please our vocal minority, which every organization seems to have, instead of engaging with and devoting the majority of time to supporting our innovators and early adopters, building a critical mass to move our school towards more progressive, transformative change.

While we still make some allowances for the concerns, we no longer let the concerns monopolize or paralyze our collective actions. The train is still moving forward.

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It hasn’t been easy. As a team, we don’t always agree on everything. In fact, there is rarely ever universal consensus on any idea or initiative we are working on. And that is a great thing.

The synergy built from the tapestry of our collective leadership experiences and interactions with one another over the last two years is so much greater than the sum of our individual efforts done in isolation prior to the implementation of our teacher leadership model.

We are now comfortable with being uncomfortable. We push one another’s thinking. We get better. We’ve had to learn how to accept when our idea isn’t the best idea, and we’ve had to learn how to function as a team and support decisions made by our team, even the ones we didn’t agree with. And isn’t that the really the point of leadership – that you aren’t alone on an island by yourself?

My final advice: You must be constantly looking out past the horizon, finding new ways to grow and get better. You can never be content with the status quo.

Most of all, as a teacher leader, you must embrace this one simple truth:

Your journey of self-improvement will never be complete.

~Brad Hurst

Steve Jobs – Lessons in Innovation

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As part of my EDL 271 class at Drake University, I was asked to read an autobiography or biography of a prominent leader outside the field of education and prepare a short bulleted summary focusing on the person’s leadership style, highlighting key indicators of their success and ties to select Iowa Administrative Standards.

I chose Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs as my school district has established a central focus area around the concept of innovation. As a result, I wanted to learn more about what it takes to be an innovative change agent and, in my opinion, there is no more clear exemplar of innovative leadership than Steve Jobs.

Below are what I believe were some of the more pertinent and relevant qualities of innovative leadership and how I believe they align to the Iowa Administrative Standards. As you read over this, please keep in mind that this is only a short summary assignment. Perhaps the value in this blog is just to read his words and create your own meaning from them.

Enjoy!

Brad

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APA Citation for Book Read:

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Abstract/Key Words:

Based on more than 40 interviews over 2 years, as well as interviews with over 100 family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues, author Walter Isaacson tells the story of Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple Computer Company. The book provides many insights about the qualities that enabled Steve Jobs to be a pioneer in innovation, imagination, and creativity.

Key Words: innovation, reality distortion, creativity, inventiveness

Summary of the book:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

-Apple’s “Think Different” commercial, 1997 (p. 329)

Steve Jobs is well known as a founder of the Apple Computer Company and a leader of Pixar Animation. Highly regarded as a once-in-a-generation creative genius, his drive, imagination, and “reality distortion field” led to many of the greatest innovations in the world of personal computing and technology integration our generation has seen over the last 30 years.

Throughout his career, he consistently pushed the envelope of what was possible to imagine and create products that people never knew that they needed, but now could not live without. He steadfastly adhered to the principle that design should drive engineering and not vice-versa. With every product he created, he demanded the highest standard of quality, paying close attention to the smallest of details of the product’s design, including parts unseen by the consumer.

It was this attention to detail that also allowed him to simplify his products. By closely examining all parts of the design, he could find areas to minimize or eliminate parts and features that were redundant, unnecessary, or overly complicated. Through this concept of elegant simplicity, his products became more intuitive and inviting for all consumers.

As the pace of change and progress in education is notoriously slow, school leaders could learn a great deal from the life and leadership philosophies of Steve Jobs to become much more innovative educational change agents.

STANDARD 1: A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.

  • Effective leaders must be willing to challenge assumptions and beliefs.
    • “Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It was dangerous to get caught in his distortion field, but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.” (p.117-118)
    • “The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.” (p. 190)
  • Effective Leaders establish, maintain, and hold firm to their core beliefs.
    • Intuition is an undervalued aspect to effective leadership.
      • “The people of India don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.” (p. 48)
    • Simplicity is the key to innovation.
      • “Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we feel we have to dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style, It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” (p. 343)
    • Effective leaders have a clear vision that shapes their work. They know what they will do and have decided what they will NOT do.
      • “One of Job’s greatest strengths was knowing how to focus. ‘Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,’ he said. ‘That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.” (p. 336)
      • “By shutting it down, I freed up some good engineers who could work on new mobile devices. And eventually we got it right when we moved on to iPhones and the iPad.” (p. 339)

STANDARD 2: A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by advocating, nurturing and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional development

  • Take responsibility for your entire system and know how it works.
  • Stay hungry. Be uncomfortable with being comfortable.
  • Echoing Jim Collins: We need to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.
    • “But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players. When I worked at Pixar, it was a whole company of A players. When I got back to Apple, that what I decided to try to do. You need to have a collaborative hiring process. When we hire someone, even if they are going to be in marketing, I will have them talk to the design folks and the engineers.” (p. 363)
  • It is important for leaders to recognize how adults learn and how to push their learning forward.
    • “Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.” (p. 189)

STANDARD 6: A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

  • When you are behind, leapfrog your competition.
  • Focus on the details, but make sure you can still see the forest and not just the trees.
  • Seek to change the world. You just may do so.
  • It is important for leaders to keep their life and role in society in the proper perspective.
    • “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in my life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” (p. 457)
    • “I’m one of the few people who understands how producing technology requires intuition and creativity, and how producing something artistic takes real discipline.” (p. 397)
    • “If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.” (p. 407)

Summary:

How does all of this connect to school leadership? Perhaps that can be seen most clearly from the quote below. As you read it, substitute the word “students” for “products” and “everything else” for the word “profits.”

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, and what you discuss in meetings. (p. 567)

As the pace of change and progress in education is notoriously slow, school leaders could learn a great deal from the life and leadership philosophies of Steve Jobs to become much more innovative educational change agents.

Leaders Eat Last – A Simon Sinek Reflection

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This Fall, I am beginning coursework to earn my Specialist in Education Degree at Drake University. As part of my first graduate course in this program, EDL 270, I was asked to watch the above video of Simon Sinek’s Keynote at the School Administrators of Iowa Summer Conference.

I found this talk very interesting and relevant, as in my school district; we began our pre-service training this August by watching Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action ” Ted Talk. The messaging and philosophy around the “start with the why” concept has created a new methodology by which we are engaging in our district visioning and action planning this academic year.

In the current video, Sinek begins by crediting many of his former great and influential teachers that have shaped his success. Granted, he knew he audience was comprised of former teachers and those very passionate about education, but never less, it made me consider who my “roster” of great teachers are that have played pivotal roles in challenging me, motivating me, cultivating any potential they saw in me, etc. Similarly, as I embark on my new journey to learn more about educational leadership, and as a I aspire to become and administrator myself in a few years, I am left now also thinking of the colleagues, principals, district administrators, and superintendents I have worked with and what lessons I have gleaned from them that will shape my future philosophy and actions as an administrator.

In the video, Sinek makes the point that people always respond to the environments they are in. He makes a compelling argument about how we are able to achieve remarkable success when working in groups and lists several benefits that lie within the structure of working with people we trust. Not all groups are created equally or function at the same levels, but one clear and underlying theme to his message was that when we feel safe amongst our own, our collective efforts are multiplied.

This parallels messaging form Liz Wiseman’s Multiplier Effect. In this book, Wiseman makes the argument that there are 2 types of leaders: Diminishers and Multipliers. Diminishers are the leaders that weaken the collective efforts of those around them by requiring constant validation and reverence to their own brilliance. These types of leaders are hesitant to utilize the talents, ideas, and expertise of the people working around them for fear it might dim the aura of their self-perceived greatness. Contrarily, the most effective leaders, The Multipliers, leverage the intelligence, skills, and ideas of the people around them to create solutions. Multipliers understand that more voices shape better ideas. Multipliers lead from behind to build a collective leadership capacity and organizational flexibility that can overcome difficult challenges through working together toward a common goal or purpose. Continue reading

The Role of Failure in Learning

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Growing up in the 90’s, I, like many others, was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan in particular. One of my biggest regrets is that I never got the chance to see him play in person. I always admired his ability to embrace the big moments and to put his whole team on his back if needed and lead them to victory. Obviously, with 6 championships in 8 years – a span that included his brief retirement to play baseball – the results speak for themselves.

How did he go from being cut from his high school varsity team to being the greatest basketball team on the planet? Clearly, he wasn’t simply born with a lot of talent. Any talent he exhibited on the court was largely earned through years and years of dedicated practice and time spent refining his craft.

Consider the following passage from Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

“When Jordan was cut from his varsity team, he was devastated. His mother says, ‘I told him to go back and discipline himself.’ Boy, did he listen. He used to leave the house at 6 in the morning to go practice before school. At the University of North Carolina, he constantly worked on his weaknesses – his defensive game and his ball handling and shooting. The coach was taken aback by his willingness to work harder than anyone else. Once, after the team lost the last game of the season, Jordan went and practiced his shot for hours. He was preparing for the next year. Even at the height of his success and fame – after he had made himself into an athletic genius – his dogged practice remained legendary. Former Bulls assistant coach John Bach called him a ‘genius who wants to constantly upgrade his genius.’

“For Jordan, success stems from the mind. ‘The mental toughness and heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have. I’ve always said that and I’ve always believed that.” But other people don’t. They look at Michael Jordan and see the physical perfection that inevitably led to his greatness.”  

As I have matured, I have grown to admire this day in and day out grit much more than his accomplishments and accolades. Day in and day out, he was consistently the hardest working player on the court and during practices. He elevated the play of those around him through his contagious work ethic. Despite being the best player on the planet in the 90’s, he never took a day off. He was always looking for ways to improve and get better, even though he was already great.

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
― James C. Collins

Too often, we are content to be good or just good enough. My high school wrestling coach used to chastise us constantly for being “content to be mediocre”. That has really stuck with me throughout my life. I never want to be mediocre or even “good”. I want to be great. To be great, I must first become good. To become good, I have to work hard, fail as I push my limits, learn from my mistakes, and see my failures not as indictments on my abilities, but rather necessary experiences to push my growth.

To be great, we must be willing to take risks, knowing that when we take these risks, we will occasionally fail. That’s why it is a risk. Are we willing to step outside our comfort zone, be vulnerable, and make those mistakes? If so, we are more likely to improve and get better. If not, we will continue to stagnate, others will surpass us in the long run, and it will be too late.

Embrace failure as a natural and necessary outcome along the road to success. With each failure, try to view it as a learning opportunity, make adjustments, and then try (and likely fail again). Eventually, your persistence will pay off. If you live your whole life this way, you will end up in a much better place than those who consistently played it safe and rested on their past successes instead of sought out ways to continually grow and get better.

~Brad Hurst