Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sculpting Iron

There was a very interesting short read in the Jan/Feb 2014 The Atlantic called An Iron Fish in Every Pot.  It shares the experience about Christopher Charles, a researcher living in Cambodia studying the mass impact of anemia, especially on Cambodia’s women and children.  Anemia has many side effects, including impaired growth and cognitive development in children, and increased risks of premature deliveries and newborn fatalities.

Charles knew that iron-rich foods and supplements were limited for most rural Cambodians.  Whilea few acquired the needed iron nutrients through cast-iron pots, those utensils were largely unavailable.  So Charles distributed small blocks of iron to communities, telling them to place the iron blocks in their pots for cooking and boiling water.  However, he quickly observed that they were being used as mere doorstops.

Believing that he still had a remedy, he learned from the village elders of a fish known as try kantrop, which was a common meal and considered good luck.  When he handed out the iron blocks again, this time as replicas of the popular fish, the women started cooking with them.  Within 12 months, anemia where the iron fish was distributed all but disappeared.
This story has many lessons. One takeaway for me is grasping something that we know is valuable and beneficial for those that we serve, and delivering it in a manner that is welcomed.   A natural reaction to almost anything that comes across as “here, take this…it’s good for you” is met by some level of resistance…the “good for you” opportunities are not always considered as such.  In our schools, the opportunities can come in many forms: quality programs, improved curriculum, & effective instruction. But if it is not conveyed in a manner that the learner recognizes as anything more than a doorstop, the likelihood of it being associated as advantageous will not happen.  Part of our creativity in leading may include sculpting and repackaging quality instruction and effective learning so that it is engaging and embraced as worthy.

A consequential question naturally follows...what educational block of iron needs to be sculpted?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Power of Connections

I love stories.  I love the power of stories and the capacity they carry to teach lessons.  One that comes to mind concerning the school leaders is the story of William Dawes.  William Dawes was a peer of Paul Revere, and charged with the same task to ride out and send word of the British army’s arrival in the greater Lexington area.  While Paul took one route, William took another.  You are quite familiar with the Ride of Paul Revere, so why doesn’t the Dash of William Dawes make it into the history books?

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points out the message the two individuals was exactly the same: it was a critical message that would influence the length and outcome of the war.  The difference was not in the message that was being sent, but in the connection of the individuals to the greater community.  Revere was very well connected: He was a member of a number of civic organizations, active in the community, was well-versed in a variety of topics and could have a conversation with almost any person about anything (usually in a pub).  Dawes, on the other hand, was not connected to the community.  While he was a patriot and knowledgeable individual, he simply was an unknown and not connected to the greater community.  As a result, Dawes message was largely disregarded.

As education leaders, it is important that we are not only known to our immediate school community, but that we allow our influence to grow beyond within our district, into the state, and even nationally.  Today’s leaders are not only charged with taking care of their own backyard, but using their influence concerning the entire landscape of the education at the local level and beyond.  That is why being active learners ourselves is so important, and we do it best through connections, #edcamps, and learning networks. It is also why we should join professional associations.  I'm a proud member and past officer of the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals (@MoAESP), and have been a proud member of National Association of Elementary School Principals (@NAESP) during the tenure of my school leadership.

Belonging to local, state & national organizations is a win-win, both for you as an individual and for the organizations.  It is a chance to collaborate with principals in your region and across the state.  It is a means to connect and communicate with a greater audience concerning the value and importance of supporting public education and the impact that leadership has upon learning and culture.  It is an opportunity to work alongside leaders from within and outside education organizations to critically think and work toward a greater common good and increasing the the quality of life by those we impact. And finally, active membership provides learning connections and opportunities from each other, which in turn prompts creative and innovative solutions in navigating our ever-changing landscape.

The education leader of today has a job description that makes them, in short, nothing less than a connected marvel who is everything to everybody.  It is a difficult task, but one that can be accomplished, especially with the support of others in the same cause.  So take a moment to reflect upon the lesson of William Dawes.  How can you increase your leverage and connection?  In what ways can you increase your capacity? How might you serve your community and tell your story?  For me, being a part of something bigger has connecting points for all areas.  Please join me in encouraging fellow leaders to join in our efforts as we connect people to purpose.

Friday, April 12, 2013

climate control?


Like businesses & companies, there are downward cycles of motivation and productivity in education. Encouraging autonomy and participation has been found to be the best counter. Consider the following story found in Bolman & Deal’s (2008) Reframing Organizations.

A group of manual workers painted dolls in a toy factory. In a reengineered process, the worker took a toy from a tray, painted it, and put it on a passing hook. They received an hourly rate, a group bonus, and a learning bonus. Although management expected little difficulty, production was disappointing & morale was worse. Workers complained that the room was too hot and hooks moved too fast.

Reluctantly, the foreman gathered feedback from the workers. After hearing the complaints, fans were brought in. Although no benefit was expected by the foreman, morale improved. Discussions continued, and the workers proposed a radical idea: let them control the belt’s speed. This was met by opposition as the speed had been calculated for optimal performance. However, it was agreed to give it a try. The workers developed a complicated production schedule: start slow at the beginning of the day, increase speed once they warmed up, slow down before lunch, and so on.

Results were stunning: Morale skyrocketed; production increased far beyond the most optimistic calculations. Bonuses escalated to the point that the manual workers were earning more than skilled/experienced workers. And for that reason, it ended. The manual worker’s production and high pay became a problem as other higher-skilled workers protested. To restore harmony, management reverted to earlier practice: a fixed speed for the belt. Production plunged, morale plummeted, and most of the manual workers quit.

There are many things that can be taken from this story. Here are some of my take-aways: (I’d love to hear your take-aways).

*I’m wondering how we really do with asking staff about their ideas.  They are closest to what works and what doesn't, and probably have a great many ideas that would work.  Consider this example - McDonald’s best known combination is the Happy Meal. The Happy Meal was actually an idea from an front-line worker, not a manager/leader.  I believe most of any organizations' great ideas potentially go untapped, because the frontline workers aren't in a position or welcomed to share their innovative thoughts.  Do we open up our staff, team & grade level meetings to innovation and creativity? This would not only make teaching & learning more effective, but fun, engaging and participation-focused.

**We have a curriculum scope & sequence for content & standards, but the timing, intensity & delivery is part of the artisty of teaching.  The master teacher uses effective feedback from the students, formal and informal, as evidences that learning has taken place.
***Our schools are certainly not production lines. Let’s be cautious in producing packaged learners that don't have opportunities themselves to be active paricipants in their own learning.  These opportunities include developing the capabilities of Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking.  For more, consider Sir Ken Robinson's Changing Education Paradigms

****Finally, why do we feel vulnerable when others do well and surpass us in performance?  While healthy competition should be encouraged and welcomed, it shouldn't be used as a measure to maintain the status-quo.  Think of the implications for our under-resourced learners.  Placing superficial standards of allowing them to learn up to a point where they only match learners at the higher-end of the performance spectrum certainly limits them.  Why clip their wings? What if, in the right system, they could move beyond that?  What if we all worked collaboratively to move beyond any reeenginered & predetermined benchmarks of success?

Studies lend themselves to show participation is a powerful tool, both to increase morale and productivity. Even with just a few weeks left in this school year, increased contribution by students and staff alike could impact the learning climate. Give it a try; we may be surprised by end product.

Friday, February 1, 2013

can you hear me now?

I was reading this week an interesting article from the 1968 Phi Delta Kappan entitled The unheroic side of leadership: Notes from the swamp by Jerome T. Murphy.  A portion of his thoughts focused on listening and acknowledging.

It is the ability to listen that ought to be predicated by any action.  I have often heard that listening is a “soft” leadership skill, and I couldn't disagree more.  The skill of listening, empathetic listening, is one of the most difficult things to do.  It is so much easier for me to shut the person down quickly, with limited information, make a judgment and move on.  Good listening, however, requires an active effort to understand the world from another’s perspective.  It requires analysis of what has been said (including body language) and a sense of what has been left unsaid.  It’s just not listening to facts; a leader needs to understand feelings, meanings,  & perceptions.  It is an opening at an emotional level.

Often, folks just want an opportunity to express their frustrations and concerns.  To quote Murphy: “The very process of verbalizing frustrations and having them acknowledged often enables these individuals to move forward.”

On a bigger scale, organizational resources typically don’t meet the demands, as reasonable as they may be. This puts leaders in a tough spot, and listening is often the only thing that can be done. “...There is a big difference between a disappointed employee (who can deal with limited resources) and an employee who feels unheard (and therefore angry).”

Listening may be the key factor in acknowledging others.  It shares that we care and that we value what they bring to the table. 

My challenge this week is to practice listening skills...we may be surprised at how it also transforms relationships, and acknowledges individual worth.


Friday, January 25, 2013

eat the frog

When I moved over to central office to support our 33 elementary sites and leaders, one of my first sit-down meetings was with GB, who  serves as the Elementary Division Administrative Assistant.  She shared how she operates with matters as far as priorities, and that if I ever came in to my office and found some paperwork that had a frog accompanying it, that it was time sensitive and critical to attend to.
The back story of the frog is what prompts my thoughts today.  The idea comes from a book entitled Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy.  Said Mark Twain, “"Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."

Applied to our roles, that frog is the biggest, toughest, scariest, and/or most important task, and one that we might most likely procrastinate.  It’s the task that we may spend 80% of our time, effort & day trying to avoid.
Tracy states an associated rule: if you have to eat a frog, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it very long.  Consider the immediate and consequential mental, emotional, and physical accomplishment you would feel to start your day by tackling that most important task, having that courageous conversation,  and making that tough decision that followers count on you to make.

I’ve tried to apply this concept this week.  Every morning, I consider the challenges, tasks & opportunities before me, and designate one or two to be my frogs.  I limit myself to no more than two frogs a day, and for self-preservation reasons, I choose frogs that are not poisonous.

So, as you consider what will make the greatest impact to start your day...