Thursday, November 26, 2015

The 4 Practices of Servant Leadership for School Leaders

The concept of Servant Leadership is something of a misunderstood but very desirable leadership style. Considered to be "soft leadership," Servant Leadership is rather challenging, as it requires fantastic levels of emotional vesting. Many people want to be, and believe themselves to be, a servant leader. If you desire to be a Servant Leader, it must start with having a deep understanding and belief that a Servant Leader is servant first, and focused upon genuine needs versus artificial wants of those within your influence.

I ascribe to the definition that servant leadership is the ability to influence and connect people to a greater purpose through relationships. And what better place for this to happen than in our schools? For learners of all ages, generous and meaningful learning experiences transform the ordinary person into extraordinary individuals. To grow your servant leadership capacity and influence in others, consider the four following Servant Leadership practices.

The Servant Leader Values & Develops People.  Trust and respect are generally viewed as linked values, and although generally earned, the servant leader practices them openly. Leadership excellence is caring about people, and leaders respect their people. It comes from leader's ability to first recognize each other's gifts, strengths and interests. While encouragement from a leader is appreciated, it is positive affirmation that people want- appreciation, acknowledgment and praise that recognize people for who they are and what they do.

The Servant Leader Displays Authenticity. Being open, while accepting others without judgement or need of approval, is a hallmark of being authentic. When we are in touch with our open nature, we exert an enormous attraction to others through vulnerability. This opens the door for mutually collaborative and empathetic relationships. Being present, having your whole self available to to others, as you influence authentically from values that are attuned to people's feelings transforms the relationship, so people move beyond what you do into why you do it.

The Servant Leader Builds Community. Community means different things to different people. To some it is a safe haven where survival is assured through cooperation. To others, it is a place of emotional support. Some see community as an intensive atmosphere for personal growth. For others, it is simply a place to pioneer their dreams. Whatever the reason, the servant leader recognizes that leadership is a relationship rooted in community, and embodies the groups most precious values and beliefs. Servant Leaders recognize that community building teaches people how to empty themselves, and how to really listen. It teaches how to make meaningful change through increased consciousness.

The Servant Leader Provides & Builds Leadership. As leaders pay attention, day-to-day experiences trigger promptings that might take followers somewhere important if they allow themselves to be led. Although required to be in the present, looking back and learning from the past is the first step to envisioning and casting the future story for those around them. Leaders model risk-taking, as they provide encouragement and shelter for venturing and risking the unpopular. While providing leadership insinuates followership of others, sharing leadership implies a collaborative effort. As leaders, we would be wise to adopt the term primus inter pares, which translated means first among equals.

These practices are transforming because they are based upon the human experience - they are engaging, they are relevant, and they are personal. As leaders, may we increase our desire to develop and drive our personal capacity to serve out of love - a love for those we serve and the purpose we are called to.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

First day thoughts for principals

The first day of school is a misnomer.  Everyday can and should be considered a first day.  This Wednesday is the first Wednesday of the Week. Most will consider this Friday to be the end of the work week, but it is also the first Friday of this week.  Everyday is a new day, and as a leader, the daily culture is influenced by the leader’s attitude toward it. 

Having said that, there are a number of practices principals and leaders, novice and experienced alike, to do for the first day/days of school:

1) Avoid the office on the first day, even the first week of school. Be out and about your school. Be visible to students and staff alike. Your visibility will scream so much more than you what you ever say or write at your desk. Establish visibility and being out and about the learning as your priority, on the first day, and everyday afterward. It is difficult to lead a school from behind your principal’s desk.

2) Make the first week or two about relationships. Rules and curriculum or learning standards certainly don't matter during the first days; relationships do. The learning time that you will get later in the school year is completely dependent upon the quality of relationships that are established those first days of school.  

3) Use their names- teachers and students alike. Nothing acknowledges the worth and value of a person like greeting them warmly, calling them by name, and sharing a positive comment with them. You will never get their heads if you don’t get their hearts.

4) Learn the power of empathy. Don’t confuse this with compassion, sympathy or being soft. Rather, use empathy on the first day and every day after to serve in giving others what is needed for them to be successful in learning and achieving. (note: this does not translate to giving them what they want- this is a very important distinction)

5) Focus on the students through the adults. One of my greatest failing forward moments from my first year as a principal was trying to run a classroom of 350+ students. I was focused on the students. I failed miserably. I learned that my role was to be a teacher of teachers- that I needed to focus on leading, supporting and building the capacity of teachers so they would, in turn, do the same with students. 

Finally, develop an understanding that culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin. Their influence on each other is inseparable and direct.  When one suffers, so does the other. When one is influenced, the capacity of the other is always directly impacted, and that knowledge prompts action for the better.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Principal of Potemkin

As the story goes, in the late 18th century, Catherine the Great of Russia announced she would tour the southern part of her empire, accompanied by several foreign ambassadors. The governor of the area, Grigory Potemkin, desperately wanted to impress these visitors. And so he went to remarkable lengths to showcase the country’s accomplishments.
For part of the journey, Catherine floated down the Dnieper River, proudly pointing out to the ambassadors the thriving hamlets along the shore, filled with industrious and happy townspeople. There was only one problem: it was all for show. It is said that Potemkin had assembled pasteboard facades of shops and homes. He had even positioned busy-looking peasants to create the impression of a prosperous economy. Once the party disappeared around the bend of the river, Potemkin’s men packed up the fake village and rushed it downstream in preparation for Catherine’s next pass.

Although modern historians have questioned the truthfulness of this story, the term “Potemkin village” has entered the world’s vocabulary. And I wonder, how many leaders have ended up serving as the Principal of Potemkin? Some leaders may have lost their way, relying on themselves, failing to connect with other leaders, build their PLN, and grow their capacity. Left alone to maneuver through political pressures and regulations being passed by state and federal officials, often by those least understanding of its impact, many principals find themselves caught in the trap of setting up a facade school, disguised as the next best fix. And because many initial changes generally work due to the excitement and enthusiasm of "school reform", many leaders fall victim to making others believe they are better than they really are. They put on the dog-and-pony show with all the bells and whistles, but have forgotten the focus.
I think we can avoid becoming the Principal of Potemkin if we focus on learning: Learning as leaders, and building a school culture that centers on learning for adults and for students. When we have this as our focus, it matters not who passes by with the education reform flavor-of-the-month. 
This is why I enjoy conferences such as #NAESP15 I'm able to connect with other leaders, who expand my learning and capacity. I'm also able to continue my understanding of what learning is, and how I can influence the learning of our greatest gifts - our students.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Empathy as part of the learning experience

Something I’ve been reflecting upon quite a bit lately is empathy. In our quest to help students become learned, strong and capable individuals, it appears our culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathatic. Beyond the research on empathy, common sense and experience tells us kiddos who are more empathetic do a much better job in embracing failure, because there is little ego involved in their tasks. Setbacks while disappointing are rarely seen as a failures, and viewed as a learning experience about an approach that does not work for the task at hand.

The process of teaching or guiding students towards being more empathetic appears to be a two-fold, creative process. First, we must help students recognize and understand the continuum of how their seemingly ordinary everyday behaviors influence others. This leads to the second part; helping them recognize their ability to become empowered to help themselves and others. Notice the word help with both of these- that falls upon us.  A key question for each of us to consider individually: Do I have the ability to parlay empathy into the learning experience? This is the creative modeling necessary by adults.

In the early years, we lay the foundation for responsible citizenship. Children learn kindness, respect, and empathy—internal strengths that connect them to others. You can't just talk about these feelings and expect understanding; kids need to experience them. Many programs like scouts, church groups, and service clubs are places children learn and experience these positive values. But these ideas being reinforced in programs and home may not be enough. These have a place in our school communities.

Character education in the early years helps build strengths like honesty, responsibility, fairness, and compassion— internal assets that lead to happiness and well-being. These are the kinds of human qualities that foster responsible citizens, children who grow up to donate to food drives, recycle their trash, or help during a times of need.
Just like businesses require innovation and the ability to respond to change, so do communities. By the time children reach adolescence, their brains are capable of understanding complex issues and exploring the root causes of problems. In order for democracies to thrive, citizens must question and respectfully debate how to improve society — how to change established systems that are inefficient or unjust.
Service-learning, particularly as our students progress into their high school years, offers young people unique opportunities to link what they learn in the classroom to real world situations in their communities. Often, these experiences push them out of their comfort zones to see the world in new ways. Opportunities abound to move beyond the school walls to learn and serve together. These experiences are often transformative for youth and teach them how to think critically about the world around them.
In our connected world, it is empathy that may be our most powerful human characteristic. It is wonderful. It is listening with intent. Empathy provides opportunities for experiences to become innovative citizens, people who see beyond surface causes and effect change in their communities and beyond. These kinds of citizens question why people are hungry, debate solutions to clean energy, or investigate the relationship between race and poverty. This is the type of learning I want in our schools.

If for no other reason, let’s teach our kids empathy for self-preservation. One day, you and I are going to be signed into a home. And we want to be put into a good home :)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Love &'s for grown-ups, too

I have come to know a quite amazing person over the past few years. She is an educator, and one of the best I’ve been around.  She has a heart for kids, and is especially aware of kiddos who have less opportunities than others. The manner in which she talks about her job, learns all she can and pursues excellence for those she serves is simply exemplary, and is a model for how I should be approaching my job. I have simply become her biggest fan.

A common statement is to be kind to others, for we never know the battles they are facing.  I think more common than not is we apply this thinking to those who need empathy that can be seen. But we all have our own battles. Battles that are real and relevant. Fears that keep us awake at night, challenges that we don’t know where to start, and feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and/or doubt.

My friend who I’m thinking about is going through a difficult time personally, and experiencing many of the feelings described. I believe her words in describing herself included that statement “a hot mess.” The thing is, she wears it well. It appears she leaves it at the door when she leaves home, and while she may juggle a few unpleasantries during the day, she focuses on learning and doing what’s best and right by kiddos. She leaves her role (and as with most educators, takes work home with her) so that she can be mom, her most cherished and important work, where there, too, she may not truly be appreciated for all she does.

She’s worn out. She’s tired. She’s hurt, and she’s even scarred. But no matter how she feels about herself, I just want her to know that she is beautiful. What makes her that way is the hope in her eyes, the love in her heart, and the passion in her soul.

You may know this person, or someone just like her. I know her. I love her and her heart. She needs to know she is important, that she is of value and of worth. She has influenced more than students; she has inspired me and influenced all those who take the time to watch and learn from her example. And when you have a chance, please let her know by expressing appreciation and kindness. She needs it, too.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Artistry in Creating Learning

It's doubtful you have ever witnessed a student become filled with joy and meaningful satisfaction upon completing a worksheet. With the only sense of accomplishment coming from completing such a task, any given student most likely would file the "learning activity" under "things that suck". A simple observation from this simple educator: happy and engaged are students that are given the opportunity and freedom to be expressive, to discover, to create. 

For too many students, school today is filled with redundancy of the abstract. Ideas and symbols, linguistic representations and mental models that are rarely fully developed. We generally learn best when we can actually create something concrete; when we turn an idea or thought into a product. More important, the learning from the process itself is purposeful, creating that "stickiness" that only experiential learning can provide. Every day, our students could and should have the opportunity to develop and test their ideations and prototypes - items that become refrigerator door and counter top masterpieces for the world to see.

I doubt the same joy & fulfillment referenced earlier is shared by the teacher who copied the generally insignificant worksheet for the students. Where is the brilliance in this? The highest quality
of life is filled with creative expression. It should include a broader definition of who we think as artists. Barbers, cooks, gardener, and janitors have as much right to claims of creative artistry as sculptors and painters.  This includes school staff, teachers and administrators, who are indeed entitled to the same innovation license as designers and architects to model valuable creating and learning opportunities.

Every learner and educator has a unique contribution to make toward impacting the quality of life, both for themselves and for others.

These past few years have been an extremely exciting learning time for many in our district I'm fortunate to be a part of.  Our district has decided it was time to put action to school reform ideas that have been spouted for years  From a diverse group of students, parents, educators, business, and community leaders, we have developed frameworks around what "Learning shouldn't be" and what "Learning should be" (Check out more on twitter at #ImagineSPS).  Here are a few shouldn't and should's...

1. Learning shouldn't be quiet- Given the chance, learners of all ages want to talk and share their learning experiences. Master teacher guidance is important, and given the framework and purpose, learners work to solve a problem and understand solutions. They talk about their personal learning experiences, hopes and expectations. Feedback from teacher and peers filled the room with purposeful energy - a creative buzz.

2. Learning should be messy- Meaningful learning is not divided into subjects. Outside of school, we rarely find segmented time for subjects; so why do we treat school this way? Life is messy; let's help our prepare them for their future by integrating and embedding authentic learning activities.

3. Learning should be fun- I specifically watched adults fabricate mental models to solid structures using various items from a maker-table. The passion of their creation came in building and articulating their experience. They smiled and laughed through discouragement when their prototypes didn't work, and became animated in pressing forward. Interesting side-note here: the adult learners' hands continued to manipulate objects such as Play-Doh, straws, pipe-cleaners, and other items from the maker-space table as they tested and discussed their process. This was not a distraction, even seeming to add to the creativity and discussion process.  Yet how many times do we insist that students clear their desk and put things away so they "won't be distracted?"

4. Learning should be personal- I love this has become our district mantra, and three words came to mind through this imagining process as we worked to make the mantra real: For learning to be personal, learning needs to be engaging, meaningful, and relevant. Learners today have access to knowledge at their fingertips.  This shift means the teacher is no longer the keeper and giver of knowledge.  Rather, the artistry of teaching becomes guiding, fostering, mentoring and facilitating how to use and apply the knowledge. For this reason, teachers are more important than ever.

It is a critical time in education, and never has it been more exciting!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The value of work

“If you are poor, work. … If you are happy, work. Idleness gives room for doubts and fears. If disappointments come, keep right on working. If sorrow overwhelms you, … work. … When faith falters and reason fails, just work. When dreams are shattered and hope seems dead, work. Work as if your life were in peril. It really is. No matter what ails you, work. Work faithfully. … Work is the greatest remedy available for both mental and physical afflictions.” (Korsaren, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life, New York: Forbes Inc., 1968, p. 427.)

What comes to mind when you think or hear the word “work?”

I am not necessarily talking about one’s job, as I hope people end up working in a field they love and have a passion for.  Sadly, some people will and do say “work sucks,” and “I wish I didn’t have to work.” Not to be confused with one’s “job,” I’m referring to the process and value of work. While not working on a rare occasion may be more about self-preservation or an earned break, work itself brings great value.  Think for a moment: What would life be like without work? 

Work is the primary means of both a growth mindset and self-actualization.  Work is honorable. Developing the capacity to work helps the individual contribute to the world in which we live. It brings an increased sense of self-worth by realizing one can make a worthwhile contribution that is for the greater good, extending beyond themselves to their families and communities.

Aligned to the adage of not being worth it if it’s easy, I don’t know that anything is supposed to be completely stress-free. Setting high goals for myself, and being willing to labor to achieve them is the foundation of my growth plan. A few characteristics are needed and strengthened, such as develop self-discipline, and being accountable. Continuous improvement is not related to employment alone, but also other worthwhile pursuits that make me well-rounded and balanced. Recognizing that we each have gifts and talents yet undiscovered, and that through work, hidden skills are usually spotted and developed by collaborating with others, is how we all become capable of achievement and success.

Charles Kinsley stated “Thank God every morning when you get up that you have something to do that day which must be done, whether you like it or not. Being forced to work, and forced to do your best will breed in you temperance and self-control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a hundred virtues which the idle will never know.”

An idea that comes from the previous quote is that work is the prelude to cheerfulness and being content.  There is little to compare to the feeling of satisfaction when a job is done, and done well.  A completed work, project or task is rewarded by physical, mental and emotional gratification.

I love what J. Richard Clarke stated: “We have a moral obligation to exercise our personal capabilities of mind, muscle, and spirit in a way that will return to [ourselves], our families, and our society the fruits of our best efforts. To do less is to live our lives unfulfilled. It is to deny ourselves and those dependent upon us opportunity and advantage. We work to earn a living, it is true; but as we toil, let us also remember that we are building a life. Our work determines what that life will be.” Clarke continues, “Work is honorable. It is good therapy for most problems. It is the antidote for worry. It is the equalizer for deficiency of native endowment. Work makes it possible for the average to approach genius. What we may lack in aptitude, we can make up for in performance.” (April 1982.)

May we ourselves capitalize upon the lessons of work, and instill our future generations with the value of work.