Sunday, January 15, 2017

When 1 + 1 = 1...or 3

“Synergy is better than my way or your way. It's our way. Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals three, or ten, or a hundred, or even a thousand! It's the profound result when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.” 
Stephen Covey

“If you're talking about how you promoted synergy in an organization, that could mean you just got everybody together for donuts twice a week.”
Erin McKean


McKean’s point notwithstanding, I do enjoy donuts. However, I like true collaborative ventures even more. Like most educators, I am a firm believer in the “4 C’s” of 21st Century teaching and learning: Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking. In fact, these are often our “look fors” when we visit classrooms in our district. We believe that anytime kids are engaged in these activities, they move from mere “meaning seekers” to “meaning makers.” Moreover, as adults, we try to model these behaviors ourselves, communicating clearly and regularly, creating new ways to do our work, thinking through real problems, and, finally...collaborating.

Looking back over my career, I can point to many examples when I engaged in true collaboration which yielded amazing results, ranging from projects in the districts I’ve served, to books I have written with co-authors, to presentations I have delivered with colleagues. In each instance, the end result was better than what I could have produced on my own. On the other hand, I have also taken part in many “collaborative” projects which were really nothing more than a series of polite compromises. Too often, in fact, what we call “collaboration”--both in our classrooms and in our professional work--falls short of what I think we truly desire from our team efforts.
In the spirit of collaboration, I invited colleagues in our district to help me think about the topic of collaboration, sending a Google Form with questions taken from a Frayer Model template (If you are not familiar with the Frayer Model concept for examining vocabulary, see this link). Using this model, I asked my colleagues for:

  • Their definition of Collaboration
  • Characteristics/Indicators of Collaboration
  • Examples of Collaboration
  • Non-Examples of Collaboration
In perusing their responses, I was drawn to a comment about “synergy,” reminding me of Stephen Covey’s thoughts in the quote above and the idea that 1 + 1 can actually equal 3. When two people experience authentic collaboration (synergy), the final product is something greater than the two of them could have created individually. Even when we are on our “A” game, my very best alone, combined with your very best alone, yields a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. But, when we engage in legitimate collaboration by providing critical feedback, brainstorming, listening actively, disagreeing respectfully, and relinquishing our natural tendency to defend our preconceived notions, amazing things can happen: my best, while interacting with your best, can actually result in a 1 + 1 = 3 situation; what we produce through this collaboration is simply greater than our best individual efforts.


Unfortunately, I have also seen “collaboration” actually produce a deleterious impact upon final results. Indeed, I have witnessed teamwork that results in 1 + 1 = 1 situations. Often, this occurs when students (or adults) are grouped together and each member simply shares their thoughts with everyone else saying polite things and agreeing. It becomes more compromise than collaboration.

Let me provide both an example and a non-example from my own recent experience, starting with a non-example. Not long ago, I was randomly placed in a group with five other district administrators from around the nation. We were allowed two hours to create a presentation which we would share the following day. We began awkwardly and it went downhill from there. The person who offered to create our slidedeck was not proficient in doing so. The person who agreed to share the presentation the following day was not an effective speaker. Each time someone said something, it was added to a slide, regardless of whether it was relevant to the topic. It appeared that many in the group were holding back. I found myself thinking that our “collaborative” effort was less than what each of us could have produced alone and that several of us could have done a vastly superior job if we had done the entire project from soup to nuts independently. This, alas, was a collaboration non-example. We were guilty of sentiments shared by a colleague on my recent survey: Generic compliance to complete the task, always being an "okay, let's add that" group. To be honest, our presentation the next day bordered on embarrassing. This group--comprised of six highly-educated and successful leaders--generated a “collaborative” product that was decidedly less than what each of us could have done alone. Although collaboration can go awry for any number of reasons, in this instance it went south due to sheer politeness: no one was willing to push back on another’s ideas.

On a more positive note, I recently experienced what I consider a solid example of true collaboration/synergy. After finishing a recent book with co-authors Jimmy Casas and Todd Whitaker, we sent it off to several educators we respect around the world, asking them
to read the draft and provide an endorsement for the book if they deemed it worthy. We mentioned a deadline of December 31, 2016 for getting us the endorsement. We were so gratified by the many responses we received and are honored that so many respected friends and colleagues took time out of their busy lives to read our book and provide words of support. Then a surprising thing happened. It was around 3:00 pm on New Year’s Eve. I was having a late lunch while vacationing on St. Simons Island, Georgia. I noticed an incoming email on my phone from one of my educational heroes and all-time favorite thinkers, writers, and human beings, Rick Wormeli. Glancing at it quickly, I saw that he asked me to call him right away. Curious, I opened it and read further. To paraphrase, Rick said that although he felt it was a wonderful book, there was a paragraph he disagreed with so strongly that he would be unable to provide an endorsement unless we discussed and revised the paragraph. Yikes; I was not expecting this. My initial thought? Pretend I had not seen this and resume my NYE activities; instead, I returned to my hotel room and called Rick. For the purposes of this post, what he found objectionable in the paragraph is subordinate in importance to how he addressed it with me: respectfully and honestly. What transpired over the next 48 hours was a back and forth with Rick about the paragraph in question. During this time, I was clearly able to understand his perspective; at the same time, I explained my own, when we differed. In the end, I agreed that the words we had written were not sending an accurate interpretation of our stance--which was, actually, predominantly in alignment with Rick’s.

At one point, I sent him a revised paragraph which I thought was vastly improved and would end the back and forth. I’ll never forget something he said in his response: after agreeing that the paragraph was much better, he said, “But I suspect you did not send this to me because you wanted a ‘yes-man’ so I am going to push back just a bit more.” He then suggested re-wording two sentences. I used approximately 80% of his wording on these two sentences and our book became stronger as a result of the entire process. In the end, I was extremely grateful for Rick’s time and effort. I appreciated him helping to make our book just a tiny bit better. I am honored that he provided a wonderful endorsement for it. More than anything, though, I am grateful for the bold, honest, and respectful collaboration. Oftentimes, we are loathe to say we disagree with something that someone we like and respect says or writes. Rick had the courage--and compassion--to do so and I appreciate it. To be completely honest, at first I was taken aback and just a tiny bit defensive. However, after listening carefully--and sharing my own respectful counterpoints--I focused on the work and making it better. Although it only impacted one short paragraph in a 64,000 word manuscript, to me, it is a clear example of “1 + 1 = 3 collaboration.”

There is a place in our lives, I suppose, for compromise (and there is definitely a place for donuts!). However, when it comes to our professional practices, we must not be afraid to move beyond compromise and work toward collaboration or, better yet, synergy. Truly collaborative ventures are rarely smooth sailing and, at times, we must honestly let people we like and respect know that we disagree with them and we think we can do better. Going beyond our preconceived ideas when collaborating with our colleagues in an effort to have a more profound impact, is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

But I Did Stay at a Holiday Inn Express...

"The performance will be our credentials."
Ken Bouldin

One of the schools in our district, Kipling Elementary, has been engaged in a semester-long book study of Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse. As part of the study, each week a staff member shares their thoughts about a chapter of the book through a writing posted to the school’s blog, Learning and Leading in the One World Schoolhouse. Recently, I contributed to the school’s book study with my reflections on a chapter of the book titled, “The Future of Credentials.”

In this very short chapter, Kahn suggests we are mixing three different ideas together when we speak of “education.” The first is the idea of teaching and learning. The second aspect is socialization. The third idea is that of credentialing--giving a piece of paper to someone that proves to the world that they know what they know. Khan maintains that these three ideas get muddled together because they are all performed by the same institutions. He makes the case for separating the role of ”credentialing,” letting people gain credentials through alternative sources.

Although short, I found this chapter both powerful and validating. Currently, traditional credentials for students are the diplomas they receive at various stages along their academic journeys. At the college level, these “credentials” are time consuming and expensive. Moreover, they are a bit vague in terms of describing what, exactly, the owner of the diploma actually knows and is able to do. What is truly important is not the diploma itself, but what the owner of the diploma can do as a result. I am reminded of the old Holiday Inn Express ad campaign in which various people perform remarkably in any number of roles with their only “qualification” being that they had stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the night before. Here is but one example from this ad campaign:

How is this humorous commercial advertisement applicable to credentials? Well, the fact that we possess a diploma--or that we have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express--is, ultimately, unimportant. What truly matters is whether we can perform the required skills necessary to succeed. Personally, I have actually earned the “credential” of staying at a Holiday Inn express. However, you certainly would not want me performing surgery on you any time soon. As the commercials suggest, however, the reverse may also be true. If one can perform the skills, the credential itself (a diploma) is subordinate in importance--possibly even irrelevant--and could actually come from an alternative source of credentialing rather than the typical source (a school).

Traditional credentials also pose equity challenges for students from underrepresented communities. To make the process more affordable, fair, and less time consuming, what if we, instead, designed specific credential opportunities for a wide variety of skills and allowed anyone to attempt to earn these credentials anytime and anywhere as a way to better themselves?

Like most things in education, what applies to students also applies to us, as educators. What if--instead of grad school--we were allowed to advance our pay level and degree level by proving we had acquired new knowledge and skills, instead of putting in the required seat time and credit hours to earn another diploma? Speaking only for myself and reflecting on my master's, specialist's, and doctoral degrees, I think such learning might have been more efficient, cost effective, and relevant than most of the traditional graduate-level education courses I endured.

I take pride in so much of what we have done and continue to do throughout our own amazing school district in Deerfield, Illinois. Among these many accomplishments is our own small initial foray into credentialing through our Deerfield University professional learning platform. This platform allows staff members to earn badges and incentive points on a voluntary basis by learning about a topic, doing something with their learning, and submitting evidence of their application of learning. It would be interesting to offer credentialing opportunities to our students as well. In fact, I wonder what credentials we would offer at various grade levels and subject areas? What would be the Top 5 credentials you would offer students the opportunity to earn if you teach 4th grade? Music? Art? PE? Calculus? Spanish? Maybe it would be fun to determine the “critical 5” for each area, the essential knowledge and skills that you would expect any student in the grade/course to earn along with another 5 that would be “growth” credentials, based on individual interest or exceptional aptitude in a certain area.

Khan labels this chapter, “The Future of Credentials,” but it seems as if too often in our noble profession we speak about “The future of…” when we need to shift our mindset and realize the future can be now. Identifying the key knowledge and skills we want our students and each other to possess, determining methods for measuring mastery of this, and then awarding a credential certifying such mastery are ways we can personalize learning for all today. They are also ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Just One Thing

“Your students won’t always remember what you've taught them, but they’ll always remember how you've treated them.”

Earlier this week, I was commiserating with a principal friend about our respective writing projects. Having just submitted my newest book to the publisher, I lamented that I was so deep into it that I could no longer discern if it was even any good. My colleague expressed a similar sentiment and then suggested something that gave me pause. In essence, he suggested that if we in education simply did just "one thing," we would have it all solved. This "one thing" reference reminded me of a key moment in the film City Slickers. Check out this clip:

My colleague's "one thing"? If we all followed the golden rule of treating others the way we want to be treated, that would take care of pretty much all the challenges we face in education and we would not need any books at all. Oversimplified stance? Perhaps. But, let’s consider. 

Four Seasons is noted for its fanatical adherence to their philosophy of doing everything in their power to provide first class treatment to their guests--and each other. In fact, under the “How We Behave” umbrella of their Service Culture framework, they commit to the following: We demonstrate our beliefs most meaningfully in the way we treat each other and by the example we set for one another. In all our interactions with our guests, customers, business associates, and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us. Presumably, most everyone reading this post would concur with this ancient philosophy, but how often do our actions truly align with our beliefs when it comes to this “one thing”? Recently, I was treated horribly by someone I know. I recall thinking, “I can’t imagine how this person could possibly have treated me like this. I would never want to treat someone like this.” A few days later, I had the conversation with my colleague and started to reflect on my own treatment of others. Upon reflection, although I am still confident I would never have done what was done to me, I was equally confident that I do not always treat everyone with whom I come in contact precisely the way I would want to be treated. But what if I did? And what if we all did--especially in our schools?

In what ways would our schools be different if every educator in every school dealt with every student, every colleague, and every parent as we would have them deal with us? For instance, if that “one thing” was the standard for treating others, how would we respond when:
  • A student misbehaves consistently?
  • A colleague asks us to cover their class?
  • A working parent asks if they could meet for a conference before or after “normal” working hours?
  • A student fails to turn in an assignment?
  • A student, parent, or colleague lashes out at us angrily about something?
  • A student misses two weeks of school for being ill?
  • A colleague falls short of our expectations in some area?
If, in each of these instances, we responded according to this “one thing,” I suspect our schools would be better places in which to teach, learn, and lead. If someone disappoints us--be that person a student, parent, or colleague--and we respond with respect, empathy, and honesty, chances are we are responding in a way we would want that person to deal with us. Here’s the kicker, though--(well, three actually):
  1. It Starts with Me: First, like all good ideas for making our world a better place, it starts with me (or, in your case, you). If we are not modeling this behavior ourselves, it is unlikely to spread and become embedded in the culture of the organization. 
  2. Easier Said than Done: Second, this sounds a whole lot easier in theory than it actually is in practice. I mean, there are some really annoying things occurring in our schools each day! Not only that, but at times people with whom we interact disappoint us, treat us poorly, and even do things that hurt us. When these things happen, it is never fun and often tempting to respond in kind. When thusly tempted, it behooves us to keep in mind the following powerful axiom: “We are defined by our actions toward others, not others’ actions toward us.” 
  3. We are All Different: Third, I have learned that not everyone wants to be treated the way I want to be treated. Although there are certainly differences among people in how they prefer to be treated, in our schools I suspect there are some ways of dealing with others that work for nearly everyone. Behaving toward others with dignity, respect, patience, calmness, and empathy while actively listening and seeking to honestly know the other person are behaviors that will sit well with virtually all students, parents, and colleagues in our schools. In fact, the more we get to know our kids, parents, and colleagues, the more equipped we are to twist the Golden Rule just a bit, moving from treating others as we would want to be treated to treating others as they would want to be treated.
via: UAuz96
We may never get the entire school community consistently behaving to the Four Seasons standard of dealing with others, but the more often each of us models this “one thing,” the more likely it is we will get others to follow suit. Eventually, if we stay the course, it may even become embedded into the culture as simply, “The way we do things around here.” This “one thing” may not be the answer to every challenge facing those of us serving in schools, but I honestly suspect it would eliminate many of the negative incidents that occur therein. Moreover, intentionally and consistently seeking to deal with others as we would have them deal with us is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Do Your Best. Then, Do Better.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou

Here are three true statements (that some may find impossible to believe) about the first principal I ever worked for as a teacher:

  • She smoked cigarettes in her office occasionally.
  • She sometimes paddled children with a wooden paddle when they misbehaved.
  • She was an outstanding principal who I liked and respected a great deal during the five years I worked with her. To this day, I still consider her a friend and mentor.
At the time, I was teaching first grade in a suburban area just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Admittedly, I am very old--as my PLN friends are quick to point out--but this was not the Stone Age; it was the 1980s. And my principal smoked in school and paddled kids. And I thought she was awesome. In considering these three points from my first year of teaching, some may find the fact she smoked in the principal's office the most incredible. Others may find using a wooden paddle to punish kids even more incomprehensible.
However, I would not be surprised if some find the fact that I actually liked and respected the principal--one who smoked and paddled children--the most surprising of all. To those of you, I promise, you would have liked and respected her, too, if you worked for her during that era. She was a student-centered leader who truly cared about every single child in the school of over 1000 K-5 students. She cared about every staff member, too. In fact, thanks in large part to her leadership, we were a close-knit staff who worked hard together when at school and enjoyed each other’s company outside of school.
How can I speak so highly of a school leader who smoked in her office and occasionally paddled children who misbehaved? At the time, such behaviors were completely acceptable parts of the school and district culture--and were equally acceptable throughout that part of the country. To use Angelou’s quote, you might say she was doing the best she knew at the time. However, because she was a lifelong learner who was open minded and welcomed change, when she knew better, she did better. In my final year of teaching there, she had stopped smoking and put a halt to corporal punishment, even though both were still legal (and widely practiced at neighboring schools) at that time. So, what are the implications of my first year teaching experiences from decades ago for those of us practicing as teachers and school leaders in 2016?

First, it is important to realize that best practices evolve over time. What we think is best practice right now may well be looked at with scorn and horror many years hence. Still, we must move forward, doing the very best we can today, armed with the very best knowledge we have available to us; at the same time, we should constantly examine and reflect upon what it is we consider best practice today and always be open to changing when we find a better way. We simply cannot continue to do things if the only reason we have for doing them is the fact that we have always done them. In my first year of teaching, the principal paddled children--and the vast majority of the staff supported and even encouraged this behavior--simply because it had always been done. There simply was no other defensible reason for doing this. Thankfully, we are no longer using corporal punishment in most schools across the country. Fortunately, smoking is no longer allowed in schools either. Believe it or not, however, in every school I visited this year--including those in my own district--staff still did things simply because they have always done those things. Like my first principal, the people doing these things are neither bad people nor lazy professionals. In fact, many are passionate individuals dedicated to their kids, colleagues, and schools. Yet some traditions continue in schools today that serve no real learning purpose. When we notice this happening, we should confront it, discussing it openly among all affected parties. Ultimately, if we cannot support our current practice or policy in ways other than, “Well, we’ve always done it that way,” we should seriously reconsider such practices or policies.

In full disclosure, my principal that year was not the only educator in the building doing stupid things. To be completely honest, I suspect that I was right up there atop the leaderboard in terms of educators doing stupid things. In fact, I am still writing apology notes to the children in my classroom during that era. If memory serves, I may have even shared a cigarette or two with my principal in her office during the year! It is of some comfort, I suppose, to know that if, today, we were to poll every one of my colleagues working in the school that year, I suspect each would say the same thing: as much as they cared about their kids and their profession, in hindsight, they engaged in some practices then that seem rather ludicrous today.
So what lessons can we learn from the somewhat shocking behaviors that occurred many years ago which seemed perfectly normal at the time? And, what lessons can we learn from much more recent--if less extreme--practices that we no longer consider best practice? My answer is that we must be extremely vigilant about monitoring all we do, measuring whether it is producing the desired results, and implementing new and better ideas whenever we discover them. Realizing that times change and our practices can and should change with them is important. The vast majority of us are doing the very best we know how each and every day. Still, we must be open to the possibility that what we are doing today as “best practice” may not be the best we can do tomorrow. Doing our very best on a daily basis--and then doing even better when we know better--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!