Sunday, January 24, 2016

Change for Direction, Not Perfection


“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.”

“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” 


Both of the above quotes are attributed to our pal, Winston Churchill, with the former likely being more familiar to most than the latter. In education, it seems we are almost always advocating for change in almost every aspect of what we do. In fact, I find myself and many fellow educators I respect a great deal arguing passionately for changes in the ways we approach instruction, classroom environments, assessment, grading and reporting practices, technology integration, libraries, and teacher evaluation, to name but a few. It seems as if we believe, a la Churchill, that the more we change, the closer we will come to “perfecting” education.

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I typically consider myself somewhat of a change agent in our profession; in fact, I often look forward to and embrace change in all areas of my life. Recently, however, I realized that Churchill’s second quote is equally worthy of our attention; it is not always wise to change simply for the sake of change; instead, we must consider why we want change and whether the proposed changes will accomplish our goals and result in a better version of what came before.


Each January, I visit my eye doctor for an annual vision screening. For years now, I have worn one contact lens, in my left eye. It was a compromise we made several years ago, allowing me to see adequately--though not perfectly--both from a distance and while reading. To see perfectly in terms of both reading and distance would have required that I wear both contact lenses and reading glasses, a scenario I refused (and still refuse) to consider. For me, this compromise continues to work well enough. In terms of the contact lens itself, again, I have been using the same brand and type for many years. To me, these lenses have always been fine. Not perfect, mind you, but they rarely bother me and my eye is never dry or irritated from wearing this lens on a daily basis. Still, each January, I head to the eye exam, secretly hoping there will be a change of some sort, a change allowing me to see even better or to a contact lens that is even more comfortable. Lo, for the past five years, I have come away disappointed. My vision has remained the same and each year the doctor suggests keeping the prescription exactly the same. Once we agree on that, I then ask eagerly if there has been any new contact lens innovation resulting in a different lens I should try instead of the lenses I have been using for years. Each year, the doctor informs me of other options available, but always asks a series of questions along the lines of: “Are your current ones comfortable?” (Yes). “Do your current ones bother you on a regular basis?” (No). “Do you feel as if your eyes are often dry?” (No). Then, she looks at me suspiciously and asks why I would want to change. My answer? Although there is nothing really wrong with my current vision or the comfort of my contacts, I would be happy if my current condition could become even better. In my view (pun intended), there is no reason to settle for the status quo if it can be improved upon by changing to a new approach. Alas, each January for the past five years, my eye doctor has sent me on my way with the exact same prescription and exact same type of contact lens. Each January I depart, just a bit dejected that no changes were forthcoming and that things would remain the same--at least for the next twelve months.
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How does my eyesight situation apply to teaching, learning, and leadership? Speaking only for me, I approach work--much like when visiting the eye doctor--actually hoping for change. I start with my bias that change is good and that we can always get better at what we do. If getting better requires change of any first or second order variety, I stand ready to lead such change. At the same time, when considering (and even hoping for) change in these areas, I need to consider whether the change options available will be an improvement on the status quo. Are there some things we are currently doing that are actually operating at peak effectiveness and efficiency? What is the problem we are currently experiencing? Is there a change we can effect that will solve this problem? How will the changes we implement impact our staff and students? What metrics should we use to determine whether change is needed?

Change simply for the sake of change is not necessarily a good thing. Importantly, it is not always a bad thing, either; I often advocate changing certain things simply to shake things up. Yet, we must consider all changes we undertake carefully. Although I am an outspoken advocate for moving beyond our comfort zone and always trying out new ideas and resources, too much change can result in confusion, disorganization, and lack of direction, causing more damage than if we had simply stayed the course. Moreover, when considering change, it is important to draw a distinction between changes in mission, vision (not eyesight in this case, but in what we hope to become as an organization), and values from changes in the way we execute, strategize, or implement to fulfill our mission and achieve our vision while behaving in ways aligned to our shared values. Our mission, vision, and values are designed to be long term propositions. Therefore, changes in these areas should be made only after carefully considering the current status and fully understanding the major shifts in winds requiring us to adjust our sails. It’s very difficult to keep team members focused, inspired, and empowered if the direction in which we are heading keeps changing. On the other hand, making changes in the way we execute our plans can and should be considered frequently, even on a daily basis, with each of us asking how we can do what we do better, even when we are already getting stellar results. 


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Lao Tzu reportedly posited, “If you do not change direction, you may wind up where you are heading.” At times, we find we are headed in the wrong direction in some area of our work; when this is the case, it is our moral imperative to make the changes necessary to correct our course. At others times, we determine that we are generally headed in the right direction; still, it behooves us to consider what changes we can make along the way so as to make the journey better, faster, smoother, or more enjoyable. Finally, we may even identify those rare instances when---at least for this present moment--changing course would lead us in the wrong direction. Like my eyesight, our current situation may not be perfect, but it may be the absolute best we can do today. Tomorrow? Perhaps new opportunities will arise which compels us to change. With apologies to Churchill, pursuing perfection is a fool’s errand; on the other hand, changing in pursuit of the path toward continuous improvement is work worth doing. In short, we should change for direction, not perfection. Identifying what we must change, what would be nice to change, and even what should not be changed are ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!



Wednesday, January 6, 2016

1.35 Seconds

“The 3 P’s of Success: Passion, Persistence, and Patience.” 
Doug Bronson


Passion? Check. Persistence? Check. Patience? Umm...I may well be the world’s most impatient man. This has long been a flaw within me, one about which I’ve always been acutely aware. Even when I do not recognize it within myself, I have a plethora of family and friends happy to remind me of this rather obvious flaw on a regular basis. Although I am not typically one to make formal New Year’s resolutions, living my life as a more patient human being would be one well worth considering. In addition, many of my PLN members have been sharing their #oneword for 2016 in recent posts, something that has become an annual tradition for some. When first asked what my #oneword was in a previous year, I responded quickly with my stock answer: “Passion.” This year, however, I feel the need to consider the much less glamorous and rather more pedestrian: “Patience.” Moving from “passion” to “patience” is due, in part, to a recent realization that my impatience with all things in life had reached a level of ridiculous proportions.


For the past two years, I have lived in a high rise condominium. Thankfully, I am only on the 8th floor; were I to reside on the uppermost floors, I would likely lose all semblance of sanity waiting for the elevator to reach its lofty destination. Still, even on the 8th floor, my impatience manages to get the best of me most days. I began noticing something especially troubling. It happens when I am on the elevator and it stops at another floor, allowing someone to join me for the ride. One of two things happens next: Sometimes this new passenger immediately pushes the “close doors” button. Other times, the new passenger will simply board and wait for the doors to close automatically. In the former scenario, the doors close more immediately and I find myself secretly congratulating this savvy fellow traveler; in the latter instance, I find myself mildly agitated at the precious time being wasted and silently rebuke this careless, time-wasting neighbor or visitor. Occasionally, I would even reach over and push the “close doors” button myself in an effort to expedite this painful process. After all, there was work to be done, people to see, places to go; who were these frivolous people who could nonchalantly allow precious time to pass so idly? 




Then, over the holiday break--a time when I find myself acting with just a tad more patience than is typical for me--I realized my annoyance in this regard bordered on the insane. I decided to actually measure the difference between the two scenarios, hoping to justify this insanity. Using the stopwatch on my phone, I learned that it took a whopping 2.65 seconds for the doors to close and the car to begin moving when I did nothing at all, other than allow the doors to close on their own. Next, I timed how long it took these same doors to close when I pushed the “close doors” button immediately upon stepping onto the elevator. The answer: 1.3 seconds. I was saving a precious 1.35 seconds each time I, or a fellow passenger, took the proactive stance of pushing this button. 1.35 seconds.


Like many of you, I am extremely busy on a daily basis. In fact, I am acquainted with no fellow educator who complains about having too much free time at work. There is always work to be done and always too little time in which to do it. Still, 1.35 seconds? Did I really need to worry about “wasting” 1.35 seconds? Starting today, I am going to work on being just a bit more patient in all areas of my life: with colleagues, with family members, with parents, with myself, with the important work we are doing, and...who knows, maybe I'll even chill on my future elevator rides. “Patience” may not become my #oneword, but I aim to give it equal importance next to the other two “P” words from the quote above which I have long prided myself on, “Passion” and “Persistence.”

Being passionate as an educator is almost always an attractive trait; I enjoy being surrounded by educators who are truly passionate about the kids they teach and the content they are responsible for teaching. However, like most good things in life, carried to an extreme, passion can become a negative, transforming into anger, or at least behaviors perceived by others as anger. Being persistent, too, is generally an excellent trait to seek in prospective educators and promote within all educators. Here again, though, we can become so focused on reaching our goal that we risk losing sight of the bigger picture. So, it is important to balance our passion and persistence with a healthy dose of patience, knowing all the while that change may not occur as swiftly as we would like and we may never have enough time to accomplish all with which we are charged. At the same time, when we persist--with passion and patience--we know we will eventually see the fruits of our labor. I will continue to make the most of every minute available to me in this new year. On the other hand, if I am faced with the occasional 1.35 seconds of idleness every now and again, I am going to embrace those moments as well. Exhibiting passion, persistence, and patience, each in its proper measure is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!