Sunday, September 22, 2013

Critical Conversations #SAVMP

This week's prompts for our #SAVMP blogging were questions about encouraging Critical Conversations.

  • How do we create a culture where "pushback" is encouraged?
  • How do we know when to stick with the minority over the majority?
  • How do you create a team that will give you honest feedback?

It put me in mind of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Certainly, Lincoln created a team where group think was never going to be a problem! At schools, I suspect leadership teams are not put together the way that Lincoln's cabinet was. Certainly at Westtown, leadership positions were not awarded as favors to political allies (or rivals), as rewards for roles played in one's election or for one's ability to hold a difficult border state in the Union. Indeed, at schools leadership teams are constructed one hire at a time and evolve with each new hire.

For me, these three SAVMP questions of the week turn me back upon myself and my own aversion to providing difficult feedback, to having difficult conversations with colleagues. When I first stepped into my new role, I knew this would be my greatest challenge. I participated in our school's peer coaching program and asked for a specific colleague as coach with the intention of leaning into this discomfort. Over the school year my coach and I worked through Difficult Conversations. He helped me explore the reasons for my dis-ease and we role played several different sorts of conversations. We also kept a log of the conversations I was having with colleagues and how they fell on a continuum from easy to difficult and challenging. What I found was that I need to always keep four things in mind when approaching any conversation I anticipate might be difficult: assume the best from the person I am speaking with, remember that the needs of our students come first, and that the well-being of our school comes second only to that of our students. Finally, and not least, never forget there is a person sitting across from me in this conversation. Not surprisingly, I generally have to remind myself of these givens before I have a difficult conversation. 

But this isn't what the original prompt was about, Creating a culture for promoting critical conversations is  about both leadership teams and faculty teams; about encouraging the realization that truth can come from any corner of the room and that not all truth is easy or convenient. In debriefing our relatively new 360 faculty evaluation process, teachers evaluated in the second year of the program reported that they had felt uncomfortable receiving difficult feedback and recommendations for growth from a peer. They had all enjoyed being commended by peers and having their successes celebrated. But they felt the more challenging recommendations for growth should be handled by a supervisor.  I believe the true power in this process is that the message is delivered by a peer. I believe that we all need to become if not comfortable at the very least adept at offering and receiving the criticism of our peers as well as their commendations. I know I am in the minority in this position (though it is shared by my evaluation clerks and Head of School). Needless to say, the peer evaluation teams will continue to give recommendations for growth that will sometimes be challenging.  In this way, I believe that teachers create a culture in which they both support and challenge each other to be excellent educators. I think an extension of this process will be a willingness to engage critically with any discussion before us and a willingness to give honest feedback. If we learn to do this with peers, we will be better able to do it with grade, division, and school wide initiatives. This is a learning edge for all of us, most especially me. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Excellent Teachers Don't Just Happen

In his book the Intentional Teacher, Peter Gow writes that there are three characteristics teachers must have to be great educators: Affection for Children, Joy in Learning, and Commitment to Student Success (Gow pp 19-26). Teacher's Joy in Learning is the focus of my work at Westtown School. Whether they are fresh out of college or seasoned educators, excellent teachers are committed to their own learning and to seeing positive results from what they learn in their classrooms.

Successful professional development for teachers begins with a thoughtful and ongoing induction program. Spring 2012 we formalized a new three year induction program for all new teachers whether they are just starting out their careers or are seasoned teachers accepting a new position at Westtown School. Feedback from previous years had helped us refine our new teacher orientation program and mentor program. Good mentors are critical to new teacher success. Every new teacher at Westtown has a mentor. This seems so central to our process that I was taken aback when a colleague was telling me about his son who is in the second year of his Teach for America assignment in New York City. When he asked his son about his mentors, his son told him he had none and his supervisor had made it very clear that all questions should come back to him, the supervisor. He should not be asking other teachers  for help or advice. My colleague's son said he feels very alone in his class with his students.

At Westtown, mentors serve as guides to school culture, provide practical answers to questions, and facilitate understanding of all the various technologies and processes at our school. In the first year, this is invaluable work. A single, known, wise friend insures new teachers never feel alone. Through out the year, mentors meet as a group to compare notes and see how best to support their mentees. Mentor relationships continue into the second year. Different teachers will want different things from their mentors in the second year. Generally, the differences fall out along lines of still new to teaching folks and those with more years of teaching. Increasingly we are finding that teachers want peers to observe them teach, read through lesson plans, and offer feedback on what the mentor sees of the teacher's practice.

In their third year at Westtown all teachers have a peer coach. The difference between mentor and coach is subtle but critical. A mentor is someone who has answers, who knows how to find the answers, who serves as a guide. A coach assumes that with help the coachee will  find the answers for him or herself, will achieve his or her own goals. Coaching is a process of active listening and thoughtful questioning.  By their very nature coaches and mentors are leaders within the school. Our school culture is becoming one in which everyone is invested in realizing educational excellence across the school. Mentors, mentees, coaches and coachees see themselves as sharing responsibility for creating an excellent educational experience for all of our students.

Alongside this culture of peer support and development we have increased the support and feedback department chairs, the Athletic Director, Dean of Students, and divisional principals provide to new hires. Every new hire should expect to receive constructive feedback from her supervisors after the first month, the first quarter, the first semester, and the end of the first year. In this way, new teacher success, support and evaluation is treated as a top priority by school administrators. We believed in these new people when we hired them now we must insure their success.

Our induction program is resource, time, and people intensive. This investment in new teachers up front guarantees success and longevity in the lives of our students. Young teachers make a commitment to careers in education at Westtown, more experienced teachers see Westtown as a place to build their professional lives. Parents and students know that excellence is the expectation and not taken for granted. Anyone who really doesn't have what it takes is counseled out in the first year. The second and third years are all about striving for excellence and establishing patterns of continuous learning and commitment to student success.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Developing Leadership--one inspired colleague at a time #savmp

At Westtown School we have embraced a peer coaching model for individual teacher development. While not every teacher aspires to be a school dean, principal, department chair, every teacher has the potential for true leadership in her classroom or with her colleagues. Our peer coaching program helps to develop these individual talents -- including those of leadership. My own trajectory to my current role as Westtown's Director of Teaching and Learning has benefited from such mentoring by supervisors and coaching by colleagues. Early in my teaching career I was encouraged by my history department chair to take on a new course in a subject area I hadn't really ever studied -- Chinese History. Furthermore, he told me to trust my instincts and adapt that traditionally political history course to my existing background in social and women's history. His confidence in me liberated me to experiment throughout the year and to know that I could share ideas with him and other members of the department. That was one of the most exciting and rewarding years of teaching I had experienced to that point. Over my 19 years of teaching my own experiences as coach, coachee and mentor to new teachers has confirmed for me that school transformation takes place one teacher at a time, that leadership can come from any one of my colleagues, that visionary school leadership means nurturing leaders from within the faculty, that teachers as leaders in striving for excellence in education makes for a strong school. 

As a part of our holistic approach to teacher development and by extension leadership development we ask teachers to write goals for themselves each year. While our school has strategic goals and we ask teachers to attend to these as they think about and write their goals, the emphasis is on individual direction in recognition of its power to unleash great creative energy. Just as good teachers try and connect student passion, interest and strengths with their learning so too should teachers as they set their own learning. The goals teachers write become the focus of the relationship between peer coach and coachee.

My work as an administrator is to nurture teacher talents and connect their strengths with those of others. The more that I can hand off tasks to others better suited than me to lead a study, develop a new program, clerk a particular committee, the better I am doing my job as a school leader. Then my task becomes providing support, a sounding board, and occasional guidance to these many leaders within our school. With so many practicing leadership in so many roles we become a community well practiced in leading, collaborating and knowing when to trust someone else to take the lead.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fourier was right!!

As you may recall from earlier posts here, I enjoy the time I have in the summer to read widely and haphazardly. By way of disclaimer I do recommend all the books below. I no-longer bother to finish books that I haven't managed to engage with by 50-70 pages in no matter how well-recommended by my friends.

This summer my picks included South of Superior by Ellen Airgood. I picked up Airgood's book at one of my favorite independent bookseller's Mclean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan where I vacation with my family. Wherever I travel I try and read based on where I am located. Airgood's book set in the Upper Peninsula didn't disappoint me for thoughtful summer reading well tied to its/my location. And interestingly, it fit in well with one of the unexpected themes from the books I read-- finding solutions/building our lives by looking outside our hidden assumptions. The other fiction books included  Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Plan, Louise Erdich's Round House, and Patrick Rothfuss' What the Wise Man Fears. Kingsolver is a master of setting, especially in her books set in Appalachia. The main character Dellarobia, like the butterflies she loves is transformed and by the end of the novel well on her way to her own metamorphosis -- all because she was saw wonder in her own backyard. By the way I especially loved the scene in which the northern eco-warrior shows up with the top ten things to save the planet and she makes short work of his list as impossible for her family or anyone in their economic place. This summer I returned to poets I already loved taking Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early and Seamus Heaney with me on vacation. For my soul I worked through the Book of Romans and the corresponding chapter in The Women's Bible Commentary. I also read Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.  For my non-fiction choices I started with Mary Cowhey's Black Ants and Buddhists and have begun but yet to finish Doris Kerns Goodwin's biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson ( this president was featured very colorfully in the movie The Butler) moved to Cathy Johnson's Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st century and finished with Roz and Ben Zander's the Art of Possibility. While I read Now You See it my son sat on the couch across from me reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr. We had a great time comparing notes and eye catching titles aside we found many things in common.

So what does the French philosopher Francois Marie Charles Fourier have to do with my summer reading? Whenever I have taught World History I tend to keep my students thinking and working at a 10,000-20,000 foot level focused on human interactions with the natural world and with other human populations. However, we do a couple of dives into more detailed looks at human ideas. One of them explores the trajectory from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx. Fourier is one of the steps along the way. For those of you who aren't familiar Fourier is best remembered for his ideas on how to create harmonious, cooperative societies and for his thinking on feminism and human love. For him the greatest harm to the human psyche was separating our passion from our productive work. In his utopias people would choose what work they wanted to do that the society needed or wanted accomplished. One of his ideas that my students always enjoyed was the idea that because little boys like getting dirty they would be natural rag and trash pickers. Fourier recognized that for this society to work you needed a sufficiently diverse population to insure that all of the jobs got done. For him that number was 1620 individuals. As I read Cathy Davidson's discussion of the genius of Wikipedia and its truly democratic nature, I was struck by Wikipedia and other wikis and moocs as proof that Fourier was correct. Wikipedia thrives on the way it connects individual passions for any topic imaginable, to other people's love of editing, with those who want to improve the functionality or take on any number of the other hundreds of tasks needing doing and getting done through the Community Portal. All of this happens because people choose to engage. Twenty first century technology created the scale necessary for Fourier's ideas on harmony, collaboration and mutuality to thrive.