Instructional Leadership

Lean In

I saw The Post this weekend.  I am a huge movie fan; I see pretty much everything.  But I have been particularly excited for this one.  Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks…together for the first time…I knew it would be good.  And it did not disappoint.

There were many relevant themes in the film, but I was particularly taken by the struggle of Katharine Graham, the longtime publisher of The Washington Post, to lean in during one of the most important decisions in her paper’s history.  While there was no doubt some poetic license taken to heighten the story, Graham herself spoke of this in her autobiography.  Women in her era were not often in powerful positions or taken seriously in powerful conversations.  In fact, she thought nothing of it when her father handed control over the paper to her husband instead of to her.

Of course in the film, as in real life, she did find her voice.

It reminded me of Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk and book Lean In.  But lest anyone think this is just about women, it is not.

I am not always as confident as I should be. Many of us, men, women, old, young, are not always as confident as we should be.   We all struggle at times to find our voice. But find it we must.  Our families and friends, our communities, our organizations are counting on it.

I have writtten about this before.  In one of my favorite blogs,  Own Your Power  , I wrote about the need to find your voice and to do what must be done for the organziation.

The best leaders are good people who are willing to do what is necessary to move the organization forward. They have moved past the fear that others might not like them. They are willing to make decisions and to own the consequences. They share the credit, and they take the blame. And people respond well to them. We want strong leaders who are knowledgeable and decisive. We want leaders who will take responsibility and have the difficult conversations. The best leaders do not necessarily enjoy conflict, but they do not shy away from it.

I was reminded of all of this during the film.  No, this is not about women.  This is about all people.  It is not easy to find your voice.  But find it we must.

Comfortably Uncomfortable 

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I felt safe in my classroom.  I knew I was a good teacher.  I had spent years and years improving my skill.  Then one day we got a new principal who challenged my thinking and my understanding of what it meant to be an instructional leader.  He encouraged me to go back to school, to learn new skills, and to try a new job.  I was nervous, but it was an exciting nervous.

That uncomfortable feeling you get when you try something new is exhilarating.

I was asked recently to describe my most important mentors, those people who really made an impact on who I am and what I do.  It was a fun conversation.  I love reflecting on the many people who have taken the time to nurture me, to teach me, to challenge me. The people who have made the most significant impact on my life did not allow me to stay safe.  They pushed me and challenged me to grow.

The best coaches listen and seek to understand you.  They take the time to learn who you are and what you believe.  They know your strengths and your abilities.

The best coaches support and encourage you.  They are there for you when you need them the most.  They give of their time and their attention, and they make sure you know that you matter.

The best coaches help you organize your thoughts and set priorities.  They encourage you to develop action plans to achieve more than you ever knew was possible.

And they challenge you.  The best coaches do not simply accept what you say or what you believe.  They are willing to engage in debate and discussion and push your thinking.

The best coaches, the best mentors, help you feel comfortably uncomfortable.  It is in that space where you are forced to think about things in a new way, to try something you have never done before, where you grow the most.  Loving, caring support is valuable,  but the best mentors, the ones who make the most lasting impact, move you beyond who you are to who you were meant to be.

This week seek to identify those people in your life who have been willing to challenge you.  Thank them!

And watch for the people in your life for whom you could be doing the same!

 

 

 

 

The Long Road

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I saw a former student this week.  He is one of those of those kids I will never forget.  There were three of them actually- Joe and Dalton and Jack.  They are forever connected in my memory.  Fun and full of life, they made each day an adventure.  I was on a half team that year, so I taught both English and reading and had a study hall.  Some of those students had me three times day- that was a lot of Mrs. Phipps.

Those three came back to visit sometimes when they were in high school and on one of those visits taught me one of my harshest lessons as teacher.  In an attempt to save precious instructional time, I would list each assignment on the board along with the last name of any students who did not have it turned in.  It made it faster and easier for me to remind them what they still needed to hand in.  Great system.  Well the boys came back to visit and there happened to be no assignments on the board.  They asked, “What happened to the Wall of Shame?”

So that happened.  Something I thought was a great system to save instructional time was actually a shaming experience for my students about whom I cared deeply.  Of course it was.  Seems so obvious now.

The road to Master Teacher is long and filled with moment after moment of hard-learned lessons. While I am not in the classroom anymore, I feel like I am still learning more and more about best instructional practices.

I regret the times I used word finds in class.  I regret the time my students spent making stuffed pigs and pig cakes as final projects for A Day No Pigs Would Day.  I regret the countless days spent typing “final copies” in the computer lab.  I want that instructional time back to do close reading and make actual meaning of language and vocabulary.  I want that time back to turn student loose on research questions of their own design about Shakers and agriculture and the Depression and family life.

When we know better, we do better.

Education is a reflective profession.  We are charged with a challenging, ever-changing job that matters deeply.  Our systems and our structures need to allow for data-based decisions, collaboration, common planning, Professional Learning Communities, and time for reflection.  Our leaders need the vision to make time where there seemingly is none.  Our teachers need the tools to plan, teach, reflect, change.  Our schools need the culture and climate to encourage risk and reflection.

As I look back on a lifetime in education, I really should not regret those lessons that failed, those projects that lacked purpose, or those systems that defeated my real purpose.  I learned so much from each of them.  When I knew better, I did better. I was blessed to have students who were honest about what worked and what didn’t.  I was lucky enough to work with colleagues who mentored me and who showed me a better way.  We learned together.  And I was privileged to have leaders who allowed me take risks and to fail at times in order to learn and to grow.

As the beginning of the year honeymoon comes to an end, and the real day-to-day work takes shape, I wish you all a year of risk and reflection.  I am overwhelmed everyday by the masterful work happening in classrooms all over our districts.  Our students are in good and caring hands!

Keeping Connected to the Classroom

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I have the best job in the world!  (Everyone in education says they have the best job in the world, and we all really mean it.)  After 13 years in the classroom and 9 years as a building level administrator, I am currently working in our district office.  My job is staff development and instructional improvement.  I get to spend my time talking about effective instructional practices.  It is an amazing gift!

This week I spent two hours with a colleague doing walk through observations in one of our high schools.  We are implementing a new instructional model, and this was my opportunity to walk my talk.  I have spent the last year facilitating staff development for our administrators about this new model.  Now I need to spend time in classrooms watching the model in action.  I need to spend time with the administrators who are actually using the model with teachers.  It was wonderful.

There is an energy in a school.  I miss it.  Engaging lessons in the classroom, excited students in the hallway during passing period, and people building relationships at every turn.  It was fun to be back talking about good teaching with a great administrator.

And then it happened.

We got back to the office and were debriefing our experience when another administrator in the building popped in to let us know there was a discipline issue being addressed across the hall.  And there it was…the real world.

We ask our administrators to do so much.  There are hundreds of tasks that need their constant attention.  Safety and security, technology, parent concerns, student issues…the list could go on and on.  We need them to manage the building, but we also need them to be instructional leaders.  Finding that balance is not easy.

Walk through observations, reflective conversations, and meaningful feedback are all critical to improving instruction.  We know this!  But finding the time to do those things effectively can be a struggle.

Today was a good reminder for me that the real world sometimes gets in the way.  As someone who is not currently serving in a building level role, there are things I need to remember.

Listen and Seek to Understand

I need to listen openly to the experiences of the people who are implementing things in the building.  They have the practical experiences and a more realistic understanding of what is actually happening.  I may think I know, but I am not the one doing it. We need to have a relationship that allows for honest and direct conversations.  Time is precious; there is never enough of it.  When we can carve out time to talk, everyone needs to be willing to share openly.

Empower Others

No amount of planning on my part can replace effective implementation by the leaders in the building.  My role is to empower leaders to be both visionary and systematic.  I can only make things happen by developing capacity in others.

Offer Grace

While instructional improvement is certainly not all I do, it is the big rock in my world.  But what is a big rock for me may be a pebble in the moment of what they are dealing with in the building.  It is critical for me to remember that my piece is only one piece of what they are being asked to do.  If something gets dropped or a detail gets neglected, my first instinct should be to offer grace.  I have no idea what student issue that administrator has been tackling.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not letting building administrators off the hook here either.  This same real world exists for our classroom teachers too.

We ask our teachers to do so much.  Administrators have to remember that their perceptions will never be as accurate as the teachers’ actual experiences in the classroom.

And finally, I’m not letting classroom teachers off the hook either.  We ask our student to do so much.

This real world exists for us all.  Listening and actually hearing the experience others are having is a powerful first step.