Sunday, September 29, 2013

Leading in Times of Chaos #SAVMP

Leading in Times of Chaos

Today I woke up thinking.  On most days this is a good thing but this was one of those mornings where I feel that I was thinking all night long.   My family knows the cycle of my school administration life and the end of September often brings poor sleep and lots of work thoughts as we move into our student enrollment data collection time.  Staffing confirmations, funding applications for new student support, a pound of paper work due at the board office added to personal life concerns like getting the siding on the house and fixing the leaky sink are usually suspects for thoughtful nights.  This night my thoughts are about people.

Being the leader is often a hard task and it is never harder than when our team or one of the members is in chaos.  Chaos takes many forms:  new students enroll to the school who exhibit severe emotional behaviour needs; parents are not happy about a decision and have complained to the board; the personal life of a colleague is falling apart; someone dies.  As a leader in any system it is a myth to think one can control what happens in the day to day; true leadership shines in responses from the midst of chaos – when people who follow feel support, hear affirmation and see compassion.

When I started this career as a school administrator I had taken several courses in educational leadership.  None were as valuable as the times I spent on courses with experienced administrators who were at the end of their careers.  One ‘career VP’ was a renowned curmudgeon and source of all things ‘policy based’ in our school division.  However, because of his life long experiences, he was also an inspirational, real world source of knowledge.  To this day I quote the rule of ‘ODA’ – other duties as assigned – which he translated into any job that isn’t on someone’s job list falls into the leader’s.  While this may or may not be true for all leaders it fits nicely with a servant leadership practitioner and provides me a platform for responding to chaos.

When facing chaos ‘CODA’ is an acronym to describe elements of response: Compassion, Optimism, Dignity, and Action.  They are not always the easy things to do, but they are the right things to do.

Compassion for another person illustrates a commonality with them.  Looking at another person with appreciation (not necessarily an understanding) and respect that they are in the midst of chaos provides some semblance of peace of mind.  We aren’t able to rush in and fix things, but we can ask questions like “What do you need?”  We can expect that they may not have all ‘tasks’ accomplished or that their ‘performance’ might be different.  Which tasks can we assist with? Who can we add into their classroom/school to bring support? Which ‘task’ can we delete? Showing compassion illustrates our responsibility to them as a leader, a colleague, and a friend.
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.
Dalai Lama

Optimism is a powerful emotion at the best of times and the worst of times.  Being grateful for our daily walks, seeing positive elements around us, looking for the ‘silver linings’ are all undeniably positive ways of responding to chaos. Optimism should not be confused with denying the reality of a situation, or burying your head in the sand.  It is the power to recognize chaos elements and a choice to focus on strands of positivity and goodness.  As the leader in an organization showing a fresh perspective in the face of chaos is essential (although it can be incredibly hard!).
Optimism is not a trait that pops out when we are dropped into a crisis on its own it must be exercised in good times as well.  Saying, “I’ll think of you today.” when you know someone is in the midst of chaos shows that you are aware of their needs.
Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.   
Colin Powell

In times of chaos it is easy to lose self-esteem.  As the leader in a team maintaining the Dignity of others is an important task.  As a team member nothing is as powerful as having the leader say, “I’ve got your back.”  As a leader it is just as powerful to have someone say, “I know you’ve got my back.”  These are simple expressions of our respect for one another in both our professional and personal lives.  Expressions of commonality that illustrate our inability to cover all angles due to chaos and our willingness to step into that breach on behalf of our colleague.  In essence we are saying “You don’t need to worry about this part – I’ll take care of it for you.” 
Love your neighbor as yourself. 
Matthew 22:39

Taking Action is a concrete way of acknowledging that someone is in need of support.  Actions can be formal and informal – both have their places.  Formal actions in the face of chaos might be time off to write an incident report, contractual time off or even opportunities for counseling services.  These are all appropriate responses that the leader should be aware of.  Informal actions can also be supportive and encouraging: buying a coffee (knowing how they take it is even better); sending a card; covering a class.  By giving of yourself as the leader you are adding to the resiliency of the team.  It may seem like a small action but it will reap large benefits in the recipient.
Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lays.   
Mother Teresa

Chaos might be out of our control, inevitable in any system as life supplies a list of events that we cannot predict.  There are some practices we can apply to diminish the disruptions when they come.  While I write this post in reflection today I would add that I have had the opportunity to be on the giving end of these responses recently, being in a position of leadership provides insight into many individual struggles and opportunity to respond to needs.  I have also had the luxury of seeing other team members step up and offer supports to others.  This is a benefit of the position.  There is however another benefit that I will mention: I have also have recently been on the receiving end of each of these responses from staff I 'lead' and from those who 'lead' me.  I know personally the impact that comes from these responses and I appreciate all the supports and affirmations.

Leadership is continually shaped by the life lessons brought by both success and failure.  Nothing is more affirming than when your actions are valued and appreciated by others.



Friday, September 13, 2013

Creating a Culture of Innovation #SAVMP 6

Creating a Culture of Innovation #SAVMP 6

I like this weeks Blog challenge.  It meshes with one thing I am trying to do throughout #SAVMP: I am trying to not read anyone else’s blog post until I post mine.  This way I am pushing my creativity and expression to come from within and not from elsewhere.  Today I present some Muppets, a couple of “having said that…”s and a Steve Jobs tie in with a twist.

If a teacher came to an interview and said that they had the school year charted with a daybook and it was all mapped out, consistently delivered from year to year - just like the teacher across the hall…would you want them to teach your students? 

When I was a kid I watched a lot of TV.  In the early days my favorite program was probably Sesame Street.  I have a lot of memories of the Muppets, Mr. Hooper and Bob.  I recall the way they lived and interacted with anyone who was their neighbour…regardless of race, gender, species or occupation. During a Sesame Street Fable segment called The King and the Fireman, Bob told the story of a king impressed with the work of the fireman and declares that everyone in the kingdom should become firefighters.  Through the fable I learned the woes that happen to the kingdom if everyone becomes a firefighter: No one cooks; No one helps; No one delivers the mail.  This cautionary fable has woven itself into my memory and has actually resurfaced a few times in adult life during discussion of creativity and innovation.  When we see the success of others and try to become what they are or do what they are doing, we run the risk of becoming clones and not generating new practices. 

Having said that, don’t let me mislead you into thinking it is not good practice to checkout and adopt other’s good practice.  When we see success we need to reflect and review our practice in the light of the success.  Where can we adopt things, trim things and grow?  Bob’s fable cautions that we shouldn’t lose all of our identity becoming something else – there is the idea of everyone in the kingdom learning how to be a firefighter for emergencies.

Have you worked with school administrators who are really good at completing the checklist, getting agendas out, ensuring the school year is completed with a solid performance?  In my experience with these types of principals very little originality is seen; in the continuity of the years, staff starts to take on a pack mule attitude, not having to even look where they are going because they know the steps in the cycle already.  Innovation is usually at an all time low.

Here is the cycle as I’ve seen it:
Set school goals.  (Maybe with dot stickers).
Set personal goals.  (Maybe in groups)
Work Work Work.  (Maybe we are all firefighters)
Write goal summaries. 
Write personal goal summaries. 
Write provincial document using data to verify progress. 
Start again.

It sounds kind of dull.  It feels kind of dull.

Not much creativity and energy – but paper is all done.  Check!

Having said that, it is really important to be good at getting your paperwork done.  We need to have the machine running to enable innovation to happen.  We also take results in student learning very seriously and data collection is imperative for tracking gains in learning. 

In an earlier post I mentioned a PATH planning tool we use to establish our vision and our goals.  Goal setting is where innovation begins.  The team and many stakeholders in the school community gather to review the strategic plan, the school values, mission statement and history.  Together they create a perfect world vision for the school and set goals together.  In collective creativity the goals are always POSITIVE and POSSIBLE.  Sometimes they are even innovative.   Team members attach their names to their goal(s) that they are passionate and/or interested in.  The goals are checked on periodically and reported to the entire staff team. 

Having said that, our current team is due for a revisioning PATH session. (That’s for the Bison’s who might be reading)!

As I work with school teams I like to start each year by celebrating our successes from the previous years and reviewing our goals for the upcoming year.  The current team I work with knows that I always end this session with a last goal…a Jobsian ‘one more thing’.  Unlike Jobs, the totalitarian leader, the last thing I add is a line I learned from my pastor:  our last goal is always “Something we don’t know yet.”   This one line is my favorite motivator of the year.  It allows our team to follow our path and yet have the opportunity to break out of the cycle and engage something that might be “spontaneous” or “innovative”!  There is a safety net for those who need one; all our goals need to be vetted against our vision. 

We have had some very successful innovative projects in our time together including but not limited to:  complete fundraising and building of two playstructures in one school year; recreating and renovating our library into a Learning Commons, raising five thousand dollars for renewing the library collection, recording song mosaics, school songs and making videos.  You can see some of these on our YouTube channel:
Or you can check out the school blog at

Our team has taken many innovative ideas and woven them into our common practice.  School teams starting on a journey of innovation and change may find themselves overwhelmed at the complexity of high performing teams – remember, one strategy/practice at a time.   

As a school leader you can create a culture that allows innovation and brings energy to your school community.  Start at the beginning by including an avenue for innovation in your goal setting practice.  


Monday, September 2, 2013

It Takes a Community - #SAVMP 2

 It Takes a Community

The SAVMP challenge for this blog post is to capture your vision for school.  I’ve been a school administrator for 12 years.  When I reflect on my own change and growth I can best define my ‘Educational Philosphy’ with the word Community.

Here is a photo of some materials found in my home.  I recently ripped the top half story off.  In the process I saved as much of the fir framing lumber that I could.  It is solid, dry and 50 year old wood that is strong like metal.  Using this lumber and some new material with a tool I borrowed from a friend and most importantly an idea my wife and I had for reusing the lumber, I set about creating something new.  The second picture captures our new coffee table and wall shelf made from the beautiful wood that existed hidden from sight for the last 5 decades.  

Just as these varied materials were shaped to become pretty cool furniture, so too are the students we meet each day of their public school lives.
In my example students are the lumber – their potential may be hidden or not.  They are waiting to become wall supports, furniture, art or some fusion of each.  The staff are like the  – I get to work, shape and reshape.  My borrowed tools are like the resources (parents, volunteers, partnerships, supplies) we gather and use to assist us in the work, the more tools the better the finished product will look.  However, it is the vision my wife and I developed that drove the whole project.  Without this vision the lumber may have remained as wall supports or in the construction garbage.

George Couros referred to the notion of “it takes a village to raise a child” and I believe in that proverb.  I have started adding a second line “it takes a community to be a village” to highlight my strong belief in relationship. 

As a school administrator I believe that I need to build relationship with each of the stakeholders in the school community.  This means that I spend time with each of the staff, with students, with families and with community members.  I listen, talk, and even plan with everyone so that we can create a common vision for our school.  Each of the school teams I have worked with know that I will use a PATH planning tool to set our vision, as the principal I have been able to invite parents and community members in to the process. 

My current school is in a community that has a low SES score tied to high needs and a low graduation rate. I recall the first time I invited parents to come to a school vision setting session!  Their first response was “What has he done?”  They followed with “You want me to what?”  Finally were happy to come out and add to our conversations.   Much more empowering than a regular PTA meeting, having parents participate in this manner creates connections that stick.  Communication freely flows and several parents now become advocates for the school and more participatory in their child’s education.

I often recite the mantra “Our best and brightest for our most at-risk.” to our staff.  Working with students who are emotionally charged due to their own issues and needs is in itself potentially draining.   Staff members need to see that they make a difference in these students’ lives.  They need to be supported and celebrated in this work.  Each member of the team is an important part of achieving our vision. Each staff member, regardless of his or her position in the system, is a leader.  My role is to encourage, support, seek PD and funding to enable their success.   I have used the example of shining a light on staff members: when you become the leader you need to shine the light not on yourself but on others so that they can find their way, and be seen as well. One of the gauges I use to measure my success in this role is to look at the trajectory of our staff.  As in many schools, people move on and leave our team.  I will look at where they are moving to and reflect if it is in a generally upward and improved position – a leadership position - or is it down and out?  By this I mean have the departing team members gained skills and experience that is taking them to a new and stronger position in their own journeys?  (I think I will explain this further in a later post!)

Students are also in need of being a part of something bigger. As the educational leader in the building I ensure that there are many opportunities for our students to attach themselves to positive and tangible structures.   This might take the form of being a member of a team, a choir, or it might be as simple as owning a school t-shirt.  Students are given the opportunity to see themselves in a positive way.  One of the earliest activities I recall at my current school was to have each student make a clay tile to decorate the hallway.  The tiles were kiln fired and attached to the wall by the office.  Each year now we have our departing Grade 5 students add another tile to the halls.  This creates a physical attachment to the school and an anchor to the point in time when the student is positive and there are many possibilities ahead.  I say it like this as I have had three different students over the last few years who have not been successful in further school return to visit; they inevitably walk to their tile, touch it and remember the ‘good times’ they had at our school.  I see this positive expression as a measure of our success in creating community.  In past years former students often vandalized our school and yard.

Traditional printed newsletters have not been successful in our community.  We have made a transition to classroom news and classroom blogs.  Over the last few years we have celebrated our achievements with videos and songs that are now on YouTube.  In efforts to strengthen our communication with each other, with learners in other parts of the world and most importantly with our students and their families we are working to curate our on line presence into a one stop shop.  The school now has its own blog and we have linked our classroom blogs, Instagram, YouTube channel and soon Twitter feed through it.  Our teachers are trying out the Remind101 app to connect directly with parents and guardians.  We hope that parents and families will use these open lines of communication.

People can live side by side in today’s village and never know who their neighbours are and what their children learn.  As the educational leader in my current school, I work towards creating community through relationship.  Parent involvement, staff leadership, student attachment and open communication are the strands that I hope will weave us all into a stronger community and that we will become the village that raises the child.