Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Treating Teachers Like Grown-Ups

It'll take me a while to collect all my thoughts on the "Leading Toward A Sustainable Future" workshop this afternoon at the NAIS 2010 Annual Conference. I led off with some collective wisdom on school leadership that I amassed for the "Alive & Well" online advisory, then Pat Bassett spoke in detail on financial modeling and how schools need to prepare to face "The New Normal" of limited resources. The interactive part for the good-sized audience (about 63 for a session originally planned for 40) was a panel presentation featuring school heads Vance Wilson of St. Albans (DC), Merry Sorrells of St. Paul's Episcopal School (LA), and Katherine Dinh of Prospect Sierra (CA). Paul Miller of NAIS moderated, and I filled a seat at the far end.

I was gratified that one of the themes I had identified, "Treat adults--especially faculty--like grown-ups," surfaced several times in the panel discussion. The point is that schools need to trust that adults in the community, and in particular teachers, are able to "handle" complex and complete information about finances. Katherine Dinh referred to addressing "the elephant in the room"--possible layoffs or salary reductions-- when discussing possible ramifications of the economic downturn with her faculty (but it all turned out fine), and Wilson and Sorrells urged those in attendance--mostly heads--to do the same.

It used to be considered axiomatic that independent school teachers would either be frightened by or simply wouldn't be able to grasp finances, and so the benevolent paternalists of olden times kept these details from teachers. Thus, a teacher might not know until the last moment that his or her job was at risk, or--worse--rumors took the place of real information. Anyone who thinks teachers don't think about or understand money is badly misinformed, and on any faculty the combination of financial uncertainty and administrative secrecy about money matters is a powerful cocktail, toxic to morale and efficacy like almost no other.

I like to believe that the days of such "benevolence" have long passed, but that may not be true. But there is enough economic uncertainty in the world at large to make it more important than ever for schools to make a point of sharing financial information--including uncertainty--with their faculties and staffs.

There was plenty more to think about in today's session, but it's nice to think that leadership for a sustainable future now officially includes treating teachers as if they might be capable of understanding the financial contexts in which their schools operate. It's just too bad that this message still needs sending.


Saturday, February 20, 2010


Just a quick update:

The Intentional Teacher: Forging a Great Career in the Independent School Classroom is now proudly displayed for order on the website of the publisher, Avocus Publishing.

I understand that the book will also be available at the NAIS Bookstore at the 2010 Annual Conference, which starts in just a couple of days.

I've also distilled some of aspects of the book into a 1-hour workshop at the annual conference. Drop by and listen or just to say hello (the session is opposite some other terrific presentations that I'm sorry I won't be able to get to) at 8:00am on Friday, February 26 somewhere in the Moscone Center West. (Find the session listing in the online conference schedule to download the slideshow; I'll post the show on this blog after the conference.)

Click here to get to a great conference dashboard resource provided by the prodigious Chris Bigenho.

See you in San Francisco, I hope!

That's all--ignore the "Continue" button.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Content in the 21st Century

While a part of a pretty interesting panel discussion on "The Future of Teaching" at the EdSocialMedia Summit the other day I made the mistake of suggesting that teachers in the 21st century might need to be smart about content, along with other things like mind-brain-education science, child development, and curriculum and assessment design (along with technology tools, of course).

A fellow panelist was quick to take issue with that assertion, taking my meaning to have been that teachers would continue to be the fonts of all knowledge, lecturing their way back into the educational past.

Fortunately I had the chance to correct this notion, saying in my best Constructivist way that the necessary skill will be in know where the resources are and how to find them.

But I've been thinking about this, and I guess I'm going to stick with the essence of my original statement.

True learning, true mastery, is about nuance, about the dimensions of complexity and perspective that are part of deep understanding. I'd be hard-pressed to swallow an argument that master teachers need not be masters of the material they teach, darned near as excited by and engaged in their material as they are dedicated to the success of their students.

I hate to bring this up, since it doesn't gibe with many formulations of what 21st-century teaching should be, but a whole lot of successful people in many fields eagerly cite the teacher who inspired them. The stories break down into two categories: the Teacher Who Believed in Me and the Teacher Whose Love of the Material Made Me Love It, Too. Teachers who communicate optimism and passion to their students make a difference in students' lives. In particular, the Teacher Whose Love of the Material Made Me Love It, Too is a master of content, able to share knowledge in an exciting and compelling way.

Then, too, do we think that primary grade reading teachers ought not be experts in their field? Or teachers in the STEM fields, where our national anxieties focus on content knowledge deficits, real or imagined? Shouldn't even the mellowest "guide on the side" in a history class have a pretty subtle understanding of content in order to design and evaluate projects that bring students to deep and meaningful mastery of both the knowledge and concepts involved in topics like, say, the Civil Rights Movement, rivalries between Athens and Sparta, or the rise and fall of the Moghul Empire?

I had a flash as I was thinking about this that some of the most strident tech evangelists may have so internalized the notion that the medium is the message--a concept that works as we contemplate television drama or check our Facebook pages--that they have lost sight of the essence, the gravitas, and the grandeur of actual knowledge. Perhaps they believe that content knowledge is only memorizing facts, dreary and mechanistic mental drudgery of the most "industrial" sort. I bet, however, that they would be unhappy without their own expertise and a reason to share and apply it.

Educators are fond of Oliver Wendell Holmes's idea of "the simplicity on the other side of complexity"--which I take to be a kind of Zen-like deep understanding of difficult things that enables those who have it to see, and express, these things in a way that clarifies them for the rest of us. Those who have this capacity are the kinds of content experts that we are eager to listen to and learn from (and to hire, if we're being practical).

So let's not undervalue content knowledge. In good educators it has never been nor ever will be just about piling up facts and formulas; it's always been about using deep knowledge to pique, to provoke, and to inspire. All the social media in the world can't do this unless there are substantial skills, knowledge, understandings, and habits of mind to givee the learning context and authenticity.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Narrative Comments, Grades, and Schools

For the past couple of months we've spent some faculty meeting time on the question of "comment forms." For those unfamiliar with this interesting little cultural wrinkle in American independent schools, "comments" (some schools say "reports," and there are probably other local usages with which I'm not familiar) are regularly scheduled narrative reports on student performance that usually accompany and sometimes contain term and year-end grades. Some schools write more of these, some fewer; sometimes they are lengthy and rich in content and observation, and sometimes they are more pro forma, even just pull-downs or pastes from a database.

At any rate, comments tend to be one of the things that set independent schools apart, a service that comes as a perk in return for a hefty tuition payment. Parents, we believe, expect them, and most of our schools go to a fair amount of trouble to make sure that a quality (i.e., well proofread and informative) product goes out the door.

The challenge, of course, is not just to be informative but to provide information that has meaning to parents and guardians and, for lagniappes, might even provide some useful feedback to students. Since most comment forms also include grades of some sort, there is a kind of imbalance between the perceived weight of the grade versus the weight of the narrative. Most parents and students focus first on the grade, then the comment--even putting the grade at the bottom of the page won't prevent eagerly scanning eyes from spotting it.

We'd like to do a better job. There are so many questions to be answered first, however, that our work seems to be on parallel tracks: one "get it done" track that just wants to have a new form "in the can" and then the more philosophical track that wants to figure out not only what the audience for these things really wants but also what we as a school should be trying to say with them.

Are comments supposed to be detailed reportage and analysis of a student's work--word by word, problem by problem--or disquisitions on intellectual character: curiosity, engagement, cooperation, enthusiasm, positive participation?

Ideally, I think they should be both, somehow balanced so as not to bury readers under excessive detail (and too often written in a school's idiosyncratic education-ese) nor snow them with too much character commentary. I'd like to see comments that tell me how my child has been performing when faced with different sorts of challenges, and I'd also like--heck, I actually crave--some evidence that the teacher knows my child as well as his or her work. It would be great if this part were couched in the lofty goals to which we educators aspire for our students; I'm fortunate enough to work at a school whose mission statement includes terms like "reason and engage deeply,""be intellectually curious," "leadership and teamwork," "act effectively," "respect," and "compassion." How wonderful it would be to see these enshrined as topics in the written comments on my children's work that come home three times a year!

Lately I've been reading Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality by Gerald Bracey, and in it he makes a fine case for the not so 21st-century but oh-so critical idea that schools must be above all about teaching students, not subjects. The book itself is about the overuse of test scores to judge education systems, but a logical extension of Bracey's argument is the overuse of grades to judge children. In the context of that reading our conversation about comments--and grades--has taken on a significance that I can't shake off.

The next stage, I suppose, would be a discussion of grades themselves: what their purpose is, how we generate them, how we use them. There is a great argument that can be made for doing away with them altogether, and some schools have done this successfully, but I'm not sure I see that happening at our place any time soon. But the comment discussion is a start, and even if the "get it done" concept prevails and we just rejigger our current form, we will have at least begun a conversation that I think will be hard not to continue as we get deeper into new and exciting work around curriculum and assessment.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Memoriam: David Mallery

The word has come to us via the NAIS February E-Bulletin that David Mallery has left us. As with the loss of Ted Sizer, I am shaken.

Anyone who ever met David or who attended any of his extraordinary programs for teachers and administrators automatically moved into the category of "Friend of David." His uncanny ability to remember and place faces and names is legendary, but I believe this stemmed from his deep, consuming interest in the individual stories that identify and differentiate us all. To receive a call from David about an article he had seen was to be reminded of how much he cared about teaching as a profession, about teachers as a group, but above all about each individual teacher in the independent school world--and he seemed to know and think about most of us.

I first met David when I attended the Experienced Pro Seminar nearly 20 years ago. The program triggered the first real crisis of faith I had ever had as a teacher, and when I told David about this years later (I kept coming back to Philadelphia for more, because those crises of faith in turn provoked soul-searching that strengthened my belief in myself as a teacher), the ensuing conversation was one of the most significant I have ever had.

David Mallery inspired just about everything I have done with regard to thinking and writing and speaking about this profession. He holds a place in the acknowledgments of both An Admirable Faculty (the NAIS book on hiring and professional development) and The Intentional Teacher (about being an independent school teacher), but above all he holds a place in my head and my heart as the foremost example of what I have strived to accomplish in my work and musings on behalf of those who labor in independent schools--and as one of the finest, warmest people I shall ever know.

RIP, my friend.

NOTE: NAIS is collecting memories of David here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

MIddle Management--A New Vision

Arguably the most interesting and compelling article on leadership and management that I've encountered in the past few years is "What Makes Leaders Succeed" in the November 2009 Korn/Ferry Briefings. Essentially a summary of a longer scholarly schedule to appear in a future issue of Leadership Quarterly, the article lays out the results of research into the effectiveness of certain kinds of managerial behaviors.

In a nutshell, the authors of the study (titled "Testing the Leadership Pipeline")--Robert B. Kaiser, S. Bartholomew Craig, Darren Overfield (all of Kaplan DeVries Inc.) and Preston Yarborough of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro)--have researched and identified the leadership skills and styles that are most likely to be effective for "executive," "middle management," and "supervisory" leaders. It turns out, in a latter-day echo of the Peter Principle, that the most effective behaviors at each level are quite different; the Korn/Ferry summary even has a nifty graphic to illustrate this that only my respect for copyright laws prevents me from inserting into this post.

In all the reading and work I have done on school change, I have been struck over the years by what I have come to call "The Department Heads Problem," the tendency of many school administrators to lay at the door of department chairs at least some of the responsibility for foot-dragging that slows and sometimes stalls change initiatives. The summary, and the graphic, started me wondering. (See some earlier blog posts on this topic.)

In our schools we often regard department chairs as "middle managers," and so I wondered how the positive traits identified by Kaiser et al. played out in my anecdotal experience; they didn't, quite. So I sent Robert Kaiser an email asking just how he and the authors of the study would define middle management, in schools and in business.

I was pleased when Kaiser responded not just with a quick answer--middle managers are "responsible for managing other managers...most functional heads are considered middle managers, too"--but also with a copy of the full study, which has kept me busy, and I have to say enthralled, for a day now.

By the definitions Kaiser et al. have drawn from the literature and set forth in the full study, "middle managers" in independent schools are NOT department chairs but rather virtually all members of what schools regard as their administrative teams or cabinets. The only real "executive" in most schools is the head of school, responsible to the board and the key player in enunciating and setting in motion implementation efforts for strategic plans. While a few schools may have associate heads or other "senior administrators" who function at an executive level, in most smaller schools even assistant heads are essentially middle managers, charged with oversight of either important school functions (finance and operations, admissions, development) or the leadership of academic divisions.

Department heads, in this schema, are "supervisors," not middle managers. Interestingly, the behavioral qualities associated with effectiveness at this level are "Learning Agility" and "Work-Life Balance." Predictably, "Abrasiveness" is highly correlated with non-effectiveness, but so is--get this--"Supportive Leadership." By the terms of "Testing the Leadership Pipeline," effective supervisors--department heads, mostly--are characterized by quickness of apprehension and the ability to compartmentalize work and personal life. Somewhat strangely, "Directive Leadership," "Empowering Leadership," and "Lack of Follow-Through" are neutral factors.

Schools are human places, where we put huge emphasis on such qualities as supportiveness and "empowering" others--these are the things that we like to think we are best at. And yet, for the hundreds of supervisors in both for-profit and non-profit organizations studied by Kaiser and his team, these things don't much matter at what in schools is the analogous level, except insofar as supportiveness actually interferes with effectiveness. One imagines that many department heads, newly risen from the faculty ranks, might easily err on the side of being supportive of department members when a more matter-of-fact, nearly directive style is called for.

Empowering Leadership and (whew!) Abrasiveness are the negative factors for effective middle managers, but Supportive Leadership joins Directive Leadership and Learning Agility as positive factors; Lack of Follow-Through and Work-Life Balance are neutral. This made a whole lot of sense to me as I shifted my definition of middle manager upward to the administrators I have known and the work we are asked to do in schools. But being a directive leader can be a tough transition for a teacher-leader in whose world the gentle, supportive cajole is often the most effective tactic.

At the executive, or head of school level, Empowering Leadership--effective delegation--becomes a key skill, but Learning Agility is paramount, more important than for middle managers or supervisors. Directive Leadership (one thinks perhaps of micromanagement), Work-Life Balance, and (finally!) Lack of Follow-Through are strong negatives. Supportive Leadership and Abrasiveness are neutrals.

Much of the point of "Testing the Leadership Pipeline" is about the challenges leaders face when making transitions from level to level, and the simple schematic makes it easy to see what these might be.

For schools, in particular, the paper speaks to the importance of making careful choices when hiring or promoting, at every level. While the literature cited suggests a failure rate of about half of executive appointments, the failure levels at middle managerial and supervisory levels are not insignificant. How schools prepare staff for upward transitions is critical not just to the success of the individual but, of course, to the overall success of the institution.

I would strongly urge anyone involved with hiring and orienting department heads, school administrators, and heads to check out the summary and to seek out the finished paper when it is published. In it lies considerable wisdom, backed by extensive research, and a tremendous resource for independent school management as a whole. The premises and points could drive a whole new approach to recruiting and training school leaders.

I want to underscore that the point of the paper is not just about filtering or screening people, rejecting some and advancing others based only on personality traits. The big idea is that people can be helped to grow in known and necessary ways in order to be successful.