The Noble Art of Leaving Things Undone

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

— Lin Yutang

“Ha! Yeah, that’d be nice,” said all the principals in the world in unison.

In our line of work, there’s not much hope of fully eliminating the “non-essentials.” Everything needs to be dealt with by someone, and often that someone is us.

But Lin Yutang helps us remember that deciding what not to work on is as important as the decision to work on something else. They’re two sides of the same coin.

But here’s another angle:

Deciding how we work on something also determines what we can get done and what we must leave undone.

Technology can be a game-changer if we’re smart about using tools that let us spend our scarce time on what most deserves it.

Doing our work with integrity doesn’t mean doing it slowly or the way it’s always been done. It means doing the right work, and doing it well.

To Be of Use…and To Change the Work

Ox

From “To Be of Use,” a poem by Marge Piercy:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

It’s a beautiful poem, one often circulated to inspire educators. And I like its message: We need to work hard, and we need to be the kind of people who work hard at something worthwhile.

But I’ll add a challenge: We also need to be the people who say, “Hey, you know, they make tractors and conveyor belts, so we don’t have to keep pulling carts or passing the bags along by hand like this forever.”

We need to harness ourselves like an ox to a heavy cart, but pull that cart with the ingenuity of a fox. We need to reinvent the work even as we dedicate ourselves to it tirelessly.

Instructional Climate and Instructional Actions

Runningwitharrows

We all know we’re supposed to be instructional leaders, but what does that really mean? Research suggests two pathways for exercising instructional leadership:

The actions that principals take to influence instruction are of two complementary sorts. One sort aims to set a tone or culture in the building that supports continual professional learning (Instructional Climate). The second sort involves taking explicit steps to engage with individual teachers about their own growth (Instructional Actions).

Instructional Actions include principals’ direct observations and conversations with teachers, in their classrooms and in team meetings.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 77

If we ignore either of these pathways, our leadership is going to be severely limited. We can’t be the solo heroes who alone are responsible for improving teaching and learning. That work has to be shared tangibly in the school’s culture and climate. And if we think we can establish a conducive environment, then kick back and watch the growth take place on its own, we’re fooling ourselves.

High-performance instructional leaders understand that improvement is work. Hard work. Collective work. And work that we ourselves must lead. It won’t happen without us, and it won’t happen if we’re going it alone.

Setting the tone and climate for growth is necessary but not sufficient. So are walkthroughs and observations and conversations with teachers. Put these two approaches together, though, and watch out—great things are going to happen.

5 Ways to Make a Change Happen Faster

When change happens too fast, it overwhelms people and diminishes their confidence that they’ll be successful. Skills take time to develop, and no one wants to be judged too quickly on a skill they are still developing.

Shutterstock 108976241

But some people think they should have three or four years to implement every change. Is this an acceptable learning cycle? Do three crops of students deserve to be practiced on while we drag our feet at getting up to speed?

Of course not. Part of responsible planning is to ensure that our “implementation dip” affects students for as little time as possible.

We need a sense of urgency, and we need to move as quickly as we can without jeopardizing our success.

Here are a few things we can do to speed up change.

1. Make the case

People need to develop a shared understand of three things:

  • The problem—why a change is needed
  • The rationale—why this is the right change
  • The theory of action—how this change will solve the problem

Too often, we identify the problem well, but fail to make a strong enough case for the specific change. When the going gets tough—and it will—resistance creeps in and people try to revert to the familiar.

2. Support and celebrate early adopters

You probably already have teachers who are pretty far along in doing what you want to take school-wide. Support them, give them access to advanced training, and make them experts. Help them become wildly successful.

They won’t necessarily want to be responsible for school-wide implementation of the change, but they serve an important “proof of concept” role, so make sure they are successful. If they aren’t, how will people who are less motivated succeed?

3. Set a date

Once the decision has been made to implement the change, don’t leave it open-ended. “When we have time” is not a date. “When there are no other big changes taking place” isn’t a date.

Set a date, and make it clear that the change will be “online” school-wide by that date.

4. Make a checklist

But setting a date isn’t enough. You also need to define what constitutes change.

When my school implemented a new writing curriculum, I made the mistake of thinking that it was enough for people to attend training and start using the new materials. Some people took off, while others dragged their feet.

As the months went by, I was dismayed to see that some teachers were not using the new curriculum. At all. One teacher didn’t even know where her copy was.

What was missing? Clarity about the key behaviors that signify the change.

I immediately came up with 10 indicators of implementation, and focused my walkthroughs for a month on these indicators. None were about skill, and all were about behavior.

As I visited each classroom, I checked: Are you starting writing with a short minilesson? Does your minilesson have a focused teaching point? Are you planning units by sequencing your teaching points? Are you documenting teaching points on anchor charts? Are you spending a good chunk of time conferring with individual students?

I collected data, and shared the aggregated results with staff. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s powerful to see that 80% of your colleagues are doing what they’re supposed to, and you aren’t. After that, things moved along more quickly.

At this stage, don’t even worry about whether people are executing these elements skillfully. That will come in time and with good coaching. The first step is to do. You can’t get better at something you haven’t started doing.

5. Coach Toward Excellence

Implementation isn’t a great destination; we need to push for excellence, and excellence requires continual growth. 

With our writing curriculum, we quickly realized we needed more expertise, and that expertise came in the form of classroom coaching.

Coaches don’t particularly like being asked to help people get better at things they aren’t doing yet, so make sure you push for full implementation before bringing in coaches. But when you do, get ready for amazing growth as teachers start to zoom up out of the implementation dip.

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Do you have a story of making change happen, slow or fast? What worked for you? What barriers did you encounter, and what helped you overcome them? Leave a comment below.

The Power of the Ordinary and Obvious

In his new book Improbable Scholars, UC Berkeley professor David L. Kirp examines the remarkable success of the Union City, NJ public schools. In a place where demographics (high poverty, low English proficiency, and so forth) might suggest otherwise, students are keeping pace with their peers in more affluent districts across the state. 

Improbable Scholars

Kirp’s premise is that fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things, with focus and perseverance, can accomplish extraordinary results. He writes:

When boiled down to its essentials, what Union City is doing sounds so obvious, so tried-and-true, that it verges on platitude. Indeed, everything that is happening in Union City should be familiar to any educator with a pulse.

Here’s the essence:

  1. High-quality full-day preschool for all children starts at age three.
  2. Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language
  3. Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English.
  4. The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next.
  5. Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems.
  6. Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance.
  7. The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.
  8. The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of abrazos—caring—which generates trust.

This is a tale of evolution, not revolution, a conscientious application of what management guru W. Edwards Deming calls “total quality management.” “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service,” Deming preached for half a century, and many Fortune 500 companies have profited from paying attention. So has Union City.

—David Kirp, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools, p. 9

In an era of unproven high-stakes, high-consequences reform efforts (ahem, NCLB and RttT), it’s encouraging to read a detailed portrait of a district that has spent several decades getting the basics right, rather than chasing questionable fads.

Look again through the list above. Does anything strike you as strange or out of place, or does it match what you see as the ingredients of success?

Motivating Dilbert

I’m slowly becoming a convert to the principle that you can’t motivate people to do things, you can only demotivate them. The primary job of the manager is not to empower but to remove obstacles.”
—Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

While I agree with Adams that managers (and all leaders) should strive to remove obstacles for their teams, I think he’s failing to acknowledge the powerful role that the working environment plays in motivation.

If I believe that my efforts are futile because all the good work I do is going to be canceled out by the chaos around me, I’m going to become demotivated. So yes, it’s a leader’s job to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Brickwall

But are there positive steps leaders can take to create the conditions that improve motivation? Absolutely.

Motivation isn’t a ra-ra-ra game where we transfer our motivation to our employees. It’s about the kind of organization we strive to create, and organizations exist to serve particular missions.

Perhaps Dilbert readers can identify with Adams’ grim perspective, because they feel no higher sense of mission beyond making money for someone else and getting a paycheck. But that’s not why the educators I know show up every day and bust it on behalf of kids.

As a leader, you can motivate people (or create the conditions that foster motivation, if you can’t cause it directly) by clarifying the mission of the organization and creating focused energy in pursuit of clearly defined goals.

And you can make sure that no one’s effort is wasted.

Frederick Herzberg identified two basic types of motivational factors:

  • Actual motivators, such as rewarding work, recognition, and appreciation, and
  • Hygiene factors, such as basic working conditions, that don’t add to motivation but can take away from it if they’re lacking.

Adams is right in implying that leaders need to pay attention to the hygiene factors. But we must also make sure Herzberg’s motivators are in ample supply, too.

It’s Not Supposed to Be Easy

I’ve worked my butt off to build a class that is outrageously engaging, fun, educationally sound, and dearly loved by students. It wasn’t easy when I started, it wasn’t easy last week, and it won’t be easy next week either. It’s not supposed to be easy—it’s supposed to be worth it. You can build something incredible if you put the effort in on the front end, and then keep putting the effort in until you turn the lights off and close your door for the last time. But it won’t be “easy.”

Dave Burgess (@burgessdave), Teach Like a PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess

I saw Dave’s amazing Teach Like a PIRATE presentation at ASCD. It must not have been easy for him to deliver such an amazing presentation…but it was worth it! I just finished Dave’s book last week, and it’s truly impressive.

If you are looking for a book to read together as a staff, or for a gift to show appreciation for how hard teachers work, I highly recommend Teach Like a PIRATE.

Our Inevitable Inadequacy As Leaders

The bad news? As a school leader, I can’t be all things to all people. There isn’t time, I don’t have the skills, and I’m just not the best person to exercise every kind of leadership we need.

I can’t be the coach, and the counselor, and the supervisor, and the mentor, and the consultant, and the trainer, and the encourager, and everything else my staff needs me to be. At least not as well as I’d like, and not all the time. The range of human and professional needs in even a small school is too great.

As leaders, we are inadequate. We are, inevitably, not up to the task. Not by ourselves.

The good news? Every morning, the parking lot is brimming with all kinds of leaders who show up ready to make a difference.

Tree with hands

We can ignore this leadership and pretend it doesn’t exist, or we can celebrate it as the primary form of human capital in our schools.

It’s the difference between a brick building full of employees who do their jobs, and a thriving learning community where everyone is focused on getting better and helping others do the same. The researchers I’ve been citing a lot lately describe it this way:

Supportive interaction among teachers in school-wide professional communities enable them to assume various roles with one another as mentor, mentee, coach, specialist, advisor, facilitator, and so on. However, professional community amounts to more than just support; it also includes shared values, a common focus on student learning, collaboration in the development of curriculum and instruction, and the purposeful sharing of practices—all of which maybe thought of as distributed leadership.

Thus, the presence of a professional community appears to foster collective learning of new practices—when there is principal leadership.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 42

So especially when we’re trying to do something new and ambitious and better to improve teaching and learning, the leadership that happens laterally in our schools is some of the most important leadership of all.

We can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to. The leaders are among us if we let their leadership thrive.

What do you do to encourage this leadership among your staff? Do you:

  • Ask?
  • Invite?
  • Step out of the way?
  • Celebrate?
  • Encourage?

Will you leave a comment and share how you encourage distributed leadership in your school?

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