Learning & Leading

I changed the tag line of my blog today. It used to be… ‘Thoughts About Learning and Growing’. I had those words on the covers of binders, journals and notebooks. It feels like I started just yesterday as a principal, yet all the trials, challenges and successes make me realize that I’ve spent almost a decade as a school leader. Right from the start, I knew I would be learning and growing. I had trained for this role when, as a teacher, I felt my job was on auto-pilot. I was ready for new challenges.

“Leadership is a scary thing. That’s why few people want to stand up to the plate… There are many people who want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar” — Steve Farber

Oh! I know what that feels like! I said I wanted challenges and they came my way! There are all kinds of issues that crop up on a regular basis. A principal connects with a variety of stakeholders and each group has its own take on what is needed from the school. So the school leader is pulled in different directions while always having to maintain a steady focus on what is important (our goals), and remembering that all of these stakeholders are important to the school.

When I took this job, I had some things that were important – relationships, respect and responsibility, then after some years on the job I added rigor and resilience. These five R’s still ground my work. I’ve always loved a challenge. It gets me into problem-solving mode. Throw something tough at me and I’ll tackle it. Sometimes, it may feel like I have 2000 pounds of bull charging after me, but I always walk away, perhaps not unscathed, but each time having learned how to be a better matador!

“Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, based on mission that troubles your heart.” — Harriet Rubin

Yes, it was a personal quest – to advocate for children and educators. I enjoyed engaging with problems and finding solutions. I was directly involved in making the learning environment more effective. I partnered with my team to streamline our work. Reviewing, reflecting and revising what we did became second nature. At the same time I was starting to learn about leadership. I read books by people in the business world and happily enough, I learned that their work was in sync with my R’s. In addition to learning about curriculum and instruction, I was learning about how other people led their organizations, and their work influenced my role as a leader. I was learning and growing.

Today, the world of education is shifting and changing. I don’t have a problem with standards and accountability, however, now there are regulations that affect what educators do – it feels like we’re working inside a box. Merit pay is now part of our world and the relationships I worked hard to build over the years seem to be disintegrating. I have always seen myself as one among the team, and it feels like that’s changing. Now I am the evaluator whose hand is on the livelihood of the state’s employees! So much for shared leadership and connecting with my team, huh? I still believe in those things. They now see me differently. They see the role, not the person – I am the principal, not a colleague who can partner with them. There is less that I can do directly as a leader on a curricular and instructional level as well. My job is less about charting the course, and more about following the Trip Tik. I can determine the stops along the way but the path is set.

Well, not everything is wrong about this… in many cases, what is determined is good for students. Yet, what drew me to my work – my interest in engaging with challenges and finding solutions to address them – has morphed into something where the solutions are set by others. As someone reminded me, this is how many teachers feel across the country. No doubt, leaders of districts feel hemmed in as well, because what’s happening in the field of education affects them too.

There are days when this gets me down and I have to remind myself to keep my chin up! I wondered one day about the notion of learning and growing… how would growing help me in an arena where I have responsibility without much authority to do more than influence? What was my new challenge now and how could I tackle it?

“When we are doing something we’re passionate about, failure becomes a non-issue… Pursuit of a dream rarely leads to regrets… Too many of those with unrealized aspirations have set them aside due to fear of failure” — Farson and Keyes

It’s a long weekend, thanks to Presidents’ Day, and my thoughts kept me company as I puttered about the house doing the things I don’t get a chance to do on school days. Mulling over the lay of the land in education and seeing how I still fit in it was a helpful exercise. After the required whining (to self) about the things that bug me, I thought about what had not changed. I still love my job as a school principal. I still want to advocate for students and help them see the possibilities that lie ahead. I still love connecting with the people in my ‘school’ life. I still want to partner with my team to meet and exceed our goals. I still thrive on challenges and will always love learning.

I realized that to feel I can contribute in education I now have to redefine how I see my job. It’s no longer sufficient to think that building relationships will be a stepping stone towards partnering with my team in this arena of merit pay. I have to learn how to lead in a new atmosphere where educators feel like they are collectively under fire. It’s now about finding a way to ensure that the people at my school feel challenged to do their best every day and believe they’re getting a fair shake – I need to remember that time is an important variable in this. It’s about maintaining the R’s that ground my work and making them more transparent. It’s about realizing that when I feel boxed in, I have an even more important challenge – leading with my beliefs intact in an atmosphere where what I did before might not work. It’s about finding a way to solidify the trust I have earned over time, which now seems to be on shaky ground because of circumstances over which I have no control.

Therein lies the story of the change in the name of my blog. It now reads: From the Principal’s Pen… Thoughts About Learning and Leading. The learning still comes first. And leading… well it’s a fascinating challenge with new dimensions and I will continue to tackle it!


Giving Kids a Chance


When I started out as a special education teacher, people often said things like, “That is such a noble thing to do.” “You must be such a patient person.” I loved my job. I was trained for it and gained expertise over time. Noble? I didn’t subscribe to that notion. And as far as being patient, I would respond that I was actually quite impatient when it came to wanting my students to learn and succeed!

Teaching is not an easy job. There is a lot that educators want to accomplish and many hurdles stand in the way of our students as they engage in learning experiences. There are hurdles that educators can control and others that they can influence. Still other hurdles persist stubbornly. There are times when we feel like we’re hitting our heads against the proverbial wall and other times when we would like to wave a magic wand and level the playing field for our students.

School reopened yesterday. I love the spring semester because it’s a time when my team works towards wrapping up the year on a successful note while also beginning to prepare for the next school year. At this point, we are gauging how our students have performed since the fall, and we make important decisions to channel their learning and get them ready for a strong finish. We’re halfway through our school year marathon!

My theme for this semester is going to be “Give the kids a chance!” It’s not about diluting the learning environment for kids… it’s about keeping the bar high but being more thoughtful about them as learners. Where did this come from? Well, I’ve been involved in learning something new over break and as a result, received an important, impromptu orientation to the challenges associated with the concept of ‘learning’.

I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A month ago, I told my husband that in my next life, I’d like to learn to play this wonderful instrument. In his inimitable style, he asked me what was wrong with this life! So, a couple of weeks ago, I ordered Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method and a few days after it arrived, I bought my very first guitar – a used guitar with a lovely sound. Now, I’m learning to figure out notes on the staff, and saying “ouch” as my fingers experience the joy of developing callouses on the guitar strings! Over the weekend, I found myself putting off practicing… I had remembered the pain from the last time I’d picked up the guitar! Thankfully, I recognized that this avoidance was a temporary phase. I chose to purchase the guitar because I wanted to play it, knowing well that it wouldn’t be easy. I also knew that I would persevere.

When I think of the kids who walk into our school every day, I wonder about their learning experiences. They may not literally develop callouses but they still experience challenges. I found myself wondering if, as adults, we are a little removed from the actual experience of learning. Yes, we continue to learn in many ways and now recognize the joys of small and big gains. But do we remember and understand the angst that often accompanies new learning? A sense of avoidance, feeling of monotony, struggle of repetitive practice, awareness of defeat, the effort to persevere, the challenge of seeing connections and figuring things out, impatience with small gains… all of this and more show up before learners experience success. I’ve forgotten how much easier it was for the younger Subha to understand and figure out geometry vs. chemistry, how writing was so much more enjoyable for me than math. There are things that we have an aptitude for and other things we can master if we sweat over them. Oh, how I hate sweating!

As educators, we know a lot about what works in education, but, do we remember the struggles learners experience along the way? Growing up in India, I learned music for about 15 years. I used to perform on stage and I was pretty good at it. Yet, western musical notations make me feel completely ignorant about music. So much for background knowledge, huh? Not exactly, because background knowledge becomes useful if we can find a way to connect it to the new concepts we are learning. So, I’m working on creating connections to bridge what I knew then with what I am learning now. I know it will work for me because now I know more about how I learn and what works for me in the learning process. It won’t be easy, but I know I will make progress.

As adults we all know how tough change is – changes in curriculum, changes in team members, changes in routine – they can all shake our world, cause high levels of stress and put us in a situation where we have to shift gears and learn. Adults often protest ‘change’. But isn’t change after all simply about learning? Learning to adapt in a situation that is new or different, learning to respond to new circumstances or ideas, learning to deal with the new dynamics within our teams. Change seems tough when we have to ‘change’ what we are used to doing. It requires us to learn something new or respond in a different way than we have in the past. Yet, interestingly enough, we don’t call it a ‘learning’ experience. We use the term ‘change’ as though it is an obstacle that we adults have to work through – something that is done to us.

However, when it comes to the world of our students, we don’t call what they experience ‘change’. We speak about ‘learning’ when they are part of the context, as though it is something natural that they should experience and be able to handle because we have taught them what they need to know. The truth is that it’s not so simple. Kids have to deal with ‘change’ in their learning environment – new subjects, new concepts, new friends, new teachers every year who introduce new routines, new contexts and experiences as well as new struggles that will hopefully translate into success.

Learning does not have to be a negative experience. It’s worth remembering that ‘growing pains’ affect kids well beyond the muscle pain associated with this term. ‘Giving the kids a chance’ is something that has new meaning for me right now. I want my team to continue to push our students to aim higher and excel. I also hope that we will be thoughtful and more purposeful about working to help children experience success more frequently, so that they see learning as more than just a collection of struggles and challenges to avoid. Learning is an incredibly rewarding experience, yet it is also pretty complicated given that students arrive at their learning experiences from different places.

As we move towards the outcomes we seek for the end of the year – students attaining and exceeding the goals we have set for them – it becomes important for us to pause and reflect on how learning experiences do not unfold smoothly and effortlessly for students despite our best efforts. Indeed, our aim does not have to be about making learning ‘easy’. It has to be about making learning meaningful. For me, that happens when educators remember that students experience learning in different ways, and often travel on tough and bumpy roads. Our role is to read their journey and help them keep moving in the right direction until their reach first one destination and then another.

“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.” — Plato

I hope that my team and I will keep this theme in mind as the high we’re feeling now with batteries recharged after a restful winter break slides into moments when we feel like the climb uphill is getting steeper – when we’re hitting our heads against the wall. It would be useful to pause and recognize what students experience as they engage with learning in our classrooms, and respond sensitively to their experiences before we judge them negatively (as unmotivated, apathetic, careless, inattentive and indifferent). I hope in those moments we will look inward and try to remember how we feel when we are learning something new that doesn’t come easily for us. Perhaps, a sense of empathy will allow us to give a new lease to the learning environment in our classrooms,  stretch our students and help them excel.

Inspired by the Odyssey Initiative

Every January, as I step into a brand new year, I find it rewarding to think back to the previous year and consider things that touched my life and my work. Not unlike the Time ‘Person of the Year’ I find myself considering Subha’s ‘Experience of the Year’, and typically, there are many. There are the ups and downs, joys (our public school recently became an International Baccalaureate World School) and sorrows (a student, parent and staff member passed away last year while other kids battled life-threatening illnesses)… moments that knock us down, moments that help us bounce back and others that lift us up and bring us right back to the entrance to our school with our batteries recharged and our spirits energized. Each experience touched the little world of our school in important ways, helped us learn about each other and the important work we do for children, and sometimes brought us closer together as a school community. I have learned from every one of those experiences and grown a little stronger and more resilient. Here, I want to reflect on one experience that was unexpected, yet incredibly energizing and rewarding.

During the fall semester, a group of educators from the Odyssey Initiative, contacted me to ask about visiting my elementary school in Indiana. Three teachers, Michelle Healy, Brooke Peters and Todd Sutler were on an exciting journey, traveling to schools around the country to study practices that work before working on setting up their own school in Brooklyn, New York. They were accompanied by Nikki Heyman, who is filming their odyssey. I thought their project was wonderful and even before I met them, wished I was on that journey with them! Their mission and core beliefs were simple and insightful. They wanted to observe and document best practices, then adapt them to use in a school they plan to open open in a couple of years. I was eager to meet them.

They impressed me from the start. They had an agenda to maximize what they could accomplish in the few hours that they were at our school. They toured the building, visited a couple of classrooms to observe lessons, met with the teachers and interviewed them, and then met with me for an interview as well. They had a clear focus – like detectives following clues to solve mysteries (such as what constitutes good instruction). They reminded me of avid jigsaw puzzle junkies who can’t resist putting together pictures that look simple but are quite complex – pictures that come together as these puzzle enthusiasts consider nuances that will build the connections to lead them from part to whole. Some connections would be those Aha! moments, others would grow from careful reflection. Michelle, Brooke and Todd were doing this as they engaged with our school.

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” — Don Williams, Jr., American Novelist and Poet

I’ve learned that the best teachers are terrific observers of kids and the learning process. They know where they are heading and what they are looking for. They can gauge what is going on, figure out what needs to be done next and shift gears as necessary as they reflect on, revise and refine what they are doing continuously. Perhaps you wondered why I used the term ‘solve mysteries’ above, when I referred to what constitutes good instruction. We know a lot today about good educational practices, but you see, knowing what to do and when to do it are two completely different things. We can have a lot of tools in our tool belt, but we need to use them at the right time and in the right context. It is important to have knowledge of sound instructional strategies and also critical to know when each should be pulled out and used. As such, teaching and reflecting are absolutely inseparable. Kids benefit when educators do this seamlessly. And for all that we talk about high stakes testing and accountability these days as though they are tough pills to swallow, all they are asking for is that educators be reflective practitioners. I’ve always believed that if we teach kids using best practices and teach them how to learn, the tests will take care of themselves. Using best practices however, is not simple. There are nuances to it that are tied to numerous dynamics. However, there are educators in schools who are keeping up with their own professional learning and making this happen day after day for kids.  Brooke, Michelle and Todd are visiting schools around the country, to document how this unfolds and thankfully, not keeping the knowledge to themselves. They are sharing it with the larger educational community. They plan to open a school in 2014, yet the journey is where they are gathering the seeds to sow for their school.

Their visit was interesting. They knew what they wanted to do, they came in with an organized agenda of what they wanted to see, and had thoughtfully constructed questions to make their respondents reflect on the beliefs that drive actions. When they left, I felt like I had been grilled! But, I had learned a little more about my school through their eyes and more about my role as a principal. They had asked some tough and interesting questions. I am someone who likes to let ideas marinade in my head over time. Yes, on a daily basis, I make decisions quickly based on beliefs that ground my work, however responding to questions is a different matter. How does one reflect on the run, one question after another? They had made me dig a little deeper into the why’s  of my work, and the wheels were turning in my head long after they left. Some weeks later, I read the first post they had written about their visit, describing a lesson they had observed in one of our classrooms. It was a beautiful piece – a description of a work of art revealed through the eyes of the viewer – they had translated an hour-long snapshot of the teacher’s craft and revealed aspects that had made it a compelling and meaningful lesson. They showed how the lesson had hooked students into the process of learning.

I’ve always believed in the power of writing as an amazing vehicle to communicate ideas. This team of educators does a masterful job of showcasing their talent through the writing in their blog posts on the Odyssey Initiative’s website – posts that not only document effective instructional practices but are made stronger because of the reflections of the authors.  Their main page showcases featured articles and video clips. To experience their journey, click on the map on their main website and then scroll down to travel with them from one state to the next, from school to school, and educator to educator – to read well-written descriptions and view video clips from their journey. You will be inspired by the teachers and school leaders they’ve met, learn from their experiences, and more importantly (as one of my teachers commented) experience a validation of your beliefs about the best in schooling. You will head back to work with your batteries recharged (as mine are again just from writing this post).

The Odyssey Initiative’s visit was, for me, the highlight of 2012. I must admit, I wish I could have taken a year to travel with them and learn about education in the best way possible, by visiting schools and watching solid teaching and learning in action. On the other hand, their visit became memorable because they impressed me in the few hours I met them as educators who had a sense of purpose about their journey. They were not just visiting schools. They were inquiring into important aspects of schools – how they work and run for kids – in a meaningful and structured manner. They knew what they were looking for and had excellent questions. They were on a journey of learning – after all, learning never ends. They write beautifully about the teaching they have observed and a field I love. Their enthusiasm is infectious and energizing. They reinforced my belief in the power of educators to make a difference – not just for children but for our profession. As much as I look forward to learning about the school they plan to open, I believe they have at least a book or more they can write about their journey. And while a book might not be ready as yet, their website is. I hope you will visit and join them on their journey. I am confident you’ll be hooked! It’s worth going back again and again — I know I will do this to vicariously join them in their travels.

Bon voyage, Michelle, Brooke, Todd and Nikki! 

Y buena suerte…

Learning and Leading

I have found that spending a day learning is a great way to renew my interest and belief in the things that are important to me. It could be a great day of learning when I am inspired by a someone or something (a book, movie, etc.) or perhaps a day when I might disagree with what I’ve heard or read, and learn anyway! Either way, if my brain starts humming, I know something good will come from that experience. Today I attended a conference and spent the entire day learning from a talented educator whose work resonated with me and helped me work through something I’ve been wrestling with recently.

I believe that the most important aspect of my job is to help my team members be the best they can be. I am also a principal in a state where teacher evaluations have been revamped and will soon be linked to their salaries. Naturally, this is new and unnerving for many educators who worry about how this will affect them. Will their evaluators gauge their work fairly? Will they know what they need to work on in a timely manner? They wonder what kind of an impact this system will have on their careers and lives. On the other side of the equation, I believe this system has raised the bar for school leaders with regard to how we conduct evaluations. We must continue to focus on helping teachers be the best they can be, without going into what I call ‘gotcha’ mode. My assistant principal and I have talked a lot about this and tried to communicate to teachers that we’re not interested in doing the punitive ‘gotcha’ thing. We want to partner with them in meaningful ways so that our team continues to gain strength and raise student achievement by doing the things we are charged to do, without being punitive. Yet, we realize that until this school year unfolds and people can gauge our actions, they will only have our words to rely on. Change is not easy. And, when it has the potential to affect our purse-strings negatively, it may cause stress and anxiety, and affect trust between the parties.

In my book, accountability is not a bad word. Increasing student achievement and helping students achieve success at the highest levels is a non-negotiable goal. Advocating for all children to be able to have access to opportunities that will allow them to dream big and aim high is a worthy aim. Preparing them to be able to do whatever they want to do when they grow up is, to me, why schools exist. I want to make sure that these are not diluted in any way for children and by the same token, something in me says helping teachers improve what they do is also about making a difference.

Enter Robyn Jackson, founder of Mindsteps Inc., who has strong beliefs about the core principles that should ground teaching and learning. I had read some of her books over the past year and found her work engaging and inspiring. She had three different presentations at the conference I attended today. I made it a ‘learn from Robyn Jackson’ day, and I am glad I did! What I learned today will allow me to structure the conversations I have with my team and meet the guidelines of the new evaluation system while continuing to honor the beliefs that undergird my work.

She gave a simple and important point as the rationale for her work. If we believe every child can learn and succeed (and we should believe this unequivocally), then by the same token, we should believe that every teacher can teach at the highest levels. Today she shared her belief that every child deserves to be taught by a master teacher and that any teacher can become a master teacher with the right support, guidance and practice. She engaged us with her ideas about how strategic conversations between supervisors and teachers have the potential to help teachers hone their skills and refine their practice.

Why is this valuable to me? If I want my teachers to believe that every child can learn and if I want them to find ways to reach children and help them succeed, then in my role as an instructional leader, I must believe that every teacher deserves the same from me. I have to find ways to support them and help them succeed. I have to find a way to help them be the best they can be and help every child succeed. Just as I don’t want anyone on my staff to give up on kids, I must ensure that my assistant principal and I don’t give up on our teachers. What I like about Robyn Jackson’s book is that it gives us a structured framework to guide the work we do with our team members – to work thoughtfully as we support them in achieving their goals.

An important aspect of her message is about encouraging supervisors to have a series of strategic conversations that support teachers in increasing the effectiveness of instruction. These conversations will likely happen outside the realm of evaluation observations and meetings. However, by engaging in them, supervisors have the opportunity to influence the quality of instructional practices. This is bound to help with bringing ‘no surprises’ during the evaluation. It is how we would want our own work to be evaluated.

I’ve often said that we are collectively responsible for increasing student achievement, and that I want to partner with my staff – “We’re all in this together.” However, in a high-stakes environment, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them see this as just words. Robyn Jackson’s comments about wanting to find a ‘different way’ to supervise her team resonated with me because to her, the other way simply had a punitive ring to it. She reminded us about the reasons why people embrace a career in education and reiterated the idea that we need to consciously structure our schools so that those reasons remain alive even as educators continue their journey, year after year. We want teachers to inspire students. Don’t we as school leaders have a charge to inspire our teachers?

My professor and mentor, Dr. Terrell once said, “Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” I remember his words often on the job. Dr. Jackson reminded me today of why I became a principal and helped me renew my commitment to the goal of supporting teachers to be the best they can be. She gave me a road map with her framework for engaging in strategic conversations with teachers. I will still need to figure out which turns to take, whether I will travel quickly on highways, or drive more patiently down country roads, whether I will get to my destination quickly or if the situation warrants a more measured pace. Either way, she has given me a structure to chart a course towards differentiating leadership and supporting team members meaningfully, while holding on tightly to my beliefs. For that I am grateful.

“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

… and, if you’re in a movie, some unbelievably heroic character will arrive in the nick of time and pull you up to safety! However, this is real life, and the end of the rope arrives sometimes before you have even thought about tying a knot!

Sometimes I wish I had super powers, or even some magic dust. It’s tough to see people working through change and not be able to fix their issues, or better still, help them figure a way out of the things that challenge them. In this week’s ‘Campus Update’ (a weekly message to my staff that includes reflections, important information and upcoming calendar items), I wrote about seeking that elusive notion of balance. It seemed to me that my team was working ’round the clock and quite likely their balance was tilted more heavily on the ‘work’ side and not the ‘family’ and ‘play’ side. So, why should that matter? When we’re stressed, our immune systems become weak, our health is affected, eating and sleeping are not a priority, we are more likely to make mistakes, fatigue wipes us out and our families can only hope that we’ll connect back with them (understatement of the year). I should know… I’ve been quite a workaholic for several years. I think I’m much better at making balance a priority now, but I’m not quite there. My husband is my compass at home on this topic – and I’m trying to pass on his message to my team!

We constantly juggle the dynamics and demands of multiple roles that we play and search for a way to become more effective and efficient in what we do. I’ve learned that people typically want to do their best, and as they struggle to do this they may sometimes find themselves in a stalemate. One of those, “I know what I need to do and if only I had a few extra hours in the day to do it…” kind of situations.

As a school leader I see myself working to remove obstacles – problem solving to help us get past the things that keep our feet on the brakes. I ask for their ideas, they share their thoughts and for the most part we can find common ground. I’m fine with making changes to streamline our work, and it’s quite powerful when the changes come from their ideas. However, there are times when the very structure of what we deal with prevents us from shifting the dynamic. And… you just have to hang on!

In my experience, this doesn’t happen often – typically educators are a very creative bunch and we tend to find ways to work through, or around issues. But what if the issue is the box we inhabit – there are boundaries that symbolize limits within which we have to function. For e.g. we only have a fixed number of hours to work with each day – even with very little sleep! And a certain number of days within which we must accomplish our goals. Thinking outside the box is well and good, but when you have to work inside it, you have to learn to persist with what you have. “Take what you have and make it what you need.” said Carol Dantley, a pastor, and wife of one of my professors, when she spoke in a leadership class over a decade ago at Miami University. Her words stayed with me. Sometimes you just have to work with what is available to you. And, wishful thinking… well, that’s available but not much help, right?

“Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.” ~~ Author Unknown

Hmm! Easier said than done! Isn’t it annoying to work with a bunch of keys to open a lock? I was in that situation today and it seemed like the last key was elusive. I tried and tried and tried… and then someone else managed to open the lock! It is hard to persist when all you feel is a sense of frustration. I know one of these keys will open the lock, but which one is it? Hopefully, we all will take turns feeling discouraged so that some of us will always hold the key to lift up others!

Sometimes, when I don’t have a solution for the issues that bug my team, and when problem-solving will not shift the boundaries we have to work within, I have to remind myself that perhaps my role is to simply be there for them. To listen, support and guide when possible and lift them up. To help them see that there are things we sometimes have to figure out on our own because someone else cannot move them or make them go away. If we stick with it and hang on, then eventually we’ll find a way to work within the boundaries that are immovable before figuring out a way to move the ones that are easier to shift. The tug-of-war between the concrete vs. drywall partitions in our lives!

A leader plays multiple roles – cheerleader, director, conductor, coach, chef, counselor, nurse, parental figure, stand-up-comedian… the list can go on. The foundation of these roles is clear today – doing what it takes to keep the team moving – encouraging, complimenting, guiding, coaching, listening, supporting – basically being there for them. Would a cape and wand be at the top of my wish list? Yes, absolutely! But, I know those items will always remain only on my list. I have to rely on other tools – and most of them are inside me. They all start with caring enough about my team to stick with them as we continue to march toward our goals, convinced that we will get there together!

Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down. ~~ Charles F. Kettering 

Giving up is not an option.  If we persist, today’s boundaries will become tomorrow’s home, and eventually we will begin to focus on some other new challenge because we would have figured out a way to work with what we have. I work in an urban school with incredible diversity and a host of what some would consider to be challenges. In the midst of this, I have seen teams of people move mountains to find ways to support children. I think sometimes they are so dedicated and focused on moving other people’s mountains that occasionally, when they see their own mountains the climb seems steeper. We all know what we want to do for others, but rarely do we place enough value on caring about ourselves.

If some of our obstacles wake us up to the notion of finding balance in our lives, well, then, this bump in the road might just be worthwhile!

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – Gen. George S. Patton

A new school year is starting – well, it has already started at my school. We’re ending week three! What an exciting time it is – new opportunities, new ideas, new people all get to tangle together in another new beginning. It’s a time when leaders get to set the tone. An important aspect of that tone is welcoming different perspectives.

As we ‘tangle’ together, things can sometimes become messy. That’s not surprising. We have over 800 people in our school who spend more hours together during weekdays when they are awake than with their families. It would be naïve to think we’ll be sailing smoothly out of the harbor on most days. Conflicts are bound to arise and people will get miffed. Sometimes I want to just say, “People, get used to it… conflicts are OK.”

In a time when we worry so much about being politically correct at work, simply sharing a different opinion may feel like a challenge. If you think I am exaggerating, picture a meeting in your head. Someone says something and you realize that you have a different way of looking at the situation. In an atmosphere where people feel that everyone’s opinions must be validated, how are you going to air your difference of opinion? Is there a possibility that the person making the first comment might feel shut down when you present an opposing viewpoint? That others around the table might suddenly look uncomfortable? I do believe we have reached a point where airing disagreements is often seen as being disagreeable. And, if you’re in a leadership role while the person making the original comment is a member of your team, it may give the impression that the boss has spoken – so the employee must have said something wrong and now gears must shift. Ouch! How do you set the tone?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

–Aristotle, Greek philosopher

If professionals would consistently consider ideas, weigh them, reflect objectively and thoughtfully, then form opinions and make decisions there would be room to play with different ideas. It is not practical or honest sometimes to validate everything that is said. On the other hand, we are stretched when we consider perspectives different from our own and ultimately the organization benefits. So how do we foster a culture that honors this level of engagement?

As someone who has tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and… succeeded a little, I can share that it’s an idea worth believing in, yet is also one that is tough to put into practice. It’s what I’ve wanted for the past decade as a principal, yet the road has been bumpy and messy. It sounded like a good idea (after all who would ever disagree if I said all voices were welcome and valued) and I hoped it would work. I was wrong – it was not a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of scenario.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

Relationships are important. We have the power to influence each other with what we say, when we are thoughtful about how we say it. However, even this is insufficient in itself. If our team members have relationships that foster trust and a collaborative spirit, this push and pull of influence will stretch perspectives in a healthy way. When conflicts are aired without the ties of relationships then there is no foundation upon which we can test the strength of ideas. A push and pull of ideas can potentially weaken the cohesiveness of a group. So, yes, having talented people is important but fostering relationships is critical to allow differing perspectives to stretch our thinking without hurting teams or our organizations.

Building trust is not easy, but it is a great first step. Sometimes we rush into things – projects, plans, activities – without stopping to see if we have strong ties to the people partnering with us. These ties come only when we trust each other. The knowledge that we can air our thoughts and do our work believing that the people around us are there for us, come rain or shine, is something that is fostered in an atmosphere of trust. Leaders have the opportunity to nurture this by giving trust to those who are on their team and modeling what they want to see in their team members. In other words, when the going gets tough, people want to know if the leader will be standing beside them. This step cannot be rushed. It takes time to earn the trust of others. And consistency in one’s tone helps to nurture it. When we are inconsistent in how we react to others on our team, we get ensnared in the game of moving one step forward and two steps back.

Encouraging and inviting voices is essential. However, just because you put out the invitation it doesn’t mean that voices will be shared. It will take time. When people realize that they will not be shut out because they have something different to say, they will be more likely to speak up. Initially it might only be a couple of people and then some more might join in. Do I feel confident that everyone on my team speaks up? No! But, do I believe that a good chunk of my team members air their opinions? Yes! It’s taken time, and it’s still not without bumpy potholes, but for the most part we try to work things out. We might miff each other at intervals, but we are typically able to straighten out such situations. I have to admit that for an impatient person like me, this is tough because I believe in the idea and I want it to happen ‘yesterday’ but it does take a long time. It is worthwhile, though, because it builds a culture that can be sustained even when you hit rough spots. When we are in the middle of one of those ‘spots’ – the kind where we might be in the middle of change with people feeling stressed out – things might seem frustrating or overwhelming. Yet, I feel we can work through these challenges if we share our thoughts with each other. It’s better for me to know than not know. Whether or not I can help them, I can at least try to understand what they’re dealing with. With more awareness, we can problem-solve together or for each other. Just as families hit rough patches and struggle to stay afloat, our teams (our families at work) have to face similar challenges and find a way to stick together to make things work. Hiding our thoughts from each other is not healthy!

Put issues on the table – air them out. One of my primary reasons for maintaining a consistent level of response to issues at work is because I need my team to alert me to issues (problems, mistakes) without hesitation. If they think I will bite (not literally, of course), they will likely hold back. If I am not aware of issues, I cannot lead my organization effectively. So I speak quite openly of my stance on how I will treat them (it’s written in stone for me). Every situation that is potentially negative (with a student, staff member, parent or visitor) is an opportunity for me to demonstrate whether or not my response pattern is really written in stone. Over time, as members of my team recognize that this is an important belief and that I will stick to it unconditionally, they become more willing to speak their minds. The more they do it with me, the more they may start doing it with each other. In my role, I need to know where the chips lie. It’s better for our organization if I know what’s really on their minds. It may not be pretty and I may not like it, but it’s a reality that my crew and I will need to engage with. If a storm is heading our way and we don’t have a way around it, we have to find a way through it. At my school, I wouldn’t say we have a perfect situation but we’ve made great gains. We’re in a good place now, and it took us a while to get here.

“A mind stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

In this case, I’m not sure that the word ‘never’ holds true. People who learn to value the sharing of multiple viewpoints and work through conflicts may turn tail if trust is broken, or if beliefs and actions are not in sync. This leadership business is a little like walking on eggshells or sometimes in a minefield. You make quick decisions numerous times a day on big and little issues, yet you must always be able to instinctively reflect on the ramifications of your actions. You may need to live with the consequences for a long time. So is this a ‘make people happy’ bandwagon? I doubt it. I learned a long time ago that my wanting people to be happy would not translate into their being happy! But, I do hope this is a bandwagon about engaging with people honestly.

Picture members of a team standing on different stripes of a beach ball (the departments of an organization). When they speak up honestly about what is happening on their stripe of the beach ball, they share with us perspectives from their slice of the organization. When I speak up about what is on my mind, I give them insights from my stripe of the beach ball. If we don’t do this, I might never know what’s happening on their blue stripe which is on the other side of the ball because I’m stuck on the red stripe and can only see part of the beach ball. I’m learning to share more about the view from my stripe too. I’ve shared this analogy with my team, and when things get tough, I remind them to let me know about what’s happening on their stripe.

If there is an inherent belief in an idea shared that goes against the grain of what the organization values, how should we challenge it? In public – to all? In private – with an individual or group? It depends on the circumstance and a leader may need to figure out when either or both are appropriate. However, if it is something that affects our core principles and requires us to take a stance, then it’s important to just step out and say what we believe. People need to know where someone in a leadership role stands on important issues. Setting the tone is not synonymous with creating ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings. It’s about reflecting on the vision and mission and taking a stance on what is important to the organization. It is always better to be clear and transparent with the tough yet important statements and not create a fuzzy guessing game about what the leader thinks. These might be the moments when the leader is the one who is not ‘thinking alike’ but wants to reset the compass for the organization. How the leader communicates this will make a big difference as to whether the stance will influence people or not.

While we may not be able to resolve issues fully, leaders must work purposefully to create an environment where people are encouraged to share their thinking without being afraid of conflict, or getting mired in it. Organizations cannot be stretched if everybody is thinking alike. People cannot grow if organizations don’t invite honest and open communication. On the flip side, we do need to challenge opinions and perspectives when necessary, and do this with honesty. A leader always has the power to step out and speak his/her mind. The true test is whether others in the organization have the same opportunity.

Undoubtedly, a leader can foster a culture where thinking differently is valued or simply shut down. The former takes time, effort and tons of patience. An organization builder will value that and work towards it.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Covey’s Influence on My Work

This post has been brewing in my mind for sometime now, but it brought me to the keyboard today as I look back on the influence Stephen Covey has had on my work as a school leader. Covey, author of  several books on leadership, passed away on July 16th, 2012. On the news today I heard several people mention his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, yet, I remember him for a different book.

I am not sure where I first heard his name but it was about a decade ago when I had just started my training to become a principal. I think I stumbled across a book authored by him as I wandered through the bookstore at Miami University in Ohio. While buying textbooks, I used to enjoy browsing the shelves to see what was on display for other courses. Often I left with used copies of titles which piqued my interest.  That is how I found a copy of Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’. It seemed to fall right into the realm of the overarching leadership themes and focus on vision that played through the educational leadership program. When we talked about ‘leadership’ as opposed to ‘administration’ I was fascinated by the ideas I was learning, but it was Covey’s book which gave me a picture of how this notion of leadership within a community could play out. His book opened my eyes to new possibilities were I to have the privilege of leading a school.

I was fascinated. The world of business seemed to have more warmth and connections through Covey’s lens than I had realized. He emphasized building relationships and I was keen to consider his perspective within a school setting. Today, I spent a few minutes skimming through my portfolio, created at the end of my leadership program, and sure enough I had multiple references in my writing to what I had learned from his work – I had reiterated his idea of ‘Principle-Centered Leadership’ and his notion of life-long learning.

“If you don’t experience your life, you’re not going to come up with solutions for anything. Every intention, every achievement has come out of dissatisfaction, not serenity. No one ever said, “Things are perfect, let’s invent fire.” ~ Fran Lebowitz

There was a time when I used to shy away from conflict, but then I learned from him that it is in airing our disagreements and different perspectives that we can be stretched in our thinking. Covey emphasized that to move ahead, we have to deal with restraining forces before addressing the driving forces. He spoke of how just pressing down on the gas pedal will not allow us to move forward unless we take our feet off the brake. As a school leader, I see that change is always ’round the corner, and I also see that my crew members have different reactions to the changes we encounter. We will not be able to move forward unless we engage with each other about the things that hold us back from ‘implementing’ the change sincerely, or as we say these days in education, ‘with fidelity’. In my book, engaging is about about ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’. And that cannot happen without taking the time to build relationships.

In an era of accountability in education, another notion of Covey’s resonates for me. He said that proactive people would take responsibility for their choices without placing blame on external factors. That is something I have tried to emphasize with my team – a sense of taking responsibility for our charge, learning from our mistakes and moving forward. I started my career with my 3 R’s – and now I recognize that two of them, Relationships and Responsibility, quite likely grew out of my meanderings in Covey’s books . A vision can unfold more meaningfully when there is a collective sense of responsibility, and that cannot grow in a vacuum without relationships either.

I wonder if some might read my blog and think to themselves, “OK, Subha, this relationship building, warm and fuzzy stuff you speak of is well and good but what about raising student achievement? Isn’t that your bigger job?” If I heard that question, my response would be that both can co-exist, and actually need to co-exist. Using tough tactics to require the implementation of instructional ‘best practices’ without building relationships might allow us to see the ‘actions’ and ‘behaviors’ we want to see, but they will probably be inconsistently implemented and will likely not be sustainable over time. If people don’t believe in something and if they feel like it’s being ‘done to them’ they’re going to be in fight or flight mode for the most part.  On the flip side, if a school is all about being warm and fuzzy and building a sense of community without  focusing on rigorous and sound curricular practices, then yes, we will have a caring community but student achievement will not go off the charts upwards.

Strong relationships and rigor in instructional practices can help build successful educational organizations. It takes time for good practices to ‘stick’. People will be more willing to work at something if they understand the rationale for it, and if there is an atmosphere of trust and relationships to cushion their journey as new learning takes place. Covey has written a lot about building and regaining trust. Trust is something we cannot expect as leaders. It is something we have to earn. And trust cannot be fostered without relationships.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people who came before us, stumbled and reflected, then took the time to share their learning and influence others. We get to hear and read what they experienced and make sense of it all by adding our perspectives and experiences to the mix. Covey opened my eyes to the big things that one wrestles with over time. I have learned to reflect on and refine the ideas, see how things fit and where they fit in my life and work. I can question big ideas and make new meaning for myself. Covey is one among many who influenced what I do and in some sense he and others have made my work exciting – it is not in auto-pilot mode and I do wrestle daily with the issues that come my way because these giants have given me food for thought. They have taught me that there is no quick formula in my work… that I have to be willing to work hard, keep my compass steady and build connections because leadership is a ‘people’ business.

I remember listening to Covey narrating one of his audio books some years back and thinking that this was someone who was passionate about his work. In his voice, I could sense his excitement and his respect for the work we do. People are fortunate when they have the opportunity to work on something they love. He seemed to be some who thoroughly enjoyed his work and connecting with others even more. Covey’s ideas are beyond warm and fuzzy – they’re easy to accept and challenging to implement. I am grateful to have engaged with his ideas so far through the lens that he shared. I do believe that in the years ahead, many more leaders will continue to stand on his shoulders as they take responsibility for building relationships and a shared vision with their crew.