On Letter Grades for Schools…

This week, I was in the Indiana Statehouse to exercise my civic duty. I provided testimony before the Indiana Senate Education Committee on a bill that voids the A-F ratings of school performance and creates room for new and more meaningful designations – a topic that affects every school and district in the state. I was honored to represent the voice of our district and other educators around the state.

Accountability is important. So is helping parents make informed decisions about the best educational options for their children. Doing it clearly, fairly and transparently is critical. What we have currently is a complex formula. The report card is more a label than something that can lead to action. It rolls achievement and growth measures into one letter which makes schools that are making a positive difference look like they are failing schools. Another principal providing testimony at the hearing shared that a visitor to her school, impressed with the learning environment and shocked to learn that the school had an F rating had quipped – “Then ‘F’ must stand for ‘Fabulous’.”

Recently, my school was accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School after three years of rigorous work. Parent involvement is high. We have tremendous socio-economic, ethnic and geographic diversity. As our demographic diversity grew, so did our scores! We hold ourselves accountable, not because of any legislation, but simply because children deserve nothing less.

When parents arrive unannounced for a tour, they often say they can’t believe we have 720 students because the hallways are quiet. They are impressed with how students are engaged with learning in every classroom they visit. They often speak of the warm and welcoming tone they sense in our school. They say they can tell the grown-ups care about the kids, and compliment us on the student work they see showcased throughout our school… and our test scores.

Our students take the state tests in the spring semester. In the end of October, when we were expecting one letter grade from the state, we were quite surprised to receive 3 instead, calculated using different criteria. The state rated us C-C-C for the last three years. In our book, that says nothing has changed. You have not grown. Things are static at your school. A single letter repeated three times put our efforts over the past three years into one tidy little box which implied all those things and hid what we do for children. I couldn’t explain in simple English how the ratings were calculated. The morale of my team was shot. I told them, “Look, no one came and gave us a pat on the back when our scores increased by 10% in just one year, so let’s just get on with our jobs.” Easier said than done. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at it through a different lens.

Let’s say a parent gets their child’s report card from our school and all it has is one letter grade – a C. They are puzzled, and say, “What does this C mean?”  We tell them it’s how their child’s progress is rated at our school. “How did you get to this letter grade?” they ask. We say, “Well, it’s a really complex formula.” If this were true, I would hope those parents would yank their kids out of our school right away and go somewhere else where the teachers could tell them how their children were doing in different academic subjects, the creative arts and social development. If a potential employer saw a college graduate’s transcript with only one letter to indicate his/her qualifications, they would probably look somewhere else to hire a someone whose competence is clearly apparent. It doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Why do we do this to public schools?

If a car dealer took April’s sales figures and gave the sales report to his employees in November, his business wouldn’t run for long. Yet spring data for schools reappears in the end of October as a report card after we are well into the new school year. If I went to a doctor who spoke in complex medical jargon and couldn’t explain what it meant, I would quickly look for a different doctor. Parents experience our school and are unable to connect the dots to see the C grade that we received. There are National Blue Ribbon Schools that have received poor letter grades despite maintaining their high standards. The A-F grades are not timely and not easy to understand either.

Public schools are an incredible resource in America, and yes, they face many challenges. The solution is not to undermine them or do away with them. One hears a lot of verbal bashing of educators – the people who hold the future of the country in their hands. Having made my second home in schools, I have seen incredibly talented educators work very hard to inspire students, partner with parents and provide tremendous instructional programs and supports. Just as we work hard to inspire every child who walks through our doors regardless of the visible and invisible baggage they bring in, we need our elected leaders to support and inspire us to do our best whether we teach children of wealthy parents or the poorest of the poor. That begins with taking data about each school’s performance, analyzing it, and giving it back to us in a way that allows us to do something meaningful with it. There’s nothing in the current letter grade that allows my staff to set goals or determine instructional changes. 

One letter on a school’s report card cannot give parents information that will allow them to compare the performance of multiple schools any more than one letter on a child’s report card can give them information about how their child is doing in multiple subjects. Information about a school’s performance must be provided in a way that is fair and can be explained. Many beautiful gems are trapped behind single letters assigned to schools that don’t say much, but imply a lot. It’s time to do away with the A-F letter grades and share school improvement stories in a way that makes sense. Our kids deserve nothing less.

The bill was passed unanimously and I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds in the months ahead.

(This post is based on testimony I provided at the hearing.)

“I didn’t take this job to give up on you!”

How often have I said this? And often vehemently. Yet, this week I had to reflect on whether or not I meant this unconditionally.

As an elementary principal in an urban school, I have a fire in my belly about the work I do, fueled by a sense of optimism that keeps me afloat and helps me bounce back when things get tough as they are apt to do. My job has its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows and what keeps me going is the belief that I might make a difference, perhaps leave an impression on the lives of others and stretch them in the direction of possibilities that might enrich their lives in the future. The latter part of that sounds like such a romanticized version of a principal’s role, doesn’t it, given that people often see individuals in my role as the proverbial boogeyman? “Did you know this auntie (in India, the adult friends of a child’s parents are called aunties or uncles) is a school principal?” A scary person, indeed! Others see it as a tough job. I’ve heard the “I wouldn’t want your job for anything…” line often enough, and more so recently given the push and pull educators face from politicians and the community these days. And… I still love this job.

It’s about kids… Kids who come to us with an incredible sense of curiosity about the world they live in. Kids who have an array of talents, often untapped. Kids privileged to have a wealth of experiences, resources and support. Kids who have experienced challenges and trials for which my life experiences bring no reference point. Just as parents often wish for their children a better life than the one they have, I wish for my students the opportunity to be well prepared to do anything they may choose to do in their lives. I hope they will love to learn, and learn how to learn.

In the meantime, the world many of my students live in is a lot like an obstacle course – perhaps a hurdle race. They run and reach a hurdle, they jump over it, run again and reach another one sometimes making it safely to the finish line. In some cases, they are like the novice athlete – not quite making it over the hurdle… knocking it down as they struggle to hone their skills. Often their teachers coach them through these hurdles, occasionally the referee (principal) has to make a call. Was the hurdle knocked over accidentally, or deliberately? Should the athlete be disqualified? And how complicated might things get when the referee sees herself as a coach?

As I work to piece together the slow motion replay in my head when hurdles are knocked over, my goal is not only to help students work through their current obstacle but also guide them so they can figure out a way to deal with the next similar hurdle that stares at them from just a few yards ahead. The kids are sometimes bummed out, and sometimes tough. Often their feelings are bruised and they want to save face. Sometimes they lack the words to share what’s playing in their minds… what they are feeling in their hearts. Some of them carry so much baggage – the unseen kind that for $25 you couldn’t pass on to the airline baggage handler for just a few hours until you get to your destination.

My job is about pushing and pulling, nudging and cajoling, caring and nurturing, lifting others up and working hard to stop them from falling while hoping to inspire and guide them towards new paths – hopefully ones that will be slightly less bumpy. I realized, as I reflected last night, that I have some lines that spill out of me at intervals – in a deliberately kind yet sometimes firm tone, and in a calm voice. Words that mean a lot to me… words that help build trust with my kids and their families… words that let them know I care, even when things are rough.

“You know, you’re way better than that. You’re capable of so much more!”

“I want you to be the best you can be!”

“I often tell other people how smart/bright/talented/creative you are, and I’m not sure they believe me when they see some of the choices you make. Did you know, only YOU have the power to make them believe my words. You can make my words true. You can make my word good by doing the right thing!”

“Do you want people to see you as a kind, caring, positive, happy, cheerful and generous person? Or do you want them to think of you as someone who bullies others, hurts others or does not care? You are the only one who has the power to make that happen. You know I’m right, don’t you?” 

“Do you believe that I care about you? Do you believe that I respect you?”

“Have you ever heard me yell at you, put you down or say mean or disrespectful things? I know how to be grumpy, I can yell pretty loudly, I know a lot of mean words, and I am pretty angry about what you did, but I choose not to yell or scream at you. How can I ask you to do the right thing if I don’t?”

(My family likely wishes I could stick with this at home! Yes, this is my big goal… one I’m still working towards. But for now, I’ve stuck by these words at school for over two decades with no slip up.)

And for the moments when they knock down the toughest and tallest hurdles, unable to summon up the skills to jump over them, I’ve said this:

“The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think and change what you’ve been doing. I wouldn’t ask you to do something you couldn’t do, right? And you don’t need me to keep telling you things you already know. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you. Count on us.” 

Inch by inch, and sometimes with tinier steps we move forward together – building trust, sharing lighthearted moments, caring words, smiles and compliments. In most situations, parents see that we want the best for their kids. Yet, occasionally, that hurdle turns into a wall that one of my kids slams into. One of those “Please don’t put me in a situation where you don’t give me a leg to stand on and bail you out” walls… where I have no choice but to don the referee’s striped shirt. Yes, we all earn consequences – good or bad – for the choices we make. And I don’t believe in the good kid/bad kid syndrome – I believe kids are generally good yet may make bad decisions (yes, yes, those rose-tinted glasses are out there for all to see right now). Those walls sometimes bring me moments when I feel like my bag of tricks has run out. When I wish I had done just one more thing to prepare a kid for the hurdle ahead of him/her – one that is so obviously looming ahead of a child who is unable to make the right decision at the right second to jump over it, or to summon up the control to tackle the impending crash with a spirit of sportsmanship.

Ah, so much for a euphemistically written post! There is much to say about the stance one wants to take as a school leader, while dealing with the trials that are part and parcel of a leadership role that is ultimately about people – young people – and therefore comes with a complex play book and rule book. Donning the referee shirt symbolically and worrying that one has moved away from the coaching role one believes in implicitly, while plagued by a fear… that my word might not have been good. “I’ll never give up on you.” Really? Unconditionally? I’d like to think so. Yet our time together is so fleeting, often made even more so by the mobility that winds kids through multiple schools in a matter of months or years; or by the transitions from elementary to middle to… How do I make good on my word? When do I keep my promise? How much time will I get?

Reflecting on what we do in some sense becomes second nature when we care and want to do more and do better, right? And in the midst of those reflections creep in the gremlins of doubt and worry. “Should I have…?” “Did I do…?” “What else could/should I have…?” I do believe it is healthy to go through this process of reflecting on our actions as leaders and educators. It’s tough, but we can come out stronger on the other side. Getting there takes some time and work, and there are also moments when I need to lean on the wisdom of others.

The words that helped me bounce back to coaching mode came from President Obama’s commencement speech given yesterday at Barnard College (a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University) – a speech shared on a friend’s Facebook wall today. A great speech I know I will share with my students as we journey ahead together. And his words that helped me shed the striped shirt?

“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”

He didn’t really need to tell me something I already knew, but I needed to hear it today! And… my learning and growing continues. I know again, that I’m far from quitting, and I won’t let my kids quit.  I realize that I might have to switch shirts again as I get my kids ready for the world they live in, yet, even as I do, I will keep saying to them, “The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think, and change what you’ve been doing. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you.” 

And, we’ll always be here. The best gift will be, if over time, unbeknownst to us, they remember that as they play the game of life.

What’s In a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

— Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet)

Ah, but I beg to differ from the famous bard. This post, which finally allowed me to get rid of the writer’s block that has plagued me for a couple of months, comes from a pet peeve. Have you seen how often in schools we call people ‘Mr. C” or even “Mr. S” (now how did Mr. Smith end up with a shortened name, I wonder)! Let’s call a rose ‘a rose‘!

I’ve been a principal in four schools. In each one, I was asked, “Would you like the students to call you Ms. B?” I was called Ms. B in my first job as an instructional assistant a couple of decades ago. At that time, I didn’t protest. I had just come to the United States and I was not half as assertive then as I am now! It was only when I became a principal that I realized my true stance on names. In this role, I was responsible for the tone being set at our school, and I wanted us to acknowledge the diversity that enriched our school community.

Have you had the feeling that sometimes people take one look at you and think they’re not going to be able to say your name… even before you introduce yourself? I’ve sensed that on many an occasion. My first name was shortened a long time ago, and I’ve always liked it this way. My first name, Subhashini, is long and has ties to a wonderful story by Rabindranath Tagore, a famous Indian author and poet, but it always seemed a little formal to me. It’s on my passport and other official documents, but otherwise, I like to be called ‘Subha’ (sue – ba). Two simple syllables. And when someone I meet comments that it is difficult or that they can’t remember it, I often wonder if it’s because they took one look at me and decided I must have a name they wouldn’t be able to pronounce! In Boston, someone once remarked, “Oh, you mean ‘Suber’ like in Subaru!” I was almost offended, but couldn’t help laughing about it!

In my generous moments, I am willing to think that someone who hesitates probably doesn’t want to maul my name, and I do believe that’s quite thoughtful on their part. To those individuals, I would say, “Go ahead and try to say my name. Even if you mispronounce it, I’m delighted that you’re willing to try!”

“At the time, there were very few foreign names in the press and they were all factory workers. I thought I’d never get a job at a university with a foreign name.” — Carl Rakosi, German poet (at one point, he changed his name to Callman Rawley because he felt he stood a better chance of being employed if he had a more American-sounding name.)

Talking about jobs and names, there’s an interesting study called ‘Racial Bias in Hiring: Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?’. It was conducted by Marianne Bertrand, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Sendhil Mullainathan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They tried to study whether there was a bias in hiring practices based on the names of people who applied for jobs and their paper says that this type of discrimination does happen. They paint a fascinating yet troubling picture of the reality of an environment where diversity and cultural competency are ‘celebrated’ by organizations.

“Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

A colleague and friend once tried to say my name, and then commented that he preferred to call me ‘Mrs. Smith’. It was said in friendly banter and I took no offence. I just decided to call him Mr. Smith from that day on! It was our joke and it was rooted in collegiality.

“Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit.”  ~Salman Rushdie

But we don’t have to slip into that comfort zone, do we? In a land of immigrants with such a rich variety of names, it puzzles me sometimes that many of us adults hesitate to pronounce names with which we are not familiar. Kids tend not to be so cautious. I remember asking how to pronounce Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name. It was new to me. I had learned to spell it before I could say it, and I wanted to learn how to say it (hopefully) correctly. I’ve always been fascinated by names, and I expect that with my accent, I probably mispronounce some of them. But it is important to me that I try.

I remember saying at my first staff meeting as a principal, that my last name wasn’t really difficult to pronounce. I broke it up into syllables and showed my teachers how to say it. I had asked the teachers to consider the following – if my son was their student, would they want the other children to learn to say his name, or would they choose to call him by his initials? Their response came through loud and clear on the first day of school. I was touched to see chalkboards in several classrooms with my name spelled out in syllables (one room proclaimed Ball-go-paal) for the children to learn. I’ve noticed that children are not shy about learning new names, or words in other languages. They’re ready to jump in and seem to find it exciting. Parents often tell me that their children have taught them how to pronounce my name. Indeed, there are grandparents who walk into our school and pronounce my name beautifully. It is fun being a principal of Indian origin in Indiana – thanks to my name, they know who I am right away!

I encourage people to try saying names, and to work on spelling them correctly. It is so important for teachers to do this well. Children are acknowledged when we say their names. In the lunch room, a student from Africa recently looked at me with delight and exclaimed, “You said my name correctly!” I have to admit that I was just as delighted by his words. He had forgotten that three years ago, I had asked him how to say his name, and tried it several times until I got it right.

In all honesty, there are many people who are willing to try to pronounce a name that is unfamiliar to them – one that is from a different corner of the world than where they are from. After all, in India, my name is reasonably common and wouldn’t be seen as something unusual; and for me, names from other parts of the world are a new adventure. I’ve learned that sometimes names don’t sound the way they are spelled. I’ve learned that there are sounds I have difficulty pronouncing. I often write the sounds in Hindi or split up the syllables, to remember the pronunciation. Sometimes, it’s not easy, but because I want people to try to say my name, I am keen to learn theirs.

“A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs.” — Henry David Thoreau

My point is simply that when we talk about diversity and work hard to train people to be culturally competent, we often forget that acknowledging others as individuals might just be a great first step. And that happens as soon as we say their names. So what if we can’t wrap our tongues around the sounds accurately; so what if our accents change the way the name sounds – it is important that we take the time to acknowledge others.

For me, that in itself makes this exercise worthwhile! So I say to those who shy away from trying to pronounce a name unusual to them that they should shed their nervousness and venture into new territory. Yes, someone might occasionally take umbrage at their name being mispronounced, but I would hazard a guess that most people would be grateful that you tried. In doing so, you acknowledge them. In a school setting, we send a very powerful message to children when we show that we value names. They watch us and learn from us, and if they grow up understanding how important names are, what a beautifully diverse world they will inherit!

Do you have a friend or colleague whose name you’ve stumbled over? Someone you’ve called Mrs. S, or Mr. T? Go ahead and talk to them. Ask about the meaning of their name. Ask them to repeat the pronunciation. Have them break it up into syllables and try to say it. Try it multiple times until you can say it or get close to saying it. Let them know that learning their name is important to you. And then enjoy the warm glow that comes from having done this. It’s hard to explain, but wonderful to experience!

A Dollar on Behalf of Truckers…

I just returned from a seven hour road trip yesterday. During the drive, I noticed something I’ve seen for a couple of years now, but this time, I said, “Ah! I should add this to my blog!” And the topic? Courtesy. For all the road rage and other annoyances we complain about, there are moments of courtesy on the highway.

Some things bug me! I’d love to have a sign in the back of my car that lights up the words “Back-off!” to the vehicle behind me that is too close to my bumper! Alas, no one has designed it yet, so I tend to move over to the right and the tailgater zooms up to a spot just a few yards ahead, where the next victim gets tailgated. My other pet peeve is when I use my indicator lights to show that I’m planning to switch lanes and the driver behind me sneaks into the open spot I was aiming for. I am tempted to add more examples, but have to remind myself that this post is about courtesy!

Ever since my son was a toddler, I’ve marveled at the big trucks that ply the highways and city roads. His fascination with them, their names and purposes rubbed off on me. I remember calling out, “Hey look, there goes a goose neck trailer!” only to realize sometimes that he wasn’t even in the car! I am fascinated by how truck drivers maneuver their massive vehicles on all kinds of roads, in all sorts of weather. As I get older and tire more easily after road trips, I am more impressed with the long hours they put in behind the wheel. It’s not an easy job, and to add to it, they have timelines to meet. On a couple of occasions I’ve called parents of my students, and reached them miles away from home, heading to a destination on the other side of the country in their trucks. I’ve always tried to give truck drivers room to change lanes when their indicator lights are on. If the traffic is really heavy, I flash my high beam lights to indicate they can switch lanes and that I won’t get in their way. A couple of years ago, I noticed that after moving over they flashed their trailer lights a few times. At first, I didn’t realize what that meant, but soon figured out they were saying thank you.

I remember smiling when I first realized it. How wonderful it is when people can share courtesies without words – complete strangers acknowledging each other as they drive by. I’m not sure how it started but it fascinates me. On the other hand, I would not disagree with anyone who said that common courtesies are not that common any more. Every day, I notice kids walking past adults at school without returning a greeting. It’s like you don’t exist at that moment. Words like ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’ are a thing of the past in many cases. How many situations of kids being referred to the office because they cut someone in line or tripped someone would disappear if they just said “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”. I think ‘sorry’ should become the third magic word (after ‘please’ and ‘thank you’). After all the times that we see people being discourteous, when someone does the opposite, we sit up and notice it.

During morning announcements, I will sometimes name a student and thank him/her for holding a door open for me, or for returning my greeting in the morning. Sometimes, after I mention what they have done I put a dollar in a jar for Gleaners, a local food-bank, where a dollar provides six meals. I enjoy saying, “Johnny or Susie, thanks to you, here’s a dollar for Gleaners so six hungry people can be fed.” Over the next few days, I notice more kids greeting me or stepping up to hold doors open for me. I put a dollar in the jar for other things as well – kids finding someone’s money and handing it to a staff member, students thanking our cafeteria staff at lunchtime (in fact, our café staff now slip notes in my mailbox with names of kids to recognize), doing a kind deed for someone else, helping a new student at our school, etc. My hope is that in addition to learning courteousness, some day when they are older, they may look back on this and reach out to help someone else in need.

My parents and the nuns at the schools I attended in India, taught me the importance of being courteous at a very young age. I believe being courteous is about using small words and doing small deeds that acknowledge others, brighten their days and sometimes ease tensions. It won’t hurt a lot, and generally helps to heal. It is a big part of the climate of our organizations – how we treat each other and those who visit us. The norms we ‘work’ by. It can set an invitational and welcoming tone for all. While people notice courtesy, they notice a lack of it even more. And which one do they talk about? Not the dozens of times when they had a positive experience in our presence, but the one single, solitary time when they felt we were discourteous.

I ask my staff to smile a lot and always be respectful. I invite them to vent in private – with me or a colleague who will listen – for we all have those moments when we may need to let off steam. We spend more waking hours on weekdays in the company of people at work than we do with our own families. We are like a family at work and as with any family, things can’t be calm and happy all the time. Life happens… yes, even at work. Being professional is about knowing how to express ourselves in different situations – knowing what our tone will be regardless of what crops up.

Little things make a big difference! I supervise car-riders every morning. Cars pull up, kids step out, and grown-ups drive away when I give them a signal. This is a great time for me to greet kids and meet parents. As the parents drive away, I smile and wave to them. They smile and wave back and it gets my day off to a great start. I have a huge rainbow-colored umbrella for those gloomy, rainy days and it’s fun to twirl it while I wave. I started noticing that if I was on the radio, people would wave to me from their cars even before I did. It’s our morning ritual, and an important one at that. Little did I realize how much of a difference it made to them until I sat in a meeting with a parent and grand parent. At the end of the meeting, the grandparent thanked me for being outside in the morning and commented that she disliked the days when I was away and not on car duty because she didn’t get her morning wave and smile from me! I was touched. I asked her to call me later on those days and get her sunshine over the phone! Another parent e-mailed me out of the blue with a simple comment that she loved the bright colors of my umbrella and that it always made her smile. I can’t imagine standing in that corner without connecting with the people who drive by. The little ones in the back seat get my wiggly finger waves and in no time at all, they’re entering kindergarten. By then, they know me, and I know them.

When we notice a positive attitude in others we connect with them. And then, when sticky stuff happens (as it generally does), we have this positive connection to build upon. I figure, if truckers can say thank you from their big rigs at a random moment when our paths cross, we should be able to do that in person with each other more often and more consistently. It should become second nature for all. And we have to start early while kids are young and in school.

I know that truck drivers will be thanked on one of my morning announcements this fall, for brightening my road trips with their courteous lights. And a dollar for six meals will go into my Gleaners’ jar, in their name!

For an Organization… With People…

When people mention anything about working ‘for’ me, I quickly correct them saying they work ‘with’ me. This is not just some politically correct line in my book – it holds deeper meaning for me. People who know me, recognize that I hold strong opinions on different issues. I tend to speak my mind, and I’ve always been conscious about doing it respectfully and honestly, choosing my words carefully, and not making things personal.

Jim Collins, the renowned author of ‘Good to Great’ shares the importance of confronting the brutal facts – the Stockdale Paradox – retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. This idea has resonated with what I believe in. Raising questions and naming reality is not something that comes easily to most of us. And when we think about doing it in person, within an organization, it seems like the perfect way to draw flak towards ourselves! No wonder, people often shy away from disagreeing in public, or at meetings. It is easier to do it in the hallways and parking lot where we remain somewhat anonymous. And since the people who need to know don’t have ESP, they may be blissfully unaware of something they really NEED to know. And why do they need to know? Because it is important to the organization.

I believe organizations that promote the healthy airing of different perspectives are the ones that grow. Differences in opinion are a lot like Indian food. The way I make a potato curry and the way my mother or friend make it will naturally differ because we use different permutations and combinations of spices. And whether mild or spicy, the ingredients add flavor to the food. Similarly in the workplace, perspectives add value to what we do. Some perspectives may be mild and others sure stir up the heat. The important piece is taking a taste – considering them, seeing what they tell us, and thinking about what reality we need to confront.

Collins also says, “Make the company itself the ultimate product – be a clock builder, not a time teller.” He is talking about building an organization that adapts regardless of who is at its helm because there is a focus on sticking to core values along with a willingness to challenge and change anything that is not a core value. He believes in making a distinction between “what we stand for” (which should never change) and “how we do things” (which should never stop changing). How can we challenge and change what we need to, if reflecting on the work we do, studying and redefining the processes and strategies we use, and analyzing our data and reviewing outcomes don’t become second nature – not only to people at the helm of organizations but to all who work in it?

There is a simple reason for why it is easy for me to share my perspective on issues and invite the perspectives of others. A couple of years ago I defined it this way: “I work for an organization, and with people.” When we are clear that our work is for an organization, then its betterment becomes something we believe in implicitly. Our work becomes more than just a job. We now have a collective responsibility to strengthen the organization. And how do we accomplish that? With people. Each person in the organization becomes important because he/she can be the compass and anchor guiding its stance on its core values, and fine-tuning its work. However careful we are about how we share our ideas and questions, if we are confronting the ‘brutal facts’ there may be discomfort. Strong relationships and trust can help us put that discomfort in perspective and move purposefully towards our goals.

It is heartening to see more teachers each year at my school stepping out and sharing their perspectives. A lot of what we do has come from their ideas, and the things I strive to improve as a principal come from their critique. Students write letters to me and ask for things important to them, and many parents walk in and share their ideas and suggestions. I hope to grow this over time. So far, it’s been a great learning experience!

Be a Compass… Be an Anchor…

Eight years ago, I picked up the phone to hear a superintendent offer me my first job as a principal. I was absolutely elated! This was what I’d been waiting for. Within minutes after I put the phone down, I was hit with the realization of the responsibility that came with the job. What was I thinking? I would be responsible for close to three hundred kids, about fifty staff members. I would be connecting with all of them plus the families at the school, people in multiple departments including our central office, the community at large… what was I thinking? Was I ready?

And then I remembered the quote that had jumped out from one of the first leadership texts I’d read, “We are crew, not passengers.” The words of Kurt Hahn reminded me that I was not alone – I now had the opportunity to partner with a larger community. The excitement built up again. Something about making a difference in the lives of others allows me to bounce back time and again. This quote fits my vision of schools perfectly – we have a collective responsibility to influence the future, and the ‘we’ does not refer to educators alone. The ‘crew’ includes educators, families, students, and the community. Our voices have to come together to shape our vision of what schools can and should be.

These notions of bringing voices together, fostering dialogue, creating conversations and finding common ground are wonderful, but easier said than done! One more important thing to do that comes with no formula, right? (This is probably the biggest theme in this blog… hence the constant learning and growing!) I’ve stumbled and bumbled through this, but never given up on perfecting this goal of inviting more voices and perspectives to the table.

In my first year, I tried setting up ‘town meetings’ to invite members of the school community to come and build a collective vision. I asked them, if someone like Bill Gates said that we could have any amount of money to build our dream school, what would it look like? It was wonderful to listen to the hopes and dreams of people from different walks of life. I invited teachers to share their perspectives. The initial staff meetings were rather one-sided – my side was always present and most of the teachers were quiet participants. However, conversations with individuals or small groups of staff were different. People felt more comfortable sharing their thoughts in these settings. I remember with great joy, a staff meeting three months down the road when this changed and the teachers started asking questions and adding their ideas. I didn’t recognize it until I was reflecting on the meeting later – but we were definitely shifting gears. Over time, I learned to hold back on sharing my observations and instead started asking questions.

A couple of years ago, I handed out cards to parents at Back to School Night, inviting them to be a compass for our school and an anchor – to bring their voices to our school and always help us focus on our vision and goals for kids (our true north), and to partner with us to sustain a sense of stability over time. Parents are sometimes unsure of how school staff may receive their questions or concerns. I said they could always put the card down on the table and say, “Hey, you said I could share my thoughts.” The giraffe was a symbol from the IPLA (Indiana Principals’ Leadership Academy) where the cohort leaders encouraged us to stick our necks out and take a strong stance on issues as school leaders. I invited parents to stick their necks out and engage within our school community.

What I’ve learned is that setting an invitational tone is very important. Yet, patience is also an important ingredient. I used to think that because people spoke about wanting a voice in the process, they would jump up and take advantage of the opportunity to do so. However, it’s not that easy. When varied perspectives are invited, not everyone is comfortable. People may be unsure of how to navigate the waters. Some are not used to it, while others jump in readily. One can seek input, but it is really up to others to give it. Building trust and relationships helps in a huge way, but this may take time (less time with some people and a lot of time with others). In the meantime, it is important to find ways to make sure that while we seek input, we don’t set the stage to listen only to those who walk through our door. There are processes and structures we can put in place (more in future blogs) to involve greater numbers of people and perspectives and build collective momentum toward the things we need to accomplish.

The most important thing I learned has been that great ideas and beliefs do not always translate easily into application. Just because I believe in something does not mean that others will see that I believe in it and jump on board readily! This can be incredibly frustrating. However, what keeps the fire burning is the joy of learning and growing, stumbling and figuring out how to avoid falling the next time, thinking of an idea and then refining it over time… knowing that while the job is not simple, it is worth doing because the school community can be an important anchor and compass for all that we are and hope to accomplish.

Shared Leadership – a worthy road to travel!

About a decade ago, I decided to switch gears from being a special education teacher to becoming a school principal. I looked for programs within travelling distance from my home and learned about the Educational Leadership program at Miami University. It was interesting because they were not ready to let me take a few courses and get a license. They emphasized getting a Master’s Degree in this field and then taking several more credits to get a principal’s license.

I was hooked once I saw their guiding principles. They had collectively created a big picture of what they wanted to accomplish and the tone they had set seemed very inviting to me. I became part of a cohort of aspiring principals and we sat through course after course of not School Law and School Finance, but of leadership, ethics, a focus on building community and valuing diversity within an umbrella of themes that spanned race, class and culture. Over a year later, during the nuts and bolts courses on law, finance and personnel issues these concepts continued to play out. We talked a lot about wrestling with ideas, did a lot of journaling (quite uncomfortable a task for me at first, but one that now allows me to reflect on an ongoing basis and blog today), engaged in passionate discussions about issues in education and generally left our classes exhausted. The half hour drive home was energizing for me… my brain hummed with ideas I’d heard in my classes and I was still debating the issues in my head! I couldn’t wait to land my first job as a principal. How time flies!

One of the principles has become an integral part of what I believe in and want to accomplish. Their Principle 6 states, “Leadership is a process of power-sharing rather than power-imposing; it works toward collaboration, emancipation and empowerment.” I have to admit that I was reluctant to embrace this idea at first… after all, I was there because I wanted to become a principal – a school leader – one who had more control over what happened in the school and could chart the course for the school. I was soon an enthusiastic convert! The idea of sharing leadership – working towards a collaborative vision – became very important to me. Having heard teachers and parents say for a long time that they wanted a voice in the process, I figured this would be THE way to go! Little did my idealistic mind realize that this road would be paved with interesting challenges. People far more important than me have written about shared leadership. In an article I found online, Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith said, “…leadership lies not so much in one person having a clear vision as in our capacity to work with others in creating one.” Here, I want to share a little of my experience with shared leadership – I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic again over time.

Our cohort wrestled with ideas… we heard often that there was no specific answer to our big questions. What good preparation that was for the real world of principalship! So here I was, ready to try out the notion of ‘shared leadership’ on the job. I was convinced that all would embrace it. After all, people did want a voice in their organizations, didn’t they? Well, it wasn’t that easy after all. I learned that people were not equally comfortable with this notion. Some were ready to jump on board, to share their leadership, put their ideas in the mix and collaboratively try to make meaning – in other words ‘wrestle’. Others were hesitant. What was this about, anyway? And, why were we doing it? Still others were suspicious – why wasn’t the principal just jumping in and making decisions – calling the shots, telling people what they should be doing? And I was frustrated. I couldn’t figure out why this didn’t work quite the way I had envisioned it? Why was this reaching some and not all?

I have since learned that how we respond to the notion of shared leadership depends to a large extent on our experiences. I could not understand why anyone would hold back on trying this idea. Today I see that there are other things that have to happen for the stage to be set before communities can be full participants. That doesn’t mean we have to hold back on trying it… just that one needs to be patient and understand that this cannot happen quickly. I certainly have more to learn with regard to supporting the development of shared leadership at my school. Having worked in four schools over eight years has meant starting from scratch four times. But as I learn and grow, I know that the idea of sharing leadership will be refined and should blossom eventually.

I want my school community to value collaboration. I want to learn more about drawing everyone into the conversation and building a collective sense of ownership about what we want to accomplish, together. Yes, I do make the final decision but I have been stretched by the contributions of others. It goes back to that earlier piece about things not being written in stone. The perspectives of others do shape the decisions I make. The push and pull of ideas is exciting and exhilarating. Shared leadership here is not in the vein of building based school leadership… but it is about drawing the voices, ideas and contributions of a group of diverse individuals invested in a common goal. It is a good idea, but I wonder whether I have to go back and revisit this idea with my school community… reintroduce or perhaps clarify the idea of shared leadership, and seek to understand how others see it. Over the summer, I will be thinking and learning more about how to move in this direction.

The principalship is about learning and growing – and shared leadership is certainly a concept worth growing!