Overthrowing the stress of the tyranny of the urgent

Whether one works in a national school or an international school, it is very easy to find oneself in a vortex of being busy all the time. Meetings after meetings, issues after issues, crisis after crisis – all demanding one’s attention and all demanding that they be treated as “Priority 1”. One of my colleagues refers to this as “the tyranny of the urgent”. In leadership, it is even more likely to succumb to the tyranny of the urgent but it is very important (a) not to and (b) be aware when it is emerging in one’s work environment because this sort of tyranny is one whose arrival can be insidious.

So, how does one counter the emergence of the tyranny of the urgent? This might well appear to be an impossible act, particularly where schools are involved. The expectations placed on school leaders by staff, students and parents makes for fertile ground for such tyrannies. The rise of information communication technologies has also added a super-fertilizer to the soil. I would hazard that one of the chief culprits of upping stress levels in a school leader’s life is the increased level of accessibility that schooling today now demands.

Increased levels of expectation framed by an increase in accessibility (or perhaps expected accessibility) make for an interesting work environment but one where it is unrealistic to go “cold turkey” and completely disconnect from the world. That leaves school leaders in, potentially, a less-than-satisfactory situation as far as their work-life balance is concerned. If a school leader’s health and well-being is suffering, what might the impact on the school as a whole be? How can balance be addressed?

To combat the stress that the tyranny of the urgent can create, in this day and age, a frontal assault is probably not the best strategy. One might have to adopt more of a “fifth column” approach and attack the situation from within. In other words, rather than doing what is neither feasible or realistic in today’s world, being situational in dealing with the stresses and strains that ‘regular urgencies’ might be a better solution.

In reading around this subject, I came across the following list of suggested, yet practical, stress management strategies:

  1. Vary your route to and from work. It can help control anxiety and reduce the sense of getting back on the same rollercoaster. Small changes in routine can be enough to break the negative patterns of thinking that we can get ourselves into.

  2. To-do lists: Try dividing the page each day into “must”, “should” and “could”. You will never get it all done but you usually leave work with the satisfaction of knowing that everything in the “must” list has been completed.

  3. Keep a list of all the unplanned things that take up working time each day, e.g. meeting with parents, phone calls and answering emails. It is re-assuring to see at the end of the day what you have achieved, even if some of it was unscheduled.

  4. Be realistic about what you expect to achieve each day. There will always be unplanned interruptions. Try to factor this in.

  5. To help with focusing on the positive, keep a diary and write down three positive things, however small, that have happened each day. You go home thinking about the positives.

  6. In those difficult meetings with complaints from parents, try to de-personalise the issue. It is very rarely about you personally. Try to unpick what feelings and emotions might be underpinning a complaint before the meeting starts.

  7. Try to find a professional outlet for your expertise outside of your own school, e.g. volunteer to co-ordinate your cluster heads meetings. You see the wider educational landscape which helps to keep things in perspective.

  8. Find a trusted friend outside of your immediate professional circle and talk to them, honestly. We all need someone outside of a situation to challenge our perceptions.

  9. Try to maintain an outside interest or hobby. We need mental distraction from thinking about work in order to relax.

  10. Sleep is key. There are many free apps for phones and tablets with ocean wave sounds. They trick your breathing pattern into a relaxed rhythm allowing you to sleep.

From my own context, working in a cross-cultural context, in an international school adds a little twist to the nature of stress as a school leader and the need to take care of oneself. There are always multiple cultural layers to what one observes, which in turn complicates both interpretation and subsequent action. Each of these strategies is just as important and applicable.

This post has been about the need to be aware of how stress can creep up on school leaders and what might be an approach to deal with that problem. By way of a coda to this post, it is important to address the impact that the tyranny of the urgent can have on a school’s staff and students. This could be the subject of a post all its own but as this is a coda on the topic, let us accept the main point here to be this: school leaders are role-models.

As role-models, a school leader’s and experience with the tyranny of the urgent is something that is a shared experience with other members of the school community (whether the school leader wants it to be or not). To that end, it is even more important that an awareness of the stress and strains that come with being in education, and that they must be kept under control, is not just held by a school leader but demonstrated at all times. After all, what sort of message is sent to the broader school community if the school’s leader does not exhibit wisdom in this matter?

Is your school perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

At a recent teachers’ conference, I attended a session on the future of teaching and learning. It was a roundtable discussion session and started with a number of different questions for people to consider. The summation of those questions, which focused on assessment, on teacher qualification, on the relevance of schooling in this day and age, is the question that leads off this particular post. Be it a national school or an international school, the question is pertinent: as a school, are we perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

While a roundtable discussion can be a useful exercise, I did walk out of that particular session thinking how one might actually start a process of investigating this core question of being prepared for a world that no longer exists. Certainly, coming up with an answer is  a self-reflective exercise. And starting the process is as daunting as it is uncertain. I would hazard to say that it is also exciting.

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel’s 2009 text 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times has been useful in my own thinking through issues associated with the question about the place of schooling in the world today. As I work on strategic planning papers and presentations, Trilling and Fadel feature in my thoughts and reflections. Indeed, Trilling and Fadel (2009: xxiii) start with a series of questions, describing the questions as ones that are often aired in conversations about the future of teaching and learning:

  • How has the world changed, and what does this mean for education
  • What does everyone need to learn now to be successful?
  • How should we learn all this?
  • How is 21st century learning different from learning in the 20th century and what does it really look like?
  • How will 21st century learning evolve through the century?
  • How will a 21st century learning approach help solve our global problems?

They then pose a four question exercise which I have replicated here:

Question #1: What will the world be like twenty or so years from now when your child has left school and is out in the world?

Question #2: What skills will your child need to be successful in this world you have imagined twenty years from now?

Question #3: Now think about your own life and the times when you were really learning, so much and so deeply, that you would call these the “peak learning experiences” of your life. What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful?

Before going on to Question #4, look over your answers to the first three questions and think about how most students currently spend their time each day in school. Then consider the final question:

Question #4: What would learning be like if it were designed around your answers to the first three questions?

The four question exercise, as it is called, is a great way of facilitating a discussion on the state of things in one’s school. It doesn’t purport to provide a strategic plan or some form of roadmap that provides the user with continuous school improvement. It does help leadership teams or teaching teams or those in between to see differences. It walks people through a discussion that will have its end point in: how different a place is the school you work in compared to that which you have just imagined? In light of the answers to the above questions, to what degree is your school perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

Differentiating professional learning

Last week I attended a teaching conference. It was the first one I had attended for some time and it was outstanding. The reason for this is that the options available were not only plentiful and practical but they were also being run by teachers for teachers. It was also a conference that met three criteria for successful professional development, about which I have discussed on this blog in an earlier post. In a recent article on Edutopia, the question was raised: why don’t we differentiate professional development for teachers? After all, we emphasise the need to differentiate what goes on in the classroom. The article, which points out four different strategies to help professional learning be differentiated, caused me to reflect on what happens at my own school and the extent to which we differentiate what happens in our professional learning programs.

Firstly, investing in the professional capital of my teachers is a very important. Ensuring that teachers have opportunities for developing their craft contributes to staff longevity on account of staff feeling valued. It also means that teacher capacity is built up so that changes that one might wish to introduce or implement can take place more easily. That is not to say that change is something that will always be accepted or always be perceived as positive. However, if one has invested in the professional capital of teachers and sought to create an environment where teachers expect and are expected to develop their professional learning, change can be considered more amicably. Of course, investing in the professional capital of teachers is something that ultimately benefits student learning, and that is something on which, in all of the discourse about the development of teachers, one must remained focused.

So, how do we differentiate in the professional learning that takes place at my school? How might we do a better job of doing that, thereby giving ownership of learning to the teachers themselves? I came across a quote the other day about leadership not being about being in charge but looking after those in your charge.

Perspective.

Such a comment emphasises the role that leaders have in making sure that teachers learn and develop. It is, I would hazard, one of the central roles we fulfill. A third question we might therefore pose is: how might leaders facilitate meaningful professional learning?

At my own school, professional development is worked into the weekly schedule. Every Wednesday is a “late start” for students; an early start for academic faculty. We meet for 1 1/2 hours to engage in professional development sessions. Sometimes these sessions take the form of a formal lecture, other times they take the form of a workshop or an interactive presentation, and, more recently, they have taken on the form of departmental forums where a broad topic or theme related to the whole school is discussed in a departmental context. These particular discussions have been aimed at incorporating subject peculiarities associated with the topic or theme.

As one who is responsible for the professional development or learning of the academic faculty and staff, in addition to the strategic planning, thinking and development of the school’s academic programs, I regularly find myself in an interesting position. On the one hand, I want to grant professional development and learning time as much as I can to those under my wing. On the other hand, I need to incorporate the thoughts, reflections and discussions of academic faculty and staff regarding strategic planning and development. Professional learning often develops into a combination of the two. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. After all, I am keen to encourage a culture where there are ongoing conversations and discussions about teacher best-practice, and that such conversations are not going on in isolation but involve all of a school’s constituents.

That is where we are at, at the moment, as a school. Professional learning and development has become a forum where academic faculty and staff can discuss matters pertaining to the school as a whole. It is also a forum where, simultaneously, practical discussions take place about how those matters relate to their own department and subject areas. Recent curriculum work on establishing standards is a good illustration. Key learning areas of the school are examining different standards, determining which best-suit the vision and mission of the school, as well as what they seek to develop within the students that study their subjects.

How can this evolution be considered ‘differentiation’? In one sense, it can’t. The question, theme or problem (in our current situation: what standards are best?) has been mandated from the top down. It is the expectation of leadership that departments complete their investigations within the parameters laid down at the start of each session. However, in another sense, there is a great deal of differentiation taking place. The question acts as an anchor point, a central focus question if you like, which tethers conversations to a particular issue at the same time as allowing for the freedom to explore the set topic as freely and as deeply as individuals wish or feel.

The Edutopia article poses a very interesting question and one that, at the very least, should cause educational leaders who are responsible for teacher professional learning and development (and as leaders we all should be!) to pause and reflect on how their school professional learning and development takes place. The question about differentiation ensures that any professional learning and development that does take place is meaningful and challenging. It is relevant and applicable. Most of all, it means that it won’t be considered a waste of time, energy and money.

The three “C-s” of change

I have been silent in the blogosphere for the past month. This is not to say that I have decided to end writing on a regular basis. Rather, it is just symptomatic of the busy life one can lead when being in education. That having been said, there have been several things I have been pondering on recently which I thought I would share: coherence, capacity and confidence. These are what I have tagged as the three “C”-s of change.

Coherence refers to meaning, to making sense. If there is a change that one wants to bring about it is important that both those leading it and those impacted by it understand what is going on and why something is taking place. Coherence is something that relates to both individual and groups. It is something that entails a deep understanding of the purpose and the nature of the work being tasked.

Part of making a change coherent is ensuring that individuals, either by themselves or in a more collaborative context, have the capacity to contend with the developments being pursued. To build capacity, or to talk about capacity, is to make reference to the skills, competencies, and knowledge that individuals and groups need to be effective in navigating change, whatever that might be or look like. There are some interesting implications to this notion, particularly in relation to those individuals or groups who draw their identity from the status quo. Developing the capacity of such people so change can be understood, embraced and followed has the potential to be the most challenging of tasks a lead learner will have when bringing about change.

Despite the skills, competencies and knowledge that individuals might have, there has to be confidence in the people who will be responsible for the implementation of those changes. Not to have confidence in one’s key players will make change challenging to bring about and most likely impossible for one to sustain. Conversely, confidence in leadership also has to exist. Those that are impacted by the change must feel that the leader is acting in the best interests of student learning. There are many different ways, in the context of building confidence, that this can be demonstrated. Steven Covey’s The Speed of Trust details 13 different behaviours such as talking straight, demonstrating respect, creating transparency and clarifying expectations that can build the confidence or trust in leaders.

Without successfully netting these three “C”-s, any educational change is going to be difficult to implement, let alone sustain. Three questions emerge from each of these concepts:

  1. Do I use a framework through which my actions make sense to others?
  2. Do my actions build up the capacity of those I lead?
  3. Do I have the confidence of those, and in those, I lead?

A “yes” to each of these should contribute to a clear starting point for implementing change in an educational context and making it stick.

Hastening slowly. The key to being a good school leader.

I have had, over recent weeks, reason to think through what it means to be a good school leader. It does not matter whether one is in a national school or an international school, a Christian school or a secular one. It does not matter whether the school is co-educational or single-sex. It does not matter whether the school is selective or comprehensive. At the end of the day, reflecting on the question “what makes a good school leader?” has led me to a one word answer:

Patience.

This should not be confused with inaction. I don’t mean that a good leader is someone who does nothing (although sometimes, it is just as important to be inactive as it is to be active). It does not take a great deal of effort to google and collect pithy sayings on leadership such as:

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another”

“A leader leads by example not by force”

and

“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault”

Patience is the common denominator. If you are going to take people from where they are to where they have not been, you must exhibit patience in explaining to them what is going on, why a decision has been made in a particular manner and how that might impact them. If you are going to lead by influencing others, through natural charisma, that is going to take patience as people and situations respond. If you are going to lead by example and not by force, you are going to have allow for time for the example you provide be seen and internalised by those you lead. And if everything is your fault, patience will be more than a virtue as you seek to work alongside those around you in order to make better the situation in which you find yourself.

“Hastening slowly” is a phrase or saying that I often fall back on as I go through the working week. Patience is at its core and as phrases go, it is not a bad one to help temper one’s leadership, whatever the situation is, whenever the situation is.

 

What makes professional learning effective?

Our formal professional learning schedule kicks into effect this coming Wednesday. Putting it together was a challenge in part because of the structure I’ve put into place but mostly because I want it to be effective. Thus, the question “What makes professional learning effective?” has been front and centre, and made me consider precisely what it was that I valued in professional learning. I assess professional learning against three criteria:

CHALLENGING.

MOTIVATING.

CONNECTING.

These are the three things I look for in professional learning. Does it challenge me? Does it motivate me? Does it connect me? If the answer to each of these three questions is “yes”, then the professional learning context I find myself in is a winner. I find some professional learning situations can be little more than an explanation of a process or a procedure. Rather than something suited to a professional learning environment, they are better suited to the realm of the Monday recess staff meeting. If a professional learning session is challenging, I believe the individual participating in that session will be more likely to take something away, to benefit from the spending time in professional learning. “Challenging” does not mean that the professional learning has to be ridiculously difficult. On the contrary, what I mean by “challenging” is that it makes you reconsider what you already do or know. Professional learning should challenge your practice, the way you teach. It should cause you to question what you do and how you do it.

Professional learning should also be motivating. Before, during and after a professional learning session, I believe I should feel motivated as a teacher. I should be motivated to implement what I learn, or to change my approach to something, or to pursue further training and development. I should feel affirmed that what I am doing in the classroom is of value and that I have something to offer my colleagues. If professional learning is “motivating” then it will open up the practitioner to changing or enhancing what they do in the classroom. There is a certain “buy-in” that takes place. There could be any number of reasons for the professional learning to be motivating: relevance, resonance with teaching philosophy or subject interest, challenging, affirming to name a few.

Living in an interconnected world, professional learning for teachers needs to be something that encourages connections between teachers. It should connect people with one another – face-to-face or virtually. It is foolish to see professional learning as something that happens in isolation. This might have been the case ten or fifteen years ago but the rise of the iDevice (whatever that happens to be) allowing you to jack into the interweb at any time in any place has set a different set of expectations regarding the interactivity of the professional learning process. We expect that the connections we make face-to-face in the professional learning classroom will lead to, or be replicated in, connections in the online space. How many times have we quickly added people we have just met at a conference to our “following” list on Twitter? Plenty of times, I would hazard as an answer. Today, being connected with other teachers, usually via technology, is, in my opinion, one of the criteria that people use to evaluate whether or not a professional learning experience was worthwhile.

Building on the notion of connectivity is, perhaps, a fourth dimension to professional learning: ongoing. So, I have been at a conference, I have heard you speak and I think that what you have to say is worth following up. You offer your Twitter ID at the end of your presentation, which I dutifully add to my account. I also add a couple of names that you mentioned during the course of your presentation, educational leaders or thinkers that have much to say on where education is going at the moment. What I have just outlined is the enhancement of an ongoing, informal network of learning. I say ‘enhancement’ rather than ‘creation’ because the implication of this scenario is that I already have a Twitter followers/following list. It is described as ongoing because the information feed from Twitter operates 24×7. It is informal because there is no particular structure around it in the same was a university course or a specific conference or seminar.

The issue of professional learning being informal is a fifth consideration. Formal learning opportunities for teachers are important. This is not only because of the credibility formal qualifications bring to what we do but it is also important to pursue what might be labelled as “hard study”. This links into the notion of “challenging”, to a degree (no pun intended). By “hard study”, I refer to something that is academically rigorous, compels us to conform to particular conventions or expectations and to engage in academic discourse on the academy’s terms. Conversely, “soft study” is something that is far more informal, not as demanding on time or energy or brainspace and is not evidential in the same way as conventional, more formal, academic discourse expects. Both formality and informality have their place in professional learning and one is not better or more important that the other. If professional learning is informal, that is not a bad thing at all. It means that teachers are given the opportunity to learn on their own terms, in a manner and at a time of their choosing. The ownership is completely their own. It can be just as effective as formal learning: how many times have we spent time in a pub or a beer garden talking to colleagues over a beverage or two about what we do, the challenges we face and how we intend to fix the world? How many times have we experienced “great thinking” in a pub, after a few drinks with colleagues? Again, plenty of times, I would hazard as an answer! Professional learning cannot just be informal however. There is a time and place for formality and my fear with the free flow of information is that there is a tendency to believe there is little or no need for what a formal approach to professional learning can bring to one’s practice. I suspect, however, that particular argument will have to appear in a blog post in the future!

To wrap it up, then, initially I identified three key characteristics for professional learning. These were born out of my own personal reflections on what I valued in the professional learning experiences I have had. Challenging. Motivating. Connecting. There were several other traits that emerged – the notion of ongoing professional development and the question of informality over formality. In practical terms, then, five key questions come about:

  1. Is my professional learning challenging?
  2. Is my professional learning motivating?
  3. Is my professional learning connecting me with others?
  4. Is my professional learning ongoing?
  5. Is my professional learning something that happens both informally and formally?

While there could be other questions one might pose, as a starting point, a “yes” to all of these, I suspect, will mean the professional learning experience is effective.

Why should school leaders continue teaching?

This is potentially a controversial question for some. It shouldn’t be, but, unfortunately, I suspect, it is. It is also a question that has been the basis of some interesting conversations recently with some colleagues.

So, the short answer to ‘why should school leaders continue teaching?’ is: because school leaders should be seen as learners. Lead learners, in fact.

Let me explain this a little more.

In The Principal, Michael Fullan recasts the role of the principal as a lead learner. He seeks to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader so that it maximizes the learning of the all the teachers and in turn of all the students” (Michael Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three keys to maximising impact, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7). The book is a compelling argument about the need to redeploy the principal within the school so there is a genuine benefit for all various and related parties: students, faculty and staff, parents, the wider community. Fullan argues that there are three areas within which principals, as they become lead learners, will make an impact: leading learning, becoming a system player and becoming a change agent.

The focus of this particular post is the practical implications associated with becoming “lead learners”. In being a lead learner, Fullan proposes that “the principal’s role is to lead the school’s teachers in a process of learning to improve their teaching, while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t” (Fullan 2014: 55). For me, this suggests that one of the things that a principal who is a lead learner should do is to teach. To put it another way, for a school leader to continue teaching, to remain in the classroom, is the best way in which that school leader can come alongside school teachers in the process of learning and help improve the teaching that takes place. The action of coming alongside other teachers and being a direct part of the learning environment is, for me, a practical outworking of Fullan’s words.

Here are three questions that help to clarify my thinking:

  • Would student learning benefit from the principal being in the classroom as a teacher?
  • Would teaching alongside the very teachers that the school leader seeks to assist be one of the ways in which that school leader can learn about what works and what does not?
  • If a school leader is looking to make changes that will have a positive effect on the school they lead, would it not make sense to be in a position to experience what those changes will entail?
  • Assuming ‘street credibility’ positively contributes to the changes an individual school leader makes, would being in the classroom assist with obtaining and maintaining that ‘street credibility’?

To remain in the classroom, even if it is to teach a bottom-streamed Year 9 class (in my case, that would be History), shows a willingness to ‘walk one’s own talk’. School leaders talk about a great amount of change and development and what constitutes ‘best practice’. Sometimes, it doesn’t go beyond that; teachers don’t see the school leader living through what he or she has suggested is the best thing to do. So, in remaining in the classroom, teachers would see a colleague struggling with similar issues or concerns, as opposed to a detached administrator whose experiences in the classroom as a teacher are but only a distant memory. Teachers would see a colleague working to enhance his or her teaching to the best it possibly can be, as opposed to an administrator that appears to leave others to demonstrate professional accomplishment in the classroom. Powerfully, colleagues would see a colleague who, despite being an administrator, shouldering the various responsibilities of school leadership, has not lost a love of learning and a love of the classroom. They see a leader who loves to learn.

Perhaps the most important reason for principals to remain in the classroom is that students get to see the principal in action, as a learner. Students see the principal struggling productively with the same material with which they struggle. Students see a model for learning; an experienced (and we can assume an expert, perhaps) spending time in the classroom to make sure that the students get the most out of a subject. Students see the principal work within the same structures they have to in relation to assessments and tests. Thus, the experience of learning becomes shared, contributing to a coherent approach to learning within the whole school as well as an environment in which deep learning can take place.

Being an effective Principal

There are a number of scholars who have influenced my perspective of teaching and learning. Michael Fullan is one such scholar. His recent The Principal: Three Keys to Maximising Impact has proven to be a challenging and useful text as I look at what the role of an educational leader should be. To use Fullan’s term to answer this question: lead learner.

Fullan unpacks what is meant by being a lead learner throughout the book and what he has to say goes beyond simply changing the title on one’s business card. Being a lead learner is a mind shift. The book starts with how the current role of the principal is out of step with where things should be. Indeed, the redefining of the role encapsulates Fullan’s vision for the future of education referred to as New Pedagogies for Deep Learning whereby teacher and student work together in a learning partnership. Fullan’s critique of the role of the principal starts with a simple statement:

Principals’ responsibilities have increased enormously over the past two decades. They are expected to run a smooth school; manage health, safety and the building; innovate without upsetting anyone; connect with students and teachers; be responsive to parents and the community; answer to their districts; and above all, deliver results. More and more, they are being led to be direct instructional leaders, and therein lies the rub. How is this for a shocker: the principal as direct instructional leader is not the solution! If principals are to maximize their impact on learning, we must reconceptualize their role so that it clearly, practically, and convincingly becomes a force for improving the whole school and the results it brings.

M Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three Keys for Maximizing Success, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7

The notion of lead learner has been around for a while, something that Fullan acknowledges. Where The Principal comes into its own is to clarify the new role of the principal and explain how that role can model learning and shape the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis. To use Fullan’s own words, the book “sorts out the details of what is problematic about the current role of the principal and how it can shift to that of an agent of contagion and fundamental change” (Fullan 2014: 8).

The three keys to making this shift happen are, according to Fullan:

  1. Being a learning leader;
  2. Being a system player; and
  3. Being an agent of change.

Fulfilling these three functions can be a stressful matter for some principals. Indeed, at the end of the book, Fullan poses the question: do you still want the job? A fair question to ask given what he has been discussing. To assist those, like me, who would want to see his principals operate according to Fullan’s model and approach, there is a study guide that accompanies the book. Each chapter concludes with questions upon which individuals can reflect as well as questions that are designed to be asked in a group context. This is a very useful feature and I look forward to seeing how it works out in practice, particularly as this text will be a key part of the professional learning I have planned for my school’s educational leaders.