Leadership /First Year of Teaching

Leadership /First Year of Teaching

Are you “Locked In”?

I hope you had an opportunity to look at the picture I posted this week in anticipation of this article. Take a moment to look at the lion’s eyes. I see an intensely focused animal, single minded, and completely “locked in”.  This animal is focused on a single priority.  In the lion’s case, it is probably survival.  In your current position, are you able to “lock in”?  The inability to “lock in” is a problem that plagues school leadership.  The way our current system is structured it is almost impossible to achieve a laser like focus on any one initiative.  Ultimately, by being forced to juggle multiple priorities and by keeping all of the many balls up in the air at once, very little ends up getting accomplished.

It may be easy for one to sit back and criticize the leader that is having this management problem.  You may say that he /she needs training in organizational skills.  There seems to be hundreds of workshops designed to help one manage multiple priorities.  Each workshop has a catchy title, and they all seem to promise magnificent results.   Each and every day, school administrators come to school well organized and prepared to handle significant details of important educational issues.  All of these plans go quickly into the garbage can when a student crisis develops or an angry, unmanageable parent arrives on the scene.  Try to visualize walking into a school primed for action on your to do list when the first thing you hear is that you have ten classes without substitutes for the day.  As you scramble to get class coverage, you learn from the policeman sitting in your office that there was a student fight in town last night that will spill into the building today that must be contained.  The police, parents, and the overall community expect you to solve this problem. This occurs while you are trying to think about improving test scores.  Like the lion, you will focus on what you need to do for survival, and it probably is not the test scores.  By now, I think I have painted the picture for you.

You can see it in a person’s eyes when they are focused.  I used to have a picture I cut out of the newspaper of two New York Jets linemen leading the way blocking for their running back.  Their eyes were as big as flying saucers.  They were “locked in”.  I used the picture to teach students about focusing.  Coaches continually implore their players to “make their eyes big” in an attempt for them to improve their intensity on a single-minded assignment.  When a baseball player goes on a hitting streak, they are “locked in”.  They see the ball as bigger than it really is traveling at a slower rate of speed.  They are focused.

So, what can we do about this problem of lack of focus?  I think the first thing that must be done is to take a serious look at the way school leadership is structured.  It is impossible for the principal to perform all of the tasks required of the position.  What we need to do is to structure positions and job responsibilities that take into consideration all of the peripheral tasks that invariably end up on the principal’s desk.  Does the principal need to be the one that handles everything?  I don’t think so.  Can a building have an operations manager to handle operational tasks?  Yes, it can.  Can a job be designed to handle specific social issues?  Of course, it can.  Can a job be designed to handle parent and community issues?  Certainly.  Most buildings already have these tasks assigned to someone.  So why doesn’t the system work?

The system does not work because leaders have a very difficult time delegating and letting go.  We have to have trust in the abilities of the people that work with us.  If we do not have this trust, we might as well not have them in our inner circle.  It is also important that we let these people do their jobs without our interference.  This is extremely hard for me because I am the ultimate micromanager.  But ultimately, my micromanaging hurt productivity.  Although, I thought of myself as a hands-on manager, it may have been a bit better if I took my hands off.  Dwight Eisenhower only became successful in his planning and execution of Operation Overlord on D-Day because he was able to delegate effectively. Once his critical staff was in place, he let his people do their jobs.

The leader must also be able to shed him/herself of the needless extraneous garbage that clouds our work day.  Everything is not important.  The leader must know what is important and focus on these issues. Likewise, it is acceptable for the leader to say “no” at times.  The first few times that I said no to participating in something, people were astonished.  It was a very freeing experience for me.

With delegation of responsibility comes accountability.  The team will also not function effectively if the members do not communicate.  The leader is responsible for keeping this communication flowing between all parties.  When the communication channels break down, the project stalls.

Once again, inasmuch as we all tend to like lists, let’s take a look at the following:

THE TOP SEVEN THINGS A LEADER MUST DO TO IMPROVE FOCUS.

  1. Structure your positions to provide no overlap in assignments. Each person must skillfully handle his/her responsibilities.
  2. Fill these positions with the right people. Remember that once you have found the right person, design the tasks of the position around the person’s strengths.  Do not lose good people because he/she does not fit a preconceived job description.
  3. Allow these people to do their job. Do not micromanage them.
  4. Hold people accountable. If they cannot do their jobs, replace them.
  5. As the building leader, know what is important. Do not get entangled in meaningless tasks.
  6. Be able to limit your involvement in activities.
  7. Communicate, communicate, and communicate.

In conclusion, understand that you cannot do it all.  When you try to do it all, nothing credible will get done.  If it is not working for you, start by restructuring your team and get the right people in the right positions. Then let them do their jobs.  Get focused!  Good luck.

Leadership/ First Year of Teaching

Leadership / First Year of Teaching

Why Am I Third String?

 If you have been a steady reader of my blog, you know by now that I frequently return to my coaching background to make a point.  I do that again today when I discuss the concept of self-assessment.

No driven competitor on the athletic field, a school district, or the corporate environment likes to be sitting on the bench.  We all want to be in the game. We want to be part of the action.  Being in the game can mean many things to different people.  For an athlete, this is easily defined.  You are on the playing field.  In the school or corporate venue, this may be evidenced by feeling that you are part of the decision-making team or you can see the tangible result of your work.  Your input is solicited and valued. You are part of the team.  You count for something.  You are a somebody.  Sometimes the most hurtful thing a coach, boss, or parent can do to another person is to ignore them.  For someone so driven, this can be a painful experience.  If, as a leader, we consciously employ this method of dealing with people, it is regrettable.  It can also be extremely damaging to children who are seeking your approval. If you use this technique as a motivational tool, I encourage you to find a better way to motivate your staff or loved ones.

I have always thought that the most difficult thing to do is to evaluate your own talent or ability.  It is hard to realistically see our faults and to step back to see why another person is playing in place of you.  But after raising my children and being around my group of friends raising their children, maybe the most difficult thing to do is to realistically evaluate the skill level of your children.  I have always been the one in my peer group to step back and remind folks that their child might not be the second coming of Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, or Barbra Streisand. This has been continually reinforced in my career when I have had to talk to parents about the skill level or behavior level of their child as they parade into the school fighting for a grade, playing time, or being the lead in the school play.  Therefore, I encourage school leaders to remember this when they are dealing with the “talent blind” or “talent challenged” parent.  We all hurt when our kids hurt.

We can also never forget that the job of the coach or corporate manager is to field the best team possible and to win the game.  Winning can be defined as sales, improved test scores, or whatever metric is used in your business. You surround yourself with the people that can make this possible.  You are in essence betting your career on making good personnel choices.  However, for those that are not necessarily on the field at a given time or in the inner circle of your school, there is certainly an important place on your team for them.  It is critical though that you are honest with them about how you assess their ability. Although this conversation is hard to do, it is necessary. Your evaluation is probably going to be very hard for them to hear but if you are honest with compassion, I believe they eventually will realize it. It is also essential that your evaluation is based on your assessment, not some tainted reason, such as the quarterback is the son of the board president or the lead in the play is the mayor’s daughter.  People will see through these reasons and as a result, your credibility will suffer.  Make enough of these important decisions for the wrong reason and your time as leader will be short lived.

I can remember having this conversation with a player one time who was just not strong enough, big enough or fast enough, to contribute at his position.  The young man had a great attitude and loved the game, but he just was not a very good player.  He was becoming a distraction in the locker room grousing about his lack of playing time.  As part of our conversation, I pointed out that he was important member of the team, and that it was a long season. Eventually we could find his niche where he could be a more significant on field contributor.  If he could not accept this, I told him that he should reconsider his desire to be part of the team. He came back the next day with a refreshed attitude.  By mid-season, injuries had decimated our ranks, and this young man found himself playing and contributing.  Perhaps he heard what I was saying and did a better job of self-assessing.

I will share a similar anecdote illustrating school leadership.  It is essential that we work to build and nurture leadership from within, and I would always like to see my assistant principals work to develop their skill set to be a principal.  If most people are working to be the “head coach”, your organization will be better.  A healthy competition is important, and when people are driving to be the best, the organization once again benefits.  I can recall a time when I pursued a position that I really wanted.  I wanted to be the principal of a school in which I had served for many years as a vice principal.  My competition for the position was the other vice principal in the building.  I did not get the position.  However, the Superintendent at that time, met with me face to face and explained to me that I was not his choice for the position yet he valued my work, and I should be patient.  I was just like the young man I had to have the talk with in the former scenario.  Although disappointed and dejected, I came back and worked harder, and eventually my career took off.  It turned out that not getting the job was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my career. I wasn’t really ready for it. My point here is that the Superintendent took the time to have the crucial conversation with me.  I made a promise to myself that when in the descion making position I would operate in the same way that the Superintendent handled me.  He made a point to have that conversation with me.  A candidate for a position should never hear that he /she did not get the position through the grapevine or by seeing a printed public agenda with someone else’s name on it.

Our new hires must also understand the process of learning and how they are now being thrust into an environment with seasoned veterans.  They may not be immediately welcomed into the inner circle. High school athletes quickly find this out when they attend college on a scholarship.  Although they are all all- state, all- conference, all- league, all-county in their current school, when they arrive on campus as a scholarship athlete they are now competing with athletes from all over the country who were also all- state, all-county, all-league, etc.  It is a revelation that they may not now be one of the best.  The same can be said of our new teachers.  They may have been student teacher of the year in their university, but when they enter their new school, a whole new learning curve begins.  Each level presents a new challenge.  The teacher moving to administration may be lost for a while.  True leaders nurture the “newbies” and create a new culture of future leaders.

I am convinced some people do not own any mirrors in their house.  This is both figurative and literal.  I am asking each person to look deeply in a mirror.  It is amazing how some people leave the house dressed or looking the way they do.  It is critical that we look beyond the physical and see figuratively who we really are and what skill set we truly possess. It is important that we listen to those that see us on a daily basis.  Process the information, reflect upon it, and make the appropriate changes.

Finally, “KNOW THYSELF”.

Leadership /First Year of Teaching

Leadership / First Year of Teaching

To renew or not to renew?   That is the question.

Although the weather in the northeast today might belie the fact that spring is a week away, when the calendar reads mid-March, it signals the creation of the upcoming year’s school budget.  This process also signals the renewal or non-renewal of teachers, administrators, and general school staff.  Some non-renewals may be the result of budget cuts, whereas others are the result of performance.

In the case of performance non-renewals, at this point in the year, this should not be a question.  By this time, as the principal, you should know who you are going to rehire.  It is your job to make sure that the employee in question is as knowledgeable about your decision as you are at this time.  There should be no surprises.  Do not mislead someone in a January conference that if you do this or do that, you will be rehired.  Most times these questions are posed to make the principal feel better.  Be honest and do not provide false hope.  Very rarely can an employee do something in the remaining few months to save his/her position.

I started to think about this question and tried to put down several items that for me were clear indicators of a non-renewal.  Not surprisingly, my answers involve the school climate.

The first red flag is the inability to cultivate and sustain relationships with students, colleagues, and parents.  If one cannot build these relationships, it will not matter what type of pedagogical skills he/she possesses or what content knowledge he/she has.  The student will be turned off.  Likewise, if you are this person, you will alienate your colleagues and the parents of your students.   This ability cannot be easily learned. I will not say it is impossible because I have seen some overcome this.  However, it is extremely difficult.  With hard work and practice, supported by coaching, people can develop these skills.

A closely related item is the person’s inability to become part of the culture of the school.  Each person is responsible and a contributor to the establishment of a positive culture and climate.  If you cannot contribute, I will have to ask you to leave.

If someone can develop relationships and tries to be a positive contributor of the culture, in most cases, I would bring the person back for a second year.  I do feel it is my responsibility and job as a principal to be able to coach a person in regards to pedagogical skills or content knowledge.  Someone, on the administrative team or a district academic coach, if available, may be able to work wonders.  I believe that the most personal growth shown by an employee happens between their first and second year of employment.  This applies to both principals and teachers.  Second year educators come back an entirely different teacher or administrator than they were in the previous year.

I conducted some brief action research on this topic and reached out to current administrators to ask them the same question.  I was somewhat surprised to see the difference in responses depending on one’s frame of reference.  When I asked a trusted colleague and curriculum expert this question, the answers supplied were more pedagogical than cultural or climate driven.  Therefore, when this critical decision needs to be made, all decision makers should discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each person.  By having this collaborative discussion, one may be forced to see different viewpoints and hence perhaps alter some personally entrenched beliefs.

Listed below are some of the reasons for non-renewal as presented by several practicing administrators:

  • Poor observations
  • Attendance issues
  • Defensive and non-reflective
  • Poor and uncaring attitude
  • Not willing to be cooperative and seek and accept assistance
  • Poor classroom management
  • Lack of differentiation of instruction
  • Limited teaching strategies
  • Poor planning
  • No closure or opening of lessons
  • Poor content knowledge
  • Poor questioning techniques and inadequate wait time
  • Classroom expectations and procedures not clearly set
  • Poor writing and speaking skills
  • Does not take professional responsibilities seriously
  • Failure to involve oneself in the life of the school
  • Lacks good judgment

One can see that this list is extensive.  I also believe the list probably can be separated into two categories, namely personal / culture building qualities and classroom skills.

I put a significant expectation and responsibility on the administrative team with new teachers.  It is the administrator’s job to ensure that teachers succeed and to not allow them to fail!  Similarly, I expect my teachers to embrace this same attitude with their students.  It is the teacher’s job ensure that students succeed and to not allow them to fail.  The teacher has a personal stake in this process but at the end of the day I think it falls back on the principal.  What type of mentoring program does your building and district have?  Is it legitimate or is it lip service?  Only you can answer that question.  How have you helped that person?  Once again, has your help been real or was it merely a checkmark on some checklist for you?  Have you made your personal expectations clear for the new candidate?  Likewise, have building procedures and cultural expectations been clearly communicated?  If you cannot positively answer these questions, you have not done your job as the building principal.  Likewise, if this is an administrator that we are talking about, then the superintendent has not done his /her job.

For those that read this blog, I do not think it is a hard leap for you to make or draw similar comparisons to your business workplace.  I would not keep a person that could not build relationships with clients and colleagues and likewise did not fit in with the culture and climate of my business.

Being a teacher is hard work.  To be successful, a teacher must possess a cadre of skills that involve both technical expertise and personal development.  When a new teacher is rehired, this should be a reason to celebrate.  They achieved a significant milestone.  When tenure is granted, a more significant milestone is reached, and it is another cause to celebrate.  Yet I am not convinced that our profession does a good job celebrating these milestones and perhaps we take them too much for granted.  We can change this.