Relationships and Data

Relationships and data are two topics that are often at the heart of conversations around successful educational reform. Can these two be separated? Can you accurately gauge success with only one of these two elements?

Several years ago I attended my first educational conference focused on leadership. The facilitator of a large group session was a well-known and respected educator whose research was data driven and focused on measuring results. As a wide-eyed young teacher I asked, in front of the entire group, Why do we need data? I know my students well, their engagement in lessons tells me how much they are getting from me on a daily basis. He looked at me with a stunned look in his eyes and responded, “we were happy when we thought the world was flat too, how did that work out?” Imagine the awkward silence that followed amidst the 200 or so educational leaders in the room.

I have learned and now speak to the importance of establishing data out of practice to help us understand what is, and what isn’t working for learning. But central to all of this, and before any data is worthwhile, I maintain that relationships are key. This is why I have shared with staff Rita Pierson’s TedTalk Every Child Needs a Champion in which she says, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”.

Fast-forward to this past week. While working half-way around the world in Seoul, Korea, my phone rang. When I said hello, the voice on the other end was a student I taught nearly 10 years ago. After briefly catching up, we made plans to have dinner. Catching up over Korean BBQ we shared the twists and turns our lives had taken and it was like I had seen him far more recently.

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For me, catching up with this student was great for many reasons. While I have come to appreciate the importance of data as it relates to student learning, nothing replaces time spent with students. The fact that a former student not only wanted to say hello, but spend time sharing his stories with me and listening to mine. This reinforced that relationships are the key. It is a privilidge to connect with kids everyday. Meeting this student after so many years reinforced that everyday I have the opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives and when I choose to do so, that is how I can create a life-long impact. I’m certainly not holding my breath for an excel file of data to call and invite me to dinner.

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Innovation and Change

This weekend I came across a Tweet from David Culberhouse from a conversation discussing innovation and creativity. As teachers in our building are exploring ways in which we can increase opportunities to collaborate this particular Tweet resonated with me.

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Teachers at our school are moving their Professional Development in this direction. Their most recent day was extremely uplifting to say the least. It opened with a very brief presentation to the whole group and then we had EdCamp style breakout discussions. No one came with presentations, and everyone came with ideas and thoughts. One of the moments in the day that stuck out for me happened during the opening preview to the day when one teacher very directly told his colleagues that innovation and change does not mean what you were doing was bad or wrong.

This struck a cord with me because although innovation is a word that is used often in Education (as well as many other fields) there is still a lot of systemic pressure within schools to innovate or change cautiously. I remember a colleague several years ago challenging an idea of mine by telling me that the kids aren’t guinea pigs. She was absolutely correct. And because of this, I agree that we need to give careful thought as we try new things but to me innovation is about trying and learning new ideas. Creating something better than what we have had before. By improving things for learning we are in fact being innovative and in many cases we are making good things better.

There are so many great pockets of innovation in Schools and Districts where amazing new work is challenging past norms. Unfortunately as a system we are still only limited to pockets. So while it is important to move cautiously we should remember cautious does not have to mean slow. We need to take leaps where things are working well. There is a need for us to be creative in how we approach learning and create new opportunities for kids.

Why is there a need to innovate? We know that our system has many demands for a limited number of resources. It is important to continue to advocate for greater support of education. We also know that people can learn anytime and anywhere. Will Richardson shares a great story in a Ted Talk about his daughter teaching herself how to play Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” from watching a video. Her piano teacher was distraught because “she wasn’t ready”. Richardson is not suggesting we no longer need teachers – he is pointing out that teaching and more importantly learning looks very different than it has in the past. If people are learning differently then we need to create different opportunities to meet these changing needs.

The power of connections and professional conversations is helping to spread the great work that is happening within the pockets mentioned earlier but the culture of “can we try this” exists in many schools. We need to shift that mindset to “how can we try this” in order turn those isolated examples into the new norm. To do this we need to provide opportunities for kids to try different things than we tried when I was a kid in school. If you are teaching the same book you read 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – stop and ask why. Maybe there is a good reason, but with an unlimited access to other materials it is unlikely that all 25 to 30 kids in your class all want to learn, think and read the same things.

If we want to make these changes on a larger scale then as leaders we need to think and act more creatively than we have in the past. We need to take measured risks and model an innovative and progressive approach to implementing the changes that our communities are asking for. If we don’t change the way we operate, it will be difficult to see the changes we are hoping for.

The Important Stuff

Whenever a school year comes to a close I like to look back at the things our community did to grow, and equally important, to reflect on the places I wanted us to get to but we didn’t. No matter what either of these reflections bring, I’ve noticed that relationships with others help to frame the impact around what did or did not happen. Without a strong focus on relationships, the learning and growth around whatever it was that we accomplished; new initiatives, new technologies etc., are less meaningful.

Thinking about these issues is normal when making transitions. Typically it’s when there’s a change and in my case, it’s to a new district. It’s easy to think back on the wins and gains, but takes so much more energy to dissect the areas that we didn’t quite get to and why. Leaving, I’ll wonder about what I’m leaving behind; will the steps forward our community took continue or take an entirely new direction?

What isn’t in question are the relationships. Education, like many fields, finds people spending hours together, often more time with your colleagues than your family – they don’t call it a ‘work family’ for nothing! The fun, productive, and sometimes most challenging relationships are the ones that seem to stay with us in transitions. It can be the simplest of things that keeps people connected. The truly important part is to stay connected – relationships are what matter most in our work. Not only because we want the other “productive” stuff to move forward, but because they help to frame the important stuff – the sense of community, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling and knowledge that we can make a difference.

I can’t control whether initiatives I worked on will move forward or come to a grinding halt. And really, I’m not sure that matters. By far one of the best parts of my job is connecting with others! What I can do is to stay connected to those I’ve worked with and continue to grow from their input and the conversations that will come.

Change Process

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.Winston Churchill

This quote is relevant as we talk about education, schools and best practice for learning. We know that there are great things happening in our schools every day and it’s important to celebrate these successes; but it is equally important to embrace the notion that we can always make things better moving forward.

I’ve written previously about change and the inherent challenges. What’s interesting is how a completely different form of change I’m currently experiencing is so vastly different from my previous experiences and yet the process hasn’t gotten much easier – it feels the same. Perhaps what’s emerged for me then, is a better understanding of the emotional stages that change brings.

There are likely hundreds of theories on change and I certainly don’t think what I have here is anything new or earth shattering.  My editor/critic (wife) assures me of this! My observation is that there appears to be four main stages that people move through during change. These four stages seem to occur no matter how much lead-time or pre planning is put into place.

1)    The Introduction – the idea is introduced and there are two groups who emerge: early embracers, and a group in denial wanting to protect “the way we have always done it”. Sometimes in this latter category are those who verbalize support, but cling to old ideas and ways through their actions.

2)    Reality of Change – the reality of change pushes people into a state of active resistance or acceptance. In my experience those resisting are far more visible and vocal than those who are waiting out this phase of disruption. The longer in this stage the less likely it is that change will stick.

3)    Acceptance – people realize that change is happening and they begin to stop thinking of the old ways and what is lost. This could be the longest stage and may not have everyone 100% on board.

4)    Production – Once the majority of people have accepted change, we can begin to see the positive gains that were envisioned back during the introduction stage (and usually some unintended gains as well!).

The process can be rocky.  During, conversations can be difficult. My current Principal has taught me that as Administrators, if we can’t hear the word “no” then the word “yes” is meaningless. She is very wise and this is a meaningful phrase. So I’ll repeat and hope some of you pause for thought – ‘if we can’t hear the word “no”, then the word “yes” is meaningless’.

When working through conversations that begin with “No”, “I can’t” or “I won’t” and even the non-verbal cues that are telling us ‘no’, it’s important to remember that someone is working through one of the stages above and we need to work with them wherever they may be along that continuum, not necessarily where we want them to be.

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.Winston Churchill

Are we Ready?

We recently offered an opportunity for Department Heads to discuss innovation, technology and the future of education with a well-known educator visiting our district. In follow-up to this successful event, we put out a call to solicit interest from the rest of our staff for a second visit in the spring and I was expecting a similar level of interest.

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Having read his work, followed him on Twitter and seen him speak, the response I expected was an avalanche of RSVP’s especially given that our school has recently taken on an integration of technology initiative. The first phase has included teacher’s receiving new devices and with those, a commitment to dedicated time learning how to use them. That said, the response and feedback we’ve received was surprisingly underwhelming. This move toward technology combined with the invitation and endorsement of his work left me wondering, what did we miss?

Whenever something like this happens it’s important to pause, step back and reflect on why things didn’t meet our expectations.  As I was reflecting on some possible reasons, one response came in that questioned whether “we were ready for this”.  It’s an interesting question.  My first thought was, if we are not, then why did we agree to embark upon our
technology plan? My next thought was, if we aren’t, then wouldn’t this event help to move us to a place where we are ready? Again, my question, ‘what did we miss’?

The question has me thinking about different ways in which we can help people to feel more ready. I wondered if one reason for hesitation is around comfort zones – technology certainly has a way of pushing some to the boundaries of their own comfort levels. But technology isn’t going away. And so if that’s the cause, then we need to try and address these fears. Moving forward is an expectation within the realm of life-long learning – an expectation for educators.

In an effort to try and ease concerns we’ve taken a few small steps.  The first is to offer additional information about the presenter, including showing his TedTalk at an upcoming meeting. Hopefully this will help to generate excitement, a first step toward warming to the unknown. The second is to buy each person the presentor’s eBook (also an opportunity to see some of the diversity of their new devices). We’re making an assumption that people will read it, but given we still don’t know what we missed, are taking a gamble that this will be a solution.

Probably the most important, is to talk about the ‘why’ of this event and expectations. To let people know that there is no caveat or expectation to come out of the presentation with a task to do. To let them know we are moving forward, but that our hope is to do it in a way that eases learning fears and to help each person embrace and move forward with technology in a way they may not have thought about previously. To show them how it can help rather than be a hindrance. That the unknown doesn’t have to be difficult. That technology can be fun and not as overwhelming as it may seem.

This is all fine and well, but it’s a multifaceted dilemma. If we succeed in any of these, then we are a step closer to success. Without knowing what we missed, we don’t know if our solutions will help to resolve the problem. So then I guess one of my final thoughts is this: As leaders we always need to step back and carefully consider the feedback we are given. While considering this, it is sometimes our role to continue to push our organizations forward. Letting people know that we trust they are ready, even if they don’t know it yet themselves. Sometimes we all just need to be pushed a little. Ready, or not.

Branching Out

Updated April 1, 2013 @ 6:58pm

I hope you had a fantastic April Fool’s Day.

Yesterday my editor, who is my biggest supporter and probably my harshest critic (trust me you should see the number of posts sitting in the Draft box) – my wife Angela- asked my why I keep a Blog. I’ve written many times about how the process pushes me to reflect on my practice and my thinking – so she suggested I branch out on the posts and try to reach a broader audience.

Taking this into account after listening to the “other” JT’s latest release “The 20/20 Experience” I have been inspired to take this challenge up. Rather than weekly posts, I will release weekly singles. Here is a sample of what you might hear. “Branching Out

Tell your friends – I hope to reach more people with this new approach to reflections.

 

Creativity Experience

Vanity would have me believe that I’m a creative person who looks for creative solutions when problems or challenges arise. Recently I had an experience that challenged my thinking about this.

This past fall a reminder came to my inbox with a link to the application package for the Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2013. Seeing the email, I recalled my excitement and interest in this program when I had first encountered it. Reading through the application I quickly completed the initial information confirming my interest in the program. Then it got tough; the most difficult piece of the application involved 4 questions:

  • How have you as an educator transformed your learning environment?
  • Illustrate how Apple technologies have helped in this transformation.
  • What successes have you seen with your learners?
  • How do you share these successes to influence the broader education community?

The requirement was to address these points in written form and then transform those answers into a 2 minute video. Now the thinking really began. Those questions felt like a job interview, and in a way they were. How would I succinctly and creatively answer these key directives? Would my work stand out from others who applied? Fortunately some close friends with experience in both the film and photography business were able to provide some excellent guidance and advice. First steps were to write a “script” and then film my scenes. First take was over 3 minutes and I discovered that I am NOT comfortable in front of the camera! 7 takes and an couple hours later, we felt like there was enough “footage” to put something together.  I’ve made a few videos, but certainly not to this level of detail and constraints that resulted in a lot of cutting and editing. Feeling like I had to make every word and idea stand out, I had to really learn how to edit and be creative with the micro details.

Do we begin to lose our creative side as we age? Or is it that daily tasks, routines, and habits bury our creativity to some extent, making us feel rusty when we need to really challenge ourselves here?  This project had no limits or specifications other than a 2 minute time limit and the broad challenge of making my written story “come to life”. By far the most challenging aspect of this project that stood out to me was the creative component. My initial instinct was to summarize some of my work. But after doing that, I realized that it wasn’t enough to really stand out in a forum that I feel quite passionately about; the advancement of education through technology. At first I had a lot of ideas that I needed to synthesize. Then the difficulty was narrowing in on a way to succinctly bring these ideas forward. As I worked through the process I realized that even though I like to believe that I am creative, that when pushed to do so I am somewhat out of my comfort zone. That maybe I’m not a “creative” person after all.

I’m very pleased with the final version of my submission. I think particularly so because this was by far one of the more challenging projects I’ve tackled for sometime.This experience challenged me to push ahead and try to get across some of the thoughts that I get when I second guess myself and don’t follow through with ideas that others might view as “outside the box”.

The Final version can be seen here:

A few weeks ago I received an email welcoming me to the Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2013. I am humbled to be included in a group of innovative and diverse Educators and I am definitely looking forward to the connections and collaboration of this year’s institute. I have no doubt that I’ll be surrounded by innovative thinking and leadership. And although I had doubted my own creativity in the midst of this project, I’m feeling pretty pumped about using this skill with who I feel is one of the more creative companies on the planet today. Now that’s a reward for working through a challenge!