Conversational Capacity: Learning How to Lead

by Krista Taylor & Jack M. Jose

Sometimes the right thing comes along at just the right time. Other times, you have to wait for it. My search for the right leadership tool was one of those “wait for it” times.

In the fall of 2012, I took on my first real leadership role – special education department chair. I was nervous about it, unsure if I was really ready. But, I reasoned, perhaps like parenting, it’s the kind of thing that you can’t ever really be ready for until you are in the midst of it.

It didn’t take long before I made my first giant mistake. I was leading a department meeting that had already extended beyond the provided time, and I was explaining, for what felt like the umpteenth time, the administrative directive concerning how to prepare test administrators for giving accommodated tests. It was an unpopular initiative, as it required additional work. As I spoke, a few people were off-task, and others had already begun packing up their materials. I felt frustrated and angry. In the midst of all this, one of my colleagues commented, “I think what we have been doing is just fine. I think we should just continue doing that.” Instead of listening and responding appropriately, I snapped back, and I quote, “It actually doesn’t really matter what you think.”

Ouch. The meeting came to a screeching halt, and we adjourned in discomfort.

I immediately knew I was wrong, and I did the only two things I knew to do to try and fix things. I called Caroline to apologize, (She didn’t answer, so I had to leave a voice message) and I also sought out Jack to tell him exactly what I had done and to acknowledge my error.

Things moved on. We had more meetings, but I never was able to correct things with Caroline. Our relationship remained haunted by this conflict.

After this incident, I began actively seeking leadership mentoring. What I discovered was that there is a dearth of people who feel comfortable with this. Jack often says that the entirety of his induction and training into the principal-ship was a handshake and a hearty, “Welcome Aboard.” When I off-handedly asked him for leadership support, he just looked at me as if I was speaking some foreign tongue.

I next asked one of the academic coaches assigned to our building, who also happened to be a friend of mine. Her response shocked me. She laughed and said, “Krista, you are a natural leader. There is nothing that I can teach you.”

What?! How was I supposed to learn if no one would teach me?!

I settled on a teacher nearing retirement, who had been in a Team Leader role for a number of years. She didn’t actually know that she was serving as my mentor because I had lost the courage to keep asking for this, but I intentionally watched her and tried to learn from her.

So I watched, and I learned, and I stumbled, and I grew along the way.

I knew I was improving, but I also felt like there was something missing – my mistakes always seemed to be made in the same vein, but I couldn’t quite articulate what it was that was happening. I just knew I wasn’t satisfied.

Then early in this school year, (a mere five years after my initial foray into leadership), Jack saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity,

He said this about it:

Craig’s work related to much of what is explored in Kegan’s Immunity to Change. This is challenging work, where the individual reader or participant seeks to reveal the hidden motivators and obstacles that prevents one from making changes in oneself. It aligns with a key leadership theory in the Harvard Urban School Leaders program: to change a school or other organization you must first change yourself. You must become the leader it needs. Similarly, Craig argues that if you want to have productive conversations, you must read the dynamics of the conversation and change your actions. Doing this creates the most insightful dialogue that exposes the most important information and encourages the right set of possible next steps.

Jack was so impacted by this presentation that he asked if I would like to read the book with him.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Not only did the title promise to help me improve team functionality during high-stress situations, but I also figured that if Jack and I were reading this together, I could trick him into serving as my leadership mentor without him realizing it. As enthusiastic as I was, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.

Turns out that Conversational Capacity was both the challenge and the answer that I had been seeking for so long. Craig cites Robert Kegan in defining the role of leaders. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.”[1] (29)

“Shaping the nature of the discourse” – this was what I needed to learn to do better.

Craig’s premise is that the critical factor for teams is not the much touted establishment of trust and respect, rather it is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15) He goes on to describe moments in which this is happening as the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that while this sounds deceptively simple, our human nature tends to get in the way of our ability to remain in this balanced place when under pressure or when discussing challenging issues. “While it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.” (15)

After having read only the first chapter, I understood several things about this work:

  • It was serendipitous that Jack and I were reading this together because we represent both ends of Craig’s spectrum. When things get challenging, Jack tends to “shut down” while I “heat up.”
    I tend to “heat up” while Jack “shuts down

    This serves neither of us well.

  • Getting pulled out of the conversational sweet spot was exactly what I had been struggling with as a leader, and what I hadn’t had words to describe.
  • This was going to be hard. As Craig says, the development of conversational capacity is not “a simple gimmick or quick fix … if we want to improve our teams and organizations, we have to improve ourselves.” (3)

Jack experienced a similarly immediate and powerful response to the concepts in this book.

 Craig’s work immediately resonated with me. Perhaps this was because Craig admits that he, too, is a “minimizer” – one who works to keep everyone’s feelings intact, and seek out solutions that felt like an emotional middle ground.

It was a relief to hear someone else admit that. Years before, I was in a leadership training program at Ohio State University, and everyone in the group completed a leadership style inventory. We were then directed to stand in the part of the room that corresponded to our results. I found myself essentially alone in one corner of the room. Diagonal from me were a group of administrators whose answers revealed them to be decisive winners of conflict. Decision-makers. Men and women of confidence, and apparently full of correct answers. In my corner, almost entirely alone, a consensus-builder who believed in empowering professional educators to make key decisions.

Although Jack has a tendency to shut down, and I have a tendency to heat up, this is often a non-issue for both of us. Craig notes that it is easy to stay in the sweet spot when discussing routine problems – challenges that we know how to work through. However, we can readily get pulled out of the sweet spot when we are facing situations for which we don’t have easy answers.

Craig argues that these stressors trigger our fight or flight reflexes, or in his language, our urge to “win” (heat up) or to “minimize,” (shut down) and that both of these responses pull teams out of the sweet spot and lead to unproductive conversations. It is important to note that the goal here is productive conversations, not non-conflictual ones. In fact, being in the sweet spot is likely to involve what Craig describes as productive conflict – “productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously, need to be an integral part of a board’s operating culture.” (19)

Of course, not all conflict is productive. The conflict that occurred in the meeting where I was explaining testing protocol was conflictual, but it was far from productive. When I perceived that my authority was being threatened, I went straight to “win” behaviors, and I went there hard and fast. In doing so, I damaged my relationships, but more importantly, that testing initiative never did get enacted. As a team, we never were able to explore how to make our practice in this area more functional.

Minimizing behaviors can be equally unproductive. Jack’s explanation demonstrates what can happen when minimization of issues occurs.

The simplest way to phrase it misses the point. Some say that I just “want to be liked”, and that drives me to be unwilling to make decisions, especially substantive ones. But it is more complex than that. If people are invested in opposing viewpoints, say about placing teachers in certain classrooms, or a response to a certain misbehavior, I believe that they are using their best judgment. I believe they have put together the best argument that they can. I worry: if they “lose,” will they be less invested in the whole project? What else will be lost in terms of their morale and self-confidence? Whether they like me or not is secondary to my concern as to whether they will still be invested in the school.

 However, I know that my “minimize” behavior is based on an oversimplification all its own. Making an argument and having a stronger or more persuasive case prevail is not likely to cause someone to choose a new career. That does not make sense in a rational mind.

Minimization emphasizes caution over candor and runs the risk of having important issues not discussed in order to maintain comfort. “When our need to play it safe overwhelms our clear and noble intentions, we sacrifice progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety.” (39) Jack’s visceral response to this quotation: So. Many. Examples. And they all hurt someone. Ugh.

Conversely, when, as Craig describes it, “we are hijacked by our need to win, … our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative.” (45) Yuck. That felt so uncomfortably familiar to me.

It is said that “knowing is half the battle,” but I’m not convinced. I think knowing might only be about one-fourth of the battle.

After reading chapters one and two of Conversational Capacity, I knew what my battle was, but I didn’t yet know how to win it. And, of course, for me, the answer was quite the opposite of “winning.”

Jack was similarly drawn in.

Conversational Capacity became a page-turner for me. I wanted to figure out how to improve the conversations in the building. I was committed to creating a culture in the school that matched the one we were trying to create in the classroom. I wanted to make it okay for teachers to help each other get better at what they do. The fact that Krista texted me two days later and announced that “all the answers to everything” were in the book, of course, prompted me to continue.

Both Jack and I were eager to engage in the work of finding the sweet spot. To this end, Craig notes that no one universally operates on one side of the spectrum.

Everyone demonstrates both “win” and “minimize” tendencies; however it is helpful to determine where one generally falls along this continuum and what is one’s default mode when things become challenging. Recognizing this helps us understand what behaviors to watch out for and what strategies to implement to help us move away from the ends of the spectrum and toward the central sweet spot – that place where an equilibrium exists between candor and curiosity and the “dialogue is open, balanced, and nondefensive.” (15)

Craig notes that in order to increase conversational capacity and be able to stay in the sweet spot more consistently, we must balance the strengths of our natural tendencies with the intentional cultivation of checks on this tendency. I have mentally relived that terrible moment from that department meeting over and over again. I know I could have done it better, but what was the right way?

How could I move myself away from “win” and toward the discipline of conversational capacity?  How could Jack move away from “minimize” and toward that same discipline? I was grateful that he was going through this process with me, and that he too, was taking a critical look at his foibles.

Together, we explored the list of identified “win” and “minimize” behaviors that Craig describes, and noted those that we each typically engage in. We were both surprised to find that we demonstrate many behaviors from our “non-default” side of the spectrum. While it was important to be aware of these as well as our natural tendencies, the focus of our change efforts would revolve around the behaviors to which we were most habituated. For me that was those in the win column, and for Jack it was the behaviors that fell in the minimize column.

It did not feel at all good to admit that I regularly exhibit the following “win” behaviors:

  • State positions as fact
  • Dismiss alternate views and perspectives
  • Solicit support
  • Fail to inquire into alternate points of view
  • Interrupt others
  • Use dismissive body language

Jack experienced similar humility when identifying the “minimize” behaviors to which he is most prone:

  • Cover up your views, ideas, information, or concerns
  • Ease in – water down your concerns to make them more palatable
  • Avoid issues
  • Make excuses to let people off the hook
  • Use email or voicemail to express concerns
  • Feign agreement or support

So, what next? How could we both do better?

Craig addresses the method for improvement in a brilliantly simple manner. He says that people demonstrating a minimizing perspective exhibit low candor — or the willingness to speak forthrightly in the face of challenge. Those demonstrating a winning perspective exhibit low curiosity – or the willingness to actively seek out views that are different from one’s own.

To combat a minimizing perspective, one needs to exhibit greater candor, and to combat a winning perspective, one needs to exhibit greater curiosity. Craig delineates just two critical skills to cultivate in each area.

Candor Curiosity
1. State a clear position 1. Test an existing view

 

2. Explain the thinking behind a position 2. Intentionally inquire about differing perspectives

Easy, right?

Well, not exactly.

As soon as I read this, I knew the answer to my concerns about my leadership. I had to demonstrate greater curiosity, and I had to reign in some of my candor to provide space for that. And, of course, for Jack the opposite was true. He had to fight against his tendency to minimize and push himself to exhibit greater candor.

For about a month, I reminded myself of this before every meeting I walked into.

No change.

My Conversational Capacity checklist

I invariably found that after the first few minutes, I lost sight of my goal and promptly returned to my old patterns of behavior. I was so frustrated with myself that I designed this visual to help me remember. I even went so far as to embed scripted language prompts into my chart.

I’ll be honest. It didn’t help much. I was successful with dialing back my usual level of candor, but I really continued to struggle with increasing the curiosity that would allow me to truly shift.

I had the opposite problem. I often withheld my opinion or position on a matter. I did this for a variety of reasons, mostly hinging on the idea that I had positional authority over the teachers engaged in the conversation. I worried that stating a position early on would bias the discussion, and cause dissent to remain unexpressed. My goal was noble: I wanted to hear dissenting views. The result was not noble. Too often, I exerted my opinion near the end of a conversation or discussion, and this had the effect of summarizing or “deciding” the matter.

We found reassurance in Craig’s words at the end of the book, “If we’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. When we fall back into our old habits, we should say yes to the mess, see what we can learn, and move on. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our minimize and win tendencies. Recognize that they’re a part of us, that they often conflict with other intentions, and that we have to keep an eye on them. It’s also important to adopt a constructive learning-oriented mindset by taking note of our strengths and not just bemoaning our weaknesses. A conversation I had with an executive in Seattle provides a case in point, ‘My win tendency is too strong,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be overly hard on yourself,’ I suggested. ‘Try reframing it this way: you’re exceptionally good with the candor skills. Your goal now is to put in enough practice so you’re just as proficient with the curiosity skills.’” (179)

Okay, so I’m “exceptionally good with the candor skills.” However, I need to keep working at building curiosity.

In a meeting just last week, I think I did it. I think I found balance and stayed in the conversational sweet spot. Jack was proposing that we significantly move up a deadline for the completion of a huge, school-wide task. In typical fashion, I responded with candor, stating my clear position that it was too much, too fast, and then explaining the reasoning behind my thinking.

But then I heard myself say, “Now tell me what your thoughts are.” There it was — an expression of inquiry!

Jack shared his position, and then, taking both perspectives into consideration, the committee was able to develop a plan for moving forward that embedded some extra time and seemed feasible.

Craig notes that the whole group benefits when any member improves his or her conversational capacity. I suspect that exhibiting the skills of inquiry is easier for me in the face of Jack’s increased candor.

Here are his thoughts about his transformation in progress:

Recently I have adopted Craig’s advice, stating my position clearly at the beginning, but inviting dissenting views. By putting my ideas out early in the conversation, I cannot serve as the final decider. Also, by inviting dissent, I clearly make it okay to provide counter arguments. It turns out that the teachers are more than willing to disagree with me!

Even these small shifts feel great. Now let’s see if we can keep doing it the next time. Or maybe the time after that.

Personal change is hard. It’s so much easier to keep doing what we’ve always done. Conversational Capacity is a powerful book that pushes us beyond our comfort zones into a higher level of functioning. I cannot say it better than Craig does himself, “Be warned, this book will present you with a choice … will we let our experience reinforce the primal, self-centered aspects of our nature, or the nobler, more purpose-driven aspects of our humanity? Will we grow more candid or more cautious? More courageous or more timid? More curious or more critical? More humble or more arrogant? Far too many people opt for the lower, easier, less rigorous route. This book will encourage you to take the higher, more adventurous road – the road less traveled.” (9)

Learn more about Craig’s work here.

[1] Weber, Craig. Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013. Print.

 

Mission and Vision

search

In this summer’s Professional Learning Communities conference in Minneapolis, Learning Tree Solutions educational legend Richard DuFour stood in front of the group to perform what seemed to be a bit of a large-scale parlor trick. He told us collectively, a crowd of over 1,500 people, that he knew the mission statement at each of our schools.

He then proceeded to prove it.

“At Tree City school,” he intoned, and the words appeared on the screen before us. “We will educate our students to meet their highest potential,” he continued, to a wave of familiar laughter. “To meet or exceed academic goals,” more laughter. “On the standardized tests,” he added. I thought perhaps this was an aside, but the words showed up on the screen with the rest. “To be good citizens,” it was starting to hit home. He DID seem to know everyone’s mission statement, and he ended with a very familiar line. “And to become … say it with me ‘life … long … learners.’” We WERE able to say it with him. He had indeed captured the essence of pretty much every school’s mission statement.

Perhaps you hear echoes of your school’s mission statement in his words. At first it can be disorienting to hear him get so much of it right. Or perhaps it causes frustration, to know that your statement, lovingly crafted by a group of teachers and parents over a period of weeks, sounds like everyone else’s. It may even seem to validate the naysayers – you know, the ones who showed up at the first meeting with a full pre-written mission statement.  Maybe the details of your statement are different, but the structure and focus are the same.

It’s okay. So what if everyone’s school’s missions statement sounds about the same? After all, aren’t our missions all the same? Shouldn’t we be working to create good citizens? Shouldn’t they meet academic expectations? Certainly in the end, they should be well-informed and reasoned voters and citizens. Maybe the mystery is that we don’t all have the same mission statement to start with!

Crafted in our school’s opening year, on a staff retreat designed for setting the vision and mission for the school, Gamble Montessori’s vision statement is: Incorporating Montessori principles, we will create an enriching academic environment and a diverse, nurturing community that allows us to achieve our limitless potential.

It’s all there. First, the statement of our identity, “incorporating Montessori principles” become our “At Tree City School.” There’s the mention of the academic goal, “create an enriching academic environment”. And, of course, the tagline. Only instead of lifelong learners, we are achieving “our limitless potential.”

It is not identical to the theoretical universal statement. The parts that make it different are what demonstrates your individuality.

A vision statement frames what your school looks like when everything is perfect – when all the pieces fall into place. What are we living into? What are we growing toward? It Is meant to be an aspirational statement about where your students, and possibly the faculty and parents as well, hope to be as a result of working together.

It’s there – right down to “our limitless potential.” It gets there starting from our Montessori roots, and passing through academics and our intent to create a nurturing community.

A mission statement, on the other hand, is supposed to move the aspirational into the practical. This can be the “who / what / how” of the work of achieving the vision. While mission statements are often brief narratives in one, usually run-on, sentence, they can also take the form of a list of descriptions of right behavior. Numbered statements are not unheard of in this situation. Either way, it should lay out a specific plan for achieving your vision.

One could suggest that Gamble Montessori fell short in specificity:

We seek to help each other develop as thoughtful, intelligent, inclusive human spirits who contribute to the stewardship of our community and planet.

Not much of a to-do list for achieving our limitless potential.

It is okay, though.

It is okay that our vision statement is imperfect, or indistinguishable from someone else’s.

It is okay that our mission does not fit the definitions provided above, in that it does not describe a list of correct actions to take, or provide a roadmap to helping our students achieve their limitless potential.

One could read books about mission and vision statements and glean volumes of information that would explain the many ways these statements are imperfect. A starter list of those resources is available here. One even promises to help you get your personal statement down to one word!

It is similarly okay that your statement is what it is. You do not, necessarily, have to create it from scratch. What is more important is that you make it yours. In fact, if you already have one, you can likely identify the steps you have taken in the next few paragraphs, and the rest of the advice still applies to you.

To create your mission statement, follow these steps:

  1. Find a way to involve everyone in the process, especially at the beginning and end. This can be done by utilizing contract time when everyone is required to be present, or soliciting volunteers to come outside of contract time. Alternatively, a straightforward questionnaire with two or three questions could offer everyone a say. Include those in leadership positions, such as a leadership council or Board of Regents.
  2. Ask yourselves, why do we do what we do? And, what could it look like if we did it perfectly? These guiding questions, or survey questions, should form the heart of your final statement. You are building a cathedral, after all. Only a stretch goal will force you to stretch.
  3. Find words and phrases that begin to summarize or encapsulate those answers. Do certain words keep coming up? Keep them. Are there specific words that summarize major concepts you heard in the gathering phase? Add them.
  4. Wordsmith it in a small group, focusing on making sure it captures the spirit of your school. Focus on making it shorter, and more comprehensive. Why a small group? Because wordsmithing by committee is a Sisyphean task.
  5. Formally adopt it. We have an Instructional Leadership Team, mandated by our collective bargaining agreement, who is responsible for leading instruction. Your school has some sort of governing group internally, and perhaps externally. Their imprimatur is an important step in this process. This is why you involved them from the start: if they are happy with it, and the staff is happy with it, the rest of the process has a chance to work. If they don’t, you have dragged your staff through a frustrating process to simply spin their wheels.
  6. Live into it.

This last step requires further explanation.

Living into your mission statement seems to contrast with the daily work of teaching. In those moments of grading, correcting student misbehavior, differentiating lessons, or turning in grade summaries to the principal, “our limitless potential” seems a long way away. It is easy to lose sight of the cathedral you’re building at the end of a long day.

It is okay that our vision statement is imperfect, or indistinguishable from someone else’s.

So what is the solution? One key part is to never let them get too far from your consciousness. Put your statements everywhere. Here are some of the ways we incorporate our mission, vision, and other core statements in our daily operations:

  • Just before the greeting at each meeting, we state aloud one of our core statements. In our case, this includes core values, mission statement, vision statement, staff agreement, and our district’s Board policy regarding the education of students with disabilities.
  • Organize your behavioral expectations based on your mission statement or core values. Post them in every common space, including the office, classrooms, halls, and restrooms, our rules are sorted into sections: community, hard work, learning, peace, and respect.
  • Incorporate discussions of your values into disciplinary conversations. Our student reflection sheet asks students, “Which core values were broken?” The student is then prompted to explain how that value was broken. (Interestingly, the frustrated student sometimes goes to great lengths to explain how another student, or even the teacher, violated a core value. That works too!)
  • Just put them everywhere: in your staff manual, on your letterhead, in a student agreement, in the staff agreement, on teacher appreciation mugs, on places yet unmentioned…

There is no drowning in the mission statement, there is only saturation. Every time we call ourselves to be the best we can be, it can serve to inspire us.

Please share your mission statement in the comments.

What are your core values? (You have them, right?)

community

This summer, Scott Pardi, a teacher at Gamble Montessori high school, where I am the principal, called me.

“Jack, can I rewrite Gamble’s core values?”

Scott was part-way through his Montessori certification classes. I understood immediately. He was taking Structure and Organization, and was working on specific artifacts to help manage daily issues in his classroom. His was not an existential question, a core values question per se. I knew what he meant. He was fine with our values: Community, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect.  They are posted throughout our school, on the letterhead and elsewhere. In the classroom, each word has a description created to help students understand the core value. These are legacy descriptions, handed down from our school’s first set of teachers, created on our school’s first ever retreat.

The descriptions are generally fine, with one really awkward exception. In this paragraph, the school is symbolically a hand, and every part contributes to the work. The unfortunate phrasing is “each joint supplies …” I can quote the rest but it is immaterial. You see the problem, right? Especially in a room full of adolescents, in an era of debate over the legalization of marijuana. “Each joint supplies …” could send a student off on an awkward and unproductive tangent. Yes, he could change the descriptions!

Upon telling him that, I also quickly drew a red line, to give him the guidance he sought and to make clear where experience and research told me we could not go: the five values must stay the same. He could rewrite the awkward descriptions. It was important that the values remain constant and consistent across the school. This is explained later in this article. However, the descriptions could – and should – be the subject of continual revision and conversation.

Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.

He had started the work already, anticipating my answer, and started to read one of the proposed descriptions to me. He paused self-consciously in the middle and said he needed to wordsmith it, starting to apologize. I stopped him mid-apology. I reassured him that the most important thing was that he was grappling with the meaning of the core values for him, and for implementation in his classroom. He was internalizing them and making them his own. It was impossible to ask more from him in that moment.

Many schools and other organizations have core values. Some call them beliefs. Some embed them in a vision or mission statement and some, like us, separate the three: mission, vision, core values. Gamble Montessori’s values, Community*, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect, were “borrowed” from Clark Montessori, our older sister school, as we attempted to model our program on their success. In Cincinnati Public Schools we have occasionally been encouraged to develop a core set of values, often as part of the Positive Behavior Interventions work that we cycle through regularly. Down the street, our closest high school neighbor, Dater High School, asserts, “At Dater High School we …. Work Hard, Love to Learn, Never Quit, Care, Prepare for the Future.” Pleasant Ridge Montessori, another of the public Montessori elementary schools in Cincinnati, proudly proclaims “PRM ROCKS”, which seems to suggest 5 core values. However, their core values are Respect, Ownership, Kindness, Safety. (Yes, they are aware that this is really “ROKS”!)

These examples point to the obvious truth about core values: the most important thing is to have them. There are no wrong core values, except for the ones you don’t have.

Hard Work

That said, there are a few rules you must follow if you wish to develop core values for your school or organization. The process can be flexible but must meet these three criteria.

  1. Create your core values cooperatively. Deciding what you are about as a group requires a group effort. Mottos, visions, and core values passed down from on high, or from years and years earlier, carry less weight than a shared vision developed together. This does not mean that legacy values and mottos are useless. However, if you are starting from zero, the process of discussing, defining, and articulating your values as an organization increases buy-in and ownership.
  2. Select a manageable number of core values. The examples I include in this article all consist of four or five core values. If you go fewer than that, you run the risk of missing large swaths of behaviors that occur in your school on a given day. If you go much beyond five or six, you dilute your message and they become meaningless or overlapping. This does not mean overlap is necessarily the enemy. Too many “core” values is a problem.
  3. State them positively. This rule is true about all sets of rules, including core values and mission and vision statements. Give people something to live in to, something to become. Many teachers create sets of rules for their classes that define what you can’t do: “Don’t leave your seat without permission,” “don’t interrupt others,” or “don’t talk without raising your hand” are some examples. Stating the expectations positively sends a message of opportunity rather than the message of limitation set by these negative examples. The Dater High School example above is an exemplar of positively stated core values, for instance “Work Hard” provides a clear directive to a person.

The purpose of core values is to instill in the group a common sense of purpose and meaning. Earlier I used the phrase “drew a red line” to describe my reaction to a change in the core values in Scott’s classroom, while allowing him to change the descriptions. This is because as a school, we are invested in setting clear boundaries for our adolescents. These boundaries and expectations, when repeatedly reinforced over time and throughout our spaces, become instinctive and ingrained in us.  This is not because our core values are infallible. In reality, the absolute best core values are the ones you have. Whatever they are.

Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.

How does one “use” core values? Below is a starter list of ways to saturate your school with your core values, to reinforce and teach them multiple ways.

Post them in the classroom

Placing attractive and legible versions of the core values in a prominent place in the classroom helps provide a framework for the expectations in your classroom. This is strengthened if the values are posted throughout the school, and as they are utilized in the additional steps below.

Learning

Use them in your classroom and building rules

Relating each of your classroom and building rules to the core values, perhaps using each value as a “header” with specific rules beneath it, you move toward several important goals. First, you justify each procedure or rule as belonging to a larger structure of rules, giving each a raison d’être. Second, it helps students categorize each expectation, which in turn aids their memory and makes it more likely that the rules will be remembered and followed.

Place them throughout the staff manual and the student handbook

Core values can help serve as an organizational structure for your handbooks. Much like with the classroom rules, using them as an organizer helps justify rules and expectations. Placing them here also ensures that they will be seen at least once a year as you review the expectations with you staff and they, in turn, review the expectations with their students.

Peace

Include them in student reflection forms [LINK]

At Gamble, we use reflection on misbehavior as a way to reteach appropriate behavior and help a student understand why they misbehaved. Asking a student to relive an experience later and find different solutions helps provide them with resources and “experiences” to make better decisions in the future. The Gamble reflection form requires the student to identify one or more values that were violated that prompted the need for a reflection. Redirecting students to the core values not only serves as a reminder of the rules, but it also helps them understand that the rules serve a purpose other than providing an annoying roadblock to doing whatever one pleases. Instead, behavior is understood to need to match these easily remembered values. A student in a future new situation is likely to remember one of the core values and apply it to improve their behavior. This is a much better strategy for teaching behavior than trying to imagine the countless permutations of behaviors throughout the school and to teach each individual scenario.

In student commitment forms [LINK]

Many schools ask students and parents to make a series of commitments as they enter the school or progress through to new teams. This is certain to include following the rules and not committing certain infractions. It may also address doing work of a certain quality and exhibiting exemplary behavior. Using the core values in this document, especially in combination with the other places above, helps send a unified message to students.

respect

Use them on your school letterhead and other public sites

Part of your saturation process means using the core values in correspondence other than just with teachers and students. message you send outside the school is important too. Showing partners and parents and others that you have a thorough commitment to your values sends a message that a school has thought about what it expects from students. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is “beginning with the end in mind.”  Espousing these views of the values we hope for a graduate to possess is powerful. Placing them on public documents is an attractive trait to parents who might have to wade through a wide range of school choices, or might be seeking reassurance that their only choice is a good one. Seeing that your school seeks to instill important values in your child builds confidence and trust.

You and your school have accepted the mission to educate a child beyond mere standardized tests and common standards. Adopting and using core values as a guide and structure for the teaching of behaviors and habits helps create a shorthand for achieving your loftiest goals. The work is not simple, for sure, but it is made simpler by providing an agreed-upon framework of common core values.

Scott envisioned an important 6th core value for his classroom.
Scott envisioned an important 6th core value for his classroom.

Something was in the air this summer. Soon after talking with Scott Pardi about his edits to our core values descriptive paragraphs, Josh Vogt, a veteran teacher at Gamble, brought them up too. Josh is in the important role of Montessori Coordinator. He expressed frustration that our core values are the same as our sister school – we had not written them ourselves. He had written some new possible values down on a sheet of paper, but he wasn’t quite happy with them. Our conversation ranged over a couple of days until a summer meeting where he appeared to have reached an important breakthrough.

“I’ve got them,” he announced, with seriousness.

“Them?”

“Yes, the new core values.” He held up a list of hand-written words and phrases on a lined sheet of paper. It was long. “I just need you to approve them.” He gestured as if handing the paper to me to sign, offering me his pen. There were a couple of columns of values, one of which carried over to the back.

“Long list.” I observed.

“One hundred and six.”

“One hundred and six?”

“Or thereabouts,” he conceded. “Some of them feel a bit redundant. Might be about 100 though.”

“Sounds like you’ve covered everything.”

“I believe I have,” he nodded modestly. “It’s all in there. Honesty, Trustworthiness, Caring for others. Bravery.” He pointed at the list as he said each one. “All the important ones.”

He was right, and it underscored an important point for me. The best core values are the ones you have, and even better are the ones you use. Almost everything he had written down could plausibly be a core value at a reputable school. But the list was so long! I suggested, “I think we might need to simplify a bit.”

“Simplify?” he asked.

“Yes, this seems a bit excessive. You know, in an age of electronics.”

“Oh? … Hmm. I see what you’re saying.” He took the list back. When I saw him later that afternoon I had almost forgotten our conversation.

“I’ve got it.” He pronounced.

“What?”

“The solution to our core values. I have them. Final version”

“Already?” I was surprised. “Final version?” I was remembering the long list and imagining how he could have winnowed it down to five or six.

“Yes.” He paused dramatically. “Emoji’s.”

“Emoji’s?”

“Yes, and we will only need five: smiley face, frog, 100%, American flag, honey pot.”

“The kids will understand it?” I asked.

He nodded reassuringly, “Oh yeah.”

“But will we?”

“We can learn.”

 

What are your school’s core values? We would love it if you could include them in the comments below.

Josh's mostly tongue-in-cheek core values suggestion

* Here and throughout the article I capitalize core values. The English teacher in me cringes. However, I think it is important to note that core values are proper nouns because they play a powerful role in a school, and therefore merit this capitalization.

No Failure of Nerve

-by Jack M. Jose

Often we have used this blog to talk about our strengths – strategies we have used at Gamble Montessori that have resulted in a greater sense of student belonging, or increased learning. In this post, however, we examine a philosophy that seems at odds with our character as a student-centered Montessori blog. The book at the heart of this post, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, challenged me like few other books have. I struggled with it, I denied its value, I argued its premise, while feeling a strong undertow of truth. In fact, even though it prompted strong and decisive action on my part, it may have been only in this week that I have come to fully understand its underlying message, and how it fully fits with what we do here.

This week (June 14, 2016), I had the pleasure of listening to and talking with Dr. Steve Perry. We had invited him to the Cincinnati Public Schools’ principal retreat for a shot of adrenaline and encouragement at the end of the year. We already knew his commitment to children. Dr. Perry received the honor of being featured in CNN’s Black in America series because of his success in his Hartford, Connecticut magnet school, Capital Prep. One measure of his success is that 100% of his predominantly minority and impoverished students have gone on to 4-year colleges, every year since 2006. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker, and an advocate for the potential of every child.

Jack with Dr. Steve Perry
Jack with Dr. Steve Perry at the 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools Principal Academy

During his presentation, he talked about times when he had to draw tough lines which could not be crossed by parents or teachers. I found myself drawn to him because he seemed to have great comfort and facility, and to even revel in drawing these hard lines. Lines that many of us are not comfortable drawing. Conversations few of us seek out. I suspect that I may be even less willing to draw these lines than the typical principal.

He seemed to particularly relish taking a righteous stand in consistent defense of the dress code. He exuberantly recounted exerting his authority against the wills of those teachers who wanted to wear jeans to school, “Are you kidding me?” he asked us facetiously, drawing laughter from the crowd of principals and assistant principals. Likewise, to the parent who suggested a special day when students, perhaps as a fundraiser, could come to school without their uniforms, “Are you nuts?” Laughter again, spurred on by his deadpan delivery. Perhaps we were all drawing the mental picture of having the occasion to ask those words of a parent – I am sure we each had a particular parent in mind – and then actually delivering them to her face. I laughed nervously, wondering why he would take a stand so strong the dress code, on a matter seemingly so trivial.

He admitted to finally relenting and explaining his seriousness to the parent. The dress code was so stringently enforced because he knew that some of his poorest students’ best clothes were their school uniform clothes. What message did he send if, in the interest of raising funds for whatever deserving cause, the rules designed to create a greater sense of dignity and equality for students could be discarded. “So her kid could wear her new jeans to school?” He paused for effect. “No.” And to the teachers, to whom he offered no explanation, the implication was that they should clearly know better than to send a message to children that teachers were granted privileges not given to the students, and were thus in some way above them. Or to suggest that less was asked of teachers in the classroom than was asked of the students. It is clear that this should not happen in a school where everyone is a learner.

I admit it was thrilling, inspiring even, to hear a principal speak so brashly. So forcefully. When the time is right, I hope I can muster the needed moxie. I wonder, what are the issues that are this serious? As the phrase goes, on what hills are we willing to die? Dress code, promotion, good instruction, respect, homework, safety?

I invite you to join me as I ask myself that question. On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Perry is famous and influential and controversial not just because he takes these stands, but because he has created successful schools in multiple places. He has done it his way, with confidence, and bravado. He has stepped on some toes along the way, and has been willing to offend those who he felt provided obstacles to his goals for the school. I do not seek to emulate him in this, or recommend that others do. I suspect even he doesn’t act that way all the time, as he also expressed a sincere personal commitment to learning from everyone he encounters. But there is evidence that it is important to take strong, non-negotiable stands on some things. Without clear boundaries, the student and the classroom and the school are left confused, their possibilities unfulfilled.

In sociologist Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve_, published posthumously, the author worked to summarize the findings of a life spent examining leadership.

Failure of Nerve

Three years ago I was asked to read this book as a vestry member – an elected leader in my church – by our newly hired Dean, Gail Greenwell. She meant it as a challenge to us, I believe, to be willing to do unpopular things in order to do what is right for the organization. Given that the nature of the advice in the book is that there are appropriate times to exclude people from your community, I eventually came to find irony in its selection as a book for a church that prides itself on inclusion. I read it, cover to cover, with notes and underlines and dog-ears up to the last page before the epilogue. It was a tough slog, being as it was stitched together by his editor and family members after his death (this is not necessarily a book recommendation!) and, just between us, I think I was the only person on the vestry to get through the whole thing. I suddenly find myself wondering which vestry members might actually read my blog. I guess I will find out Sunday!

In short, Friedman argues the need for boundaries, and lays the responsibility of the health of the organization squarely on the shoulders of the leader. First, though, he argues that the leader must embody the change. “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them,” (page ix) and later, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.” (page 17)

Physician, heal thyself!

This is his challenging call to the leader: you only must transform yourself. This is far harder for a leader who prides himself on being inclusive and supportive, and who perseveres in the belief that each of us is capable of success.

In discussing a community as an organism, he suggests that a focus on empathy rather than responsibility can allow a “virus” to survive, and eventually consume the organism. He argues that the “virus” is the individual who has no ability to self-regulate, who is “by nature all take and no give.” While he gave the example of attempts to work out a “mutual accommodation” of Hitler prior to the onset of World War II, where various efforts were made to appease Hitler. One of these was the Munich pact, which handed a key portion of Czechoslovakia over to the dictator. A year later, the country did not exist, and the Germans invaded Poland. From Friedman’s book, a less dramatic example persists in my recollection, nearly four years after my first reading.

On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Friedman was a panelist at a convention, and the time came to take questions from the audience. His comments had elicited some strong feelings, and one woman crowded her way through the line, commandeered a microphone, and demanded to be heard. The decision fell to an organizer of the event, and he allowed the woman to speak. This was a failure of leadership, or a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, to allow her to speak simply because she was so passionate. She was permitted to impose herself on the entire organization, the entire convention. Not surprisingly, her comments did not bring up a new perspective, instead becoming a jeremiad against Mr. Friedman and other panelists. The whole process disrespected those who lined up according to the instructions, it insulted the panelists, it offered nothing new to the conversations and was instead a plea for the individuals to abandon their years of research and deeply held beliefs in order to accommodate her feelings.

There are parallels to this behavior in the classroom, PTO meeting, or the school office. We have seen the student or the parent who has decided that their immediate needs and strong feelings should take precedence over the schedule and the rules.

When should you take a stand? Certainly for matters of safety. For instance, a child who crosses a street out of the crosswalk deserves a strong response and quick correction. That behavior is not acceptable because it is not safe. This is not controversial.

However, what about the dress code? What about promotion and retention? What about crowding in line? What about civil discourse?

Each year, one or more parents schedule a meeting with me in the early summer to make the argument that their child should be promoted to the next grade, regardless of their academic achievement and effort. In almost all of these meetings, there are real – and sometimes heartbreaking – explanations of why that child did not complete the work at home and did not achieve promotion. We provide countless supports in the classroom. Students have differentiated work, reduced homework loads, support from the teacher and intervention specialist, after-school support, and on some teams “amnesty days” where old work can be turned in. Parents have unprecedented access to their child’s grades through an online gradebook system, we send home paper report cards 8 times a year, we have student-led conferences at least twice a year, the second time focused on students who are not thriving academically, along with open houses and multiple modes for parents to reach teachers.

I ask my teachers to do everything they can to assist students. We are all accountable for learning and promotion. However, at some point the student owns the responsibility for doing the work. If I were to yield in this conversation, it would disrespect their work and the work of other students, some of whom encountered their own personal heartbreaks and struggles during the year. Standards mean something.

To the parent of the child who makes a compelling and emotional appeal about the effect of non-promotion on their child: I understand. What you are saying is true. It is also true that the standards mean something. Effort means something. No child who works hard and makes progress will fail. Failure, however, to meet a given standard, is not the end of the story. It is a moment. We love the child the most when we say “you have not reached this high standard … yet. But you will.”

The disrespect of promoting a child who fell short of the standard because of a passionate plea of a loving parent would be one of the symptoms of the “virus”, and the effect on the system would be immediate and apparent. A student who sees someone trying less but still getting promoted, may seek an easier way out next year, and might feel that their hard work is not valued. They might resent the inconsistency and lose trust in the system. And the child herself would know that she had been given, not a gift, but a pass. This child would get the implicit message from her teachers, “we didn’t think you could do it.” Allowing this to happen would demonstrate a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, a failure of leadership.

In this regard, though, we understand that teachers are not students. Their stakes are higher. A failure by a teacher to meet the needs of a child, by being disrespectful to a student, by not challenging students fully, by physically invading their space or by failing to call them by their given names, is a different infraction. This must be met strenuously, and can’t so easily be forgiven. A teacher should never be the virus.

Not every line we draw at school is non-negotiable. Not every infraction requires the hardline response. At Gamble, promotion is one of those non-negotiables- there are clear expectations and you must meet them. For Dr. Perry in Hartford, the dress code was one (of many).

What are your non-negotiables? Comment with a time you made a hard stand on an issue.

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.

The Long Game

-by Jack M. Jose

It was the end of the second Monday in March, the time of year when we are all so focused on spring break and just getting through, that we forget about the “long game” of creating confident, competent students. The Teacher:Teacher mentoring meeting had just begun. The plan is for veteran teachers to light the way with enthusiasm and optimism so new teachers feel supported. Today I looked around the table and I felt sympathy for George Washington examining his troops at Valley Forge. My teachers – ESPECIALLY the veterans – looked defeated and lost.

I made a critical error. I asked, “How’s it going?”

washington-valley-forge-granger

It was early March. March presents several consecutive 5-day weeks of warmer weather, with the prospect of spring break looming, making teaching all but impossible. In short, the less we ask “How’s it going?” the better we all get along. You’re much better off greeting someone by saying, “It’s nearly Friday!” or “Only 48 days left!” Like Washington’s soldiers, my teachers needed sleep, food, and possibly even a warm blanket.

I should have known better than to ask, really. Recent comprehensive studies show that new teacher attrition is an alarming 17% after 5 years[1].  We know that involving new teachers in communication and decision-making is empowering, and helps to keep teachers in the profession[2]. Support is why we created a mentoring program. The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

A veteran teacher, Julia Bauer*, spoke up. She quietly offered a litany of woe and exhaustion: restless students, insufficient time for curriculum, field experiences, state testing and more, the details of which echo in all teachers’ experiences. Raised eyebrows and meaningful eye contact around the now-silent table spoke clearly: they all felt the same way.

It is times like these that we have to intentionally work to focus on the “long game.” This term, often applied to politics, applies to any endeavor when a larger goal can only be accomplished after a series of strategic maneuvers and even tactical losses. Education is the ultimate long game. We meet students as children, in mind and body, and, 6 years later, send them into the world as adults. In between, there is a lot of important work to be done. It is hard work, and it can be messy.

I was upset that a mentor was the one to express this note of doom; I should have been thankful. She was articulating what the younger teachers were thinking, and allowing us to feel this way out loud and together. The teaching career is a hard one. Teaching is much like parenting, and March is much like a week of lost nights’ sleep with a colicky infant. One could easily look at March and decide it is not all worth it, because, honestly, if it was March all year long, it might be unbearable.

We are playing the long game. Each discipline conference and corrected assignment is a step toward Commencement. Now we meet parents to discuss grades, and later we will embrace them and talk about college choices. There are disagreements and setbacks, but there will be celebration. It was always going to be hard work; we knew that from the beginning. And it is always going to be worth it in the end.

The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

I possess an old invitation to an event I missed. Leslee McElrath, a student of mine a decade earlier, was receiving her doctorate in medicine. I was shocked by the invitation to the ceremony, and the reminder about the “long game”. One year I pushed her to write her portfolio, and explicate Shakespeare. Later I checked up on her to verify that she was meeting her potential. When her college was inundated by Hurricane Katrina, other teachers and I sent her a replacement computer. Somewhere in there, by pushing her academically, and supporting her personally, and doing what I considered my job, I left an indelible impression. And she repaid the favor with a simple invitation that profoundly reminded me all the effort was worthwhile.

It’s messy. There will be bad days, sometimes in bunches, for teachers and for students. Perseverance, cooperation, and working together to support each other will guarantee that we will be okay. We are playing a long game.

[1] Gray, Lucinda, and Soheyla Taie. “Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study.” Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (n.d.): n. pag. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

[2] Teacher Retention: Why do Beginning Teachers Remain in the Profession?; Inman, Duane; Marlow, Leslie. Education124.4 (Summer 2004): 605-614.

*All names used with permission.

Giving An A

-by Jack M. Jose

Teaching is science and art. Educators must seek wisdom and growth everywhere. I have attended development for business managers, curriculum managers, teachers, data specialists and more, and I am constantly reading business best-sellers and teaching blogs. I cannot anticipate where the next good idea will be discovered.

imgresAt separate trainings in 2010, including the Cincinnati Public Schools ASCEND Institute, I  encountered Rosamund and Benjamin Zander’s provocative book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. In it, renowned conductor and teacher Ben Zanders relates advice on getting the best performance from the musicians in his care on stage and in his classroom.

One chapter transformed evaluation at Gamble for two years: Giving an A. (Check out the “Giving an A” TED talk.) The philosophy jibes with our core belief that all children want to learn. All of us want to be successful at our work and be our best selves. However, obstacles prevent us from reaching our full potential. So to undermine the voices that tell us to be just enough to get by, I followed the Zanders’ advice. I eliminated part of the evaluation.

At that time, the CPS evaluation had two parts: one was based a school-selected goal, such as addressing a specific state report card goal; the other part was based on achieving a self-selected goal. It was for this second goal that I told my staff I was giving them an “A”. In my letter to them, I explained:

So, to take away evaluation anxiety as an impediment to teacher development and calculated risk-taking for the benefit of students, I am giving every teacher I evaluate this year the score of “Exceeded” for their teacher-selected goal. The only catch (and of course there is a catch, and it is a challenging one) is that you write me a letter that meets the following criteria:

  • It must be written in the past tense, as if you wrote it in May 2012 looking back on this school year, starting with the sentence, “Dear Mr. Jose, I got my ‘Exceeded’ rating because …”; it cannot include phrases such as “I will …” or “I intend to …” – this is you looking back on this year;
  • It must explain why you earned that “Exceeded” rating for your goal, and describe not just specific goals met or work completed, but the person you have become based on your effort to meet that goal this year. It is okay to be impressed with that person and the hard work and growth that was demonstrated.
  • You must turn that letter in to me on (or before) your annual or PRE initial conferences. 

I was not sure I was allowed to do this. I promised my staff that I would give them the highest rating on half of their evaluation for writing a letter about what they hoped to achieve, and who they hoped to become. That was NOT the intention of the teacher evaluation system. Or was it? Didn’t we want to unleash our highly trained staff to be the best they could be? My best defense, which ultimately I never had to use, was prepared: “I learned it at the mandatory training. I assume you wanted me to apply what I learned there?”

The reactions were strong. In pre-conferences with me, more than one teacher cried and expressed gratitude at feeling so supported. One teacher cried at feeling unsupported – in retrospect I imagine it was the contrast between this particular action and other events of our time together. I had just established an exceptionally high bar for administrative support for teaching. And I followed through. At the end of the year it was rather simple to enter those scores for those who wrote the letters.

The only catch (and of course there is a catch, and it is a challenging one) is that you write me a letter that meets the following criteria…

Between my request and the end of the year I saw inspired teachers engaging students, inventive lessons, teachers wrestling with data and differentiating in the classroom and working closely with academic coaches to improve instruction. And at the end, I saw a group of professionals who lived into their visions of themselves.

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Jack M. Jose