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.

 

Hate PD? Try Voluntary Piloting.

-by Krista Taylor

Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.

voluntary piloting can't get enough

So often it is a top-down approach that is out of touch with the challenges of being in a classroom. But what if teachers took control of that and turned it on its head? What if teachers determined how they needed to grow and develop, and worked together to do so?

In 2013, during the after-graduation faculty celebration, my colleague, Josh, and I began discussing some of the concerns we had about our instruction. As the party wound down, and we began making our way to our cars to go home, we came to a powerful realization. Both of us had prioritized developing differentiation practices in our classrooms. Both of us were struggling with it. Both of us were frustrated with our perceived lack of progress. This discussion caused us to quite literally stop in our tracks. We spent the next hour standing on a street corner problem-solving how we could make the work easier and find greater success.

At Gamble, one of our long-time frustrations as a building has been how to support students to rise to the rigors of college preparatory, honors-level academics in an urban, public school where 70% of our students are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Like many urban, public schools, our students often come to us with below-grade level skills, poorly developed work habits, and a lack of academic buy-in. All too often, this combination of high expectations and low skills results in students with failing grades. How do we maintain high academic rigor for all students while also meeting students (especially our most-challenged ones) where they are? Is this not the crux of the conflict in most classrooms?

Although I teach 7th and 8th graders and Josh teaches 11th and 12th graders, we realized that we had both been working independently on finding solutions to this same struggle, and we extrapolated that there were likely others invested in the same work in other areas of our building.

We envisioned becoming a Montessori Secondary School where all learners are welcomed in classrooms, and where differentiation is so much a part of our instruction that it is no longer note-worthy to students. And classrooms where teachers are comfortable with meeting learners where they are and developing their skills, regardless of where that left them in proximity to standardized-test passage.

We had been unable to find a way to do this individually, but we thought we might be able to do it better with the support of each other and any other colleagues who might be interested in joining us.   We approached Jack (our principal) with the idea of launching a voluntary differentiation pilot program in our building, and, after hashing out some of the details, we were given permission to broach this topic with our faculty and to elicit support from the staff of CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program).

We began by issuing this open invitation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 6.12.45 PM
To enlarge, click image

Additionally, we personally invited those who we felt would be most receptive. For example, Josh directly approached the intervention specialist on his team with whom he regularly collaborated, and I requested that both members of my newly-formed team join me in working on this.

Some people asked if they could earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for their participation. We took this request back to Jack who readily agreed to arrange this. A few other details were hashed out – how we would re-initiate the conversation in the fall, when we would schedule the first meeting, and what that agenda would look like.

Thus, from what started as a casual, street-corner discussion, a pilot project was born.

So, that’s it, right? Open the door to collaboration, the masses will come running, definitive answers will be found, and all will be well with the world. Well, no, not exactly.

Our group of volunteers met at the start of the year to establish what we wanted to accomplish together. Originally there were ten of us, but after this first meeting, we were reduced to just seven through self-selection. Initially this small number of participants felt very disappointing – where were the hoards of teachers flocking together to improve their practice? That was definitely what I had envisioned. However, in hindsight, I am convinced that our small size was one of the most critical components of our success. Joining our pilot was purely voluntary, and this ensured that only people willing to commit to doing this work in a positive and forward-thinking way joined our group. Those who didn’t share our vision opted out. This meant that while we didn’t have the numbers that I had anticipated, we also didn’t have the uncommitted, disengaged participants that I had worried about.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting that the way to shift institutional practices is to begin with the people with whom you have immediate buy-in. From their success, you will sway most others. This premise is known as the Diffusion Innovation Model and was initially purported by Everett Rogers in 1962. A large body of research supports Rogers’ theory that the spreading of new products or ideas is based on four factors: the innovation itself, human capital, time, and communication. After initiation by the “innovators,” the concept readily spreads to “early adopters” who ultimately influence the “early majority.” It is not necessary to address resistors, or the “late majority and laggards”, until there is a ground-swell of people on board who can carry them along.

voluntary piloting DOI
Left to Right: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards

Because our group was made up of volunteers who chose to work together in this way (our innovators and early adopters), we were free to develop into whatever it was that we believed would work for us. Although we were all teachers in the same building, we didn’t all work closely with one another on a regular basis. Our group represented a variety of grade levels and departments in our building – 7th and 8th grade, 11th and 12th grade, social studies, language arts, math, science, special education, and music. As a result, it was important that we developed clear expectations of our work together. The parameters that we established at our initial meeting were:

  • we would meet once a month
  • we would honor each other’s time by keeping meetings as close to an hour in length as possible
  • we would value our time together by committing to attend meetings
  • our focus would be on classroom differentiation as a means of growing all learners
  • we would conduct focused, non-evaluative observations of each other to improve our practice – we called these “Friendly Feedback Observations.”

In the beginning, we shared our successes and our challenges. We quickly discovered that we were already doing a lot. Just stating differentiation as an intention at our initial meeting in September had motivated each of us to work toward furthering our practice in this area. Some of our reported successes were small in-roads: providing read-aloud options on a more consistent basis, using a wider variety of instructional groupings, or allowing students with prior piano experience to branch out into guitar exploration during music class. And some of our successes were quite significant: providing weekly checklists/work plans that were uniquely targeted to students’ needs, or individualizing assessments such that each student received different questions on a physics test. But we had our share of noteworthy challenges too, and we still had a long way to go to develop what we wanted to see in our classrooms.

We noted that our challenges clustered into four areas: differentiation of assessments, differentiation of assignments, differentiation of instruction, and differentiation of expectations. By looking at it this way, we quickly realized that we were putting the cart before the horse by starting with the products (the assessments and assignments) rather than the students (the expectations).

Through our conversations, we also recognized that we were all struggling with feeling comfortable with meeting students where they were and moving them forward along a continuum, even if they didn’t ultimately reach the grade-level outcome. For all our nose-thumbing, anti-testing bravado, we felt pretty nervous about championing the idea that not all students learn the same thing at the same time and reach the same place, and somewhat blindly trusting that this wouldn’t have terrible repercussions on our standardized test scores.

It was critical to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to ensure that we were maintaining appropriate expectations coupled with appropriate supports for all of our students. Together we were able to do what none of us had been able to satisfactorily do alone. We noted gains – even incremental ones – we dug deep into what best practice could look like, and collectively, we had more courage to take risks.

And while each month, we celebrated our successes; we also took a hard look at our challenges. Halfway through that first year, we remained dissatisfied by the number of students earning failing grades. How could this be? We had worked so hard! How could all of our efforts still have not been enough to support students? Josh and Matt had further developed their co-teaching model providing additional interventions to struggling learners. Beau was regularly differentiating assignments into three levels to support all students in accessing the general education curriculum. Kim was creating five different student checklists every week in order to allow for individually targeted assignments. Steve had spent hours developing a differentiated science unit. How were our students still falling short of our expectations? What were appropriate expectations? How would we know when we reached them?

Fortunately, Barb Scholtz, CMStep Practicum Director, was supporting and challenging us in our reflective practice. When this concern came up, she simply looked at us, and with this simple question, re-committed us to our mission. She asked, “Well, are they learning?” When we answered with a confident, “Yes,” her response was, “Then, how can they be failing?”

It sounds simple, right? If they are learning, if they are progressing, then that’s all we can ask of them, right? But what about standards-based grading? What about content mastery? What about pre-requisite skills?

Nothing in education is simple. We know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which notes that learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently.

voluntary piloting zpd

We know about isolating the difficulty, or focusing on a new skill without adding in additional complexities.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we know our students. We know, as professionals, and as people who interact with them every day, what we can expect from them and how far we can push them. So, yes, if they are learning, they can’t possibly be failing. But too many of them were. What were we doing wrong?

So, back to the drawing board we went to try to find answers to our many complex questions. How can we inspire students to show what they know? How do we instill a work ethic in our students? What about the wooly beast of homework? How are our students’ developmental needs and socio-economic status related to each of these issues?

We turned to research to guide us. We looked at best practices in grading policies, strategies to improve rates of homework completion, and use of student self-evaluation tools.

We also invited one another into our classrooms for what we deemed “Friendly Feedback Observations.” We asked each other, as trusted professionals, to observe specific concerns in our practice and to provide both critical and supportive feedback. This not only elicited targeted suggestions for improvement, it also allowed us to see what we were each doing really well, and what techniques we could borrow to improve our own instruction.

We adjusted and enhanced our teaching practices again and again. Each of us did that a little differently. Each of us discovered inroads. None of us got it exactly right. But all of us made progress.

What I know for sure is that because of the commitment I made by joining this group, I pushed myself harder. When we began, differentiation was something that happened sometimes in my classroom, and, as a result, it was something that was somewhat uncomfortable for my students. Today, the vast majority of assignments are differentiated, and students expect this and discuss it openly. Those conversations sound like this:

“Is this assignment differentiated?”

“Do I have the right level?”

“Can I try Developing, and if it’s too hard can I move down to Discovering?”

“Do you think I should do Adventuring today?”

“I’d like you to try the Enrichment level. I think it will be more interesting to you as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.”

Differentiation is fluid, frequent, and has become the norm for my students. There is no stigma of cleverly-titled tracking groups like “Bluebirds” and “Robins.” Rather, each day, each student works at his or her instructional level for that particular concept in that particular moment.

This shift took three years, and it wasn’t just my classroom that was profoundly impacted by the work of our pilot group. Each of the participants experienced significant changes in practice, and throughout the course of the past three years, we have continued to review the research, implement shifts, examine our own data, and repeat this cycle again and again.

Have we found all the answers? No, not yet. Probably, not ever. But that’s not really the point. Our work with differentiation has grown so much. Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm. We now, of course, have bigger hopes and dreams for ourselves. Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.

But more importantly, through our research and discussions, we are challenging each other, and through our implementation of things we’ve discussed, we are improving our practice. And, more than that, we are supporting each other and helping each other hold fast to the dream of inspiring our students and guiding them to develop into well-rounded and educated adults. Isn’t that why each of us entered this field in the first place? And, in this intense time in education, it is so easy to lose that focus. But, through collaboration with each other, we can hang on to this lofty ideal.

You can begin building this spirit of professional collaboration and growth in your building, too. Our group was dedicated to increasing differentiation practices, but any professional issue could serve as a focus for a similar discussion forum.

Here are what we’ve found to be the necessary components to making a program like this effective:

  • Grab the bull by the horns: whatever is the greatest challenge or frustration in your building or classroom, tackle that. Go ahead and look it in the eyes, and begin seeking solutions.
  • Begin by making it voluntary; there is no room for naysayers. Keep in mind that some people may need a personal invitation, but no begging. The people who decline your invitation are not ready to be part of the first-wave of your pilot.
  • Develop your objectives and procedures together. Focus on what you want from each other. What are your shared goals? How can you best support each other in achieving them? What limits and boundaries do people need to have respected? Along these same lines, any changes need to be approved by the group before being acted upon.
  • Hold structured meetings as a way to honor everyone’s time and energy. Avoid allowing this group to become a de facto lunch break or happy hour. Value the work to be done.
  • Resist the temptation to spend time complaining – while your group may not have a designated leader, you do need a facilitator who will lead the group toward the generation of solutions, and away from the slippery slope of negativity.
  • Brainstorm together – there’s no reason why people should be working on the same things in isolation. Do it together, and you’ll be more successful and more energized.
  • But don’t just brainstorm. Implement. Even if that means taking one baby step at a time. And, pick each other up when you fall. Because sometimes the ideas that sounded so great in theory, weren’t so great in reality. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be cheerleaders for each other.
  • Hold each other accountable for implementation. But remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. We used our Friendly Feedback Observations for this, but there are other ways.
  • Keep going. As you move forward, others will witness your success, and your influence will spread.

We have all been in those mandatory professional development workshops about which there are so many sarcastic memes.

voluntary piloting life and death

We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.

voluntary piloting flash

We’ve all sat through umpteen meetings where concerning data is shared along with a plethora of quick-fix solutions, few of which seem realistic to implement in our classrooms.

voluntary pilot Oprah3

While these types of trainings are likely to continue, you need not allow them to dictate your professional growth. Think about what you want to work on in your classroom. Seek out like-minded educators in your building, and set aside time to work on this together. Dig deep. Find strategies that are feasible. Try them out. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. And repeat this process.

This work leads to powerful, uplifting, and beneficial professional growth. All you have to do is decide what you want to work on, find others who want to work on that, too, and get started.

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.