At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.
Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.
You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.
Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.
More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.
And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”
There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.
At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans. Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.
In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole. Rarely are students absent.
Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser. You can read about it here. While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.
Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony? Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience? Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours? After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?
As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.
Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”
When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt. Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk. What exactly should I be doing when, and why? So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.
There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there. Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.
“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”
It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.
“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”
“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”
“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”
“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”
The list goes on and on. My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile. It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it. By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.
Listen to your baby
Trust your judgement
You know more than you think you do
Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life. Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?
Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about. However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership. And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.
As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children. And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.
Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk. What exactly should I be doing when, and why? So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.
There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there. Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.
“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”
But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.
Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?
Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?
Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?
The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.
I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers. However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman
They are presented here in the order in which I read them. This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.
Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.” Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.
It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.
Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task. She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role. She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)
Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning. She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure. She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)
Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business. In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.
Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:
Empathy is a valued asset
Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control
In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring. This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis. To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.
In Conversational Capacity, (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort. He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity. He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)
From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19) Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.
Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other. He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.
He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:
We remain silent when we should speak up
We argue when we should cooperate
We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)
Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.
To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).
Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.
A Failure of Nerve
Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)
Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation – or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.
He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12) He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.
In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members. He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.
Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.
Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety. And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.
Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.
Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety. He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions. Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped. They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.
Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else. However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.
Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.
Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well. Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership. Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders. That is a heavy responsibility to bear.
Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others. And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”
While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies. Each has informed the way in which I lead.
Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.
Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:
Listen to your team (Weber)
Trust your judgement (Friedman)
You know more than you think you do (Brown)
So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.
I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.
As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.” Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs. Every situation is different, and requires a unique response. Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.
Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product. So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health. Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.
This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year. This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5. In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships. If you are interested in helping, please contact me at email@example.com
We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.
What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?
Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously. Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.
I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.
If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.
Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever. I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”
Back to School that is.
Ahhh, back to school. A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike. Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th. Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.
We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.
This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares. These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc. In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!
Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year. Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:
Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,
Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,
Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,
Even the air was redolent with exuberance — full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.
This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:
The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,
The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,
The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,
The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.
That classroom was waiting for you. Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.
It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:
“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school? I’m the VP of our union. Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts. Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”
“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.
“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.
I have always been a fiercely proud union member. I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career. But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.
To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state. I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with. I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.
What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.
I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared. A classroom where materials are still in boxes. A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.
A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.
Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.
Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this. Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways. Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.
There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits. A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom. This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.
The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.
Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low. Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space. Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.
Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier. The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.
Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.
And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.
Is this fair? No, of course not. But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us. Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom. Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours. Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.
As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space: 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design. It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.
The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.
As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”
I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space. Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”
Consider your classroom. Which corner do you want to start with?
Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went. Is there an area in your room that felt congested? Or cluttered? A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends? Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.
Begin with one of these spaces.
Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options. If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.
There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional. Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.
(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)
A place for everything and everything in its place
If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.
Materials to support classroom procedures
If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.
Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion
If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.
Nontraditional student work areas
If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.
There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning. However, to do so takes significant time. Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.
So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom. Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year. Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space. (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)
But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure. Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead. Quite frankly, so are most teachers. It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.
Your students are worth it. So are you.
 Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.
An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.
My students made that happen, and they did so much more.
As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes. Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.
But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …
And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.
originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17
by Krista Taylor
Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.
During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.
My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?
Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.
My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.