4

Building Staff Culture: The Importance of TRUST

CC Image from T. Vogel https://flic.kr/p/i67wYD

My professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. 

Through my experience at a number of different schools, and having the honour of being a principal in two of them, I have learned that the 4 Pillars of Positive Organizational Culture in Schools are: strengths-based, collaborative, innovative, and focused. From my experience, these core areas are based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care.  This post will share some my learning journey in the area of building trust (with a focus on building trust between staff and a principal).

In order to create positive change in schools, there must be trust – not only between staff members but also between staff and the principal.  In my first position as a principal, I moved from being a vice-principal to a principal at the same school so people already knew me and had a better idea of what I stood for as an educator. There was a level of trust already there but this was not the case when I moved to a new school.

When I arrived at my current school 3 years ago, I assumed that trust would be easy to build between the staff and me. I felt I was a decent guy with experience as a principal and there was no reason NOT to trust me… so building trust should happen rather quickly. I had plans to work on trust with me (as well as between staff) but I had no idea it would take as long as it did.  I have learned a ton in my 3+ years at James Hill, especially in the area of building trust. It is not something to be rushed and it takes a lot of effort and time to ensure that trusting relationships are solidified.

I am sure there are times when some staff do not have 100% trust in me but I do feel that, overall, there is decent trust built over the past few years. So what have I learned that was successful (and not so successful) in building trust between staff and a principal? Most of the following ideas have been stolen from others but have worked for me:

  1. Listen… really LISTEN. This was an area that I made a few mistakes. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself by sharing my ideas and thoughts. I needed to spend less time trying to be interesting and more time trying to be interested.  When we shut up and just listen, it shows we care and it shows it is about US rather than about me. When we listen, we give people a chance to share as well as space to think. The best ideas often come from within and these are the easiest to implement; by just listening, we create the conditions for people to think and share great ideas. I have learned to take the notifications off my phone, put the technology away, avoid interrupting and making it about myself, be present… to truly listen.
  2. Make the Time. Schedule Meet ‘n Greets. I stole this idea from Cale Birk. In my first few months at the school, to get to know the staff and practice my listening skills, I created an online schedule and asked people to sign up for a chance to just sit and chat. My goal was to spend 15-20 minutes listening to learn about staff strengths, interests, curiosities, as well as some information about their families. When I put up the schedule… after about a week, nobody signed up! I was feeling disheartened but there was finally one teacher that took a risk and signed up and met with me. After we met, I realized that people assumed that I was planning to run a bit of an “interview” schedule. Whoops! It was a good lesson for me on making sure communication is clear. Once there was clarity of the purpose of these blocks of time (that actually ended up lasting about 30 mins each), staff all signed up and I was able to spend uninterrupted time listening to the thoughts and qualities of teachers and support staff. Using Cale’s idea of “Meet n Greets” was a great start for me to try to build trust with a new staff.
  3. Walk the Talk.  To build trust we must do what we say we are going to do. This is about effective management. For some reason, management has been given a bad rap and been overshadowed by the importance of leadership. Bruce Beairsto shares that leadership and management are the yin and yang – both are equally important and you cannot be effective in one without being effective in the other. As Beairsto says, “Management builds the house, leadership makes it a home.” A key error for me has been focusing too much on the leadership and not on the management. One of the mistakes I have made is saying “yes” to too much. For fear of being unavailable, I said yes to a lot of requests and, in doing this, was not able to follow through with commitments and promises. By not doing what I said I was going to do, I missed opportunities to build trust. I did learn how less is more so I started to say “not at this time” a bit more often and worked hard to follow through with ideas and commitments to actions for staff, students, and families. By focusing on effective management skills such as follow-through and organization, we can build more trust that has a resulting impact on leadership and culture.
  4. Be Visible. Moving to a school in January was a very positive experience. The previous principal had worked incredibly hard to leave the school after tying up as many many loose ends as possible. January and February were months that provided the opportunity for me to spend a lot of time in classrooms with staff and students. Being visible in classrooms led to great dialogue and a better understanding of who we were as a school at that time. If I spent this time in the office, I would have lost so many opportune moments to form connections and build trust.(Hat tip to George Couros for a lot of conversations about this).
  5. Be Transparent. When making decisions, I did my best to share the why. I know decisions were questioned but through this, my goal was to share that, as much as possible, the students were at the centre of these decisions.  It was also important to share which decisions we needed to make together as a staff, which decisions were made for us, and which decisions needed to be made by me (another idea I stole from Cale). It has been far from perfect, and sometimes we agree to disagree, but the transparency has helped people understand the why. When we are less transparent, assumptions can be made which will likely hinder the process of building trust.
  6. Communicate Clearly. As was stated above, unclear communication can cause misunderstandings and assumptions that hinder the building of trust. It is not what is said that is always important… it is what is HEARD that is important. There were some hard lessons of mistakes I made with this so it is important to learn to identify the people within the staff that you can bounce ideas off of and read memos before they are sent out. There are some people that will show trust more quickly than others so tapping into this relationship can be key in getting authentic feedback about communication. As trust builds, also does the number of people available to help you in this area. When what is heard is what is meant, we are not sidetracked by spending time clarifying and backtracking.
  7. Lead With Care. As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in The Speed of Trust, “the motive that inspires the greatest trust is genuine caring.”  Whether it is a decision about students, families, or staff, we must lead with what Nel Noddings would call an “ethic of care”. Our actions model our values so by leading with care, we can create the conditions for a culture of care and build more understanding and trust.
  8. Be Vulnerable. Putting ourselves out there can be hard but very powerful. I am lucky as I have significant privilege (being middle-class, white, heterosexual, male, etc) so this is easier for me to be vulnerable and share who I am (I shared this video of who I am with staff, students and families when I first arrived). Brene Brown shares that “Being, rather than knowing, requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable.”  There is power in vulnerability… in putting ourselves out there.  As much as we can (again, easier for me), we can share our stories… stories of who we are, what we stand for and stories of both success and struggle. We cannot pretend to be experts; we need to be learners – learners that take risks and sometimes fail. When mistakes are made, I have learned from the feedback of others to own it, apologize for it, change, and move forward to work to repair it.  When we show vulnerability, we show that we are human and this makes relationships and connections stronger; with these relationships comes trust.

Although I thought trusting relationships would occur much more quickly than they did, I am so thankful and fortunate that I had (and still have) a staff that was patient with me through my mistakes, struggles, and eventual successes. Trust takes time but it is crucial in moving to a positive organizational culture. While we are building trust with our staff, we are modeling effective relationships and also working with each other as colleagues to create an environment of trust and a resulting collaborative culture (a topic that will be reflected upon in a future post).

If you have further ideas that would help me and others continue to build trust and grow, please share in the comments section below. 

 

8

Sometimes We Don’t Need to Fix It, We Just Need to Shut Up and Listen

One of the key things I have learned from my wife, as well as some staff members, is that it is often more about listening than it is about problem-solving. Although there are many times when a problem needs to be fixed, there are times when our only job is to listen, sympathize, and/or empathize with what the person is telling us.

I recall a colleague telling me about a time in which he sat and listened to the many things that were wrong with a teacher’s class and how she was frustrated with a lack of support for her students. My colleague told me that after he listened, he worked hard to change a number of schedules to provide more support for this teacher. I am sure, if he is like me, he was proud of his efforts in helping to solve the problem. When he went to the teacher and shared his solutions, she became even more frustrated and said, “I wasn’t looking for changes… I just wanted you to listen!”. He spent the next few hours undoing his solutions.

In a meeting a few years ago, I brought up the topic of staff room dialogue. I said that I felt that the focus of the majority of conversations should be about working toward a solution rather than merely voicing concerns. A colleague responded, “sometimes, we just need to vent and not solve the problems.” At the time I struggled to comprehend this but as I grow, along with the help of a number of conversations with my wife, I am starting to realize that sometimes the most important thing I can do is… shut up and listen.

Check out this short entertaining video that shares this point… #lessonlearned (Thanks to Michal Ruhr for sharing)

41

The Problem With Black & White Statements in Education

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by the BCth: http://flickr.com/photos/bcii/4499830063/

I continue to hear how certain educational practices are harmful to kids. Things like homework, desks in rows,  multiple choice questions, worksheets, and tests are stated as being “toxic” and “educational malpractice”.  I think as educators we need to be careful when we make dichotomous statements like these as they tend to end the chance for any productive dialogue.

I have made this mistake before… many times.  I have my areas of passion and there are mindsets and ideas that I have strong opinions about but I have learned (and continue to learn) that when we make statements that polarize people, you leave very little opportunity to engage.

I saw this tweet today by a few educators whom I truly respect:

I believe this came from a statement from Alfie Kohn and people were just sharing his message but I am not sure. Now, I have big concerns about homework (see here for our staff conversation) but this statement about homework leads me to a response of: REALLY? Of all the things we do during the 7 hours kids are at school, homework is THE biggest killer of curiosity?  How are we defining homework? What if we move to an inquiry-driven system in which school is real life and they continue their learning at home?  How do we even start the conversation about questioning homework when the statement says that teachers who assign homework (again, not defining what it is) are killing curiosity more than anything else in school.  Do we really think someone who believes in giving  homework will discuss this after a statement like this?

Tom Schimmer once said to me, “Be careful of the tone of your message as it can alienate those you are trying to reach”.  When we use powerful polar statements, they often “sell” and get retweeted… but do they do anything to move the dialogue and create educational change?  It is no secret that I am a fan of Alfie Kohn’s ideas… but I struggle with the tone that is used.  Compare Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” with the writing that Kohn has been doing for years.  They both have similar messages (and cite similar research) but Pink provides a gentle nudge while Kohn makes us feel like we should lose our teaching licenses if we give homework, use worksheets, or have desks in rows.  Kohn has done very well with the language he uses (and again, love his ideas, personally enjoy his books, and the research he shares) but so many are alienated by his tone and the dichotomous statements he makes. As educational leaders, is this the tone we want to use to create the conditions for change?

We have some fantastic teachers at our school.  Sometimes we have desks in rows, sometimes we give worksheets, and sometimes we use multiple choice.  As my buddy Cale Birk mentioned to me: “Maybe we should be questioning the learning tasks (activities) that students are doing?”.  I would add – maybe we should be less concerned about some instructions/questions written on sheets of paper (or a screen) and the location in which students are sitting and instead focus our attention on student learning and level of engagement.  Is there NEVER a time when kids prefer to work alone?  Is there NEVER a time when some learning should be done away from school? Black and white statements make it seem like this is the case… and, unfortunately, often end the chance for any professional dialogue on the issue.

The few examples stated are important conversations we need to have as educators.  We need to question our assessment practices as well as our learning activities and what we expect of kids away from school; but in order to effectively engage in conversations around these topics, we need to move away from the dichotomous, or black and white, statements of education.

Education is full of grey areas – some darker and some lighter.  If it was easy we would have figured it out long ago.  The vast majority of educators do not intend to harm students with their practices… it is important we listen and attempt to view through the lenses of others.  Only then can we start powerful conversations about educational change.

 

11

“Be More Interested Than Interesting”

Be more interested: Listen.
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Bindaas Madhavi: http://flickr.com/photos/mkuram/5961100771/

At some point in the past year (for a variety of reasons) the how, the why, and the when of social media slightly changed for me.  I have been reflecting a ton on the purpose of social media to me – both professionally and personally (see Social Media in Education: Who Is It Really About?).  I have been thinking about HOW I read online (unfortunately, often just scan) and HOW I interact with others. I have been thinking about the purpose of social media as it pertains to my learning and my life.  I have altered the amount of time I spend learning from and with others online.

Over the holidays, one of the books I read was Mark Goulston’s “Just Listen: Discovering the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone”.  Among the many things that resonated with me in this great read was that I realized in the past few years, I have spent too much time trying to be interesting online and less time being interested offline (and online).  I have spent so much time communicating, learning and connecting that it has distracted me from the DOING both in my school and in my life outside of school.  I also know this is all a part of my continuous learning journey to be a better leader, educator, and person… to me, this is growth.

“The measure of self-assurance is how deeply and sincerely interested you are in others; the measure of insecurity is how much you try to impress them with you.” — Mark Goulston

Some people have asked me which single word defines my goals for 2013.  Although I do not generally make new year’s resolutions, I believe that the word that has driven me to be better in the past year and into this year is: FOCUS.  In addition to spending more focused time with my family and in my school, as well as in my personal and professional learning, I need to focus more on LISTENING and being INTERESTED.  I will continue to share interesting things that I read and the successes we are having at Kent School but I will work harder on being more interested in those around me.

“If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet—their lives, their history, their story.”  — Jim Collins

Related post: Listen With Your Eyes

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Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Communication TO is not the same as WITH. photo from http://bit.ly/pvuhJa

As our school moves to attempt to add another stream of communication to parents via SMS (text messaging), I have been asked – “how many ways do we need to communicate with parents?”  Should parents not just try harder to stay informed of their child’s education?

My responses are twofold:

  1. We need to differentiate our parent communication so we meet families where they are.  Each family has a varied level of involvement and engagement due to time availability, access to technology, and ability to exchange in dialogue.  Some families have the social-cultural capital (non-financial social assets like time, education, confidence, etc) to engage in ongoing face-to-face dialogue with the principal, teachers and staff at their child’s school; others prefer to use technology (email, blog comments, Facebook, etc) to communicate while some families are content (or due to family circumstances, it is the only option) to receive information from the school.
  2. We need to be clear of the difference between communicating TO families and communicating WITH families.  There is a purpose for both but we need to be very clear that TO and WITH serve different needs for our families.  Communicating TO families is a way of broadcasting information while communicating WITH families is a way of exchanging in dialogue.

So with the understanding that we need to meet families where they are and we need to use a number of different tools to communicate both TO and WITH families, what are some ways we can do this?

COMMUNICATING TO – GETTING THE INFORMATION OUT THERE

  • newsletters
  • reports
  • announcements, newspaper articles and ads
  • emails, SMS
  • Website
  • Twitter feed
  • Blogs
  • Facebook Page

COMMUNICATING WITH – CREATING DIALOGUE

The key with parent communication is clarity of PURPOSE.  We cannot say that we communicate WITH parents effectively if we are not visible in the public and our technology does not encourage feedback and dialogue.  Technology is not a replacement for face-to-face dialogue but can be used in a way to increase the likelihood of these meetings through developing confidence and better school-family relationships.

Schools have traditionally worked to improve communication TO parents and families. In today’s system this is not enough. We, as educational leaders, need to increase dialogue and communication WITH families by not only making ourselves more visible but also by embracing the available social media tools to meet parents and families where they are.

 

6

If I Were In Your Shoes

Shoes - image from http://bit.ly/prNlYk

Shoes - image from http://bit.ly/prNlYk

I just finished reading another great post by Timothy Monreal (@mryoungteacher) on “Teaching Empathy“.  I do not disagree with Tim as I truly believe that the modeling of empathy and care is so important in our schools as well as in society. As I was reading it, though, I thought about one of my pet peeves: the statement “If I were in your shoes”.

Here is the thing: to be blunt, I appreciate the sympathy but you are NOT in my shoes so please do not pretend that you know what it is like to BE in my shoes.  I have been speaking with a friend who has a child with a significant disability.  He is doing his absolute best to make things work for his child along with his family.  He came to me and said, “people keep telling me they know how I feel and then giving me advice on what they would do if they were in my shoes… they don’t know everything about me and they don’t know what it is like to me.  I just wish people would give me some space”.

BOOM.  We don’t know everything about what someone else is going through.  All we know is what we are observing from our perspective. It is so important to model and practice empathy; however, we need to be careful to offer advice to people and pretend we know what it is like to BE them.  We can often mistake sympathy with empathy.

The most important thing we can do is listen, truly listen.  Be there… be there in the moment with that person.  Listen with your eyes.  If advice is requested, let’s ‘walk’ with the person and give advice from our shoes… and not pretend we actually understand what it is like to live in in the shoes of someone else.

Something I continue to work on…

11

Listen With Your Eyes

originally posted on “Connected Principals”

As leaders, whether we are administrators, teachers, coaches, parents or students, a skill that is often lost is listening.  Too many times we think we need to provide answers or solutions when all we really need to do is listen.

Have you ever been in a conversation and not known what the second half of the dialogue has been because all you were thinking about was what you ‘needed’ to say?

Have you ever been in a meeting and been interrupted before you completed your thought?

Have you ever drifted during a conversation and began to think about something completely different?

Do you know someone that flips the conversation to stories about him/herself all the time? Does he/she ‘one-up’ you? (“That’s nothing, this one time…”)

One of my goals for the past 2 years is to become an active listener – to be there in the moment – during conversations with my wife, family, colleagues, students, and staff members.  What does this mean?  What does this look like?

  1. If you are truly listening, you are not thinking about what YOU are going to say, you are thinking about what the speaker is saying.
  2. In an effective conversation the thinking moves deeper.  Ask questions built upon what has been stated by the speaker.
  3. Pausing is good.  Before you respond, pause and reflect on what has been said, then think before speaking.  I have been working on this skill by observing many of our First Nation leaders (including our FN Support Workers in our school)- conversations need not be rushed.
  4. The most piece of a conversation is not what is said, but what is heard.  Make sure you truly understand what the speaker is stating.
  5. Listen with your eyes.
A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class.  She danced into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing dinner.
“Mom, guess what?” she squealed, waving the drawing.
Her mom never looked up.
“What?” she said, tending to the pots.
“Guess what?” the child repeated, waving the drawing.
“What?” the mother said, tending to the plates.
“Mom, you’re not listening.”
“Sweetie, yes I am.”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.
Mitch Albom

As educators we need to be active listeners to many different speakers: students, staff, administrators, parents, and community members.  Most often, when engaged in conversation, we do not need to know the answers or jump to a solution or a story about us – we just need to be there, in that moment, and listen with our eyes.