Thursday, May 10, 2018

5 Ways to Build Capacity for Solving Problems

In Future Driven, I wrote about how educators often want something that can be implemented quickly. We want something we can learn on Tuesday and use on Wednesday.
We want the strategy that can be used tomorrow. We want the handout, the cheat sheet, the quick fix. The hack. We want solutions that can be tossed in the microwave and heated up when we need them. Even if they taste like crap.
But the best solutions aren't microwave friendly. They come through deliberate practice. They come through deeper thinking. They come by shifting perspective. So kick the quick fix to the curb. Do the hard work of challenging the status quo. Ponder the deeper questions and look at the world in new and interesting ways.
Question everything.
Getting better results doesn't happen by having a magic bullet. There are no magic bullets. Better results come from having a long term perspective and working diligently to make things better now and in the future. We need to have a process for growth we can rely on, not just a quick fix.

Quick fixes usually make things better just for a moment. But looking good is not the same as being good. Looking good is on the surface. It's superficial. We want to actually be good and continue getting better. Ultimately, we want to help students succeed for the long term, not just for today.

Lots of educators are working tirelessly every day to try to make sure students succeed. They are trying to be as productive as they possibly can. They're putting out fires left and right. They're dealing with urgent problems. They're attending workshops to learn new ideas. And trying to implement new ideas.

But many feel like they're spinning their wheels. And it's no wonder.

In the busyness of everything that's urgent, it's really easy to neglect the importance of growing. Are you really examining your own growth? Are you looking inward? Are you developing greater self-awareness? Are you reflecting? And most importantly, are you really investing in building your own capacity?

Schools need to create environments to support educators in the process of growth. We must make sure professionals are given time, encouragement, and opportunity to build their own capacity. Leadership needs to support growth, not just demand productivity.

We focus lots of energy on problems. But how much time are we focusing on how we can become better problem solvers? Too much professional learning seems to try to "teacher-proof" the instructional process. It turns educators into implementers instead of initiators. And that's clearly not professional learning. I believe professional learning should actually help people grow as people and professionals.

One of the best strategies for solving problems is building capacity for solving problems. Everything about your school can be improved as the people in your school grow and learn together, all of them—students, teachers, everyone. The best way to improve a school is for the people in the school to be focused on improving themselves. The entire school becomes a dynamic learning environment.

Here are 5 ways you can be more dynamic in your learning and build your capacity for solving problems:

1. Listen Before You Act

As we get input from our colleagues, mentors and PLN, we can grow into problem-solving before we rush into problem-solving. We become more like the people we spend the most time with. Spend more time with people who are growing and who are capable problem-solvers. Soon, you'll be stronger too. 

2. Think, Don't React

Better schools are built on better thinking. Take the limits off and look at issues from all sides and as objectively as possible. Emotions may say one thing, but careful thought may lead you in a different direction.

3. Test Ideas and Solutions

We can become better problem solvers when we are open to trying creative solutions. Generate lots of ideas and test them. We can't keep doing the same things and expecting different results. Try a slightly different approach. Try a radically different approach. And see what works. Sometimes a massive change is needed.

4. Make Time for Learning

The most successful people make time for learning, not just doing. Benjamin Franklin, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates all follow the 5-hour rule. At least five hours a week should be dedicated to learning something new. Always be learning.

5. Look Within, Reflect

Self-awareness allows us to examine our own thought process. When we take time to reflect, we learn more from our experiences and the experiences of others. Without reflection, we are constrained by our bias, blind spots, and habits. We won't grow as problem-solvers unless we acknowledge the areas where we need to continue to learn and grow.

So what's your reflection on these thoughts? Are you making time to learn and grow? Are you only focused on being productive (checking off your list each day)? Or, are you also focused on building your capacity? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Culture of Compliance or Culture of Character?

Someone with many years in education was visiting our building recently and commented, "I don't think I've ever seen a high school lunch period this quiet." 

I think they caught us on a good day. But it was a nice compliment.

I know our lunches aren't perfect. In fact, there were a few grapes flying around recently too. Kids will be kids, right? But I was a proud principal after hearing the visitor's perspective, because I think it is a small indicator of our culture.

I was speaking with another educator who shared, "At my previous school, we had to have supervision all across the lunch room to keep everyone's behavior in line." It sounded like they had a bunch of people on guard to make sure there weren't any problems.

It's possible to achieve good behaviors by "running a tight ship" or by being "heavy handed." There are lots of ways to influence behavior. And forcing compliance is one way to change behavior. Fear is a way to change behavior. Sticks and carrots are a way to change behavior. 

So don't mistake a culture of compliance for a culture of character. There's a difference in doing the rights things, and doing the right things for the right reasons.

What happens when the adults aren't watching? How will the students act in those situations? That's when character is revealed. We can keep our thumb on them to get what we want, but are we really helping them develop the decision-making and responsibility they need?

I want students to learn why character matters. 

I want them to show empathy.

I want them to be upstanders and not bystanders.

I want students to understand how they treat all people makes a difference. 

I want students to know it's important to be honest, with themselves and with others.

I want students to learn to admit mistakes and move past them in a positive way.

I want to see students take full responsibility.

Ultimately, my goal is to create an environment that brings out the best in our students. I want them to feel supported and valued. And I want them to know I have very high expectations for them, not because of what they do but because of who they are. I believe in you, want the best for you, and I'm here to support you. That's the message I want to send.

I think the traditional model of education has been very focused on compliance. In fact, compliance is often celebrated. I've had parents and teachers talk with admiration about teachers and administrators who ran classrooms and schools with an iron fist. They applaud the strict adherence to commands and rules. I have to admit that used to impress me too. 

But not anymore. I've come to realize that schools can be extremely orderly and run with precision and under the surface have a character deficit. I'm all for discipline, but I want to see that students are taking ownership for their behavior and can self-manage in positive ways. I want to see students empowered to do good and make a difference in the world. That won't happen in a culture of compliance. It will only happen in a culture of character.

Is any of this making sense? I want to hear from you. I'm convinced that teaching character and developing it in our schools is as important as ever. What do you think? Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Simple Advice: Enjoy the Kids

A substitute teacher in our building recently approached me about some problems she was having with student behavior. She detailed how she told the kids exactly what she expected and tried to enforce the rules, but they didn't respond well at all.

I got the impression she was trying the stern teacher approach.

She told me about one student in particular. And as she shared, I could see her demeanor immediately shift.

She was really upset. Her body language and facial expression showed she was really frustrated. I would go so far to say she was having a miserable experience.

And so I felt really bad for her in that. I don't want visitors to our building to ever have a bad experience. And being a substitute is not easy on a good day.

So I asked her a question, "Are you trying to enjoy the kids?"

She looked at me with a puzzled expression. I'm sure she was thinking how could I enjoy these kids when they're acting out and being uncooperative?

"What do you mean?" she said.

"Well, I've just found that I get a much better result in working with students when I make it a point to enjoy being with them. They don't always act just like I want, but I try to enjoy them anyway."

"But I'm trying to get them to follow the rules and do the work," she said.

"And that's a good thing. We expect students to follow rules and be productive and use time wisely. They do need accountability for that. But how you hold them accountable can make a big difference."

I encouraged her to leave some notes for the classroom teacher about the behavior problems, and asked her to give my advice a try the next time she had a chance.

A couple of weeks later she was back in the building, and she came rushing up to me. Her demeanor was completely different. She was smiling and full of energy.

"I tried what you said, and it worked so much better. It's like I'm not putting as much pressure on myself and the students are doing better too. I feel so relieved," she said.

I told her I was so happy to hear that, and I appreciated her giving my advice a try. I thanked her for sharing with me and for giving me an update.

The quickest way to change another person's behavior is to change your behavior towards them. Kids are going to make mistakes. But if you make it a point to enjoy being with them, and treat them with great respect and care, there is almost no mistake you can't correct. They'll be far more open to your feedback when they feel that you like them and enjoy them.

What are your thoughts on this advice? Are you enjoying the kids? How can you show delight in them and keep the classroom energy positive and productive? I want to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Why Do Some Educators Burn Out While Others Seem to Grow More Passionate?

I'm really interested to know where passion comes from. And that's because I can't think of a single passionate educator who doesn't make a greater impact for kids. And on the other hand, I can't think of a single educator who seems burned out who is still able to be their very best for kids.

Who wants a teacher for their child who doesn't have passion for what they're doing? Anyone?

There are so many benefits to being passionate. Passion overcomes and eliminates apathy. It makes us stronger and more willing to take on challenges. Passion is caring deeply about work that matters and doing something about it.

When we are feeling passionate, we have more energy and enthusiasm. We are energized and not victimized. We believe we can overcome obstacles. We are able to translate that passion into commitment and do hard things, really hard things to get the most out of our abilities. 

When you listen to someone who is burned out, they often point to circumstances as the reason for their malaise. There is lack of support, lack of resources, problems with students, parents, administrators, other teachers, lawmakers, the department of education, society, you name it. And all of those things might be true.

But others faced with exactly the same circumstances seem to tell themselves a different story. They view the challenges as something to learn from and overcome. They seem to think differently. They focus on solutions instead of problems. They don't deny the problems or the barriers, but they are determined to focus on things they can control and not on the things they can't.

So why are they able to stay positive and passionate in spite of the challenges while others burn out?

People who avoid burnout and develop more passion do the following:

1. They believe they are growing.

People need to feel like they are making progress. We are wired to make progress. So if we feel we are stuck and not getting stronger or more capable, it can make us feel hopeless. People who are growing always have hope that things can get better. 

2. They feel like they are making a difference.

People need to feel like what they do matters. They want to feel like they are creating and contributing. Some people are making a difference but all they see are the problems and the ways they aren't having success. And that's when they burnout. We need to celebrate the little successes we have and know we are making things better.

3. They have a strong sense of purpose.

People need to feel like their work is connected to an important cause. We need to feel like we're part of something bigger than ourselves. Passion flows from a strong sense of purpose. Burn out happens when we focus on problems instead of purpose.

4. They have a strong sense of autonomy.

Passionate people need to feel like they have some control over their destiny. We burn out when we feel we can't make the decisions or take the action needed to create change. But regardless of how much autonomy you actually have, you need to feel empowered by the autonomy you do have. There are certain things you always have autonomy over, like your attitude for instance.

5. They share and connect with other passionate educators.

The people you share with and connect with most will have a big influence on your outlook. If you are around passionate educators and connect with them, you will likely feel your passion growing stronger also. On the other hand, if you are consistently around people who are negative and who lack energy, you will start to feel that way too.

6. They know when to set aside the work to rest, renew, and recharge.

Passionate educators don't have to be martyrs. It's great to have a high level of commitment, but you also have to know when it's time to be content with what you've done and take some time to set aside the work. Constantly worrying about your kids or your classroom won't help you in the long run. Create some white space just for you to find peace and rest.

For the most part, our choices determine our level of passion more than our circumstances. You can't control the environment of your school or the kids who are placed in your class, but you can control so much. Most importantly, you can control your mindset.

What else would you add to these thoughts? What are your thoughts? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Power of Choosing 'Must' Instead of 'Rather'

Last night I watched the film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as the 16th U.S. President. It was great to finally see it. I'm kind of a history nerd, but for some reason I had never watched it before. It's an incredible film covering the final four months of Lincoln's life. Daniel Day Lewis is outstanding in his portrayal of the president.

As I watched, I noticed several times how Lincoln used the word must as he considered the decisions and actions he would take as the leader of a bitterly divided nation. He was a courageous leader who stood firmly on principles in the face of incredible opposition and obstacles.

I reflected on the difficult decisions he made. I'm sure there were times he would rather have taken an easier path. He faced hardships and failure throughout his life, and he could've veered off course, retreated, or just settled for the status quo. He probably didn't want to carry all of the heavy burdens of a Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. 

But he did carry those burdens and remained a steadfast leader. He stood firm. Because he felt a moral imperative. He felt he must

We are all faced with challenges as educators. We are often faced with choices about what we would rather do versus what we must do.

And while our decisions may not be described in history books, our work has great significance in the life of a child. We might be the best hope for some. We don't always know what might hang in the balance. We don't always know what difference we might make for this one child.

We usually have the opportunity to make the greatest difference when we choose must over rather.

I would rather not have that difficult conversation, but I must.

I would rather not have to learn something new, but I must.

I would rather not be creative today, but I must.

I would rather not call that parent, but I must.

I would rather not give that extra effort, but I must.

I would rather not be enthusiastic today, but I must.

I would rather not have to repair that relationship, but I must.

I would rather not consider another idea or perspective, but I must.

I would rather not give that kid a fresh start today, but I must.

I would rather not change my lesson, but I must.

I would rather not deal with new technology, but I must.

I would rather not overlook that offense, but I must.

Every day I see educators choosing must over rather. But we should always, always, always be asking, "What is best for kids?" 

In this situation, "Am I choosing must or rather?"

Do you ever struggle to choose must instead of rather? I think we all face that. Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

15 Ways to Increase Focused Energy in Your Classroom

You have a choice when it comes to your attention. You give it to things you value, the things you find interesting or rewarding or helpful. And you withhold your attention from things that seem less valuable to you. We are constantly making decisions about our attention, where to focus it, and how to spend it.

And your students are no different. They also make choices about where to focus their attention. And that's why it's so important to provide a classroom experience that students will find meaningful (this is important to me) and rewarding (I can be successful here).

What if we treated students like volunteers? What if we acted as if they had no obligation to learn the things we must teach? What if we made it our mission to cause them to want to learn more?

Wouldn't it be great if students saw learning as something they get to do instead of something they have to do?

What if we decided it was up to us to create a force that pulls them in? After all, students make decisions with their attention just like the rest of us. Let's make learning so great it becomes irresistible. 

How strong is your lesson's gravitational pull? Be a force field of energy. Bring so much passion, enthusiasm, and creativity to your lesson that students think, "There is no way this teacher is gonna settle for less than my best!"

Bring that type of energy. Are your students pulled into your lesson? How is the energy in your classroom? How is your culture of learning?

When I visit classrooms, every single one feels a little different. But when things are working right there is a kind of energy that makes learning go. It's focused energy. It's energy that's driving learning forward.

It's kids really connecting to learning. There's a kind of positive tension, a push forward that comes with growth. 

And none of this is necessarily about specific teaching methods. There are lots of different methods that can work. But where is the attention flowing? Are you pulling them in? The teacher may be sage on the stage, or guide by the side. Lots of methods can work.

But the method doesn't matter most. Whatever the method, the room is focused. It might be noisy or quiet but there is intentionality. It might be teacher-centered or student-centered, but ultimately it's learning-centered.

So be intentional about how energy is flowing in your space. And don't settle for mediocrity. Aim for excellence. Is attention flowing toward learning? Does the energy pull them toward success?

Here are 15 ways to get attention focused and get energy flowing toward learning. I've divided them into three different categories.

Connect. Students will focus energy on learning when the relationship with the teacher is stronger. 
1. Greet students.
2. Call them by name.
3. Smile.
4. Make eye contact.
5. Learn something new about each student.

Communicate. Effective classroom communication helps focus energy in desirable ways. 
6. Clarify expectations.
7. Start with why. Explain context and relevance.
8. Tell stories to illustrate concepts. Stories capture attention.
9. Increase student voice and choice.
10. Redirect unfocused energy. Call out energy drifters.

Inspire. When learning is meaningful and authentic, students will give more. Don't play the game of school. Do stuff that matters and makes a difference.
11. Connect learning to student interests.
12. Challenge students to design, think, and problem-solve.
13. Make surprises routine. Mix it up.
14. Be the Chief Energy Officer. Lead the fun.
15. Incorporate curiosity and creativity consistently.

What else would you add to this list? How would you take these ideas deeper? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Is Empathy? And Why Is It So Important?

Someone else's experience is different from mine. 

It seems obvious doesn't it? But I think it's one of the most important things to come to terms with in developing empathy. It's important to recognize another person's experience is different than mine and then honor that experience and try to understand it.

That's empathy. It's the emotional skill of being able to recognize, understand, and honor the feelings of another person.

I have to admit, sometimes I struggle to understand another person's experience. It seems so obvious to me how they should respond or how they should feel in a given situation. If I'm not careful, I start feeling the need to convince them why they should feel more like I do about this thing. My sweet wife will confirm this I promise!

But that's not helpful. Every person has every right to every one of their feelings. They belong to that person. And that's okay. 

I've learned better how to respond when I have those thoughts, when I'm tempted to expect others to see it my way, right away. In the past, I felt frustrated and even angry if a student or colleague (or my wife or kids) was being unreasonable in my view, if they didn't see it my way, if they didn't feel the same as me. 

It's so important to keep healthy emotional boundaries. I'm not going to let your (emotional) stuff bump into my (emotional) stuff.

Instead of responding with anger or frustration, I've learned to try to respond with curiosity. Rather than being upset by someone else's feelings, I respond with curiosity and puzzlement. Hm? I wonder what this person is experiencing right now or what this person has experienced in the past that makes them feel this way? I'm curious. I want to understand.

And that creates the safety for dialogue. It keeps safety in the conversation. And it requires me to listen. When I'm curious, I want to know more. I want to understand how this person is experiencing this. I remind myself that my feelings are still mine. I can feel a certain way while honoring another person's feelings too. It helps me to show up well in the situation and work toward win-win solutions.

When we honor the other person's experience, it opens paths for shared understanding. Most of us want to be understood. In fact, one of the things that bumps into me more than just about anything else is feeling misunderstood. I'm sure many of you can relate to that.

Some people (mainly guys) might see all of this as soft or weak, but it's not. It's actually being a much stronger person. You are stronger when you have your emotional abilities in hand. Weak people fly off the handle and act like toddlers when they don't get their way. Strong people don't feel threatened easily by someone's differences. There is great strength in accepting differences.

But of course, it's still completely appropriate and beneficial to call out bad behavior. We must hold people accountable when they act badly. Empathy is not being tolerant of bad behavior. But it is being tolerant of another person's experiences and feelings. It's addressing the behavior in a way that tries to understand what the behavior is communicating, because all behavior is communication.

Empathy helps us think about the needs of others, and ultimately when we do this we are much more likely to have our needs met too. We're more likely to have authentic conversations that lead to better decisions. We're also more likely to feel heard when we are able to have honest conversations that keep empathy at the center. 

So clearly I value empathy. Why is it so important? Here are 9 reasons for educators.

1. Empathy leads to kindness. It fosters acceptance and understanding. Empathy lifts up others. It meets needs. It believes the best about others.

2. Empathy brings people together in community. It helps us to connect in spite of our differences, no matter what our differences.

3. Empathy results in better lesson plans. It seeks to understand how students learn this best, how they are experiencing learning. It values them as learners. 

4. Empathy results in better discipline plans. Empathy is not punitive, it's corrective and supportive. It seeks to understand and prevent the causes of poor behavior. It is essential to resolving conflict.

5. Empathy improves teamwork. Effective teams are build on trust and togetherness. Empathy allows for constructive conflict.

6. Empathy improves problem-solving. It opens us to new possibilities and it considers the end-user and how solutions will impact others.

7. Empathy improves performance. Performance is stronger when people value risk taking and accept failure as an opportunity to learn. Empathy provides the safety for that to flourish.

8. Empathy builds stronger relationships. Most people want to be liked, to have more friends, to have people we can really count on. Empathy is essential to developing stronger bonds between people.

9. Empathy can reduce anxiety and depression. When people feel heard, feel understood, and feel supported, it can help ease anxiety and depression. Depression for teens, especially has been on the rise. I wonder how a culture of empathy might ease this in our schools.

I want to hear from you. Why is empathy important to you and what are you doing to cultivate it in your classroom or school? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Note: Header Image Retrieved

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