Listen to Podcast on Coach Approach & download first chapter here
Join my co-authors Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret and me with host Justin Baeder, talking about one of our favorite topics – using instructional coaching techniques as school leaders.
The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as part of growth. Brene Brown
When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. Seth Godin
For many years, I believed leadership was about vision, certainty, confidence, and solutions. With a wall full of degrees, a position high in my school’s organizational hierarchy, and a job description demanding action, I felt it was my obligation to make decisions that would propel our school forward; perceived it to be my responsibility to tell rather than to ask, and to know rather than to search. How painfully wrong my perspective proved to be.
The economic downturn of 2008 hit the school of which I was then a part quite hard and demand for tuition assistance sky-rocketed, leaving the school with a painful choice; say farewell to students whose families could no longer afford tuition or function with a large deficit. The decision was made by the Board of Trustees to run at a substantial deficit for one year, and to craft a more sustainable business plan moving forward. As lower school principal, I was called upon to drastically cut expenses, primarily by eliminating positions, while at the same time significantly raising the quality of the school to more effectively compete with the growing competition we faced. It was a perfect storm. I wish I could say I navigated through the turbulence with the courage, compassion, and connection that Brene Brown describes as the hallmarks of wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Being honest with myself, I was painfully unprepared. I floundered, made mistakes, and lacked the wisdom to know how to engage others in courageous, compassionate, connected discomfort. I did not yet know how to embrace vulnerability, to humbly engage in difficult conversations, to ask for help, and as Brene Brown so articulately advocates, “to lean into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, holding open an empathic space so people could find their own way”. Through the heart-wrenching pain of letting teachers know they would no longer have positions, demanding more of everybody, responding to increasing perhaps unrealistic expectations of me, and absorbing tremendous anger and distress, I faltered. Through many angst filled, sleepless nights and long, agonizing days, I found myself ill equipped for the many challenges facing me and recognized I needed to learn new ways of leading.
My transformation as an educational leader in some ways mirrors Brene Brown’s description of Lululemon’s CEO Chrstine Day’s leadership, moving from “controlling to engaging with vulnerability – taking risks and cultivating trust.” Day characterized the changes in her leadership as a shift from “having the best idea or problem solving to being the best leader of people”. Over the course of several years, I invented my leadership anew, learning to focus on supporting more than directing, coaching more than evaluating, wondering more than answering, and imagining collaboratively more than deciding individually. I accepted a new position as Head of School in another school community, crafting my approach to leadership with hard earned insights on vulnerability, risk taking, and trust building.
Echoing Brene Brown’s articulate words, “I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” I embraced leadership as serving to unleash the greatness in others. To that end, there are many techniques from the world of coaching that I have deliberately trained in and implemented, most significantly, giving feedback. Like Brene Brown, I have found receiving and giving feedback to be the key to normalizing discomfort, helping individuals to lean into discomfort with safety and support in order to stretch, to learn, to overcome challenges, to build on strengths, and to reach toward aspirations and potential. “At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable,” states Brene Brown, a sentiment that captures my intense emotion prior to the paradigm shift leading me from a leadership model focused on “knowing” and telling others what to do to an approach focused on “being”, deliberately nurturing trust and collaboratively striving toward shared, aspirational goals. In order to give feedback, I first had to be open to receive feedback. For that, I needed to embrace vulnerability – accepting that not only can mistakes and crises happen, but for any person or community that is striving to improve, mistakes and crises will occur. Acknowledging the inevitability of failures on the road to improvement enabled me to develop my resilience, patience, and fortitude in the face of challenge. I not only normalized discomfort for myself, but even became more comfortable with discomfort, welcoming the growingly familiar tension in my shoulders and flittering in stomach that arises when I have stretched myself beyond what I have done before, when I worry I have moved too quickly or made a wrong turn, when I face criticism that feels unfair or when I face criticism I feel I deserve. I have come to welcome the discomfort for it is through the stretching beyond the familiar that I grow and become more effective, more capable, more courageous, compassionate, and connected than I was before.
From seeking feedback for myself, I moved toward giving meaningful feedback to others – leading with a “coaching hat”; striving to focus more on support than evaluation. I revamped my approach to feedback; visiting classrooms as often as I could and sharing written feedback, including a compliment, and nonjudgmental reflections following four prompts: I noticed, I wonder, what if, and how might. I met with each teacher to set a professional learning goal, along with an action plan, supports we would put in place to help the teacher meet the goal, and ways we would measure progress toward the goal. I shared with each teacher that our end of year reflection, in lieu of formal evaluation, would not focus on whether the goal had been achieved, but rather on how much the teacher, and her or his students, had grown. I wanted teachers to adopt ambitious goals rather than playing it safe, and in order to do so I needed to create a culture in which striving was celebrated and protected. Teachers and I also filled out a rubric on professional practice as another means to reflect on practice, celebrate strengths, and identify areas more challenging. I made the commitment to teachers that the process would be focused on learning and that if I had a specific concern, I would be direct and share my concern with the teacher; enabling most conversations to be focused on professional growth and exploration of the possible, rather than being evaluative and judgmental. I reveled in teachers’ learning and growth; celebrating with teachers their forward progress.
Within the shifts in myself and our teachers, I caught glimpses of more dramatic forward movement for our school’s culture. “A daring culture,” says Brene Brown, “is a culture of honest, constructive, and engaged feedback.” Nurturing a daring culture requires, according to Brene Brown, a “daring strategy”. We must dance with time, paying attention to the distance between where we have been, where we are, and where we want to be. While goals and accomplishments are important in this process, they are insufficient because, as Brene Brown shares, “culture is less about what we want to achieve and more about who we are.”
As we embrace one another’s strengths, along with one another’s quirky imperfections, we engage in painful yet potentially transformative disruption, offering the promise of engagement, creativity, innovation, productivity, learning, and trust. The key to this transformation is a frightening, yet potentially liberating, embrace of vulnerability.
I welcome you to engage in courageous, compassionate, connected conversation on vulnerability and growth.
How have you cultivated the courage to be uncomfortable?
How have you helped people around you to accept discomfort as part of growth?
How has discomfort helped you to learn and to grow?
“Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes,” a teacher I had never met and will will unlikely ever meet again shared with me at the recent NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education) conference. We were at a session on Creating a New Learning Culture in schools. The presenter, Dr. Billie McConnell, was informative, even inspirational, sharing the need for change, compellingly presenting statistics about how unprepared our children are for the world they are inheriting, and sharing a vision, replete with videos of some of the most creative, insightful student-centered, individualized learning experiences I have ever witnessed. He outlined a problem, a significant problem with schooling today, and showed us a profound solution.
And, then, came the question I wait for at conferences; the question I hope somebody will be brave enough to ask in a setting in which we do not know each other, do not need to work with one another for more than a few hours, and consequently, sometimes, when courageous or frustrated enough, can express what is truly on our minds. I must paraphrase, yet nontheless share the essence of the words spoken. “This is all well and good, but it takes a tremendous amount of work, way beyond expectations in our contracts,” a teacher boldly stated. “I am a teacher and in my early years in the classroom I would have aspired to teaching as you show. Yet, now I am also a father of two young children and the demands to teach the way they do in those videos are way too high. It takes much more time to prepare than we have. What do you expect for us to do?”
Dr. McConnell respectfully validated the question and moved on with his presentation. In fairness, Dr. McConnell was showing us through his presentation what a new learning culture can be. He was wise, experienced and insightful, relaying a profound vision and a substantial amount of information to us in a very short time. I appreciated and respected the learning. And yet, I longed to engage in further conversation with this outspoken, articulate teacher and the other educators who had chosen to come to a session on Creating a New Learning Culture. I longed to delve into dialogue beyond making a case for what is needed in schools, beyond a vision for what is possible in schools, to an honest sharing of what creating that culture is like in the trenches, in real schools and in real classrooms, with the multitude of demands and challenges that exist.
I raised my hand and myself blurted out, with more urgency in my voice than I had intended, a request to pause and speak further about what this teacher had shared, to open the conversation with others in the room about how we can work with the limited resources of time and funding available, and yet make progress. How can we engage with teachers open enough to attend conferences and speak their minds, passionate about helping students, yet skeptical about what is possible in their own classrooms and schools? How can we support teachers honest about how very challenging and demanding changing a culture of learning is? Was Dr. McConnell showing in his videos a few outlier teachers, particularly wise and resourceful, or could the remarkable accomplishments of these superb educators be replicated in classrooms and schools throughout the country? Again, respectfully, Dr. McConnell validated my participation and moved on. I admire Dr. McConnell’s ability to remain focused in the face of participants, primarily me, attempting to shift the focus of his well thought out, well received, important presentation. Looking back, I appreciate that he remained focused and moved on. And yet, I continue to long for a venue in which to discuss the truth from the trenches of our classrooms and our schools; the demands and complexity that envisioning our efforts anew will entail.
As the presentation ended and I stood to leave, the woman sitting next to me turned to me and said, “I am a teacher and I can tell you what I would like from my administrators.” “Please do,” I replied, “that would be so helpful.” “Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes.” With that, as participants for the next session began to file into the room and we both needed to leave, I thanked her and bid her good-bye, realizing that in a conference boasting many experts, numerous of them nationally reknowned, this wise and honest teacher had just offered me the greatest gift and insight I had received during the entire three days of the conference. We can only risk growth in environments in which we feel safe and protected. This is true for our students and is true for our teachers as well.
Can we hold the bar high with a vision of learning that is compelling, meaningful, and relevant for our students? Can we support teachers facing a plethora of demands and seeking to make progress with limited resources, time as well as funding? Can we empower teachers to make progress while still attaining a healthy work-life balance, grounded and present for their students as well as their families and themselves? Can we enable teachers to feel safe and protected as we venture forward with approaches requiring risk?
How can we help make risk-taking safe and progress manageable? How can we help our teachers’ hearts sing?
What if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on our strengths and capitalizing on our opportunities rather than fixing our weaknesses and responding to threats? What if we unlocked our potential to grow, thrive, and evolve? What if rather than sustainability and stability we focused on transformative possibility?
Members of Solomon Schechter School of Queens’ professional development team and Board of Trustees spent a day and a half with Charles Cohen and Ray Levi of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in imaginative exploration of the possible. Piloting a generative, creative planning process known as “asset optimization”, we began with a few “rules”:
* No silos allowed – multiple voices identify disparate assets, including human assets, to unleash new potential.
* Thinking must be interactive.
* Change and success must find common ground. We must not view change as an end unto itself, but rather as a vehicle for achieving success. Similarly, we must challenge the potential constraints of success, which can lead us to being stuck in what has worked even though our world is rapidly changing around us.
* The power of imagination must be embraced.
* In order to “connect the dots” in new, innovative ways we must identify dots we might not have even realized existed.
* The Head of School must accept not being the expert.
* The Board must support innovative thinking.
From there, we played. Using a model created by Shattuck-ST. Mary’s School’s President Nick Stoneman as a means of sharing the creative process that transformed his school over the span of a decade of innovation, we first engaged in two rounds of asset optimization using assets from schools other than our own. We worked with a very specific asset in each of six areas: Physical Plant, Faculty and Staff, Brand Recognition, External Relationships, Geography and Region, and Program Offered. Our task was to optimize potential by intertwining assets in these six disparate areas, finding opportunity previously unrecognized by connecting and combining asset categories in new and innovative ways in order to improve in seven specific areas: Faculty Engagement, Student Retention, Increased Enrollment, Facility Expansion, Endowment Growth, Additional Programs, and Alternative Revenue.
Charles Cohen and Ray Levi functioned as our coaches, activating our learning by observing, asking reflective questions to stretch our thinking, and offering feedback on what we might consider. They challenged us to be more specific and less “neat”, freeing us to resist the impulse to tie loose ends together quickly and instead to consider as many possibilities for building on strengths as we could. Working in two separate groups, we strove to optimize assets for two fictional schools, each with seemingly unconnected assets. Through the brainstorming, we crafted narratives of meaning, building on strengths to create schools that are world class – one emphasizing community and character; the other science and social policy. Inspiring us to live with the inherent messiness of creativity, at least for awhile, our facilitators sent us off on round two with two new schools and two new sets of assets to consider. To the delight of our facilitators, we emerged with “messier” packages of potential, and multiple potential directions for the schools presented to us – one a girls’ school emphasizing the arts and expanding into wellness programing and therapeutic arts for students and the broader community, and the other a struggling school in need of substantial intervention with a plethora of possibilities for improvement based on strengths, some of them initially hidden.
With the experience of imagining the possible in connection to fictional schools, with fictional assets, we were ready to identify real assets in our own school; dots we might not have yet even recognized in order to then connect those dots in new, innovative ways. Feedback from our coaches Charles Cohen and Ray Levi on our identification of our own assets was consistent with the feedback they offered in relation to our efforts at optimizing assets in the fictional schools which which we had practiced: be more specific. And so, we went back to work – identifying with much greater specificity faculty members, alumni, programs, and opportunities made possible by our physical plant. Those assets became the raw material with which we returned the next day to engage in multiple rounds of the asset optimization exercise using real assets of our own school.
Prompted by our coaches to think more expansively, more ambitiously, more creatively, more flexibly, and more specifically, we imagined a world class school. We envisioned signature programs and strategic partnerships enabling us to be ever more relevant to our students, preparing them in concrete, innovative ways for the rapidly changing world of work with emphasis in technology, science, and entrepreneurial ventures; infused with commitment to being socially responsible; deeply grounded in the enduring values and texts of our Jewish religious tradition. We described potential ways to build upon global connections stemming from our own multi-national, multi-lingual student and family population. Considering museums, universities, libraries, businesses, organizations, and individuals with whom to develop strategic partnerships, we recognized ways of cultivating connections to benefit our students. We imagined expansive potential for recruitment and facility expansion based on a virtuous cycle of optimizing assets.
Beyond the imaginative ideas, we experienced important shifting of mindset. Possibilities requiring effort, risk, and courage were shared aloud as possible, leading not to a sense of anxiety or outright dismissal, but instead to openness to further exploration. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” one participant playfully remarked, in reference to our rapidly changing world as well as the possibilities we together imagined.
Ready to leave the limitless world of potential and possibility and return to the more mundane day to day world of the operational and the tactical, we considered next steps that would enable us to build on positive momentum generated. Members of the professional leadership team considered concrete actions we could take to actualize some of the more manageable suggestions offered as well as to lay the groundwork for more ambitious innovation. Most significantly, we considered ways of bringing others who had not participated in the training into the process, primarily our Trustees and our faculty. Recognizing that at this time two days of learning combining theory and imaginative play with a purpose would not yet be achievable or even advisable for our very busy Trustees, or our very busy faculty members, we considered specific ways to infuse the language and thinking behind asset optimization into our work as we seek to shift our school’s mind set to a focus on identifying, cultivating, celebrating, and building on strength and opportunity. While much remains to be done, the conversation and learning has already had a potent impact. The toothpaste is out of the tube!
I notice. I wonder. What if? How might?
These four nonjudgemental prompts guide me as I share feedback with teachers. In the past, when I began my journey toward routinely and nonjudgmentally offering formative feedback to teachers in lieu of formal evaluations I avoided compliment as much as critique. What I like is, after all, as judgmental as what I don’t like. Yet, refraining from complimenting felt cold and detached. We all deserve appreciation.
The prompts (I notice. I wonder. What if? How might?) serve as a valuable lens, shifting the way in which I see teaching and learning during classroom visits, helping me to look with humility and openness. I have no “look fors” and no forms. I don’t carry my ipad with me or write feedback on the spot. Instead, I strive to engage in teaching and learning, being present with teachers and students in learning experiences. Later I write brief feedback for teachers: a compliment and four sentences (sometimes indulging in a bit more than four sentences, with potentially more than one sentence per prompt.) The sentences begin: I notice. I wonder. What if? How might? Teachers can embrace the feedback or question and refute it. They can engage in conversation about it with me, with colleagues, or with anyone they choose or they can elect not to speak about it with anyone. The feedback is not evaluative, and once given, belongs to the teacher as one of many venues through which to reflect, to learn, and to grow. It is a component of my efforts at supervision focused on professional learning rather than evaluation.
I consider myself lucky. As Head of an independent school, I have no state or district mandate on how I must evaluate teachers. That does not mean I have no one to whom I must answer. There is my school’s mission – the ultimate “boss” in mission driven independent schools, my Board of Trustees, parents who are electing to send their children to our school and are paying tuition, and ultimately to our students themselves. In addition, I must answer to our teachers. Although I am their supervisor, it is my responsibility to support them to succeed and to excel. The demands are high. To truly be effective, we need to remain open and honest about our impact; flexible and agile.
An example of feedback very recently offered; this one after visiting an upper elementary school math class is:
A compliment: You skillfully model for students the thought process required for estimation, or perhaps more accurately, mental math – an important skill. You carefully share with them the learning goal for the class and utilize language and visual cues in order to support student learning.
I noticed students participating in a lesson, guided by your careful prompts.
I wonder ways of assessing the range of understanding of students in the class. I wonder ways of determining potential areas of misunderstanding. I wonder ways of determining whether any students are ready to delve more deeply into the material.
What if students completed pre-assessments and worked in guided groups based on their performance?
How might the classroom be organized in order to allow for even more individualized attention and differentiated learning?
The teacher, a skilled veteran who is highly self-aware and attentive to the needs of her students, in this case did engage in further conversation with me about the lesson. She reached out to let me know the feedback helped her to think about her teaching and she continued to wonder with me about ways of reaching the individual needs of her students. We brainstormed together how the collaborative, guided lessons typical of language arts learning in her classroom might be extended to math; reflected on possible ways of organizing the physical environment in the classroom to promote more collaboration; and considered supports that could be utilized to assist with enhancing respectful interaction among students during more independent learning time. Such conversations do not follow each classroom visit, yet they happen frequently and are directed by teachers, serious about their own learning and about improving their own practice.
What approaches to feedback have been helpful to you? What are ways you believe we could transform teacher supervision from evaluation to opportunities for potent learning and professional growth?
“Too bold. Not bold enough. Too fast. Not fast enough.” As school leaders, administration and teachers alike, seek to enhance and even redefine the quality of learning and community for our students, we often hear variations on these four critiques. At times in the past I’ve been accused of being too bold and too fast, to the point of appearing impulsive. And thus, in a recent coaching session, I was startled by my mentor’s suggestion that I strive to build on positive momentum and be bolder and faster or at least to consider more carefully the balance between being too bold and not bold enough, too fast and not fast enough. His words, part compliment and part critique, were a first after several years of coaching through which, among many other goals, I have sought to enhance my ability to “lead from the middle”, and not run out too far ahead of our teachers, being too bold and too fast. His challenge has me wondering. How can we consider the vital role of pacing in improving our schools? How can we consider not only time, but timing, as a precious resource? How can we be faster and bolder, while remaining thoughtful, patient and reflective?
Ten principles can guide us in leading change, managing the careful balance necessary between being too bold or not bold enough; too fast or not fast enough.
What principles might you add? What approaches have you found effective in balancing the pacing of change?
Recently my leadership coach presented me with a challenge: write about what you have learned in your years of experience as a school leader that you bring to the new position you have begun this year. The task sparked my imagination as I remembered the young educator I was thirteen years ago when I began my first principalship and sixteen years ago when I began my first school administrative position. What is it I believed then, I wondered, and what is it I believe now?
Once I believed initiatives and programs would transform. Now I believe it is through helping each person (students, teachers, administrators, staff, and volunteers) to be her or his best that our schools will be transformed.
Once I believed that setting the bar high would be sufficient. Now I believe that balancing ambitious expectations and robust supports for ourselves and others is necessary to make the progress we seek.
Once I believed timetables on progress could be imposed. Now I believe learning is not linear and sometimes detours on the path to improvement for students and teachers alike bring unanticipated gifts.
Once I believed we would thrive through learning from our mistakes. Now I believe that while mistakes inform, we will thrive when we can wholeheartedly learn from, celebrate, and build upon our successes.
Once I believed challenges were to be feared and overcome. Now I believe challenges are to be anticipated and embraced as a means of improving the quality of learning and community in our schools.
Once I believed success was the result of completing items on our “to do” lists. Now I believe success emerges from living up to the ideals of our “to be” lists; our core values, our positive energy, and our demonstrable delight in being present with our students and our teachers.
Once I believed my advanced degrees and years of training made me an expert. Now I believe expertise is found collaboratively and wisdom emerges through openness to ongoing learning and exploration.
Once I believed I could rely on my own knowledge base. Now I believe I must be wary of my “blind spots” and actively encourage honest feedback from many in order to gain insight on what I do not even know to ask.
Once I believed formal evaluations could be of true benefit to teachers. Now I believe that respectful, ongoing informal and nonjudgmental feedback from a multitude of sources on a combination of school-wide and individual professional goals is necessary for meaningful professional learning and growth.
Once I believed “telling” people our visions would inspire. Now I believe we must collaboratively craft visions and pace forward movement, celebrating even the small steps along the way.
Once I believed in communication to all constituents. Now I believe in conversation with all members of our community.
Once I believed that budgets and schedules were necessary. Now I believe that budgets are educational plans in numbers and schedules are educational plans in time; vital tools of learning leaders.
Once I believed it necessary to listen to the content and ignore the emotion in people’s words. Now I believe it is vital to listen to both content and emotion; choosing sensitively when to respond to the content of people’s words, when to respond to the emotion, and when to respond to both.
Once I believed we all needed to comply with the requirements of our supervisors and cooperate with the priorities of our peers. Now I believe we must all collaborate to achieve a shared mission and vision.
Once I believed that trust was assumed with our hard work and good intentions. Now I believe that trust, difficult to earn and easy to damage, stems from sincere appreciation for the capability and talents of others.
Once, when given the task to write about what I have learned in my years as a school leader, I would have composed a long essay ripe with academic citations. Now, given an optional assignment from my leadership coach to consider what I have learned in my years as a school leader, I have chosen to reflect on the essence of paradigm shifts on learning leadership I have experienced. Once I would have “handed in” the assignment requested. Now, I “publish” and share with my professional learning network, seeking insight, feedback, and ongoing learning.
What might you add? How have your leadership paradigms shifted throughout the years? What did you once believe and what do you now believe?