Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the Way to #NAISAC13

I am writing this while on my way to the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference in Philadelphia. Because I could not attend last year due to a scheduling conflict, I am particularly excited.

I love the learning that occurs at NAIS, whether in actual sessions or between them. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I hope to have my thinking flipped. I still wish for that, but I don't expect it. In reality, how often does that happen? But I know that I will at least have my thinking extended, some pins poked into my mental balloons. That's vital. I chose that descriptor quite thoughtfully, given its etymology. Many times I have said that in a vibrant school, the educators must be the leading learners. The school leaders must model and steer that. Otherwise, a school cannot revitalize itself.

As essential as that is, I love NAIS Annual Conference for a more fundamental, very human reason. Affirmation.

I've always felt very proud of my schools when I attend this conference; I'm sure I will strut a bit taller about St. John's Episcopal over the next few days. In a global sense, I am proud that my school belongs to an organization with so many outstanding member schools which are committed to their missions and to proving outstanding education to thousands of diverse students. While our peer schools var greatly in terms of size and culture, we have that in common. We also tend to do a nice job of balancing rather traditional and timeless human values with more progressive notions. In a more particular sense, I feel gratified that, as I hear many of the ideas presented, while we have plenty of work to do, St. John's does so many things well--things being presented as exemplary practice. More important, I know that we will take on those areas where we can improve.

The affirmation also comes from being surrounded by a few thousand other folks who have chosen to make independent schools their life's work. Especially other heads of school. Ours is a unique position, one certainly totally different than anyone else in our schools. As a former head remarked to me about the conference, "the best part of the experience is that it reminds you that you aren't crazy." True enough, but I also like sharing stories and picking brains. It's also simply a time to re-connect with colleagues from the past, as I have plans for several meals, and to make new friends.

I'm not sure how many ACs I've attended through the years--perhaps twenty. Thye have changed over the years, thanks to visionary leadership by Pat Bassett and his folks. Recently social media has altered the experience, extending it beyond the physical conference. Yet one point remains consistent: Each one has in, some way, proven fulfilling. I fully expect #NAISAC13 to be one of the best.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Leadership and Forgiveness

            Earlier today the HBR Blog Network ran a post by Rosabeth Moss Kanter titled “Great Leaders Know When to Forgive.” It begins:
Leaders must be firm and foster accountability, but they also must know when to forgive past wrongs in the service of building a brighter future. One of the most courageous acts of leadership is to forgo the temptation to take revenge on those on the other side of an issue or those who opposed the leader's rise to power.
Instead of settling scores, great leaders make gestures of reconciliation that heal wounds and get on with business. This is essential for turnarounds or to prevent mergers from turning into rebellions against acquirers who act like conquering armies.
After going through some compelling examples and citing General Douglas MacArthur’s line that “Revenge is not justice,” the piece included a line that slapped me: “If revenge is not justice, it is not strategy either.” Rather appalled, I found myself wondering, is knowing when to forgive all about strategy?
            But then I started thinking about it some more and shrugged off my self-righteousness. I was taking the line out of context, as the article focuses mainly on making mergers succeed after some bitter negotiations. However, I believe it’s an important point to consider in three main ways.
            First, let’s remove some of the negative connotations strategy can have in this context, as it implies we are doing something only because it will benefit us. Accept that leadership always involves a degree of that; after all, a leader is moving someone in a direction, towards a vision. I believe forgiveness does have an important strategic aspect in any sort of culture. For example, think about a school making a change in curriculum and the related pedagogy. It’s a messy, often unsettling process for many, and inevitably people are going to make some mistakes. (That can happen in even the best of circumstances.) If the leader wants to build something, she or he must allow that to happen and be understanding. Forget the notion of strategy, and forgiveness relies upon a degree of empathy. It helps to create a culture in which people feel understood and valued, and they can see themselves part of something larger and want to do well, whatever the objectives. Yes, I realize we are back to strategy, but with a focus on the human side without a sense of manipulation.
            Second, great leaders not only must know when to forgive, but they also must hope their followers know when…and are willing to. A great leader is going to hold out challenging objectives, some of which entail risk. If the leader is really pushing things, there likely will be some failures, or at least loud hiccups. The leader’s passion also may hurt people, albeit unintentionally, and some difficult decisions may gall people. The messages can hurt. I’ve had supervisors deliver tough messages to me, and I had to move past my anger and forgive to utilize the valuable feedback.
            The third is the most important. Forgiving is humane. It’s usually—always?—the right thing to do. After all, we all need to be forgiven at times. Kanter concludes her post with a wonderful commentary on what probably should be the ultimate goal of all strategy:
Those whose main motivation is to settle scores and get payback — to obstruct rather than construct — are on the wrong side of history. Their legacy is not rebuilding, but rubble. From (ahem) members of Congress to leaders in any turnaround situation, it's a lesson worth remembering: Taking revenge can destroy countries, companies, and relationships. Forgiveness can rebuild them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Contribution, Not Participation--Helping Introverted Kids

            Recently The Atlantic published “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School.” The author is Jessica Lahey, a teacher from New Hampshire who also writes about education and parenting for The New York Times. I don’t question that Ms. Lahey wants the best for her students. She writes,
Thankfully, there's more information on introverts out there than ever before. I tapped into my amazing personal learning network of educators and gathered a towering pile of books on my nightstand, topped by Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. In her book, Cain champions the often-overlooked talents and gifts of introverts, and offers parents and educators strategies for communication and evaluation. This year, I drew on this advice and made a number of changes to my classroom in order to improve learning opportunities for my introverted students.
Bravo! We want all teachers engaging in such growth activities. Unfortunately, I think she also missed the point because she has done all this research but explains,
In the end, I have decided to retain my class participation requirement. As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in -- a world where most people won't stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.
Her premise is valid, but I can’t support with her decision because I can’t believe it’s going to help those students. It also smacks of teacher power and even hypocrisy, something for which George Couros took her to task in his post “Do unto students…” I want to look at why it’s simply bad educational practice.
            Before I begin, I have to acknowledge that I write from the viewpoint of a raring introvert (one of my favorite oxymorons). On my Meyers-Briggs profile, I am pretty much evenly split on all the categories—except for introversion-extroversion, where I am totally to the former. But I’ve learned to engage in what Cain labels fake extroversion when necessary, which I believe is similar to Lahey’s point. Her tactics, however, would not have worked on me.
            I recall one of my former advisees, who was extremely introverted. She was a bright, engaged, insightful young woman; she wrote beautifully and had much to offer in many ways. Every set of report card comments chided her for being too quiet and not participating. Usually she simply nodded when I would talk with her and during parent-student-teacher conferences. Until the end of junior year. Then, during a conference, she finally broke down. As the tears flowed, she talked about how for years teachers’ efforts had led her to withdraw even more because she so strongly felt their disapproval of her natural persona. None of their carrots or whips were going to overturn that.
            That’s where my basic problem with Lahey’s approach lies. Much like a physician, a teacher must strive to do no harm. If Lahey had really taken the points of Cain’s book to heart, she would have realized her methods would not work. Instead, she has to make students feel safe and valued. Instead, an introvert in her class would feel trapped by the teacher’s expectations. I can imagine the anxiety building before each class, leading to paralysis rather than the desired action.
            I must admit, earlier in my career I included a participation grade. It seemed very natural, and many of my teachers had done so. I suppose I did so also because I knew how much I eventually gained from becoming more participatory, which finally happened towards the end of college. I had visions of helping the quiet students make that same discovery. My measure was the usual—times speaking, quality of comments. Surely it was nothing scientific. Later I loosened on my notion of participation, putting quality over quantity and even taking into apparent engagement, i.e. physical reaction to points. Less precise, but I felt more comfortable.
            During my last few years in the classroom, I no longer had a participation grade. Instead, I had a contribution grade. Here is the thinking. In my class I tried to create as collaborative an environment as possible, with multiple ways for people to engage and share their understanding. At different times I’ve utilized full class discussions, small group work, various types of projects, presentations, blog posting and commenting, tweeting, discussion threads, index cards with opening questions submitted by the students. In other words, each student should have been able to find some way in which to make a contribution to the class. Ideally, that could happen in a comfortable way that encouraged taking the risk to jump in in some other ways.
            That’s really my larger point. I’m focusing on introverts here because I was prompted by the article and because of my personal bias. Yet I could be writing about extroversion…or just about any other way in which we categorize and assess. One key trait of a great school is that, rather than force too much conformity, it recognizes and honors and nurtures each student’s unique qualities. Then the student grows in confidence and becomes not someone else, but an even better version of him- or herself.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hopes for 2013 NAIS Annual Conference

The Online Community for the 2013 NAIS Annual Conference asked for responses to this question for an opening discussion: What do you want to see and or hear at this year’s Annual Conference?
I don’t know.
I hope that response doesn’t make me seem thoughtless or sarcastic or both. I honestly don’t know…at least not in any specific way. There’s no particular message I want to hear, no program that I want to learn about.
Instead, what I want to see and hear is, quite literally, what I don’t know. I hope for something that jabs me with that jolt of realization, of insight, the sort of “Aha!” that kickstarts my mind into overdrive. I don’t need another workshop on flipped instruction; I need my sense of order and possibility flipped and jumbled in a way that forces me to do some reconstructing. But at the same time, I want to see and hear points that affirm and re-affirm why independent schools are so important, that our missions are more than generic verbiage and actually drive us to make the world better (or at least our own little corners of it).