The Simplest, Hardest Lessons Make the Biggest Difference

This is my last blog for The Cornerstone, as I will be leaving for a new job July 1.  I’ve learned a great deal during the last six years, some of it from more experienced colleagues in the AEA system, some of it from GPAEA team members who have so graciously shared with me the intricacies of their day-to-day work, and a lot of it from the many educators throughout SE Iowa whom we continue to serve.  I’ve seen some resounding successes and some disappointing failures and I want to take a moment to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned.  While I have learned a lot of lessons (many the hard way), these three are the most important ones I want to share upon my departure.  They are simple lessons to remember, but often hard to follow and I have found they often make the difference between success and failure.

The most important thing I’ve learned about service agency work (and educational work in general) during my tenure here is that everything we do has to be driven first by the building of a relationship.  In the absence of a quality relationship, successful collaboration is an uphill battle, if not impossible.  Our successes and our failures are the direct result of the quality of the relationship that exists between the parties involved.  I have encountered some very smart people in recent years who believe that their knowledge or technical expertise is the most important thing they have to offer, but it isn’t.  Solutions must be adaptive to each unique situation and I’ll take a team united more by caring, commitment, and empathy over one heavy on expertise every time.

The second thing I’ve discovered in recent years relates to culture and it is that some people are positive and some are negative, but the vast majority are neutral and simply in the middle of responding to their most recent interpersonal experience, be it positive or negative.  This is why habitually positive people are worth their weight in gold.  If you think about it, most of us are pretty prone to treating people the way they deserve to be treated and yet who among us really doesn’t want to be treated better than we deserve at the end of the day?  Reciprocation is a natural behavior pattern for most people, but in a high-stress environment, it can lead to bad culture in a hurry.  When we work in the change business, we have to remember that people get frustrated and we need to give them permission to do so.  We can’t afford to meet frustration with judgment and negativity or things degenerate rapidly and we don’t meet our goals.  It’s easy to treat people the way you perceive them to be treating you.  When more people respond to negativity with grace and empathy and fewer respond out of ego and competition, we not only get more done, we build a contagious and virtuous culture.  It’s really hard, but I’m going to work on that and I encourage you to do the same.

Finally, I’ve learned that good communication takes effort and has to be intentionally practiced in all walks and at all levels of the organization.  We’ve all heard the old saying, “No news is good news”.  I’ve learned the hard way over the years that this is absolutely incorrect.  To assume that things are going well because one hasn’t heard otherwise is one of the most common and damaging practices in which any of us can engage.  This is true when it comes to both formal organizational communication and informal interpersonal communication as well.  “How’s it going?” should never be a rhetorical question.   Ask people how they are doing and listen to the answer whether your conversation is a professional one or a personal one.  It’s called caring, it’s the opposite of gossip, and it’s good for both building relationships and increasing productivity.

So there you have it…..Three pretty simple lessons, far from profound, easy to learn but easier to forget, and having nothing to do with reading, writing or arithmetic.  I believe that we already know most of what we need to know to do our work.  We have more expertise in education today than at any time in history. Too often we look for the next big fix or the next great program when programs are never the answer.  People are the answer and the greatest thing about organizations (and also their biggest liability) is that they are made up of people like you and me.  So, as you go about your very important work, remember to treat one another well.  Build caring relationships.  Be positive and treat people better than they deserve to be treated.  (Grace and forgiveness aren’t just markers of professional and personal maturity, they are vital building blocks for a nurturing and productive culture.)  Finally, remember to communicate frequently and intentionally, not just for accountability purposes but out of caring as well.  Let’s just remember to recommit ourselves to the simpler, harder lessons, the ones that really make the difference.  Enjoy the rest of your year and have a great Summer!  I hope to see you all again soon.

 

 

It’s Still About the Relationship

Love My Job

I want to comment on all the activity around the changes in Iowa’s collective bargaining laws, better known as Chapter 20.  I had the opportunity to speak with many of our staff last Friday at our focus group meetings and I know that there is a lot of concern amongst the educational community regarding what these changes will mean.  I want to provide a few words of encouragement to our great staff as we enter into this new chapter.

First of all, I want to assure you that our board and administration understand that we are in a relationship business and that the success of the teachers and students in our area depends in no small measure on the quality of the culture that we are able to create together.  That is the reason that we engage in practices like interest-based bargaining labor/management meetings and focus groups.  Our success as an agency depends on our being able to build and sustain quality relationships.  I recently sent out a tweet that said something to the effect of, “our successes are a direct result of the relationships of those involved and so are our failures.”  We will continue to meet regularly with representatives of our staff in an effort to identify and solve problems together.  Healthy organizations are built on trust, communication, clarity, and empathy.  High expectations are critical, but meeting high expectations takes collective commitment and that takes quality relationships.

The other thing I want to emphasize is that we are in a profession that requires us to attract, develop, and retain talent.  How some circles are currently demeaning our profession and the quality of our schools and educators is unfortunate.  However, there is one silver lining for those already in or about to enter the profession and that is we are increasingly experiencing shortages in most, if not all, areas of professional education.  The reasons for this are largely self-evident and a topic for another time, but please keep in mind that in this age of unprecedented accountability no educational organization wants to win the race to the bottom on salary and benefits.  Everyone wants to attract and retain the best people they can find and that doesn’t happen without competitive compensation (which is why state supplemental aid needs to always be our first rallying cry).

Finally, I want to emphasize that at no time in our history of education in Iowa has it been more critical that every educator support one another and say good things about one another.  Heaven knows that we have enough adversaries outside our tent and this is the time for everyone to get under the same tent.  It is too easy for us to allow ourselves to become divided.  We are always going to be invited to be critical of someone else in our profession.  Our adversaries love it and they win when management criticizes labor or labor criticizes management or when rural interests criticize urban ones or vice versa.  Never has it been more important to not only share good news about the fine people you work with, but more importantly, we need to be saying good things about the people in education we don’t work with, like the ones who work down the road.  We are all educators and all committed to a quality education for all kids.  We only have a chance to meet those commitments when we stand as one community.

So, please know that even though the changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws are going to become law (and very soon, likely this week), those changes do not need to result in the diminishing of our desire to work together for the betterment of all kids and families.  Also, please know that you are valued as not just employees but as critical members of our team.  Being an employee just means you have a place to go to work.  Our calling is much higher and much more critical to the future of our society.  Have a good week and be proud of your profession.

Let’s All Hang Together

United States founding documents on a vintage American flag

Perhaps no one in our great national history is more quotable than Benjamin Franklin, who stated prior to signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately”.  This statement was made during what is arguably the most politically uncertain time in our nation’s history.  No one knew if the signers of that document would go down in history as great statesmen or be hung as traitors.  It was a time when unprecedented uncertainty led to unprecedented levels of purpose, unity, and courage.

While our current landscape pales in comparison to the events of 1776, I would argue that we are again in a time of uncertainty, one also calling for unity, courage, and purpose. I don’t pretend to compare the political climate of 2017 to that of 1776, but I think we can all agree that we are at a crossroads, both in Iowa and nationally, and nowhere is that more evident than in our country’s efforts to chart a new course for its public education system.  Never before have we been more divided about the role and importance of public education and never before have so many new ideas been put forward.  What should schools look like?  How should we pay for them?  Who should attend them?

There are many legitimate arguments on all sides of these questions, depending largely it appears on ones ideology on the ideal role of government vs the power of free markets and choice.  There is one place, though, where I hope we can, in the words of Mr. Franklin, all hang together and that is in the embracing of our country’s need for a strong public schooling system, one available as a high quality option to every family.  And if we are to have a quality public option open to every family, we need to have that option fully funded and not take away from that funding in order to fund other options.  This is an expensive proposition but one that fits within one of our governments designated purposes, defined in the preamble of our Constitution as “promoting the general welfare”.  I liken this to streets, parks, or any other publicly funded service.  I don’t use all of the streets in my town, but I also understand that we have people who need them all.  I don’t just pay taxes to keep up the streets I drive on.  I pay taxes that support all the parks in my city and state even though I only use a few, because I know they promote the general welfare of our society.  In the case of education the concept is even more important because we rely on education to build economic capacity and citizenship.  My kids aren’t in school anymore, but when I support the cost of educating 500,000 students across the state of Iowa, 99.9% of whom I don’t even know, it’s a tax I happily pay because I know the benefit it creates for my society and for me as an individual.

In no way do I want to disparage education options outside the public school-house.  The accredited non-public school options available in Iowa are of outstanding quality.  Many of my closest friends attended non-public school.  They are extremely well educated, compassionate people.  I, myself, benefited from two years at a private college before finishing at a regents university.  (I could have benefited more with a bit more maturity at the time, but that’s a topic for another day.)  I have friends and relatives who chose to home school and who are serving our society in powerful and positive ways.  I support any person’s right to exercise a choice that does no harm to a fellow citizen.  Where I fear for the fabric and future of my society, though, is when someone decides that they are no longer responsible for supporting their share of the public good, inferring that education is a zero sum game and that one choice can only be advanced at the cost of another.

Let’s not put ourselves in a corner that requires us to make false choices.  We can have adequately funded public schools and still provide quality alternative options for families, but if we create those alternatives at the expense of the system that continues to educate and will continue to educate over 90% of our population, we run the risk of further jeopardizing our nation’s economy and very democracy.  Let’s support equity of opportunity for all, by first making sure that a quality public school is an option for every family.  Let’s adequately pay for the education of all kids not only as a matter of basic fairness, but for the sake of our future as a nation.  If we don’t hang together as a society now, we may well hang separately in the future.

CUBS WIN! Lessons Learned From the 2016 World Champions

First of all to Cardinal fans in the area, I apologize for the title of this blog, but after 108 years of futility and a personal investment of nearly a half century in the team formerly known as the lovable losers, I just feel entitled to take advantage of this rare opportunity to extoll my team by pointing out some lessons I’ve learned about education and leadership from baseball’s world champions. I also need to apologize to Jennifer Woodley, our public relations coordinator, for causing her to get The Cornerstone out later than she would have liked this month, but I knew I needed to write something about the World Series win or lose. (Sorry Jen). I’ve had a couple days to reflect on some lessons learned now, so here goes! These are things that I think we can all learn from (say it with me….) THE WORLD CHAMPION CHICAGO CUBS and apply to our professional lives as educators.

The first thing I learned this season is that positive outcomes come from positive culture. If you have followed this year’s Cubs or any successful organization for that matter, you will see that the people in the organization are loyal to one another first. Teammates never speak negatively about one another and they don’t talk outside of school. They trust and support one another. I’m sure no organization is ever conflict free, but successful organizations know how to resolve conflict and maintain trust at the same time.

The second thing I learned this year is there is a big difference between simply having a vision and having a belief in that vision. Joe Maddon said in his post game interview that “you have to believe to see.” That statement resonated with me right away. He was talking about getting everyone to see the same thing, but more importantly, getting everyone to believe in the same thing. Every organization has a vision statement, but the best organizations have visions that people believe will come true and they constantly remind one another of the successes that are building toward future positive outcomes. Problem solving is ongoing, but the culture is fueled by positive belief and recognition of success, not by problem identification or even problem solving.

This brings me to another lesson learned and that is positive leadership matters. Championship teams have leadership that constantly points out how people are succeeding in making their vision a reality. Anyone who has followed Joe Maddon’s press conferences this year will see that even after his team has performed poorly, he always points out everything that was done well during every game. He makes it part of his job to say good things about his team and his team follows suit by saying good things about one another. Good teachers at every level recognize the importance of building constructively on the success of every student. Success builds confidence and confidence builds success. It is a responsibility of the teacher and the leader to emphasize and recognize the good things that happen every day and to make sure that they stay intentional in doing so. I’m not sure anything is more important.

The last take away from this year’s champions is that data is important, but the most important things in life can’t be measured. I bet you never knew that Anthony Rizzo has a .327 batting average against left handed pitchers under six feet tall or that Javier Baez only makes contact with 27% of pitches with a spin rate over 2100 after the 3rd inning. If you don’t know what those things mean don’t worry. I just made them up anyway. I did so though to point out the limitless supply of data that we now have at our fingertips, both in baseball and education. Some of it’s critically important, some of it less so and there appears to be no limits to our desire to collect more. We need data to be strategic and to identify best practices. We just have to remember that there is no metric for confidence, or joy, or trust, or respect, or love. At the end of the day, those are the things that really move the needle on all things we are able to measure.

I could go on and on about the importance of preparation and hard work, or the importance of making the workplace a safe place to fail, or twenty other things we can learn from championship organizations, but I wanted to focus first on what I think are the most important lessons learned here and that’s people believing in each other, supporting one another, and celebrating one another. That’s what really matters. And besides, I have data that shows that only 11% of cardinal fans will read an essay longer than five paragraphs when the word “Cubs” appears in the title. Go Cubs Go!

Lessons Learned from TLC

A group of elementary school kids sitting on school steps

The beginning of a new school year seems a good time to take stock of past accomplishments in Iowa education and to look at what might be looming on the horizon as well. Too often we allow ourselves to be sucked up into the whirlwind of the day-to-day that keeps us from not only celebrating our accomplishments, but from identifying how those accomplishments might be applied to new opportunities that lie ahead. When we take the time to dissect what has worked for us in the past, we can often apply those important lessons to new challenges.

Let me point to an initiative that I believe has been a significant success in both its implementation and impact and that is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation program, more commonly known as TLC. I know that local districts certainly had to move quickly to implement this ambitious program and that the process required a lot of hard work, but when one steps back and looks at the scope of this undertaking and reflects on what has been accomplished in three short years, I would consider it an unprecedented success. Why has it been a success in my opinion? Here are some reasons.

First, the initiative was funded. Yes, I realize that state supplemental aid has fallen during the last three year period (and that’s a topic for another time), but the fact remains that the 150 million dollars that our legislature invested in this program was sufficient to bring all of Iowa’s school districts on board. That’s an important lesson and clearly illustrates the power of a funded program versus an unfunded one.

The second reason for the success of TLC is that a critical mass of stakeholders were able to see it as the right work. TLC not only brought new resources to the table but it did so for the purposes of increasing teacher voices in professional learning and building teacher self-efficacy and ownership. The quality of the collaboration and coaching going on in Iowa school districts today is unprecedented and is only going to get better. Communities of practice are growing. Teachers and administrators are working together and learning from one another. Practices are improving, educators are growing, and students are benefiting as a result.

Another factor in the successful implementation of TLC is that it has been supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, who immediately put a strong focus on what local schools and communities were going to need. The DE was tasked with operationalizing a program unprecedented in its ambition and scope and, to its credit, the department immediately engaged school and AEA leaders to answer one very important question. That question was, “What are schools going to need to be successful in this endeavor?” The question wasn’t, “What do we have the capacity to provide?” The customer’s needs were made paramount from the beginning.

Finally, the most important lesson I think we have learned from TLC implementation is that we can achieve greater equity of services to all of Iowa’s students and educators through increased cooperation and regionalization. By placing a focus on what all districts would need first and only then creating the state networks necessary to meet those needs, Iowa’s education system was able to create and facilitate collaborative entities that were united more by common need than by district size or geographic location. The importance of this development, in my opinion, cannot be overstated. The differences in district and AEA capacity that have resulted from Iowa’s continued demographic shift towards urbanization have never been more equitably addressed than have they been through through the development of TLC’s support system. Every district in Iowa regardless of size or zip code had access to quality technical assistance in developing its TLC plan. Every district in Iowa now has access to quality training and support in the coaching model or models of its choice. Through increased collaboration within and across regions, every district now stands on equal footing when it comes to access to quality support. It’s not perfect, just like TLC isn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. However, it is clearly the most efficient and equitable support system that has been developed for a new education initiative in Iowa to date. That’s a big deal.

A Message to AEA Staff

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit in on a couple meetings where our staff were doing their typical problem solving and planning for the coming weeks. They talked about several different students and I don’t plan to go into the details of the specific challenges that those students and their families will be facing over the coming months here, but what I can say is that I have never been more impressed with the level of collective commitment and professionalism than with what I observed Friday morning. It was a Wow! moment for me and it gave me a huge sense of humility and pride at the same time. I don’t get to sit in on these types of meetings often and what really impressed me was how routinely our people were tackling such significant challenges. It was (literally) just another day at the office and yet I thought to myself how lucky our kids and families are to have this group of professionals so persistently engaged in paving the way for them to experience success in the coming months and years. I also thought to myself, “if our people weren’t doing this work here and now, where would these kids and families be?”

I think we can sometimes get desensitized to the importance of our work when we get so immersed in the tyranny of the urgent. Challenges and deadlines loom, kids and teachers need support right now, and progress often comes in amounts too small to appreciate at any given moment. But I can tell you this: As someone who isn’t involved in the day to day challenges of meeting the needs of specific students and families, what you are routinely doing is powerful and life changing and I am so proud to be just a small part of it. You and your AEA colleagues across Iowa are making differences that NO ONE else can make. What I listened to Friday morning were conversations no doubt considered quite pedestrian by those who were having them and, yet, the results of that dialogue will impact the lives of these kids and families forever. Wow! I can’t think of another profession where anyone is doing more for the long range benefit of our kids, families, and society. What you are doing so routinely is giving kids a future they would likely not have without you. Don’t ever let anyone minimize that. I won’t. Thank you for your hard work and professionalism and please know that I have tremendous respect for what you do every day. Have a great year!

Why I Believe “WIG” Work is the Right Work

Over the past year, many GPAEA educators have been involved in piloting implementation plans based on the work of Sean Covey, Chris McChesney and Jim Huling, whose book, The Four Disciplines of Execution, (commonly known as 4DX) espouses a team-based approach to goal setting and execution strategy. You may have been involved in our first foray into this work, or at least heard some of your colleagues talking about their “WIG” plans. WIG stands for wildly important goal and it is a goal that is selected by a team of often job-alike professionals and then used to guide strategic implementation over a given period of time. Next year, we will be promoting this approach to a larger audience of GPAEA staff, so I want to take some time at the end of this first year to further explain why I think this work is so powerful and important.

The main reason I have been supportive of this work is that it allows for an organization to embrace accountability and build positive culture at the same time. Too often accountability is viewed as being in competition with positive work culture and it doesn’t need to be so. WIG plans build accountability because they are data driven and focused on moving a specific data point or specific data set. Team members identify a positive outcome they want to achieve and the specific steps they plan to implement and measure in order to meet that outcome. The outcome is referred to as a lag measure; the action steps or inputs are referred to as lead measures. By monitoring inputs, the team can later look at outcomes in order to see if what they are doing is actually impacting that desired outcome. In this way, each team is actually involved in its own action research project, analyzing implementation and monitoring outcomes. WIG plans build positive culture because they are selected by the members of the team and are not imposed by management, the Department of Education, or any other external force. When teams select a WIG, they are saying as professionals, “This is what we think is important and this is what we want to do to collectively make a positive impact.” The goal needs to be specific and not overwhelming, so not only is the focus area of the goal up to the team, but so is the frequency and intensity of any action steps (or lead indicators) that may be called for in the plan. In this way, the process is designed to increase collaboration around work already being done and not intended to add a new layer of work. Teams engaged in a WIG plan need to be given the time to collaborate around that work, but the process is designed to be quick and efficient. Educators in Iowa have been engaged in Individual Professional Development Plans now for many years, but those PDP’s were too often imposed, done as a formality, or done in isolation. This process allows professionals to engage in common work and learn together about how their craft and professional practice are making a difference.

Another reason I believe in 4DX is that it better helps us understand our antecedents and when educators understand how their behaviors are making a difference it increases our sense of self-efficacy. Too often in today’s world we are hearing from those who would like to have us believe that we aren’t making a difference or that our tasks are futile, when in fact, we know that isn’t true. Unfortunately, we are often so busy responding to immediate demands that we don’t fully understand just how we are making a difference. 4DX allows teams to measure not only outcomes but the specific actions that are making a positive impact on those outcomes. We don’t make widgets; our work is infinitely more important than that. Our problem is we often fail to zero in on goals and strategies specific enough to show our impact. We need to be more like the people who do make widgets and who celebrate when a data point moves in the right direction even if the change isn’t huge. As an example, this year we had a team choose to work with a newer special education teacher who was wanting some assistance. The team decided to have a member visit with the teacher twice a month about diagnostic data and then model in the classroom two other times a month. By spending a few minutes with that teacher four times a month (lead indicator) they saw 70% of that teacher’s students meeting trendline by the end of the year (lag indicator). My point here is that even if 60% had been making trendline prior to the coaching (and I’m guessing that wasn’t the case), the lag measure improved. That team can now point to their efforts and the corresponding outcomes and say, “here is just one way we made a difference”. Now that plan can be repeated where needed, but more importantly it can be celebrated. We need to be proud of all gains large or small and celebrate them for the world changing things they are. One more teacher feels supported. One more kid feels empowered. Becoming proficient is fine and good, but it’s not why we do what we do. One teacher at a time, one kid at a time. Aren’t you glad you aren’t in the widget business?

What makes the above example particularly relevant is that the process worked for everyone. The team decided what impact they were striving for. It wasn’t huge in scope. It didn’t create a new set of initiatives or work patterns (beyond tracking the inputs and spending a small amount of time monitoring the plan). It was manageable, requiring a monthly check-in after a regional Friday meeting. The team decided what supports or inputs they thought could impact the outcome. The teacher gained confidence. Some kids gained self-esteem. And so what if the lag measure or outcome hadn’t been as positive as hoped? Then the team would still have learned something and would have been better equipped to take on its next challenge, which brings up another important point. This process is not evaluative. That cannot be overstated. 4DX is a process that needs to be owned by the team. It needs to be a mechanism to increase professional learning and to drive continuos improvement, but it needs to be owned by the members of the team. The only role management should have in the process is to help people learn the terminology and skills and to make sure that people have the time to engage in the work.

I continue to be excited about this approach to professional growth and learning. I hope each of you has the chance to engage in it in the future. I believe you will find it rewarding. It will honor your professionalism, strengthen your workplace relationships, and most importantly, drive positive outcomes for teachers and kids in a way you will celebrate. As always, thanks for all you do and have a great Summer.