Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sailing into a headwind

You would be hard-pressed to find an educator who hasn't heard Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk – Do Schools Kill Creativity? I don’t exactly disagree with him.  He’s funny.  He’s optimistic. I quibble.  I’m sometimes uneasy about a focus on “personalized, passion-based" education; I worry that it sends a message that the purpose of an education is merely to please oneself (or to be pleased). I have argued that students should not follow their passions.

But I think adults should.  The purpose of a general education first and then (if we’re lucky) years at university or college or in apprenticeships is to build a deep foundation of skills and knowledge so that when we find what we’re good at, what makes our hearts sing, we can use our gifts to contribute to our world.

People who are drawn to teaching are a particularly passionate group with extraordinary gifts.  I was recently at a birthday celebration; two teachers I hadn't seen for a while were in attendance as well.  In between general conversation and birthday wishes and platters of food and the cake, we “talked shop” of course.  I heard about how one had started using a new video game design program to engage his students in learning complex concepts, how the other was leveraging student cell phones for good by using free apps in PE for self-assessment and to demonstrate and celebrate learning.  As they were explaining the ways they were connecting with their students, trying new strategies to engage them in deeper learning, working with their staff to develop a system for more effective collaboration, I felt both hope and despair for the future of education.  In his new Ted Talk, Sir Ken Robinson captures why.  And, in this, I couldn't agree with him more. He says,
There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you're not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage....
There is wonderful work happening in this country. But I have to say it's happening in spite of the dominant culture of education, not because of it. It's like people are sailing into a headwind all the time. And the reason I think is this: that many of the current policies are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It's like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data, and somewhere in, I think, the back of the mind of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough, if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won't, and it never did.
The trouble is that education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.  
I keep thinking about the passionate educators I meet every day and imagine what would happen if instead of sailing into a headwind, they had the wind at their back – and beneath their wings.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

How to Demotivate Your Staff

It’s surprising how often and how quickly thoughtful and well-meaning educational leaders can lose their way.  It begins with an Idea.  (I have suffered from Ideas often enough myself to know their dangers.)  Next, there is a flurry of meetings and planning sessions to organize the Implementation. (I have sat through, and even led, enough of them to know how exciting they can be, how sensible, inspirational, and certain-to-solve-everything a plan looks on charts and mind-maps.)

Then there is the Stumbling Block.  “They” (the front-line workers who must implement this Idea; in the case of education, the target for Change is most often teachers) must “buy in.”  Unfortunately, “they” are inevitably “resistant to change” or “unwilling to learn” or “unenthusiastic” about joining committees, attending after-school sessions, going to the book-club.  Still, a hardy handful always go along and, given their own faith in their own Idea, leaders invest the resources.  The school or district or province Changes.  And gets lost down some obscure path while everything else stays exactly as it was before the Change – or worse – since time, energy and resources have been siphoned off for the Change (that changes nothing).  Ironically, the more such failures occur, the more insistent leaders are that Change is what is needed.  School districts are now hiring principals of “Innovation and Change.”  You can’t sit through a meeting, read a school plan or discuss education without the words “innovation,” “change” and “21st century initiatives” topping the agenda.

But the plans will never work, no matter how many resources are squandered in “implementation,” and it isn’t because change isn’t necessary or that resistance stands in the way.  Margaret Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, explains: "Change doesn't happen from a leader announcing a plan.  Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or respond to a dream of what's possible….We don't have to start with power, only with passion."

Having spent years working to implement Plans, I have finally, over the past few years, begun to understand what Wheatley means.  Plans continually stall and fizzle, despite careful tending; passionate change from within blossoms, even when no one is watching.  Here’s an example.  Like most districts, we have a resource centre.  For many years it was led by a district librarian, a director of instruction, a number of resource teachers, several clerks and two couriers a week to carry resources to and from schools.  Then, over years there were reductions.  By last year, only one clerk, a few resource teachers, none with specific leadership over collection, and a weekly courier remained.  However, a group of people said – this is an important resource that, with some effort on our part, can be improved to meaningfully support teachers and their students.  Keeping in mind limited budgets and very limited clerical support, the group of mostly teacher-librarians set to work to solve the problem.  The plan grew organically as the group worked together and with others.
  • Use a portion of the budget to bring in teacher-librarian teams to weed and rethink the aging collection for more effective, equitable and efficient use.
  • Create digital “rooms” with lesson plans, online resources and teacher-mentor contacts to supplement the resources and support effective use.
  • Build a “learning commons” at the District Resource Centre – a virtual and physical space for educators to learn, think, share, and grow.
  • Develop a social media presence to showcase the resources, as well as to provide a way for educators to engage in co-creating a space that meets their needs.
  • Connect with and leverage the many passionate groups of educators to co-develop the resources.
Getting started took courage, commitment and enormous swaths of time.  The group had to learn about social media, digital collections, and learning commons.  They consulted with provincial colleagues, their staffs, and the various learning groups in our district (educators passionately working together are commonplace, but leaders rarely notice them if their interest doesn't dovetail with the Plan).  The work spilled over, of course, to after-school and weekends.  Within months, phase one of what at first seemed impossible had been completed.  Needless to say, a good deal was left to do, but the team that included passionate clerks and technicians, the teacher-librarians, and a growing number of others excited by the excitement and the invitation to participate were looking forward to restarting in September.

But in September, under new leadership, the district reorganized; the limited leadership at the DRC was removed and the project ground to a halt.  A retired superintendent from a different jurisdiction was brought in to tour the DRC and pronounced it inadequate.  The decision was made to close the facility and disperse the resources.

There is now a Plan for Change.  All the difficulties our district currently faces will be fixed.  If only teachers weren't “resistant.” If only they would take the time to learn, to go to the book club, to join the committees, attend the workshops.

The problem isn't that it is a bad Plan.  It is simply that when leaders announce a plan rather than growing it,  they blindly, blithely, overlook the passion in their midst:  years of committed work is dismantled, careful building over time is kicked over, passionate commitment is bled dry as each new leader – at a school, at the district, in the province – announces their new Plan for Change.

It’s surprisingly easy to demotivate a staff.  All you have to do is to create a Plan and then push, prod, and pigeon-hole people to fit it.  You must simply demolish, devalue, omit and overlook passionate work. You need to spend resources trying to “motivate” people to do what you want them to do, rather than engaging their intelligence, their creative energy, and their passionate commitment.  You must merely forget that the answer isn't in a plan, but in the people.