Monday, June 29, 2015

Making Team Differences Work

As is typical this time of year, I am behind in my periodical reading. With great interest, I read Beth Strathman's article, 'Making Team Differences Work" from April's Educational Leadership. It aligns neatly with the other leadership pieces that I have recently read. Her article highlights four symptoms of group dysfunction and then looks at how to address them.

My thoughts
Mired in confusion
Identify and communicate essential information:
·         Group’s purpose
·         Expected outcome/deliverables
·         Skills of each individual (why are you here?)
·         Timeline
·         Groups standards
·         Decision-making process
No question, if the group doesn’t know why it is together there is little opportunity for success.
I was part of a PLC that was given a title- secondary math- but no goal. At our first meeting we needed to set a purpose and goal. Fortunately, I was with some people who were motivated to be successful and we were able to set a goal, calendar and deliverable. It would have been much smoother if this had been set up prior to our meeting.
Things get personal
Establish and enforce group norms such as:
·         Time of meeting
·         Expectations for punctuality
·         Location of meetings
·         Cell phone use
·         Avoid restating what has been said
·         “yes and” technique
·         Avoid judgments- focus on facts
I love that she addressed the avoid restating issue. This is a pet peeve of mine. If it has been said, you can use the “yes, and…” idea rather than going over the same ground again. Further, if someone arrives late, it is disrespectful of everyone else to recap what he missed. Minutes can be read or catching up with the leader of a team partner can be used.
Off-line discussions
Hold group members accountable for bringing up issues at meetings. Gossip and hurt feelings get shared with some, but not all, if each member is not working to avoid this behavior. Leading questions like, “What preparations do you need, so you can bring this up at our next meeting?” can positively divert these discussions.
In PTA we talk about parking lot discussions. The meeting ends, some people gather in the lot and share their dismay over a person or issue or concern. People need to be safe- trust that their disagreements, self or concerns will not be discarded, ignored or ridiculed. (Back to the personal comments above.)
Lackluster discussions leave things undecided
Dig deeper and highlight dissenting viewpoints. Encourage devil’s advocate thinking to be sure to address all aspect of a decision.
This one flows from the previous ones. Good teams have hearty debate. They do not have mutual agreement or consensus all the time. They need to think about the other side of the coin and be sure .they address those concerns. It helps build buy in.

When school committees fail to appreciate the true value of diverse teams, they reduce their effectiveness. When people squelch debate, they breed unrest. When teams lack purpose, they will lack commitment. We can create effective teams that improve education, but we must teach the team work skills that will lead us there. Many people avoid conflict and decision-making, but these are the essence of good choices and direction. We need to embrace them. Ms. Strathman's article does a great job of explaining some critical components of team work. It would be great reading for a group to help them establish a successful working relationship.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Good to Great

Jim Collins's Good to Great reiterates ideas I have read about elsewhere. One such idea is passion. Fish! is a now classic business text that focuses on passion. Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate book uses passion as his first element. Collins puts passion in his hedgehog trilogy: what you are deeply passionate about, what drives your economic engine, and what can you be the best in the world at. While the other two authors do look at trying to develop passion, Collins leaves that to the individual. It makes so much sense that passion is essential- if you are going to put hundreds of hours into something you will be far more likely to be at the top of your game if you care deeply than if it is just a job. Your outside life benefits when your job feeds your soul as well. Conversely if your job consistently sucks you dry, if you dread going to work, if you could switch jobs at a moments notice, you will not give your job the best and your home life will suffer.

When I walk around the halls of schools and see teachers drag, constantly frown and reluctantly head to their classrooms, they have no passion. They will not bring their A game on a regular basis and their students will suffer. When administrators see their staff behave like this, they cannot be satisfied, they need to help the teacher find his passion again. That could mean recommending a sabbatical, offering to change course loads- or keeping it consistent in the face of change. It could be a sit down to talk about the great things that are going on in a student's life, the teacher's classroom, or the school. It could be about recommending a long weekend to recharge and/or deal with pressing issues. It might mean counseling or therapy to deal with personal issues holding a person back. It might mean counseling a change in job. Teachers who lack passion are a drag on the school and on students themselves. Schools cannot be great if their teachers lack passion. I am not just talking pep rally, loud enthusiasm. Some will have that. Others will have a quiet passion. Both are valid. We cannot force one on the other.

Debate is seen as important to team building (for example see Five Dysfunctions of a Team). This is another cornerstone of great organizations and teams. It also is the arena that can result in hamstringing professionals. A healthy organization not only tolerates debate, it demands it. When people are not free to speak up because of ego issues or trust issues, the organization will falter. This is true in schools as well. If the administrator cannot accept a teacher, even a very junior teacher, questioning a plan, then the administrator is promoting mediocrity. If a teacher cannot accept a criticism from a  student about a class being boring, then the rest of the classes will be boring. If a teacher cannot accept a criticism from an administrator, then the teacher cannot develop. If a school cannot accept criticism from a parent then it nullifies a piece of the educational puzzle and will not provide a first class education. Debate improves us. yes, it can be quite uncomfortable and people need to learn to debate and question well, but it is essential to our becoming and then staying great.

" their bureaucratic rules to manage a small percentage of wrong people on the bus..." p. 121. Perhaps this truism is the most insightful of the book. Why do I need to punch in and out of work to verify my time in office- because a couple of people, in an organization of over 1000, struggled with getting in on time. All this strategy makes me want to do is figure out how to game the system. Why did I need to sign off with 5 secretaries as having completed my job at the end of a school year? Because some people failed to follow the rules. The challenge is that it is difficult to discipline, no less fire, an employee in teaching. If the bureaucracy infuriates you, follow the rules professionally, encourage ways of applying pressure to follow the rules for people who fail to do so.  We cannot be professional if we will not police ourselves. Constrictive bureaucracy leads to a loss of the best people. Can schools really afford that?

One of Collins' key points is getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Schools are especially reluctant to do this. Cost of disciplining, no less firing, a teacher who does not fit the current organization is prohibitive. While teachers need some protections against frivolous firing, the current system intimidates administration. To compound the problem, teaching, unlike other professions is not a transferable job. If you leave a position, you start again at the bottom and last in first out principles limit employability. The best teachers should be a premium- districts should fight over them and protect them. Collins admits this is a challenge, but see patience as a critical feature in creating a staff with the correct people in the right places.

Schools can be become great, but they need to figure out how to establish an adequately-sized, great staff in the correct positions. They need to celebrate debate and minimize bureaucracy. They need to be places of great passion for learning. We can make our schools great, but it cannot be following tradition. We need to be intrepid innovators, not stoic survivors.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Games as learning reinforcement

Marzano identified games as potent ways to develop vocabulary understanding and reinforcing learning. For years teachers have used this strategy to review- vocabulary BINGO, Jeopardy, and sports themed activities are just a few common ones. Below is a game I created for my second grade student. The images are shamelessly pulled from Google images. Feel free to use the game yourself.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mathematics the write way

Two decades ago Marilyn S. Neil wrote Mathematics the Write Way: Activities for Every Elementary Classroom. The NCTM had published their professional standards which included writing to explain problem solving and writing in the content area was a catch phrase. She begins her text with a rationale for writing in math: help students clarify meaning, develop understanding, demonstrates valuing communication, combine new and old learnings, explore ideas, demonstrate learning process, apply new concepts, organize ideas, and evaluate understanding (p. 3-13). We have known for a long time that writing is important to math, but today we still hear complaints if we ask students to write in math class- especially if we ask that they follow the conventions of standard written English.

Today's common core curriculum put an emphasis on writing in math. On tests, students are not only asked to solve problems, but to explain how they did it. In class conversations discussing ideas are being prioritized. Students still hate to write in math. For the struggling learners that I work with this is especially true. They often have weak understandings of what they are doing so their explanations are weak. They struggle with the written word, so thinking through writing is not seen as doable. We have kids who have scribes and access to notes. They are especially unlikely to really think through writing. We are shooting our kids in the feet when we intercept their writing, yet we do it.

How can we incorporate writing in math for our struggling learners?

My first thought is interactive notebooks. Have the classroom notes provided on the right side of the notebook and on the left have students write, draw, and solve problems. Nonlinguistic representations, one of Marzano's key learning strategies, can be brought to bear: Ex draw the word problem out. They might need to start with actual manipulatives and act out the word problem. We still need them to write. Provide sentence frames:
  • Analogies: solving two digit subtraction problems is like a(n) ____________ because ______________.
  • compare/contrast: Squares are like rhombi because _______, but different because _____.
  • Sequence: First you, _______. Second you, _________. Third you, _____, etc.
You could ask them to describe to an adult the steps, record key words and then have the student write sentences with the key words.

Ms. Neil suggests having students write their own word problems illustrating the concepts being discussed. For example write a word problem showing addition could be I had seven cookies and bought three more at the store. How many did I have altogether? This strategy works easily with many elementary students but we hesitate with older students. These students who ask, "When I ever going to use this?" benefit from having to discover it. If you are learning exponents, write problems involving compound interest. If you are learning to use a protractor they can divide a cake into even portions. If you are learning about dividing fractions you can cut partial pizzas into portions. You can solve for slope of water lines to promote the fastest movement of water through a tunnel. You could ask students to write one word problem per homework assignment and then solve the assigned problems. It might be more motivating even if it is harder to grade.

This book is an easy read. It is practical and relevant today when we need to get kids to write in math more than ever. While the target audience is elementary, I think some of the strategies scale up well. It might take a group with some creative thinkers  to try and develop prompts for any particular class, but with some thought, it can be done. This is a great entry point for a reluctant writing in math teacher.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Leading teams

James Dyke's Leading Teams: How to Inspire , Motivate, Lead and Succeed is a leadership how to. It is written in clear, short chapters, each ending with a section called an action step. This is potentially the most valuable part of the book. He asks you to actively participate in the work of becoming a better leader.

Chapter three, for example, introduces a concept of SAVE: support, affirm, validate, and encourage. These are used to assist with demonstrating compassion. The action step for that chapter involves thinking about SAVE for each team member. A chart is provided to record each team member and words/phrases that reflect SAVE values for that individual in his particular situation.

Chapter sixteen's focus is on conquering crisis, conflict,conduct and contingency. It is one of the longer chapters in the book at thirteen pages. It lists a variety of strategies that can be used to address problem employees,refereeing interpersonal disputes, managing when stuff hits the fan, conquering crisis, and managing succession. The action steps for this chapter involve identifying problem behavior and scripting a conversation and using a meeting to teach problem solving techniques.

While the book might benefit from more vignettes demonstrating the strategies he is discussing, the readable nature of the book, focus on planning improvement and concentration on excellence all contribute to it being a valuable leadership resource.