Wednesday, April 24, 2013

More empathy, less apathy

"Treat people with understanding when you can, and fake it when you can't until you do understand."- Kim Harrison

I'm going to admit publicly that there was a time I uttered the phrase "It must be nice to be an administrator. No lesson plans, no grading. They are never around. Always in meetings and who knows what they do?" Admit it. You've probably said it too.  I'm not proud of it.  But an interesting thing happened to me in my new role as a full time learning coach. I began to see the many different roles we all play in helping students learn. And I have had colleagues tell me "It must be nice to be a coach. No lesson plans, no grading. We never see you. You are always in meetings. What exactly do you do again?" It doesn't feel so nice.

This post is not about me justifying my job as a coach, nor is it about making others feel bad for me. It's about empathy. It's about trying to see things from a different perspective. It's about teachers being willing to explore more than just their own classroom needs. It's about administrators being willing to put aside their building or district needs to help support the realities of each individual classroom teacher and their students. It's about us checking our ego at the door and doing what is best for all. It's about committing to more communication and collaboration.  It's about each of us seeking to understand the vital and important role we each play in the life of every child who walks through our doors. As Angela Maiers would say it's truly believing that each and every one of us matters.

As teachers, we are quick to shift the burden of blame onto our colleagues, our building principal, district administration, parents and far too often: onto our students. So here is my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself blaming someone (or something)  else: stop, pause, count to ten, and then try and envision the life and experiences of the person you are blaming. Think about what they might be feeling about this situation. Think about what their reality might be like. Try and put yourself in their shoes. Try to see the world through their eyes.  Ask yourself why they make the choices they do. Don't accuse them. Don't judge them. Don't put them into a  little box. Don't label them.  This is tough work. Especially if you don't know them well or have rarely engaged in deep conversation with them.

Now here comes the tougher part: Go sit beside them and genuinely seek to understand them and the decisions they have made.

Ask them for their perspective. Ask them to share their ideas and philosophies. Don't question or challenge them. Seek to understand. Listen. Be present with them. Take the time to establish a relationship built on honest dialogue and respect. It does not mean you must agree with them.  Acknowledge their truths. Don't try to fix them or change them. Accept that their perceptions are their realities.

Far too many believe that what ails public education is out of their control. What we can control is how we relate to one another. If you are a teacher: When was the last time you had an honest and respectful  conversation with a colleague you disagreed with? When was the last time you had an honest and respectful conversation with your building principal about the culture and structures of the building? When was the last time you went and sat in the office of the superintendent and had an honest and respectful conversation about your hopes and dreams for the students in your district?  If you are an administrator: When was the last time you asked your teachers to share their perspectives on the culture of your building? When was the last time you sat down one on one with a teacher and asked them about their vision and dreams?   When was the last time you opened up about your own dreams for your school?

We all have responsibility in seeking out and continuing the conversation.  As teachers, we speak of being frustrated, paralyzed, demoralized, and  apathetic. But we are not in this boat alone. We row alongside students, parents, and administrators who are equally frustrated, paralyzed, demoralized, and apathetic because they feel that their voice is lost and that they too are misunderstood. We will always have differences in opinion and perspective. We will always have different experiences that shape our realities. But we have much more in common than we realize. More importantly, we have the one true thing in common: a love and desire to help others learn and grow.

We can change the culture of our classrooms, buildings, and communities one conversation at a time. We can eliminate a culture of blame.  It begins with empathy. Seek to understand. And fake it until you finally do.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Collaboration is not a time, it's a mindset.

Although it has always been true, the need for collaboration has become an increasingly vital aspect of supporting student learning in schools today. PLC’s (as defined by DuFour and Marzano ) cannot function effectively without a collaborative spirit: collaboratively created goals, collaboratively collected data and analysis, and collaboratively problem-solved. For educators, the term “collaboration” truly means different things and without getting into all those visions, the one aspect that seems to get in the way of “collaboration” is time.  “If we were just given time to collaborate, we would do it more.” is often echoed across the educational landscape.  While no one will argue that time is not a factor, there are ways to utilize technology to create efficiency before and during the collaborative process.  
In our school district we have various district provided tools that should support the collaborative mindset. Being a Google Apps for Education district provides synchronous collaboration primarily through Google Docs as well as Google+, and Google Hangouts. . As part of the Blended Schools consortium, we also have access to a wide range of collaborative tools in Blackboard such as BBim (instant messaging) and BB Collaborate which provides a powerful real time virtual classroom with whiteboards, screen sharing, and break out rooms.  Teachers have access to Skype, unfiltered access to Twitter, and in the coming months, an upgrade to Microsoft’s newest cloud based services: Office 365 for education. Even in a district who does not make these resources readily available, throw in the ability to use wiki’s, youtube and other video sharing sites, and participating in learning communities and you have opportunities for collaboration not only across schools but across continents and oceans as well. We exist in a time where collaboration is  more possible now  than ever before and it can transcend physical location...and time.
In a local school or district, collaboration is often referred to as a “time” when in reality, it needs to be  a mindset. As educators, we shouldn’t wait for “time”  provided for us to collaborate when we have access to so many different tools to begin and support the process. School and district leadership who value collaboration acknowledge the significance and importance of face to face collaboration and schedule it as often as possible.  These opportunities need to be more available than just two or three times a year. And while having dedicated time daily would be ideal, the realities and economics of public education in America just won’t support this on a large scale. The truth is, as educators we need to accept that a collaborative mindset requires us to recognize that frequent face to face collaboration with all members of a PLC is not likely or even realistic.
A wise principal in my district (@debglock) once asked “What can we do on a professional development day (non-instructional day)  that we can’t do any other way? What can we do during a faculty meeting that we can’t do any other way?”  I love these questions because they imply that we need to maximize the usefulness and impact of the precious time we spend face to face.   This question applies to teacher collaboration as well. “What can we do in our face to face collaboration that can’t be done in another way?”  Thinking like this requires commitment, perseverance, transparency, patience,  honesty, trust,  flexibility and a willingness to learn and communicate in different (and sometimes better) ways.  Interestingly, these are the same kinds of skills we wish our students to exemplify.
If we are being honest with one another, we don’t always maximize our face to face time either. We spend it complaining, gossiping, and in task avoidance. We aren’t always willing to listen to one another’s ideas and core beliefs. We aren’t always willing to admit our own failures.  We aren’t always willing to engage in the hard conversations that hold one another accountable to the goal or the process. We aren’t always willing to help our colleagues come to their own new learnings. We often take the conversations that happen behind closed doors and judgmentally share them with other colleagues.  In other words, we aren’t always the best collaborators. We say we want more collaboration, but what would we do with it if we were given the opportunity?
The collaborative mindset is less about the tools we use to accomplish our goals and more about the desire to do whatever it takes to help students learn. The good news is, all of this is in our control. All of us can commit to one another to maximize the face to face time engaging in the deep and meaningful conversations. We can all take on the necessary roles to function as an effective and collaborative PLC. We can be honest and establish and support trusting relationships with one another. We can be transparent about our goals,  process, and results while also maintaining and rewarding the confidence of our colleagues and their opinions.  We can be open to trying new means of communicating, sharing, and working through digital tools that help keep the process and conversation ongoing between face to face meetings. Collaboration is an ongoing  conversation. It is not a time. It is a mindset.

This post is cross posted on the Digital Learning Environment's website blog.