Why Do We Do It This Way?

With all of the different roles and responsibilities we have as administrators, I have to say that one of the meetings I had today is a great example of my absolute favorite part of my job. It wasn’t the kind of meeting where everyone sits there and listens to one person pontificate or the kind where you feel like you’re just meeting to meet. Neither was it the kind of meeting where everyone shows up physically but few are engaged mentally. Nope. Not that kind of meeting.

So what was so great about it? It was cooking–the energy was flowing and everyone was actively engaged. Two principals, a guidance counselor and me, the superintendent, talking about one of our programs. Evaluating what we do now. Examining how we make decisions. Identifying areas of strength and those of weakness. Solving problems and making improvements. Answering every question I threw at them without hesitation.

How did it happen? Everyone knew ahead of time what the topic was and what I needed from him. Everyone came ready to work, we were in and out in 60 minutes, no wasted time. I asked questions that got to the heart of our practices and questioned why we do things the way that we do. And every time we realized that we did it that way because “it’s the way we’ve always done it”, we reevaluated and planned a better approach. We reviewed every one’s role moving forward before we left and clarified what we’d decided.

Sounds good, right? But what really made it work? I’ve finally been here long enough to establish trust on this particular team. The three men in the room with me all know that I’m just asking to ask; I want solid answers based on data; I don’t want everyone to agree with me just because I’m the “boss”; I love a good argument; and it’s okay to uncover mistakes. It’s how we learn and grow. I love that I’ve reached this with this team in six months. I don’t take it lightly because I know it takes time for us to understand one another and for them to trust me enough to share openly.

Too often people are afraid to have that open exchange of ideas about where we are because they don’t want to be blamed for it. If we can just take an approach that says “it is what it is” now “how can it be better?” we’ll be able to brainstorm and IMPROVE. Fear of reproach is how we end up closing the doors to our classrooms and offices and doing the same things year after year–fear of reproach for doing it the only way we knew how in the first place.

The best part of this job is taking the time to watch people work through all of the analysis and come out on the other side with a better plan than the one we walked in with–and then empowering them to make it happen. Asking the right questions. Once we leave our egos outside and trust one another, now that’s when we can really get cooking and make real change in our schools. Change that’s so slow so often because so many people are afraid of exposing the problems. Unless we get messy and really look at the parts that aren’t working–bring them out into the light and evaluate them–how does anything ever get better?

That’s the part that makes being an administrator such a blast in the first place–the chance to make something better than it was when we got there. Otherwise, what the heck are we here for?

Please note: this entry is cross posted at  Leader Talk, the online version of the national education journal Education Week. Leader Talk is the first group blog by school leaders for school leaders, it expresses the voice of the administrator in this era of school reform. I am one of the contributing authors to Leader Talk.”

My Own Chance to Learn

I’m currently attending two days of training for the superintendents of the Joint Management Team which encompasses Erie 1, Erie 2, and Catt/Alle BOCES. The session today was focused on Capacity Building, Moodle, and MUVE. Moodle is a very efficient and thorough way to offer course content to students on-line. I’ve seen teachers do such a terrific job with Moodle that their students became completely dependent on finding all of the content and resources in one spot any time they need it. Pretty cool stuff. For MUVE we got to have a look around in Second Life, a virtual world in which we could go to receive professional development opportunities–and a whole lot more is going on there than that but today we focused on the possible educational purpose.

I’ve been interested in Second Life for a while but I doubt I’ve got the patience to mess around in there long enough to see the value. It’s sort of like Twitter was for me, intriguing, but not sure how it enhances my learning or functions as a meaningful tool for my work life. The jury is still out for me on this one.

This is a relatively new group for me and I’m hoping to form relationships with the superintendents from our BOCES and strengthen the relationships I have with colleagues from Erie 1 and 2 BOCES. The amount of expertise and experience in the room is invaluable to a first year superintendent like me. Our hosts, the Western New York Regional Information Center (WNYRIC) particularly the Chief Technology Officer Carol Barber, are hoping that they can build our capacity as leaders to use 21st century tools. As Carol says in her welcome message to us,

A password-secure Superintendent’s Community resource is being provided to you as a 21st Century tool. It is a place to hone your 21st Century skills in a safe, secure environment; collaborate with your peers on topics of relevance across the WNY region; and receive up-to-date technology news and best practices.

I love this endeavor and commend Carol for her efforts. I wonder, will it be any easier to get superintendents to share ideas, ask questions, collaborate and LISTEN to each other than it is to get teachers to do the same?

After all, we’re just as used to going back to our schools and doing it our way as our teachers are used to doing the same in their classrooms. I’m ready for the collaboration, would definitely benefit from the knowledge and input of my colleagues, just questioning if we’ll actually take the necessary time to listen to one another and respond. Can we afford that kind of time? Can we afford NOT to take the time to work together, especially if it makes us all better? Hmmm. Just like what I want from my teachers, sharing ideas, learning from each other, strengthening all of us.