Sunday, April 26, 2015

When Your Strengths Blindside You

I have had an epiphany.

Not a world changing, best thing since sliced bread kind of sudden enlightenment, but one that might help with my own leadership.

One of the books I am reading is  The Principal: Three Keys to Maximising Impact  by Michael Fullan.  It is a follow up from his book Whats Worth Fighting for in Principalship (also a jolly good read) and in it, he further defines what he sees as leadership, what needs to change and how these changes can make an impact on the whole system - not just one school at a time.  It is an easy read, and one that challenges our notions of instructional leadership vs being a learning leader.

It is not the book itself that I want to write about this time, but a book called Fear Your Strengths by Kaplan and Kaiser, that Fullan cited.  In their book they talk about how sometimes in leadership, what was once your finest quality, and usually the very quality or qualities that saw you fly up the corporate or leadership ladder early in your career, can sometimes be your biggest downside.  They talk about how that quality or qualities that you are known for, can also become your biggest barrier or blindspot.  An example they use is, if you are known for being deeply passionate this can lead to you becoming overbearing.  

If we apply this thinking to instructional leadership, Fullan makes the point that in the current climate facing education, it could be an easy trap for leaders to fall into, as they try hard to be all the things needed to be to meet the competing demands of a difficult educational world.  In that situation, it could be easy to go overboard as an instructional leader and to turn into a micromanager.  An example would be an over emphasis on data analysis to the detriment of relationships with your teachers!  However, as a learning leader, one would know what their strengths are, and conversely, look to ensure that those strengths were not over utilised to the point they became a weakness.  

It really struck a chord with me.  Especially the deeply passionate!  That is me to a capital T.  It occurred to me that actually, sometimes my 'deeply passionate' strength would come across as over zealous and overbearing to some people.  Not on purpose, but of course, if you don't stop and look at yourself, including what your strengths might look like if they went to the 'dark side', then you would never know how to counter balance them.   

When I reflected on this, it gave me cause to stop and think about what my own strengths are and what it might look like if I was too enthusiastic in how I displayed those strengths.  

Herein lies the epiphany.   

Too much of one thing can lead to a lack of doing whatever is its counterbalance, and as a result, this will have a less than positive impact on your leadership and what you are wanting to achieve.  

To be honest, I feel a bit naive.  All these years in leadership and I have not really looked at what the adverse reaction to my strengths might be.  Seems so logical when I stop and analyse it.  I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses - but to link the two and make the correlations - that was the missing link! 

Just like the one hit wonder music on our airwaves that we tire of easily, so too is the risk of overdoing our greatest strength.   Make sure you don't over plug your 'song' to the point that it is overly loud or played to the point people are sick of it.   Modulate you volume switch!  Learn when to turn it down or to turn it off altogether.   (note to self - don't just write it - do it)

It is important to know your strengths - if you don't know your strengths then you have no way to calibrate or modulate them with what you need to counterbalance. Overdoing is rated as just as ineffective as under-doing!  

If you are not sure where to start in terms of what your strengths are and what to do about them should they become a weakness, begin with these 6 ideas. 

1. Find out your strengths. You can look at your last 360 appraisal (if you have done one) or use one of the many different leadership and personality tools out there (a quick google search will net you with many links from Myers-Briggs to Gallup).  If all else fails - ask your team. 

2. Find out which of your strengths you overdo - and the best way to do this is to get really good feedback from the people you work with.   Sometimes being direct is a fabulous strength, but it becomes your achilles heel when you are too direct and the perception is that you are a big bossy boots!

3. Find a sounding board - this can either be another leader in your team or a person you trust, who can tell you if you go overboard.  For example, I can be quite direct at times, and sometimes I might not notice I have been too direct.  I appreciate if people tell me if they feel I was a bit blunt.  I especially rely on my Senior Leadership Team to tell me if my 'passion' is too passionate or if I am being 'over the top' - I might not always know, and I live by the mantra that I can not fix it if I do not know about it.  Whilst you can tell people to 'let you know' when you are in a position of leadership, the fact you are in a position of 'power' (perceived or real) places a strain on some people who might feel it is too hard to tell you directly.  It is important to be aware of this, so finding someone in a similar role to you can be helpful, to play as your 'sounding board'.

4. Figure out what the tell tale signs are when you 'overdo' your strength.  Is there a physical response?  ( do you feel the tension in your shoulders, etc) If you can find your triggers then you can flick into self constraint mode and use some will power.   I suspect this is not something I am particularly good at, or I would throw out some more sage advice!  If I find the magic answer to not falling into the trap of 'overdoing' by understanding my own triggers I will write a book on it and let you all know!! In the meantime, suffice to say, talk to your loved ones and friends initially as those who know you well will know what your signs of over playing your strengths look like - once you know you can start to work out when you do it.  I would suggest you ask them for examples as concrete examples help you learn far more effectively than 'oh you know how you get angry when you are passionate about an issue and people don't care as much as you!'.  In that situation you are more likely to be 'oh, I didn't know I really, does it look angry?  Ohhh?' A concrete example might help you more than a vague generalisation.  (that is often the issue with 360 appraisals but that is another post for another day when I am feeling more brave)

5. Increase what you don't do enough of.  Find out what things people would like you to do more of, and start to do more of those.  First look at what holds you back from doing more of something.  If fear holds you back, figure out what that is and ask yourself 'what holds me back'.  Will power is helpful here as well - force yourself to do more of what you find difficult.  You may be surprised by how positive the outcome is!

6. Look at your mindset.  A fixed mindset in this situation is that pulling back on a strength might seem counter intuitive.  After all, you got where you are by being strong, passionate and by displaying your particular strength - how might this now be causing issues?  With a growth mindset, you would be looking at the situation dispassionately, realising that pulling back sometimes is not a bad thing.  Looking at something from the perspectives of someone else is always helpful.  For example, you might be a big believer in innovation and doing the 'next best thing' that opportunity passes your way, not realising that when you do that all the time, your team can't handle the constant changes.  Stopping and looking at continuity, consistency and what you might have to drop to implement something new might be the change you need to tone down your strength so that it is manageable for all the team.

In an ideal world all of us would be able to read the situation just 'right' and apply the right skill, value or action.  Alas, the world is not at all perfect and as such knowing which strength we need to tone down and which strength we need to turn up, is a tricky balance of experience, quality feedback and an ability to leave our ego at the door.   Being able to counter balance our strengths by knowing when to use them wisely, all the while improving our weaknesses by tuning them in and up, is a leadership skill worth honing.  Better to know than allow your strengths to blindside you! 

For an infographic on 8 strengths and their associated weaknesses that I created to assist you - click here. 

Strengths Vs Weaknesses

In a previous post, I wrote about how sometimes your strengths as a leader can blindside you and become your weakness. You can read about that here. As a leader, it is always a good thing to know more about ourselves so that we can continue to improve and do the best we can. After some thought on the matter, I decided to create a quick chart with some of the more common strengths a leader may have and what it might look like if those strengths became an achilles heel.

The chart below shows 8 strengths that can become a weakness if overdone.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Modern Learning Environment or Mindset?


To clarify MLE meaning Modern Learning Environment and MLM meaning Modern Learning Mindset (self derived title, I confess).  

As a teacher I coveted the new and shiny.  I loved fancy new furniture, concepts and cute gadgets and due to budget constraints I 'made do' with my own versions of the new fangled.  It is amazing how you can transform your classroom space into different learning 'zones' with a simple cardboard box and real kiwi ingenuity (a husband with creative skills was also an added bonus).    In some ways I think I may have been well ahead of my time.  My classroom had 'waterholes' and 'campfires' and 'caves'  well before such terms as these were invented.  Frankly, it just seemed common sense to set up a classroom with variable spaces for learning. I knew students learnt in different ways, some needing quiet, others more collaborative, and setting up spaces within my classroom to foster this was as natural as breathing.  

It was this understanding that students thrive in variable spaces and when provided with different  opportunities to learn in a manner that suits them, that also made me covet teachers who had the opportunity to work within collaborative work spaces.  Especially in new schools, where furniture buying was not a barrier.

Interestingly, as a principal I still feel the flutterings of envy when I see the variable learning spaces and opportunities that new builds can afford.  Especially when I look at how much money I have to spend on buildings, how my 50 year old school is currently designed (which makes redesign a little bit harder - ok - a lot harder) and then feel the constraints of the 'rules'.  By the time I have factored in the first two priorities - the first being health and safety, and the second essential infrastructure (we are over 50 years old - there is always something else that needs dealt with on the property front, from drains to hard play areas being ruined by tree roots).  There is never enough money left for the final priority, which is modern learning environments.  Nothing sucks up money like school property.    

I have been fortunate to have experienced the designing of a new school and the incredible freedom you have when you look at what is important for learning and teaching, and when you have a blank canvass.  It is quite exciting to look at space and determine its use and how it matches your vision.  Although the design never had the opportunity to be more than lines on a page (long story) the process was an interesting one.  

Here's the interesting thing about MLE.  It is not about the physical (as in building space and furniture) but about the mindset.  

On the surface of it, new schools and new builds are exciting.  The opportunity to do something special and to really be innovative appears to be all laid out and ready to be capitalised on.  I have seen stunning examples of how new schools and redesigned spaces have allowed teachers to set up flexible, open and accessible learning spaces.  Whilst the fancy furniture and flexibly designed spaces assist it is not the space or furniture that makes the difference.  It is the teacher.  They are the key driver that makes the spaces come alive as they implement modern pedagogy and work collaboratively alongside students.  In that situation the modern environment exists to complement and support good educational outcomes.

It is the modern mindset teachers' have about teaching and learning that makes the difference.  A flexible learning environment with movable walls is pointless if the teacher closes the wall and creates a single cell environment.  All the expensive furniture and technology any teacher could wish for is useless if the teacher reverts to traditional pedagogical practices and fails to maximise its potential.  I have been to 'modern' schools where they espouse to be 21st century, cutting edge providers of modern teaching and learning, only to find 1950s' pedagogy complete with desks in rows, and methodologies no different from when I was a child.  

That is not to say that if I was gifted the opportunity to redesign our classrooms (with our community) that we would not do so.  The likelihood of this transpiring is microscopic.  I do not have enough control of the actual physical space to the extent I would like but as a school we do have full control over the most crucial of all drivers for MLE.  

We have control over our Modern Learning Mindset.  

We may not have the flexible spaces that enable observations of our colleagues with ease on an everyday basis, but we do have the ability to go and observe each other - some moveable walls should not be a barrier to that.  We may not have flexible learning spaces, but we can change what we do have with ingenuity and creativity.   We can be innovative with furniture - if we choose to.  It may be harder for us to collaborate from a single cell classroom environment, but it is not impossible.  Furniture and learning spaces do not stop us from being innovative, creative or from growing our understanding of what it is to be a modern educator and what 21st century learning looks like, feels like and simply is.  It does not stop us from co constructing learning with our students and our community and it sure does not stop us from growing student agency.  In fact, it makes us work harder to find solutions.  

As a teacher I sought solutions to creating flexible teaching and learning opportunities within my classroom, and it is this mindset that has laid the foundations to do the same as a school leader.  As a school leader I look at what we can do to create the space (pedagogical, creative and where we can, physical) for our teachers to be innovative and collaborative.  To find ways to support their MLM and to grow them as educators.  I will still secretly covet your MLE, but only from the viewpoint that our MLM could really make them fly. 

So I leave you with this, it is not about Modern Learning Environments but more about Modern Learning Mindsets.  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Find the Space and Recharge

I have been taking a bit of a break for the last week.  

The first term of the year has been exceptionally busy and very full on, complete with an ERO review (successful, more on that in another post) in the last week of term.  I figured the first week of the Easter Holiday break could be mine.  In fact, I knew I deserved an opportunity to unwind, reconnect with my family - you know the drill, be the wife Technoman married, and the Mum Squirt should see at least every now and again- and recharge.  

I have spent the last week sleeping in, cooking delicious concoctions, socialising and doing very little.   I have even cleaned out the pantry.  You wouldn't believe it, but I have found the space (figuratively and literally) to read several books!! Real books, with real stories - not a single educational or leadership concept cleverly hidden within.  Of course, to make room for such non techie pursuits one has to also take some time away from the digital world.  This last week I have only dabbled with social media, just for fun.  Part of this break has included not posting here.  

It has been hard, not posting. 

So much has happened this last week that has given me pause for thought or quite simply brassed me off.  In some respects, it takes more self control not to write under these circumstances than you would imagine.  

An upside about not prematurely posting is the reflection time you gain.  It is not to say I won't be posting about some of the things I have been thinking about, but when/if I do, it should afford me a depth to the writing that I wouldn't have necessarily had if I had 'rushed in'. 

On that note, it brings me to the point of this post.  It is not to simply bore you with the mundane things that have filled my life in the last few days, but to highlight two important learnings about the last week that all of us with busy lives, especially educators and educational leaders, have to remember.  

1. One must recharge 

I have been living on coffee, long hours and bad habits, for the majority of the first term.   I know that  going to the gym, and eating a good diet is critical when my schedule is busy.   However, towards the end of term when there was just one meeting after another, many of which were at night after already putting in a 12 hour day, all my own advice went out the window.   In that case, my gym gear simply took a ride in the car each day.  The thought of putting in an hour at the gym after all that time working, meaning Squirt would be in bed by the time I got home, was a sacrifice I was willing to make.  Instead, another coffee, and onto the next thing.  

Not every term is like this, and not every week is this hectic and gruelling.  What is true however, is that burning the proverbial candle at both ends will take its toll.  Recharging is critical.  Just like our phones, we don't work well when our batteries are going flat.  In theory we should be finding 'recharging stations' every day, but sometimes we get to the end of term and fall into an exhausted heap at the feet of our loved ones!   Then we are no good to anyone and worse still, we get sick.  Take some time out to do the things you love and don't feel guilty if you do not go back into work every day of the 'holidays'.  Which brings us to space - in order to recharge, you need to give yourself some space. 

2. One must find space 

Finding space is about creating time for the things that you need and want to do so that you can recharge.  In order to find the space you need, it is important to understand what it is that steals your time and then find ways to address it.  One of my big time stealers is the digital world.  One moment you are checking your FB or Twitter feed and the next several hours have flown by.  That is why this last week I have switched off and found pursuits that are tech free.  

When you find 'space' you free your mind to focus on other things.  You are more likely to be creative and reflective.  More importantly, you owe it to yourself to unwind and find the space you need to be the best person you are capable of being.  It can be hard to unwind when you are as tightly wound up as a coiled spring, but space for your pursuits and for yourself are important.   Don't feel bad about switching your email off and avoiding work related things.  They will still be there next week and if it is super urgent someone will contact you.  I am much better at this now and part of my 'space finding' journey starts with switching off the email.  As an educational leader this one is hard because you are always the first port of call and your responsibility doesn't end just because the term is over.  But as I have already said, if they need you they will find you.  

To sum up, prevention is far better than a cure.   If you can find time to recharge your batteries during the term, and the space and time you need to stop and reflect, this is ultimately better for you than having to wait until term end.  

However, life is never as simple as this.  Often practice and theory do not always match.  Should you find yourself with the kind of term I had where all your good intentions and knowledge was sacrificed for temporary survival, then I do urge you to make it a priority that you have a holiday and a good break when you do get to terms end.  The public do not always understand the pressures you are under, but do know this - you work hard and you deserve to be the person you know you are, not a shadowy husk that stress and over commitment has hollowed out.   Find the space you need to recharge.

Be kind to yourself - who you are makes a difference!   

Friday, April 3, 2015

Racketeering, Really?


An interesting word that conjures up all kinds of images in my head.  Images of machine guns, crime lords leading violent crime syndicates, fast and expensive cars, murder, mayhem and all manner of dubious dark deadly deeds!   I picture scenes out of The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano is issuing hits on those who challenge his authority.  Admittedly, all images manufactured from watching too many CSI shows and Hollywood movies with handsome lead actors!  

It is interesting to look at the meaning of racketeering (I promise there is a point to why soon).  When you look at the definition of racketeering from The Free Dictionary (Legal), you can quickly see that the mental images we have are not too far from the actual reality of what racketeering is.  See definition below. 


Traditionally, obtaining or extorting money illegally or carrying on illegal business activities, usually by Organized Crime . A pattern of illegal activity carried out as part of an enterprise that is owned or controlled by those who are engaged in the illegal activity. The latter definition derives from the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act (RICO), a set of laws (18 U.S.C.A. § 1961 et seq. [1970]) specifically designed to punish racketeering by business enterprises.n. the federal crime of conspiring to organize to commit crimes, particularly as a regular business ("organized crime" or "the Mafia").
Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

What I don't think of when I think of racketeering, is of teachers or principals.  In no universe, my own or any parallel, do I see a correlation with racketeering and education.  

So let us imagine for a moment, what racketeering in education MIGHT look like, if we were to apply such a term to something taking place in education.  If I was to write a Hollywood movie where racketeering was the main thrust, this is a rough idea of what it might look like;

School principals are 'encouraged' by key State authorities to implement a number of policies.  They must all employ specific science teachers and not ask questions.  Schools must also implement state mandated contracts in areas such as cleaning and canteens, and administer particular testing regimes with tests that are designed by only one 'contractor'.  Schools must make sure that students grades are above national averages and show continued improvement and high achievement in order to keep national officials and the FBI from suspecting the real truth - that school science labs are being used to create synthetic drugs.  In addition, students who are constantly failing to make the 'grade' and have the potential to make the schools look bad, are quietly whisked away to the 'Academy Farm' for special instruction but are never seen again.

State authorities are controlled by a Crime Syndicate known as the 'Corporation'.  The Corporation is responsible for the creation of all tests and own all businesses that supply the contracts - they handle the manufacturing and distribution of all drugs created in the science labs.  Principals or teachers who show concern or ask too many questions are 'taken out'.  

We should probably throw in some fast cars and machine guns for good measure and of course, we would need two brave heroes to save the day!  One handsome and well built PE teacher and a beautiful but feisty young teacher who just wants to save her 6 year olds!

Now, that is what I would expect racketeering in an educational setting might look like.  Possibly a rubbish movie, but roughly what I would expect should racketeering occur within an educational context (yes, I have a good imagination).  

What I would not expect is the truth.  

Just this week, 11 educationalists (teachers, a principal and administrators) from Atlanta were convicted for racketeering.  They had been caught inflating test scores on standardised tests.  In total there were 35 indicted in 2013 by a grand jury but some had taken a plea bargain.    

Cheating on test scores.  

Not much of a Hollywood blockbuster movie in that, but those convicted face 20 years in jail.   In some States, I believe, you get less time for murder.  They may have 'murdered' a few test scores but no actual child was harmed.  

Please don't get me wrong - what they did was inappropriate and not acceptable.  It makes educators, in all countries, look bad.  It was morally reprehensible and whilst I have no idea abut the actual legalities, I do know it is fraudulent to claim pay bonuses on falsified data.  Each deserved to lose their practising certificate (or US equivalent) be barred from ever teaching again, made to pay back their bonuses and be faced with a hefty fine and community service.  

Racketeering however, seems harsh.  It would seem that the only reason they were slammed with such a harsh punishment was not so much about the crime but about the chance to use their misdemeanour to send a very strong message to all educators.  Play ball, do as you are told, don't falsify testing (cheat) or be prepared to face the harshest of consequences.  

I have some sympathies for those that perpetrated this crime.  I can imagine that the pressure teachers and principals are put under in some States must be immense.  To use standardised test scores as a yard stick of what is a quality education is so flawed, I don't actually know where to start.  Suffice to say, the higher the stakes, the higher the pressure.   The pressure to achieve is hard enough here on the other side of the world, and we do not have standardised testing and we are not paid on how well our schools perform or how well our students can sit a test.  

This case is unfortunate - not just because it highlights the absurdity of high stakes testing and why pressuring a system into 'performance' is a flawed model, but because these educators missed an opportunity to show the world why the system is flawed.  Instead of exposing the problem they felt cornered into trying to cheat the system.  Now, all they have done is make the public less sympathetic and play right into the hands of the neoliberal policy maker.  The neoliberal's main agenda is to sway the public into believing teachers are bad and self interested, and that privatisation and corporate methodology is the only way to 'save' the children.  

This saddens me. 

There is some hope that may come out of this case.  On the face of it, it is still not likely to be a Hollywood blockbuster, but this story does have the makings of a jolly good documentary about why standardised testing is the ruination of our collective futures.  

If you are from my country and you are wondering why we should care then I would remind you of a few policies that have crept into our own system, and I would ask you if this particular high stakes model is one you would like to see replicated here?  (which I guess is a big fat no)

If you are from the States then I commiserate on your behalf.  I live in hope that your fellow countrymen and women see the light and realise that the success of your country has always been on your ability to produce entrepreneurs, and this kind of testing is not conducive to creativity or entrepreneuralship. 

Finally, if I was to be a little facetious, the only kind of 'racketeering' that I see happening in the education system in the States is not about inflating test scores, but in the exploitation of children forced to sit tests or attend profit driven schools.  Tests developed by a massive corporation who is focussed on making a profit from the creation, administration and marking of said tests and schools which are run by businesses focussed on profits not the creation of a Nations future. 

Wouldn't it be great if we just thought about what was in the best interests of the students. 

Further Reading: