Two “business” books that have something to say that teachers need to hear

Soapbox moment: The term “business book” troubles me because the category unnecessarily creates a degree of separation from industries (such as education) that sorely need to learn what some of the world’s great thinkers are thinking. What if we called them “insight books.” Perhaps they would wind up in teachers’ stockings around the holidays. End of moment.

Now to the books.

The brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device. -David Allen

David Allen, Getting Things Done.

Reason why teachers should read it:

  1. Teachers fill a number of positions for which they receive no formal training (budget forecasting, project management, etc.). Aside from the obvious learning gaps this presents, teachers need superb organizational skills which are largely “solved” with a visit to the Container Store. David Allen’s productivity methodology, if part of the common PD profile for teachers, would allow teachers to free up their psychic RAM (the words of the author) so that they may do the “real work”–realizing the best educational outcomes for their kids.
  2. The premise itself behind the need for GTD productivity methodology (and recently reiterated by the author during his interview on the Simplify podcast). If we took this axiom with us to planning meetings, parent meetings, PLC meetings, I suspect the decisions we make around curriculum and assessment design would see significant changes.

Kerry Patterson, et al., Crucial Conversations

Reasons why teachers should read it:

  1. Two truths about schools: they are hierarchical and they are siloed. This combination makes change difficult. The change that most impacts schools is not of the technical or mechanical sort; it is deeply linked to individual teacher philosophy and identity. (“I’m a traditional/progressive/strict/caring teacher.”)
  2. Although a hierarchy exists in schools, real change happens laterally–between teachers. In order to grow and to grow others, we need to learn the currency of communication. Crucial Conversations equips the reader with the mindset and the tactical skills to enter into a conversation with respect and purpose. Respect keeps the conversation going, but purpose will lead to actual change.

Change for change’s sake

Whether you’re a “tow-the-line” individual contributor, an mid-level manager, or a change agent in your organization, you’ve probably found that the best way to curry favor with others in your organization is to bark about the perils of “change for change’s sake.” Your belief in the default status of the status quo gives you the air of an efficiency-minded pragmatist and as one that seeks to minimize inconvenience and discomfort for your colleagues.

But are you doing them, and yourself, any favors?

The phrase “change for change’s sake” presumes that the need for novelty is at the heart of unnecessary change. By that same logic, going out for a run without a destination is lunacy.

Just as jogging conditions our bodies (and as it turns out, our brains), adopting small change conditions us to acclimate to change when there’s no other alternative but to change. If you’re a jogger, you’re probably motivated by one of two factors:

  • long-term advantages: overall fitness, heart health, reduced likelihood of disease in your “golden years”
  • short-term advantages: ability to survive bear charges, muggers, and work-sponsored fun runs

By deliberately running without destination, joggers prepare themselves for the continuous, inevitable, long-term circumstances of age as well as the sudden, unforeseeable threats to the status quo.

Instead of decrying “change for change’s sake,” consider extolling “continuous preparedness for change.”

Your lungs, muscles, brains, and your institutions will thank you for it.

“Are we there yet?” : Dealing with Organizational Change

I remember countless times sitting in the back of my parents’ mid-70’s Audi Fox enduring the many discomforts of long-distance travel.

  • hot leather seats with no A/C – Dad’s solution to everything was “open the window.”
  • sitting on “the hump” – I was the youngest of three, so I took the cards I was dealt
  • The only person with knowledge about our destination had his hands on the steering wheel. And odds are, he was fuming.

The first two are probably vestiges of a by-gone era, but the third item on this list is something most of us feeling when our employer is embroiled in long-term change.

Your organization may not be fuming, but their attention is somewhere other than, “How can I communicate this change initiative to this guy?” More likely, they are considering the appeal to all constituencies, knowing that they won’t please everybody, they are calculating the likelihood of success or what partial success might look like (and how to spin partial success as overwhelming success), and how this change might affect the culture of the organization as a whole.

They are not considering your personal opinion.

“But wait, I’m a trusted thought leader in my…”

Stop, they are not considering your personal opinion.

“Yeah, but I’m a veteran of this organization with 43 years of…”

Eh-eh-eh. Stop. They are not considering your personal opinion.

“Ok, hot shot. I’ve got my whole department under my thumb. So if they don’t listen to me I’m gonna…”

No, no, no. Sorry. They are not considering your personal opinion.

Nor should they.

For the life of me, I cannot remember who offered up this idea, but it came from a conversation about organizational change, and I’m going to botch the quote, but here goes:

An organization is a not a collection of individuals. It is a third thing, a combination of the self, of individuals, which creates a third entity out of the emergence of the same. It is one plus one equaling three. And that’s why organizations are so complex.

The opposite of fear isn’t bravery. It’s understanding.

In 2015 celebrated travel writer and Public Broadcasting staple Rick Steves keynoted the Annual Conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in San Diego. It turns out the man that I thought was simply a folksy, avuncular travel writer is actually a cuttingly deep thinker in matters of cultural literacy and global citizenship.

After breaking a few bones in my hand applauding his speech, I ran down to the conference bookstore and picked up a copy of his recently updated book Travel as a Political Act. In it, Steves lays out the case for the broadening of American perspective through global travel. He comes close to declaring an imperative.

 

Chief among his points is the fact that the collective fear we have around “the other,” which in today’s view takes on a very specific geographic/ethnic/religious context, keeps us at a distance from understanding important elements of history, economics, social justice, etc. This is the context that led him in his keynote to utter this rich idea:

The opposite of fear isn’t bravery; it’s understanding.

Staying within the context of teaching and learning, how can we apply this idea to our work, whether it be building relationships with colleagues, breaking ground on a new initiative, or executing the “last mile” of a strategic venture.

How would our perspective change if we considered resistance the product of a lack of understanding rather than cowardice or closed-mindedness?

How would this change our next interaction with a resistant faculty member?

A bias toward ownership: building agency in PLCs

PLCs work best when facilitators and members have a sense of ownership.

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A PLC facilitator recently came to me with a request to open up the weekly schedule to more PLT time. While I’m happy to weigh in, my ideal response would be “What do you think?” Teachers are highly capable of independent thought, but we’re not terribly comfortable with it. School is a hierarchical place. Pecking order and dependence is carved into our curriculum, our schedule, our buildings, and our relationships. In the independent school domain we enjoy a great deal of freedom in our teaching practice, coaching responsibilities, and extracurricular sponsorship. But when it comes to our work outside of our classroom or our work with kids, we look to “the higher-ups”–sometimes for guidance, other times for permission.

I want our PLC facilitators to feel that they can make decisions and take action independently. If ever they make a decision that I disagree with, I have two options: live with it or help them roll back that decision.

Bottom line: The gains that teams make in feeling a sense of agency and ownership far outweigh the risks–what might be retained or avoided by cultivating an ethos of deference and hierarchy.