Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Everlasting Influence of a Great Teacher

Over the years, I have made the point of highlighting some of the many teachers who not only had a positive impact on me as a student but also have a tremendous amount of influence on me today.  In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, the stories of Mrs. Williams (kindergarten), Mr. South (middle school science), and Dr. Hynoski (high school science) were shared.  While each in its own right had an incredible impact on me as a learner and person, it wasn’t until recently that I reconnected with Mr. Wynn, my former art teacher, on Facebook.  He, by far, might have had the most significant influence on my development, and I am excited to share his story.

I attended a rural consolidated school in northwestern New Jersey for grades kindergarten through eight.  There were only two teachers per grade level, and the principal was also the superintendent.  My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I believe we only had one art teacher, Mr. Wynn.  This meant my classmates, and I were able to have him as a teacher multiple times over the years.  He was also the soccer, baseball, and softball coach.  I am not sure why we didn’t have baseball at the school even though we did at the recreational level.  Like many of the most influential teachers, Mr. Wynn was involved in as many things as possible that had an impact on kids.

To say that he is a gifted artist is putting it modestly.  All one has to do is see his personal artwork that he shares routinely on Facebook.  Once we connected in this space, it brought back so many powerful memories through the powerful pieces he shares.   Each image has served as a reminder of sorts.  In my mind, I was not a good artist and struggled even to draw a coherent stick figure.  However, Mr. Wynn was never negative and always provided positive feedback on my work while motivating me to make improvements.  I absolutely loved anything to do with ceramics and watercolors.  His class was one that I looked forward to not just every year but also every day.  

There are many attributes that Mr. Wynn possessed that made him a great teacher.  I believe these are shared by all who have an everlasting influence on a student’s past, present, and future.  These teachers:

  • Build relationships
  • Are empathetic
  • Care
  • Provide meaningful feedback
  • Find the good
  • Challenge learners
  • Are enthusiastic
  • Model expectations

While I am always in awe of what Mr. Wynn shares on Facebook, it wasn’t until I began to prepare for my new keynote at the Model Schools Conference that his impact resonated more loudly than ever.  Matt Thouin, an amazing friend who always pushes me to be better with fantastic feedback, suggested that I weave in more personal stories to connect with my audiences.  At this point, I knew I had to incorporate the everlasting influence that Mr. Wynn has had, and continues to have, on me as a person.  As I prepared, I dreamed that I would be able to include some of the artwork that I created in class.   I knew I had at least one ceramic sculpture, but little did I know that there was a treasure trove of artifacts lying in wait in my attic.

Over the holidays, my parents drove to Texas from New Jersey and dropped off a bin of items they had kept and stored for years.  As I searched my attic with a flashlight, I came across this and, when I opened it up, realized that they had saved artwork and projects going all the way back to my kindergarten years.  Tears rushed down my face as I could not explain in words how meaningful these items were as a flood of emotions pummeled me all at once.  Almost all of the artifacts came from Mr. Wynn’s class, including a fully functional ceramic snail that holds pencils and pens.  Below you can see not only this but also many pieces of artwork created in his class.

What I learned after my trip to the attic and writing this post is that I was not as bad at art as I initially thought.  While I never aspired to be an artist, I can confidently say that Mr. Wynn helped me become the educator, father, and husband I am today.  I am also willing to bet that anyone who had him as a teacher agrees.  Thank you, Mr. Wynn, for your commitment and dedication as a teacher and coach.  You, and every other great teacher who embodies those same principles, have and will continue to have an everlasting impact on students.  

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Leading Difficult Personalities

While there are many challenging aspects when it comes to leadership, one that typically rises to the top is dealing with difficult personalities.  As the saying goes, it’s typically the 1% that gives you 99% of the problems.  Some people might take offense to the previous statement.  Still, if you read it carefully, it sends a powerful message that most people possess a personality that is open to aspects we hold dear, such as collaboration, communication, innovation, and other elements essential for change.  The reality, though, is that some personalities represent an entrenched mindset that is fixed.  While this can be frustrating, we must remember that they are people.  John Kenworthy provides an important reminder:

Yes, they come in all shapes and sizes, races, genders, and from all backgrounds, and they share two things in common: The first important thing they all have in common is that they are all “people”.  We are dealing here with human beings.  And we know from neuroscience that human beings share very much more in common in what drives them and causes these behaviors.  The second thing they have in common is you.  If you’re reading or listening to this, then you have one or more people in your life whom you find difficult, and you want to know how to lead them or simply deal with them.

Difficult personalities can represent energy vampires where all your time, patience, and resources are sucked out trying to deal with them.  The key is to separate the personality from the person as a way to unearth what the underlying problem might be.  Below are some ideas that can help you tackle these challenges constructively. 

Identify the cause of the issue(s)

There is always a trigger or reason for a problematic personality.  Whatever that might be, discovering the root cause is essential to proactively address the situation so that it doesn’t further impact the culture of your school or district.  Try employing an empathetic lens, as difficult as this might be, to try to uncover the cause of the problem. 

Keep Your Cool

While this is often easier said than done, allowing the difficult personality to get the best of you can have a domino effect that negatively impacts the rest of your staff.  Begin by staying calm and avoid getting defensive.  Listen as opposed to reacting as this process will take time.  Preparing for any conversation before communicating with a difficult personality is also an excellent practice.  If possible, do this in a private setting face-to-face.  In the event that the meeting begins to veer out of control, table it for another time.  

Leverage supports 

After identifying the issue and having a direct conversation with the person who possesses a difficult personality, it is crucial to know when and how to leverage available supports to ameliorate the situation.  Seek out perspectives from unbiased colleagues, reach out to other leaders for advice, or research how other fields address these same issues.  Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  In the end, the simple task of leveraging supports can be the best tool you have to fix the issue. 

Understand when enough is enough 

While the best course of action is to treat people fairly and with respect as a means to root out the difficult personality, the fact remains that this might not work.  At this point, you might need to refer the issue to your respective boss or use the contract for disciplinary purposes.  As a principal, this was the worst part of my job, but in some instances, it was unavoidable. 

Dealing with difficult personalities doesn’t just fall on administrators.  All educators, at some point, find themselves in a situation where issues with colleagues have to be resolved as they represent a challenge to the overall culture.  The same advice above can be leveraged so that the energy vampires don’t succeed.  While not easy or comfortable, dealing with difficult personalities is all of our responsibility. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Significance of Small Wins

Is there such a thing as a “small” win?  I think we can challenge this notion as the overall impact is in the eye of the beholder. Jude King shared the following:

Small wins can be as important or even more important than the big ones.  And there are two main reasons why.  First, without the small wins, the big one likely won’t happen — we give up in disappointment and frustration before we get to the big win.  The small wins hold the key to momentum.  They infuse us with motivation to keep going.  Second, the big magical moments, that we like to savor happens infrequently.  Those big, breakthrough moments that completely takes our breathe away…there are only so much of them in one lifetime.  That’s partly why we enjoy them so much.  But the small wins are more frequent — what they lack in size they make up for in numbers.

It is human nature to have a desire to “go big” or make a dramatic change at scale.  While we tend to think that this is the ultimate measure of success, the fact of the matter is that these situations are few and far between. 

The challenge then becomes what happens to motivation daily during any change process.  Research has shown that the small wins are just as important, if not more, than the big ones everyone aspires to achieve.  Below is a summary by Stephen Meyer of a study by Amabile & Kramer (2011):

Over the course of four months, researchers at Harvard conducted a study of over 200 employees at seven different companies.  The study required participants to do one simple thing each day – respond to a survey at the end of their workday.  The survey asked about the participants’ mood, motivation level and what they did at work that day.  The study resulted in over 12,000 survey responses in total, which were then analyzed by the researchers.

According to the head researcher, the type of progress that results in high motivation, engagement and positive feelings doesn’t need to be earth shattering.  In fact, it often isn’t.  “They don’t have to be big breakthroughs or huge successes… small wins can lead people to feel terrific,” she stated.

The immense value in small wins resides in the immediate impact they can have on an individual and the collective.  They also work to:

  • Increase motivation
  • Improve morale
  • Provide autonomy
  • Leverage available resources
  • Make the most out of time
  • Serve as a catalyst to learn from problems expeditiously
  • Foster collaboration

I shared the following in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

We must not discount even the smallest successes during both good and trying times; doing so is a simple and authentic way to build people up and maintain momentum.  Over time these small wins can morph into catalysts for more extensive change efforts.

In actuality, small wins can be huge.  Never discount their impact as they are crucial in setting the stage for bigger ones in the future.

Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review, 89(5), 70-80

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Moving Beyond SAMR with the Relevant Thinking Framework

While there are many different frameworks to choose from when it comes to the effective integration of technology, SAMR is typically the one that most people and schools leverage. At face value, it is relatively straightforward while conveying how the use of technology can move from enhancement to transformation. The SAMR Model has provided us with a good lens to observe firsthand the need for proper planning prior to investing large amounts of money in technology. This is by no means a perfect framework to guide the effective implementation of technology initiatives, but it does give us a good idea of what should not be taking place.

Substitution – tech acts as a direct tool substitute with no functional change

Augmentation – tech acts as a direct tool substitute with functional improvement

Modification – tech allows for significant task redesign

Redefinition – tech allows for the creation of new tasks previously inconceivable 

While I don’t outright discount the value of SAMR, it does, in my opinion, have a dramatic shortcoming. I shared the following in Uncommon Learning:

For many educators, SAMR is the preferred model often associated with technology integration. It’s a catchy model and does have some value, mainly in the form of what we shouldn’t be doing (substitution). Take a close look at the tech-centric language used in each category and ask yourself what does the SAMR model really tell you about the level of student learning? This is why I love the Relevant Thinking Framework as a means to ensure that technology is integrated effectively. It provides a common language, constitutes the lens through which to examine all aspects of a learning culture (curriculum, instruction, assessment), and helps create a culture around a shared vision. 

The value of SAMR is that it can inform you what NOT to do with technology. However, the rub, though, is that it is a bit vague when it comes to the pedagogical shifts that need to occur to improve student learning. Here is where the Relevant Thinking Framework comes into play, as there is an emphasis on what the learner is doing as opposed to the technology. It is broken down into four (4) quads:

Quadrant A (Acquisition) -  Students gather and store bits of knowledge and information. Students are primarily expected to remember or understand this acquired knowledge. The teacher does most of the work by instructing. 

Quadrant B (Application) -  Students use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions, and complete work. The highest level of application is to apply appropriate knowledge to new and unpredictable situations. 

Quadrant C (Assimilation) -  Students extend and refine their acquired knowledge to automatically and routinely analyze and solve problems as well as create unique solutions. They are doing most of the work. 

Quadrant D (Adaptation) Students have the competence to think in complex ways and apply knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. They work and think. 

While there isn’t a seamless alignment, I have made an attempt to connect them both. 

(S) Substituted acquisition (A) Teachers use tech to make tasks digital or elicit low-level student responses 

(A) Applied augmentation (B) Students apply learning in relevant ways

(M) Modified assimilation (C) Students demonstrate high levels of thinking through the purposeful use of technology

(R) Adapted redefinition (D) – Students work and think to innovatively redefine what is possible

The overall goal, both with and without technology, should be to empower students to work and think. Another critical strategy is to focus on the purposeful use of technology when appropriate. Just because it is available doesn’t mean it can or will improve every lesson or project. Thus a focus on pedagogy first, technology second, if appropriate, will help ensure success, something that I emphasize extensively in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms. While SAMR is a solid starting point, it is not the end all or be all. The multi-dimensional aspects of the Relevant Thinking Framework can be used to guide you in developing better questions and tasks as part of good pedagogy. In the end, this will lead to developing critical competencies to thrive in a disruptive world.