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I collaborate virtually on something with someone every single day. Some recent examples include:
- sharing a grocery list with my husband through Google Keep
- planning an anniversary party for our parents with my siblings via group text messages
- Scheduling school visits with teachers and administrators through a shared Google Sheet
- Working on a writing project with a colleague using shared Google Docs
- Collaborating with other eLearning peers in a Slack community
- Reviewing a Policy and Procedure guide I wrote with my team via Join.Me
- Working on a procedural table with colleagues through OneDrive
- Having a virtual meeting to discuss a current project with district leaders in another state using Google Hangouts
- Attending a board meeting with people in Lima, Peru from my house in Indiana via Skype.
- Email (obviously, too many examples to discuss)
- Messaging with my PLN via LinkedIn and Twitter to grow professionally together.
We live in an age of mass collaboration, and the tools provided make it easier than ever. I don’t have a favorite platform, as you can probably tell I choose the one that best meets the needs of the task. What are some of your favorite ways to collaborate?
When I started teaching, our evaluations had three categories: Excellent, Satisfactory, and Needs Improvement. Then, there was a list of characteristics and behaviors with check boxes next to it. I’m pretty sure I never received a mark less than Excellent. And that is what I wanted. That yearly evaluation was something to just get over with. The follow-up conversation with the principal was a formality to hear her say I was doing a great job, and then move on. A few years ago, Indiana adopted a more stringent plan for teacher evaluation and accountability. There was an extensive rubric with various categories and four evaluative terms for your work: Highly Effective, Effective, Improvement Necessary, and Ineffective. This occurred right as I moved from the classroom into district administration. I remember the superintendent telling principals that teachers that only had a year or two of experience couldn’t receive any Highly Effective ratings as that implied that they didn’t have any areas that needed growth. I was tapped to work with teachers who fell into the Improvement Necessary and Ineffective ranges. In my three years as the curriculum director, I was never asked to work with any of the teachers in that capacity. This new evaluation tool was more effective than the old, however, I still didn’t use it to better my own work performance. Instead, I looked to feedback from my peers, my boss, and the teachers I worked with. I knew that I wasn’t Highly Effective in every area of my job, and I also knew that there was always new learning to be found. I am a work in progress. And whenever someone gets to the place where they think they have no more improving to do, there is a major problem. Here are some ways I’ve learned to keep moving forward and making progress in my professional life:
- Have an open mind.
- Connect with others.
- Find the ways I best learn and then seek out those opportunities.
These practices have done far more for my professional growth than any observation/evaluation ever did. How do you continue to progress?
This fall, I worked with a great group of educators in Texas as they begin the process of transforming their instruction by integrating technology into their daily lessons. I led them through a two-day process of evaluating their current teaching and thinking critically about what changes they can make in the way they interact with and instruct their students.
Toward the end of the first day, one of the young teachers approached me and explained how she began the school year teaching economics, but just a couple of weeks prior, due to staff changes, the principal came to her and asked if she’d switch and take over the AP Macroeconomics classes. What do you say to your principal, but yes? So she accepted and has been in survival mode ever since. She was frustrated by the required textbook and how boring she felt her class was (contrary to how she’d like to be teaching), and couldn’t see how to infuse technology into such a rigid curriculum.
I could’ve just heard her words, told her a couple of quick tech tools and sent her back to her table. But that wasn’t what she was needing. I chose, instead, to truly listen to her. Strong leaders take in all of the information available to them when they listen. I focused on body language (this poor lady was ready to bolt), the tone of her voice (strained, at best), and the actual words she was saying (she was literally crying for help). Then, I started asking questions.
I went back to her seat with her, pulled up a chair, asked questions, and continued to actively listen. I asked her to show me the curriculum she was supposed to use. I asked her how the students could access it. I asked her how she liked to teach in other courses. I learned so much through asking questions and listening, that I was able to be a much better support and serve her more effectively by listening first.
Do you feel listened to, or merely heard? If you are in a leadership position (and teachers, you are all the leaders of your classroom, so this definitely applies to you, as well), do you take the time to actively take in all that people are (and aren’t) saying to you? To be a servant leader, we must first be active listeners. This makes the journey about those we are serving, and not just about a title or position. The focus moves away from us, and onto those whom we are serving. So ask questions, and then just listen.
My daughter is thirteen. She’s is tall, blonde, and beautiful. More importantly, she is very intelligent, hilarious, kind, thoughtful, and so much fun to be around. She has made the transition to teenager pretty smoothly. She struggles, however, as most of us do with self-confidence. Yesterday at church, an older lady told me how gorgeous my daughter was. I went home and shared that with Sydney and her immediate response was, “Does she need glasses?” While I am proud that my daughter is modest and humble, I also want her to be strong and confident. My husband and I are the ones chiefly responsible for speaking life into her heart and truth into her mind. I want her to hear our voices when those seeds of doubt try to invade.
When I was an elementary teacher I often tried to speak into the lives of my students. I was fortunate to have my students all day long. It gave me ample time to learn about them and their home lives. Many of them didn’t have enough caring adults encouraging them each day. It was my job to discover the great things about them and to sing their praises to them and to others within their earshot.
As someone who now “teaches adults” through providing professional development, I find myself doing the same thing with them. I often hear, “I’m bad at technology,” or “I’m the slow learner in the group,” or “I’m not as good at this as they are.” When I hear these self-deprecating statements, I immediately go to cheerleader mode. I find a strength and convey it back to the learner. Everyone has strengths to build on. And everyone needs to hear them from someone else at times.
Who do you speak into? And who speaks into you?
I had the privilege of spending the last two days in the schools of Pendergast Elementary in Phoenix, Arizona. The principals were welcoming, the teachers inviting, and the students’ enthusiasm was invigorating. The mornings of both days were spent doing site visits. We got such a feel for the climate and culture of each school from seeing what they hung on their walls, from watching the students learn, and talking to teachers about their excitement and trepidations surrounding the upcoming technology integration. My afternoons were spent talking and planning with a wonderful group of leaders at their central office. The key characteristics of good leaders I mention below are true in any field, but I titled it specifically to educational leadership in honor of those individuals I met this week.
Effective and innovative leaders all have the following characteristics.
- They are good communicators.
- They are willing to take risks and encourage others to do so, too.
- They focus on what’s best for the students.
- They keep their vision and goals in front of them.
- They are constantly learning new things.
This is a tough one. Some say that they don’t want to get to know their employees on a personal basis because they think it would hinder the respect they need as the leader. I’d argue that the respect will be deeper and more authentic if the employees know that their leader truly cares about them and what is happening in their lives. Think back to a time when you were a student in your favorite teacher’s classroom. What made him/her your favorite? I bet it wasn’t because of the awesome worksheets you got to do for homework each night. My favorite teachers are all people that I knew cared about me. I wasn’t just a job to them. Now think about your bosses. Do you have a favorite? I do. She was the second principal I taught under. She made sure her teachers knew that our families came first. She made sure that we knew that she had our backs to the public, the parents, and her own boss. She took time to encourage and support me professionally. It was on her office phone (because the others were all busy) that I found out that I was pregnant for the first time, and got to call and share that happy news with my husband. She was my friend and my boss, which made her a fantastic leader, and someone for which I enjoyed working.
I stand behind my statement that real (good) leaders work to build relationships, but I always welcome thoughts, questions, and comments.
I was recently asked how I inspire creativity in others. I firmly believe that everyone is born with creative spirits. the sad part is that along the way most of us lose it. Or, more likely, misplace it. I remember years ago during the big scrapbooking rage telling a friend at a scrapbooking party that I just wasn’t creative. She was quick to point out how untrue that was. I was an elementary teacher – you have to be creative for that! And not to brag (haha), but my second-graders thought I was pretty much the best artist and singer they’d ever met. (Ahhhh to be the rockstar of your own classroom.) I love experimenting with recipes in the kitchen, and different vegetables in the garden. I just didn’t see any of that as “being creative”. I thought that term was reserved for artists and writers. The other crazy part is that I love to “do art”. I like creating things with my hands…paintings, sculptures…I’m just not good at it. But just like creating a new recipe, there is something immensely satisfying and empowering from creating something. As I’ve gotten older (I kind of hate that phrase because only old people use it – ugh- and I refuse to be old) I’ve discovered the freedom in giving myself permission to travel those paths to the unknown. I started my own company. I left the security of working in a school system to be a full-time educational consultant. And, guess what…I love it. I have the best job ever. For me. I get to be creative in my work every day. I get to help teachers and administrators find easier, better, more efficient ways to do their jobs. The best part of it is that I’m impacting the lives of hundreds of students through it all. I would have never discovered this creative outlet had I not taken a risk.
So how do I inspire creativity? I empower people I work with and encourage them to free themselves from preconceived notions – to be risk-takers. Through empowerment and freedom comes true creativity.