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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Friday, May 24, 2013

MIssion Impossible

I recently had to make a presentation entitled, "Change and Dealing with Resistance" to a group of educators who have the difficult task of working with low performing schools, i.e. schools with consistently poor standardized test scores.  These educators are initially viewed as outsiders by the staff working at these schools.  They are also viewed as people who are visible symbols of their "failure" because their school is not good enough.   Needless to say these people have the very difficult charge of helping these schools get  "better."  To be a change agent in a situation where the people you need to change would prefer that you would go away is challenging if not almost impossible task.  Many of these people however overcome this huge hurdle by establishing positive relationships with the staff in these schools-this is a situation where the human connection is the only option for success.  Ironically, the bureaucratic mandate to change makes change almost impossible while the human to human connection is the only avenue of possible change.  These people have to invest time in developing trusting relationships with the people schools so that they can shed their negative association with the fact that the school is judged as deficient.

My challenge in presenting to these educators was to offer them something to help them become more proficient and effective in facilitating change and dealing with the inherent resistance that they face as do their jobs.  I have never had to facilitate change in a school from the outside.  As a principal I had the opportunity to learn with the staff and community together and didn't face the stigma of public failure hanging over our heads.  Change is easier when it is viewed as a process of getting better rather than fixing a defect or overcoming a deficit.

 People who work in low performing schools can easily and understandably feel misjudged or even victimized by circumstances outside of their control.  These schools typically are in neighbors beset with socio-economical problems that dwarf the problems that occur within schools from better neighborhoods.  When it comes to change, these educators from the outside who have to go into these schools to help them get better, are like the Mission Impossible team.  The question I had to ask myself was:  what can I offer these educators?  I have no experience doing what they are doing.  What creditability do I have with them so that what I offer can be viewed as relevant and useful to them?  Given the complexity of their jobs,  they rightfully could be very critical and skeptical of any professional development offered to them.  As they faced professionals in the schools they served to rightfully look at them and ask: "who are you to tell me what to do", they likewise could look at me and say the same thing.  I knew this going in and spent a lot of time figuring out what I should offer them and how to frame it in a way that respected them and acknowledged the work they did.

My challenge put my understanding of the change process to the test.  If wanted to change how they approached change, I couldn't just say to them: here you need to change how you try to change people. I had to model the change that I proposed them.  Most of the professional development that these people had been offered previously focused on content, i.e. different instructional methods that they needed to know so that they could "transfer" this knowledge to the schools they worked with.  If I deviated from this approach and offered just some "theoretical" approach to change, they could dismiss me as someone wasting their time with fluff out of some book.  Although I agree with the phrase "there is nothing as practical as a good theory", people in the field facing dire situations are usually looking for something practical.

So how did my own mission impossible go with helping the Mission Impossible teams go? It went very well and my presentation  received overwhelming thumbs up from group of people who rightfully could be called tough-minded critics.   To what do I attribute my success?  It was the "frame" that I put around the my whole presentation.  This concept of framing is so central to all the research I had analyzed about change that I decided to be very strategic in how I set up my whole presentation.

Here is what I did to frame my presentation the right way:

I told a story that equated the title Change and Dealing with Resistance as being at the heart of what it means to be human.  I told a story about a young child wanting a baby sibling but then after the baby arrives and cries all the time asks his mother where his sister came from.  The mother replies. "Heaven" and the kid says "Can we send her back?".  I added that even when we get the change that we want, we often don't like it,  but over time that child will be happy to have a sibling.  I tried to help the participants see that our daily struggles are at the heart of what it means to be human.  I wanted to be upfront with them  that the  presentation was not another "educational" one, but one grounded in a common experience.

I told a brief story of about myself.  I was an active educator for 35 years and didn't have time to read until I retired.  As I said this I brought out a bag filled with many books that I read about change.  I exaggerated the number of books so that it looked a little like a circus clown car.  After this visual display showing what I had read, I added that my retirement was the opportunity to do what they couldn't do and what I couldn't do when I was an active educator.  I told them to "take advantage" of me - that in a sense I was providing a service to them.

I also added that I deliberately stayed away from reading books in the field of education and focused instead on social psychology.  This was to let them know that I would be coming at issues and problems from a different perspective-I was worried that this difference would turn them off so I highlighted it at the start and presented it as an advantage to them.

I compared my presentation to a movie and the expectations that a person could have towards a movie. I used the example of my recent viewing of the Great Gatsby with my grown daughter whom I just visited in Chicago.  I said that I had actually taught the Great Gatsby as a novel and immediately upon viewing the movie realized that it was a version that varied greatly from the book that I knew so well.  I  verbalized how I had a choice of sitting for the next two hours disappointed that the movie was different from what I expected or that  I could choose to accept it for what it was.  I explained that I chose the latter and  it turned out to be ok.  I suggested that my presentation to them could be like my experience of the Gatsby movie. I suggested and "gave permission" to accept a non typical presentation.

I used the McDonald for lunch strategy that I explained in a recent blog post.  I said that what I was offering them was not intended for them to accept but instead was an initial offer that could trigger  even better ideas on their part.  In as sense I invited them and embraced them as critics.

I attribute these frames as setting the stage for allowing the participants to be open to the content of my presentation.  In  a way I removed the barriers that were inherent in the circumstances that brought them to the presentation.  Ironically, I practiced avoiding the FAE (fundamental attribution error) that was part of my presentation.  Instead of viewing these participants as hard people to please, I saw that their previous critical responses to presentations were not because of who they were but because of the circumstances of the work they did.  My framing of the presentation addressed their mindsets and addressed the factors that affected how they saw any material presented to them.  Coincidentally the FAE part of my presentation was the part that resonated the most with many of them. I guess that even though it might be very challenging (a mission impossible) it really always pays in the long run to practice what you preach.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Common Core or the common core

I am sixty one years and I am still in the process of understanding who am I and what my role in the world is.  That is a good thing. Those who say that they have it all figured out are fooling themselves or have packed it in.  To be alive means to be learning and learning means finding out about yourself and the world you live in.  Can there be anything more relevant or meaningful?  We are all learning what it means to be human and how to relate to each other.  We should be an endless source of interest, wonder,curiosity to ourselves and others.  The research has borne this out-those who stay engaged mentally, physically and socially live longer and have a better quality of life than people who sit back thinking they have it all figured out.  This doesn't mean that someone should become self absorbed thinking about oneself all the time.  Quite the opposite, we learn about ourselves by interacting with others.  We learn about others when we are able to empathize with them and discover what we have in common and how we differ. 

It is a great experience to discover something in common with someone who initially seemed so different.  Likewise we benefit from the differences we discover in people with whom we share many commonalities.   Our social relationships shape our identity-it is through them that we reveal to ourselves who we are and that process never ends or at least should never end.  We are "works in progress" always incomplete in the process of becoming whole.  As soon as we decide that we are "finished products" we are more likely to think of other people as "finished products" and consequently we make up our minds about ourselves and them. (Our minds were not made to be made up.) 

The reseach of Carol Dweck and David Yeager exploring people's perception of themselves and others has empirically shown how essential this basic perception is to all that we do or say and to all learning.  When we view ourselves as "works in progress" can let ourselves learn without judging ourselves as lacking.  We can admit to being wrong and not condemn ourselves but rather chalk it up as part of the learning process.  When we believe that same thing about other people, it changes how we interact with them and how they in turn interact with us.  "Works in progress" makes it a lot harder to separate people into groups or categories.  It allows us to separate behavior from identity-the person from the act.

If someone like myself is still learning about who I am, what about young people?  They are in the midst of not only discovering who they are but are struggling to get the words right, to get a handle on what exactly is going on with them.  Think of great works of literature like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby and you will find at the core of these stories,  characters in the process of discovering who they are and what their role is in the world.  Works like that endure because they tap into something timeless and universal-the human experience.  We are drawn to these stories because we identify with these characters and we hope that by seeing what they do we might get a better understanding of who we are and what we should do.
What does all of this have to do with bullying prevention?  Everything.  Bullying prevention is really about how we treat one another.  It is all about social interactions and people figuring out who they are in relation to others.  When people make up their minds about someone and put a fixed label on the person, it is easier to either bully that person or ignore that person being bullied.  It is easier to distance ourselves from people who in our minds are "finished products" - not capable of changing.  This distancing allows us to cut ourselves off from the process of learning anything new about the person and discovering what we have in common with that person.    Research has shown that the biggest barrier for bystanders to intervene or report bullying is the perception of difference in others. 

I am not an expert on the Common Core standards and I have reservations about them as the solution to our problems of education.  Putting that issue aside, I suggest that perhaps a better approach would be to look at the common core without the capitals.  What is our common core?  What are we about? Who are we? How do we live in the world and relate to each other?  These are not easy questions and the thinking that they prompt makes us go deeper.  Every subject matter ultimately probes these questions albeit in different ways.  The very nature of learning should bring people together in common pursuit of these never ending questions. 

Why not truly connect students to each other in learning about each other and themselves?  Why not have them read the rich and exciting social psychology on why people do what they do?  Why not have them explore issues related to bystander behavior?  Why not learn about mindsets and fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets?  Why not explore what it means to be human?  Would students be bored? Quite the opposite - they are hungry to discover who they are.  They need to understand what is going on inside their hearts and minds and the hearts and minds of others.  Bullying prevention (how we treat each other) is all about the common core of what it means to be human.  By turning it into a program or another issue/problem on a long list, we miss a tremendous opportunity to connect students not just to the core of learning but to the core of what it means to be human.   They want us to educate them meaning to guide them in discovering who they are and what is at their core.

Monday, May 20, 2013

McDonald's For Lunch

Michael Fullan says that effective leaders rely less on a strategy and more on being strategic.  Strategy is  usually a program or a plan that people need to follow in order to achieve the desired change.  There are many reasons why this approach fails:

  • It is a one size fits all and every school is unique with a different set of strengths and a different culture.
  • It can imply that what happened or is happening is somehow deficient.  It can be veiled criticism implying blame.
  • It usually does the thinking for people who like to think of themselves as good thinkers.
  • It comes ready made and people like to being involved in the making of things.
  • It becomes an easy target for people to block or passively resist.
  • It is usually a solution to a problem and not connected to reaching for a goal or principle.
Being strategic means taking into the account the change process and recognizing why people are often resistant to change.  It means looking at what is already working in a school and the strengths that are unique to that school and then finding a way to build on the positive.  It means tying all proposed changes to the core mission of the school, tapping into the original moral purpose of people.  It means letting the people involved with the change be active in determining the plan of action.  

One of the hardest things a leader has to do is leading without controlling.  Too often people in leadership positions think that because they are the leaders  they are in charge and that they know more than the people they lead.  Leaders don't know more but they have the responsibility to tap into and mobilize the collected knowledge and skills of the people they lead.  To do this they need to be strategic: knowing what will connect with the hearts and minds of the people they lead and creating the right conditions for people to work together to shape the type of school they want and need to have.  

Here is an example of being strategic: proposing McDonald's for lunch.  This might sound strange but my son shared an article he read about change and it mentioned this phenomenon.  Imagine a group of people sitting around trying to determine where they should go for lunch.  No one wants to step forward and make a suggestion for fear of being shot down, criticized or thought of as being too assertive.  Someone throws out the idea of going to McDonald's.  Suddenly the silent group become united in saying that McDonald's wasn't the greatest idea.  People go from being out on a limb (vulnerable) to being in a one up position of coming up with an idea that might not be the greatest but at least it is greater than the McDonald's idea.  After a while several people throw out ideas and finally the best one emerges very often without one person being able to claim credit.  The group just needed to get kick started and once the process got going the best solution emerged from the discussion.

Whoever threw out the McDonald's idea needed to be pretty secure.  The person who threw out that idea was being strategic.  The person knew the group probably had some good ideas but were reluctant to go first and risk criticism.  A good leader is not concerned with getting credit. I doubt people would point to the person who suggested McDonald's as being the one who ultimately was responsible to going to a good place for lunch.  That person was a leader who sacrificed his/her ego for the greater good.

A good leader knows what conditions are needed for people to become leaders themselves.  A good leader has a great deal of trust in the people in the organization.  A good leader gets the ball rolling in the right direction and believes that ultimately change must be owned by the people who need to change. 
Don't forget that the people there already were hungry and lunch was a common goal for all of them.  If a leader suggested McDonald's for lunch and it wasn't lunch time and no one was hungry the whole idea wouldn't work.  A leader has to "read" the group and determine what they are ready to hear and know what their needs are.  Trying to convince people to eat when they aren't hungry just doesn't work-never has and never will.  I wish our policy makers at least knew that little piece of common sense when it came to getting people to change.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Suspending Suspensions

I just read a news article about the LA School District ending its policy for suspending defiant students. I don't know how far this policy extended or if teachers and principals were previously told that suspension was required if a student was defiant.  Did this mean that if  students refused to do anything that they risked being suspended?

This reminded me of one of the saddest moments I had as a principal.  There was this first grade student  who had transferred to our school having spent the previous year in kindergarten in a different school. His family was pretty transient and he ended up only spending one year at our school.  When we reviewed his records from kindergarten, it turned out that he was suspended 5-6 times during that previous school year.  If this boy had any problem, it was that he was rambunctious.  I didn't consider rambunctious a problem-it was sort came with the territory of being a young boy.  I considered it our job as educators to make schools work for all students especially kids who were just learning how to "go to school".  If you stop and think about it (a lot of adults don't do this) it is not easy to walk into a new environment with a lot of other kids of all different backgrounds, temperaments, personalities along with all the adults that you have to figure out and expect kids to adjust to all the expectations and demands placed on them.  It is amazing that most kids make this adjustment so easily.  Just think of how long it takes us adults to adjust to new situations.

The kids who have trouble adjusting often have backgrounds where there have been issues related to trusting adults.  Many kids from these backgrounds might lack stable father figures if they have them at all.  Many kids might have had a series of adults and learned to not to depend on them.  In fact I learned early on as an educator, that many kids had to learn how to function at too early an age on their own without having to depend on undependable adults.  These were survival skills for many of kids.  In addition to being rambunctious (I enjoy kids who are rambunctious) this particular boy had learned not to automatically do what he was told.  It wasn't because he wanted to defy adults it was more that he always didn't see the reason why he should drop what interested him just because some adult decided he should stop doing what he was doing.

He had a terrific first grade teacher and  I worked with her very closely on making sure this boy would experience school as a place where he belonged and could succeed.  We decided that we both needed to invest a little more time one to one with this boy to develop  a positive relationship with him.  We both realized that he needed this extra one to one time to trust the key adults in his life-he couldn't just get it from being one kid in a class of twenty.  This extra investment worked.  The teacher maybe gave up one or two of her lunchtimes to invite him to eat with her in the classroom just to talk together.  I invited him to eat lunch with me.  She had him help her put up some bulletin boards.  We also coached him to ask for breaks if he had trouble attending for too long.  All in all we made adjustments and he responded positively.  Did he become a student who immediately did what he was told the first time every time? No.  We realized it would take some time and he continually improved not just his behavior but his academic skills.  We discovered that one of the reasons why he didn't always respond to teacher directions was because we was very afraid of failing especially at reading.  He made sure he got special support in language arts and our main intervention was helping his feel safe to try out new skills.

All in all school became a safe place he could trust and his growth in one year was significant.  His mother saw his success and did what she could to stay in our school area for the whole year, but come the end of the year, she had to move away to a new area.  On the last day of school, this boy knew that he was moving and leaving this place where he didn't get suspended 6 times.  Our school was a place where he succeeded and people helped him learn-a school where there was no doubt he belonged.  His previous experience in kindergarten had taught him that if he didn't what he was told that he couldn't stay in the school (that was how he understood suspension-I am sure.)

On the last day of school, his last day with us, on the way out the door, he bolted from his class and ran into my office as I was getting ready to say goodbye to the kids for the summer.  He caught me and locked his arms around me as tears were falling down his face and said to me, "I am going to miss this place." That was all he could say but he knew that he would be going to another school where he probably wouldn't belong, where he had to do what he was told or else. I worried a lot about him and   don't know to  this day what happened to him.  I wished that he could have stayed with us for the rest of his time.

 I don't think it is too hard or too much to ask of our schools to make them place where kids belong, feel accepted no matter what they do and get the help and support they need to succeed.  I have never met a kid who didn't want to belong or succeed,  but they  are not able to articulate those thoughts and feelings.  Too many educators forget that and only see compliance or defiance.  Those two responses are such a very small piece of their stories.

I am glad LA is suspending their suspensions but I hope that they replace that approach with one that helps kids belong, feel safe and accepted for who they are as people.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


I was sitting in a Starbucks yesterday and happened to have my book, No Place for Bullying, lying on the table.  While I was in a conversation with someone, a woman stopped and  stared intently at the title.  Forgetting she didn't know that I was the author, I asked her why she was interested in it.  She said she was a retired teacher but now volunteered in an assisted living home for seniors.  I remembered that I probably should tell her that I happened to be the author of the book, so I did.  Since I became an expert now in her eyes, she asked me if I thought bullying was more of an American thing or was it multi-cultural.  She also informed that me that bullying was an issue with the seniors she worked with.  She also shared that as a teacher she worked in an inner city school with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and she thought there was a minimal amount of bullying, while later in her career she taught a more middle class group of students and definitely there was definitely more.  I told her that those were good questions and observations that I would have to think about.  She said that she would look up my book on Amazon and that it was an easy title to remember.

Her questions about the cultural dimensions of bullying reminded me of an insight I heard James Garbarino make about the difference between suburban schools and inner city schools.  He said that there was less bullying in inner city schools because the social world and stratification was not of primary importance to kids, what was important was where you stood on the street not the school.  This was why gangs were prominent-they offered people a group to belong to and protection.  There was no need to bully for social status, the gang culture provided the means for gaining status.  In suburban schools, the social world of the school extends outside of the school so that what happens in school socially is of upmost importance.  In both cases however you have instances of kids having  to establish their own social structure without adults playing a role.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that adults in either case haven't figured out a way to connect with kids in way that doesn't try to control them.

If we want to look for situations where bullying isn't as prominent we should look to positive deviance examples-situations where something worked well.  I think that if you examine those cases where adults connect well with kids, you don't have to look any further than extra curriculum activities.  I recall a great documentary called Bad Times at Frederick Douglas High.  In the documentary recorded over a year's time at a high school in Baltimore you could witness firsthand examples of positive deviance in the midst of dysfunction.  While what happened in the classroom bordered  disaster, what happened in extra curriculum activities was inspiring.  They had a broadcast studio and a drama club that worked together to make various productions and they had an amazing debate team.  Their marching band was great.  In each of these extra's there were no motivation issues, no attendance issues and a great sense of community.  I wondered after watching it, why they wouldn't suspend normal operations and just have the entire school become a menu of extra curriculum activities.

What did the extra's have that the regular school didn't have?  The clubs and after school  activities were meaningful and purposeful and kids chose to be there.  The adults had high standards and demanded a lot from the students but the kids didn't feel controlled or manipulated-they felt supported and coached.  Most of all they all belonged, they all felt needed and important.  I highly doubt that there was any bullying in those clubs and activities.  There was conflict, struggle and many other emotions but the power structure that existed wasn't compatible with bullying.

We can't equate bullying with all human difficulty and struggle.  Bullying doest happen but it usually happens when there is a leadership vacuum or where the leadership dominates and almost forces people to create they own ways of meeting their need for autonomy, belonging and competence.   The answer to the problem of bullying isn't a secret-it rests in the experiences we all have had-times when we felt in control of our lives but had some structure organizing us to help, but not to control; when we felt connected and belonged regardless of how we performed and when we felt we were improving without being penalized for the mistakes we made in the process of getting better.  Is bullying everywhere? I still don't know.  I do know that we don't have to look very far to find situations where people don't have the need to bully-and they are everywhere.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Consider the Source

I recently wrote a letter to a 19 year old girl I know who has gotten herself into a quite a bit of trouble.  She has made a lot of mistakes and has suffered some significant consequences as a result of her actions.  I didn't say much in my letter.  I shared with her what I was doing and some of the writing I had done.  When she was younger before her teenage years, she had shown an interest in writing and I had given her a book on keeping a writer's notebook.  She also used to write very imaginative stories that I enjoyed.  Needless to say, writing has not been a recent activity of hers and school in general was not a positive experience especially in her last few years in high school. 

The other day I received some feedback on my letter.  I didn't speak to her but her mother commented that her daughter had referred to my letter as fabulous.  I didn't really understand how she could describe a rather simple relatively short letter as "fabulous" until she added that her daughter had said that it was the first letter she had received that "didn't tell her what to do."  Ironically, there was a lot I wanted to tell her to do and not do, but figured she had heard it all before.  Instead I tried to ignore her troubled situation and simply shared what I was doing and connected it to something she used to do.  I wanted her to start to see herself differently and figured that at some point she could turn her current circumstances into a lot of good material to write about.  I felt she needed to see beyond her current situation and see herself not someone who messed up but as someone who still had great things to do.  I was appealing to her Superman not her Clark Kent.  By doing that I was trying to open up some lifelines into her world and to do I had to be someone who wasn't judging her, criticizing her and most of all not someone trying to control her.  (I might add that I am not criticizing those who did tell her what to do.  If she were my daughter I doubt I could restrain myself from doing the same. In my case I could maintain some emotional perspective and translate my concern a different way.  It is not easy to do and harder the closer you are to the person.)

This the great paradox we face especially with adolescents: the more we try to help or steer them on the right path, the less influence or credibility we have with them.  The need to be independent and define oneself apart from adult authority can drive some kids into doing the exact opposite what most adults would consider good sense.  Deci in Why We Do What We Do said that whenever we try to control or manipulate anyone (instead of influence) two things happen they either conform or defy, but that even the immediate conformity only plants the seeds of later defiance.  What is the dividing line of control and influence-it can be a fine line, but still a line: the motive for the person in the one-up person.  Does that person want the other person to be their authentic self and support them in the process of discovering who they are or do they want that person to do want they want them to do?  If adults don't stop and ask themselves that question and then adjust how they interact, it is doubtful that kids will see a distinction.

All our efforts to help will be seen as efforts to control or worse as efforts to define the person we have authority over.  Deci has done empirical research demonstrating how sensitive a person is to this basic perception and how it colors the content of the help being offered.  If the help offered is seen as a a disguised attempt to control and manipulate another it is likely to be rejected or accepted as a way to gain approval or advantage with the person in authority.  If the help is offered in a non controlling, non manipulating way, meaning freely and genuinely offered,  respecting the recepient, than it is more likely to be considered on its merits.  Kids truly consider the source and the motivation behind the help.  They are in many ways very dependent upon us to carefully consider the most effective way to open up a life line with them- a line of communication where they can listen to what we have to offer.  If there are strings attached to our message no matter how great it might be, it will be rejected because of where it is coming from-its source.  If our kids are so sensitive is considering the source of whatever message they hear, we need to stop and look inwardly to consider what our source really is and what our motives are when we send out our messages.  This is not easy thing to do but that doesn't mean it isn't essential for getting through to some kids who need life lines from us.  Sometimes we can do something "fabulous" by just sharing rather than telling.