Rumor has it

“Trying to squash a rumor is like trying to unring a bell.” –Shana Alexander

Bell

I remember thinking as a young teenager that I couldn’t wait until I was an adult so that I didn’t live in a world of rumors. At that time I believed rumors were the worst part of the teenage years; they were the impetus for unwanted stress, heartache, and anger.

What I know as an adult is that we live in a world that fixates on the unknown. Rumors are just part of life.

We are creatures where in a situation in which we don’t know the reality, we will often substitute speculation for the truth. It’s one thing to hypothesize what you believe about a particular situation, reflecting on your own what you believe might be the truth. This is done alone. This is done without involving anyone else. If we stopped right there and never uttered our speculations to anyone else, I don’t think there would be as many rumor mill issues in the workplace.

But we don’t stop. That’s not our nature.

“Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” –Liz Smith

reddress

One of the hardest, and time-consuming, parts of leadership is chasing down the truth. In my current role, I often find myself sifting through bundles of information to find the reality in a situation. I have been burned a few times with being too reactionary to information I picked up as hearsay, because I took the person telling me the information as the source rather than the messenger. Distinguishing between the source and the messenger is a key element that often gets overlooked, and if I’m not careful, I fall prey to it. So what do I typically do when I hear a rumor in my workplace? I do two specific things (and it isn’t rocket science).

  1. I try not to get too emotional. Getting mad, sad, angry, happy, or hurt doesn’t get me anywhere if I am not even sure of the truth. I have to remind myself to keep a level head and confirm what I heard before having any sort of reaction. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t hard to do. We are human creatures. Emotional beings. It is our nature to want to immediately react. I have to constantly remind myself that unless I am hearing something from the source, I don’t really know if it is true. This is toughest to do in the heat of the moment, when you have dozens of things to do, work has piled up on your desk, e-mail inbox full, and you have 3 people outside your door waiting to speak with you. Yet, I know I have to do it.
  2. How do I confirm what I heard is the truth? The first thing I do is determine whether or not I am speaking with the source or a messenger. If I find out that my source was really just a messenger, I continue searching until I find the source. Once I find the source of the information, I look to them to provide me with the truth. Sometimes it is completely opposite from what I heard, other times it is the truth. Either way, I can better assess a situation when I am acting on facts rather than hearsay.

We create so much unnecessary stress for ourselves by perpetuating rumors in an organization. Too much of this creates an overall culture of mistrust and uneasiness, and in most cases, we fail to retain our best people. I don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning and wants to go to work in a toxic culture. I think our challenge as leaders is to maintain a cool head and look for the truth before reacting to anything, and then once we know the truth work to make sure we communicate that truth to the masses.

Images:

Campana by eelend on Flickr

The Curve of Her Back by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Information Circumspection

“The worse the news, the faster you should tell people.” –James Faloudi

While I agree with the quote above by James Faloudi, I can’t help but think that this was stated before the inception of social media. As an educator who’s experience in the classroom and as an administrator preceded Twitter and Facebook’s inception, I can remember hearing about changes on the forefront of something in the edu-world and thinking, “I’ll believe it when I get the ‘official’ word from that organization.” Of course, “official” meant a hard copy letter or perhaps even an e-mail. If it was an event that occurred in the world, I tuned into one of those all-day news stations to get the latest scoop. Boy, are things different now.

firehose

This picture is one that a colleague of mine uses frequently when he facilitates learning with various audiences. I love this image because it really does depict what we as educators deal with on a daily basis now that we are in a world where social media dictates much of what we see, hear, or learn. In essence, we are now subjected to a fire hose of information. Our problem is figuring out how to contain the fire hose to a point where we can filter and discern what is accurate and what is not.  I believe along with this we have to also learn how to not jump to extremes, and keep a cool head when in the midst of learning about a change. (Although I have written about maintaining balance on this blog before, a colleague reminded me of it again when I read a short post on his blog.)

There cannot be a clearer example of this as what I saw occur on December 16, 2010 when an image was leaked from Yahoo showing Delicious slated for a sunset.  If you were monitoring Twitter that day, you would have thought the world was coming to an end right then and there. Some people were immediately very emotional about this apparent “sunset” and started bashing Yahoo. Others went into problem-solving mode and began posting other places people could export and store their bookmarks. The tweets ensued with folks posting places they were storing their bookmarks. Blog posts were written about the topic. Heck, it doesn’t take more than to Google “Delicious Debacle” to see the mountain of content produced on this topic, and the information continues to compile.

notyet

What bothers me is what happens with the casual Twitter or other social media user who was on Twitter on the 16th and then didn’t pay attention to what happened 24 hours later.  Don’t get me wrong, the fire hose of information continued.  However, if folks weren’t paying attention, they missed the response from Yahoo in what seemed like an eternity, yet it was only a day later.  Click here for their response.  Although scary at the time to think you were going to lose your bookmarks, we hadn’t even heard from the company itself before making mass changes. We took tweets, blogs, and Facebook postings as the truth and didn’t look for a response from the originator of the concern.

In thinking about this, I get an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Who is teaching our students to maintain balance? Who is teaching them how to sift through the crap and find the truth? Who is teaching them how to post digitally with responsibility and dignity?

Those questions aren’t what REALLY give me the unsettling feeling in my stomach, though. As a leader, I have to think about who is making sure our teachers and principals understand all of this. If I don’t take responsibility as a district-level leader, then how will I know it will take place? Am I alone in my fear here? What do you think?

Images:
Firehose Training by U.S. Department of Defense

Not Yet by Cayusa on Flickr

Is your team high-functioning?

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”   — Vince Lombardi

In my role as a district administrator who supervises secondary schools, alternative schools, and a vocational school, it is not a surprise that I’m part of many different teams. I am a member of the middle school and high school administrative teams, the alternative school administrative team, the curriculum coordinator’s team, the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment team, and the Superintendent’s Cabinet team.  Although in a few of these circumstances I serve as the team’s facilitator, I always consider myself one of the team.

teamcircle

That begs of the question, “What is the definition of a team?”  In reading an article on Inc.comBuilding and Leading High Performance Teams, a definition from The Wisdom of Teams (Harvard Business School Press, 1993) says,

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

As the school year begins and I watch my different teams interact, it has caused me to wonder if I am a part of high-functioning teams. I believe there are many ways to define high functioning, but I am going to use the same ones in this article.

  1. An effective team understands the big picture.
  2. An effective team has common goals.
  3. An effective team works collaboratively, as a unit.

(You can read the article for their opinion of each of these characteristics.)

vision

As I read these 3 characteristics, I continued to reflect on my own experiences. Do I make sure my teams understand the big picture? One struggle I often have as a district-level leader is how much I should filter before sharing with building-level teammates. I understand they need to know the big picture, but at the same time I know they don’t have time to filter through a bunch of information to get to the point. What I find difficult is balancing what is necessary while still making sure they get the big picture.

In my own world, I believe we do number 2 quite effectively. There is no question in my organization what our common goals are. Heck, all 26 buildings in my district write school improvement plans focused on the same 3 common goals. The District’s Comprehensive School Improvement Plan is focused on these common goals. There is not any question as to why we do what we do. The goals are present. Our job is to work the plan.

unity

What I believe is the most difficult on this list is number 3. A leader can ensure teammates understand the big picture and have common goals. You can tell them, teach them, guide them, etc. In contrast, a leader cannot make people work collaboratively. This is one thing that can be a very frustrating part of leadership. The adage of “Can’t we all just get along?” has been uttered out of my mouth on more than one occasion, as I am often privy to conflicts that occur among teammates. Leaders can work to build teams that have good chemistry. They can look for personalities that compliment one another and for folks who have different skill sets so gaps in abilities are filled.  But after that, it is up to folks on the team to work collaboratively as a unit.  If they don’t there will be limited successes because too much time will be spent on petty issues than on the work itself.

I have used numerous strategies, and will continue to do so, when it comes to building cohesiveness among the teams I facilitate. I think there is much to be said to simply spending time together for non-educational purposes. Folks tend to lower their guard when they are together discussing their summer vacations or funniest family moment.  This is also a time when people find commonalities that link them together, something they can build upon when in the trenches together and things are looking tough. I think the more I interact with folks on the various teams on which I am a member, I become more and more convinced it is the time spent together that is NOT work-related that makes a difference when building collegiality. Some of my best friendships with co-workers have developed because of the time spent together doing things not related to work at all.

geese

My plan for this year is to work on building collegiality among teams. In my reflection lately I’ve realized I haven’t done a good job of providing opportunities for various folks to sit down and be themselves (that is to say, not wear their educator hat). Anyone have any other suggestions?

Images:

Circle of Friends by PixelPlacebo on Flickr

Evening Light by RichardLowkes on Flickr

3D Full Spectrum Unity Holding Hands Concept by lumaxart on Flickr

Honk!!! Honk!!! Honk!!! :))) by Denis Collette…!!! on Flickr

Pendulum Swings in Education

Because my area of work lies heavily in the world of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development, I feel as though I’m always in the middle of a pendulum swing.  You may ask yourself, “Why doesn’t she just get out of the way of the pendulum?”  I wish I could.

pendulum

The fact is, the educational world is full of examples where we move from one extreme to another without maintaining much balance.  For example, when I was a classroom teacher I can remember state assessment results coming back one August, and as we sat as a department and deciphered the data there was one issue that we thought stood out to us:  our kids just didn’t know how to answer constructed response questions. It had to be that we didn’t teach our students how to correctly answer a constructed response question that explained the poor results, right?  So what did we do?  We spent the next school year “constructed responsing” (yes, I used it as a verb) our students to death.  No need to give them assessments with a variety of questions.  Nope.  They knew how to answer those types of questions.  We needed to work on the constructed response ones because they were the issue.  Our results said it, right?

I don’t have to tell you what happened the next year when the test results came back.  You can infer.  This is just one of many examples of how we sometimes swing the pendulum from one extreme to another in education without giving much thought to maintaining balance.  It happens with curriculum when we believe we should throw out a particular piece of the content because it is irrelevant only to find out the next year we should be emphasizing it.  It happens in instruction, it happens in professional development…really, I could bore you with more and more examples but you are already thinking of your own as you read this post.

I have the pleasure of working with several top-notch teachers and administrators in my district.  I learn so much from my daily interactions with them.  One of my colleagues this week reminded me of the need for balance (and thus, inspired this post) when he wrote this on our District’s Literacy Ning.  I will hand it to my colleague, he took a leap when he decided to write this for all of his peers to read and discuss.  I admire his willingness to step out and make an observation when he thought his team was heading toward another extreme swing of the pendulum.  He could have just sat back and did nothing.  Instead, he started an open dialogue with his colleagues.  You can read the open conversation that occurs after the post.  What he did was spark a conversation that will undoubtedly continue throughout the next few weeks beyond the walls of any particular school building because we have teachers from across our large district communicating with one another via this site.  Through this conversation, our professional development leaders can see first-hand the impressions of the staff and what exactly they as PD leaders need to provide in the next session to help answer the staff’s questions.

So what does all of this mean to me as a leader?  One of my personal challenges this year is to limit emphasizing the newest, the latest, and the greatest before first making sure I’m maintaining a balance in my expectations.  As a leader I need to be cautious, but explicit when stating expectations for implementation of curriculum or instructional models.   Just like in the classroom, folks need to know the “why” before they will really attach themselves to the “what”.  I am challenging myself to be clear and concise when stating expectations, while at the same time making sure I also build background schema so my colleagues understand why I have the expectations I do.  Otherwise, it will be perceived as just one more pendulum swing in education.

Photos:

100 Year-old Clock (1) by Tai Toh on Flickr