On Becoming Adaptive

...and I'm in.  CC via pixabay.com

…and I’m in.       (CC via pixabay.com)

When we experience new learning that is exciting and valuable, we are often bubbling over with the desire to share and to envelop others in our heartfelt enthusiasm. I’ve recently returned from exactly that kind of learning experience.  A seminar where I left feeling love and gratitude for everyone in the room, where I had daily “a-ha” moments which nearly knocked me off my seat, where the teaching was so good that it often felt more like magic than learnable practice –  that’s the kind of experience it was.

I attended the Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar (http://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/) which was hosted by the Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan (TIS). The 4-day training which focuses on developing individual and group capacities in leadership and collaboration was sponsored by the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) of which my school is a member. A small contingent of international educators from Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Vienna and Vilnius joined the TIS staff in creating a tremendously trustful atmosphere for exchange and community. Our facilitators, Carolyn McKanders and Fran Prolman,  guided us expertly through a rich program of awareness raising, skill building and actionable next steps. And yet, the content, as compelling and applicable it may be in its own right, was not the star of the show. No, the real star, the giant outcome for me, was the overarching process which I would dare to call a transformation.

In four days it’s possible to cover a lot of content. And we did that. What was different was that at every stage we were consistently exposed to these four things:

  • Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
  • There was 100% transparency on the What, Why and How of each step.
  • We received both modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced
  • Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.

Both facilitators engaged participants by being authentic, welcoming and approachable. Questions were encouraged. Attention to feedback was meticulous, so that small changes in the program which better served the group’s understanding were honored and carried out. As a participant, I felt empowered to participate fully without fear of stepping on the facilitators’ toes. In the Adaptive Schools framework, I believe this might fall under the heading of “promoting a spirit of inquiry.”

100% transparency of the What, Why and How of each step

Skilled educators understand the value of making it clear to students, participants and group members why something is going to be done, exactly what it is that is going to be done, and how it will be done. Throughout the training every strategy, reference point and skill was described, explained and recorded, so that the information was consistently visibly available – posted on the walls all around our meeting space. By the last day we were literally surrounded by the fruits of our learning. If I was ever unclear as to what we were doing and why, all I needed to do was look around or ask a question. I never needed to leave thirsty for an answer.

Our facilitators provided modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced.

This practice really hit home for me. “What? Why? How?” is in fact a strategy which says that you answer these three questions for the group before asking group members to do something.  You play with an open hand by providing clear rationale and reliable instructions. This frees group members up to actually focus on the task at hand rather than second guessing the possible motivations or likely outcomes.  This piece is so important because it, demonstrates and reinforces an uncontested respect for group members’ time, presence and energy.  And the effect of seeing the strategy in action and then actually practicing it in real time builds a participant’s sense of efficacy. Seeing is believing – believing that, “yes, I could try this, too.”

Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

The oft repeated sentences offered by our facilitators spell it out: “The learning is not in doing the activity, it is in the reflection” and “any group that is too busy to reflect on process is too busy to grow.”  We don’t get smarter by simply doing, we need to reflect on what happened and how, in order to make sense of it on our own terms and eventually internalize what holds meaning. In the space of 4 days, there were no superfluous activities. All of our doings had a purpose and at each stage we were given opportunities to process our thinking sometimes silently, or by talking with a partner or in a small group; sometimes in writing and in pictures. This habit of reflection steadily contributed to group trust, participant efficacy and enthusiasm, and a gradual anchoring of the content in our lived experiences.  Brilliant!

While there may be plenty of resources, agencies and consultants out there that offer to teach a group how to run more successful meetings, boost employee morale or even how to build and sustain professional learning communities, the capacity to stimulate genuine transformation remains rare.  The Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar achieved more than most by attending to the needs of adult learners in fundamentally deep ways. Rather than focusing exclusively on tips, tricks and raw skills, we addressed the significance and contribution of identity, mission and values in the mix. In order to do that we had to make ourselves a little vulnerable from time to time. In some cases we had to let go of a few long held ideas while making friends with new ones. Carolyn and Fran, by applying the four characteristics mentioned above provided the space, structure and atmosphere for the group to feel capable and prepared for true transformation to take place.

 

For more information on the work of Adaptive Schools, please visit the thinking collaborative website (see above) and consider getting a hold of the sourcebook: The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman, 2009, Christopher Gordon Publishers, Norwood, MA.

 

 

More questions than answers

Several months ago I jumped at the opportunity to write a guest blog post on emotional intelligence and educational leadership. Of course that’s a very broad area on which much has already been written. As I began to delve into the world of educator connectedness through twitter and a variety of blogs, I got very curious about how all this e-connectivity is playing itself out at the intersection of leadership and EQ (the borrowed shorthand for emotional intelligence).

Here are the questions I came up with:
How are our professional relationships changed through increased use (and reliance on) social media, e-mail, and other forms of digital communication?

How can leaders make use of media and technology to underscore their commitment to building and supporting emotionally intelligent learning environments?

What are you experiencing at the intersection of school leadership, technology use and emotional intelligence?

Finding and forming questions which get to the heart of what I want to find out has proved challenging thus far. Locating specific articles or posts which speak to this topic in the realm of schools and their leaders has also been surprisingly difficult. There’s plenty of talk about SEL (social emotional learning), best methods for all manner of tech integration in the classroom, a fair amount on meeting admin challenges in the trenches and yet an unbelievable dearth of voices on the intersection of EQ, leadership and tech use.

Just yesterday I was fortunate to find a post which offered a great window into one administrator’s practice and gave clues as to how this might be interpreted as insight into his particular understanding and application of EQ:
http://johnfalino.com/2013/10/06/the-principalship-how-have-smartphones-changed-the-landscape/

So what’s the big deal? It’s tough to say. However fascinating and enriching the possibilities are for instant and far flung connection through our wonderful gadgetry and ever expanding digital capabilities, I still maintain a fundamental concern about the implications for our communicative existences – for better, worse and for the entirely unknown and unanticipated.

So I find myself asking more and more questions and seeking the widest variety of responses. What does it mean for administrators to be potentially accessible to their school communities via their phones 24/7? Where do school leaders draw the line and insist that certain forms of communication take place face to face? What kinds of presence are possible and desirable for school leaders and in which contexts?

Considering the four categories of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management – all of these can show up in any of our day-to-day communications and interactions and they are critical to the success of any leader. And with our increased use of and reliance on electronic media, there is so much more room for ambiguity, misunderstanding and mixed signals. This is perhaps the root of my concern: how do we, can we, actively mitigate this gap in perception that comes along with our use of new media? When it is done well, how can we recognize it?

So many questions in search of many responses. I need help on this one. Please share these questions with others, respond to them yourself. Let’s get this conversation going. Thanks.

What’s in a Coach?

This summer I found the book I believe I’ve been waiting for all my career: The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar.
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2013). Let me try to explain why.image

The title of my masters thesis in Sport Psychology back in 1997 raised the question: What’s in a Coach?
I was writing specifically about the dynamics of the relationship between teacher-coaches and their student-athletes and in a nutshell, I was trying to unravel the tremendous power, impact and reach of those very unique connections I experienced both as an athlete and as a coach. My fascination of and commitment to coaching only expanded and deepened in the years following.

As a PE specialist, a general coaching stance has become integral to my style and method of teaching. I encourage my students to seek their own solutions to various obstacles, I raise questions which help them reflect on how to make the most of their own resources and as much as possible, I listen, observe and listen some more. Further studies in communication, leadership and facilitation continue to confirm for me both the need and efficacy of coaching in a host of educational contexts. And this is where The Art of Coaching soars above all the other resources I have encountered related to coaching in the educational sphere: Elena Aguilar says “transformation” and means it: transformation of teachers, administrators, schools, ultimately of whole systems.

Below is a brief review I submitted to an online publication:

It’s possible to read The Art of Coaching as a how-to manual for instructional and leadership coaches in schools. Aguilar succeeds famously at taking the mystery out of the coaching process and guiding new and experienced coaches to learn, practice and apply the critical elements of the craft. Yet this book offers more. Aguilar’s fundamental commitment to the larger goal of equity in education for all students defines the context of her work at all levels. This broadening perspective lends heft to the individual actions and processes she describes. The coaching itself is not just about helping the individual teacher or administrator to improve, Aguilar sees it as vehicle for transforming schools on the systemic level. Further, as she offers coaches multiple means to connect and succeed with clients, she also champions the use of profound strategies for leaders to view and approach their challenges.
Specifically she introduces 6 lenses for examining a situation from highly unique perspectives. The lenses are those of inquiry, change management, systems thinking, adult learning, systemic (or structural) oppression, and emotional intelligence. She employs rich and nuanced storytelling to demonstrate how these lenses and their respective questions can be used to take problem-solving deeper to address possible root causes. Although the book’s focus is on building coaching capacity, I would argue that in fact, Aguilar has given educators an excellent leadership book written from the coaching perspective.

I am in the process of recommending the book to anyone in education and/or coaching who will listen. Through The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar has inspired, instructed and above all empowered me to share the unraveled mystery of what’s in a coach and what tremendous potential resides in coaching for transforming education.