Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

With COVID-19, and schools going online, offline, partly online, maybe closed, maybe open, maybe only partly open (whew!), people are getting bombarded with messages and emails and notifications flying at them from all angles.

And yet, no one feels informed… why is that?

I thought I’d share some food for thought that I learned years ago when studying organizational leadership.

Seven Times!

If you think you’re communicating with your team (or parents, students, etc) enough, you’re not. 
Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage, says employees don’t believe a leader’s message until they hear it 7 times. Seven times for crying out loud!! No wonder my students didn’t believe me when I told them everyone indents their paragraphs, not just students in my class…
So how do we get to the magic number seven? To get there, Lencioni says we need to Create Clarity, Overcommunicate Clarity, and Reinforce Clarity. (He actually says a LOT of things, but if you want the full scoop, read the book…)

Two Words

How do we do that?
Well, Lencioni has some ideas about that, too, but for right now I just have two words for you:
Strategic Messaging
If we want people to be clear on our message (and to believe it), then there is no such thing as too much communication. We can’t be afraid to repeatedly reinforce ideas or information that is vital to the organization (or school).

Many Questions

Some questions to ask yourself, and maybe those around you:

  • Is everyone on the same page in terms of what should be communicated and why?
  • If messages are flowing down from the top, or after limited attendance meetings, how are they being disseminated? Does everyone know that? Is everyone on board with that?
  • If someone missed the message the first five times, how can they get connected to the messages? 
  • Where are these messages? Are they on motivational posters in hallways? Archived on a google group board? Or is it a fend for yourself approach to getting information?
  • How are we helping people get, understand, and implement the message if they’re struggling? 

And ultimately, who is owning the message? 

Again, according to Lencioni:

Leaders must not abdicate or delegate responsibility for community and reinforcement of clarity. Instead, they have to play the tireless role of ensuring that employees throughout the organization are continually and repeatedly reminded about what is important.

Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage

More Readings
You’re Not Communicating Often Enough With Your TeamThe Untapped Advantage of Organizational Health

My first year teaching middle school was …well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. I had spent my teacher prep program determined I was going to be a high school English teacher. Students would love discussing literature as much as I did, and would turn in glorious essays filled with thematic connections, thoughtful historical references, and eloquent rhetoric.

And then I started teaching 7th graders.

7th graders cared for none of those things. They cared about social pressure, and puberty, and where to sit at lunch. Everything I thought I knew about teaching and learning had to be left at the door. These students, the ones in front of me, wanted, maybe even needed, to learn about navigating life. Literature would have to wait.

I made a lot of mistakes that year. Mistakes in classroom management. Mistakes in what I assigned and how. Mistakes in assuming that all students should be able to complete homework every night. Mistakes in thinking that sending a kid to the office would solve behavior issues.

But I learned. And got better. And grew to love middle school so much more than I ever thought I’d love teaching high school. But it took time. And patience. And reflection. And a lot of self-forgiveness. And forgiveness from the students, too, at times!

And that’s where you come in…

If you’re like most educators in our country, you’re at home right now. Trying to figure out how to teach in this new frontier. It’s like the first day of the first year of teaching all over again. And it probably feels that way every day that you wake up. A bizarre Groundhog’s Day movie in which you star.

Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day

But unlike the first day of the first year of teaching, you may also have your own children with you, needing attention, help with schoolwork, or just reassurance that the world is okay.

You’re probably concerned about your elderly family members, or neighbors, and wishing you could visit them.

Or worried about just how many squares of toilet paper should be used per visit to maximize the rolls you have tucked away in the closet.

Perhaps you’re stressed because your significant other is also working from home now. Or has to still go to work and be amongst the virus. Or worse, can no longer work at all.

Regardless of where you are, you’re carrying a huge load on your shoulders. There’s pressure to be successful in this new environment.

But success takes time. Time we don’t have right now.

So please, give yourself grace and know that you’re doing your best.

If that means you are making paper packets, awesome.

If that means you’re hosting a Zoom call for 100 students in your jammie pants, sweet!

If that means you’re learning Google Classroom 10 minutes ahead of your students, amazing!

If that means you’re creating lists of resources for other teachers and parents to use, cool beans!

If that means you’re creating a color-coordinated hourly schedule for your family, or you’re hating the people who have made the color-coordinated schedule, carry on my friend!

And if that means you need time away from everyone to scream into a pillow, or take a quiet walk, or just step away from the insanity, please do it!

You got this!

And we got each other!!

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

How do you innovate from inside the box?

“Think outside the box” is probably one of the most overused statements. No matter what the situation, or problem, inevitably someone will say, “We need to think outside the box.”

The problem with thinking outside the box is that leadership often wants to create a box to contain the thinking outside the box. In other words, think outside the box, but only insofar as the thinking stays within the organization’s predetermined box.

Today I had a meeting scheduled with a director at the San Diego Zoo to discuss an upcoming zoo-sponsored hackathon, and potential connections with K-12 education. In lieu of the traditional phone call introduction and conversation, we decided to meet at the zoo. And since it was a beautiful day, our meeting was a walk and talk around the zoo instead of inside the administration building.

Without the confines of the box, we found our conversation expanding beyond the original topic of discussion. Discussions of elephant emotions and giraffe spot patterns sparked conversations about augmented reality and wildlife conservation. We were able to dream big about ways to build student advocacy in to zoo fieldtrips while talking UX design and hackathons.

I walked away from the meeting with ideas and energy to pursue those ideas.

This freedom of time and space to connect with others, to engage in meaningful dialogue, and to reflect on possibilities is not often provided for educators. The box confines, and the box dictates, what should be thought about and when. Look at any PLC or meeting agenda and you’ll probably see something like this:

We want teachers to be innovative. We want schools to be transformative. But we don’t provide opportunities for that because we control the interactions. Topics are outlined, times are allotted, and thinking stays inside the box.

It used to be that teachers could go to conferences as a way to think outside the box (although in reality, they were just thinking inside a different box… but it was still outside their own box, so that was cool).

But now I’m seeing more and more districts and schools self-hosting their own professional development “mini-conferences” which are, effectively, keeping people in the box.

One of my favorite design thinking exercises is a premortem experience, in which you write about what could go wrong with a proposed solution.

Looking from a premortem lens, ask yourself, what would happen if we took the box away? What’s the worst that could happen if we asked teachers to go for a walk in the park with a colleague and talk? Or to visit a local business (or zoo) and walk and talk with someone there? If we removed the box, even for an hour, what might come of it?

Honestly, I can’t picture the world ending. But what I can picture are people being exposed to new ideas and information, and considering the implications for their teaching and learning.

If we want classroom learning to be relevant, and we want teachers to provide real-world connections, it can’t be done inside the box.

We need to build opportunities for educators to think freely, to wander open spaces, to connect with people they don’t get to connect with, and to think without agendized topics and time constraints, so that we can truly start to think outside the box about education.

A big reason why good athletes do well is because they don’t care what the sports blogs say, or what you said about them on Twitter.


They’re playing, you’re in the “seats” – And they understand that.


That’s the same mindset I have about other people’s opinions: I’m playing.


What, you’re going to say that I had a bad idea or make fun of me that something I tried didn’t work? ? I’m the one who’s playing.

Gary Vaynerchuk on LinkedIn

If site and district administrators (and educational consultants) truly want to make an impact on teaching and learning in the classroom, they need to get out of the “seats” and play.

A formal observation is not play.

A 5-10 minute instructional walk thru is not play.

A strategy shared in a staff meeting is not play.

How are you getting on the field and playing the game with the teachers you’re leading? If you’re a teacher, how would you like to see your instructional leaders play the game with you?

Being part of the Top Tech Exec winner’s circle has introduced me to so many innovative executives. I’m always inspired after our times together.

Last night, a group of us were invited to watch the Padres battle the Dodgers from within the Cox suite. Fun time, good food, great convos.

No painted on the ground next to a set of shoes.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Every time I see this group, I learn something new. Last night’s takeaway came from Casey Cotton, Chief Technology Officer for Madison Avenue Securities and Asset Marketing Systems, who shared the importance of IT leadership moving away from no and developing a “what if” approach. 

It’s not just IT that could benefit from this approach. So could education. IT is often known as the Department of “No”​ but I think education says no just as much, if not more than, IT. If educational leaders stopped saying, “it can’t be done” and instead entertained the “what if we could…” approach, imagine what we could become 😏.

Last week, I asked a teacher I admire if she wanted to share some of her passions with my blog readers. Her answer made me sad. She said she didn’t feel like she had done anything worth sharing this year – new grade level, new school, etc. had all left her feeling like she was less than best.

I wasn’t sure how best to respond. I mean, she’s amazing. Why doesn’t she see that? Then, a principal forwarded me an eloquent article about the virtues of being average in school. And this passage struck a nerve:

School is the only place in the world where you’re expected to excel at everything, and all at the same time. In real life, you’ll excel at what you do best and let others excel at what they do best. 

Let’s Hear It For the Average Child by Margaret Renkl

How fortunate that many of our students, once graduated, will become part of this “real life” in which they can feel valued for that in which they excel, and feel like they don’t have to excel in everything else.
(I could start a side rant about how students should feel that way every single day, but that’s a different post for a different day…)

But what happens to the teachers who live the majority of their life, from age four or five to retirement, devoid of this “real life” experience?

What happens to people who feel the pressure every single day to excel at everything?

How can teachers feel valued for what they are doing?

How can site and district leaders support teachers, not only in their professional growth, but also for the skills and passion they possess and share with students already?

How can we build an inclusive culture of camaraderie and joy (and LOVE!) so that teachers aren’t burned out with the constant demand to learn more, do more, excel more?

Because the truth of the situation is that the teacher I asked to blog IS amazing, and she excels at inspiring students to learn and question and grow every day. But if her measurement of worthiness is this unreasonable expectation of excellence in everything, then the system surely has failed her as much as it has failed the ‘average’ student.

Last night, my district received the Innovate Award for its District Design 2022 initiative. This initiative is focused on providing an extraordinary school experience for all students. Using the Design Thinking mindset, curiosity is promoted as students seek out real world problems and formulate innovative solutions. Students connect with contemporary and historical issues, and with industry experts in their local community and around the globe to develop empathy and a greater understanding of the world.

 Students develop a sense of purpose when they have opportunities to engage in relevant and meaningful learning experiences. By creating a learning culture of innovation, curiosity, imagination, and creativity, students are empowered to ask questions, explore ideas, and take action.

These students are changing the world today. So much of schooling is focused on preparing students for this big, scary, unknown future. But the fact of the matter is, we need to be equipping students for the world that surrounds them today so that they can make an even greater impact on the future.

It’s been an honor to work alongside teachers who are willing to embrace ambiguity and join me on a journey of learning transformation. And it’s an honor for Classroom of the Future Foundation to recognize their dedication. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

I recently participated in a webinar by Singularity University titled, “The Future of Work is Emotionally Intelligent.” Below are some key takeaways I discovered from the discussion.

Participants:
Melissa Extein, PsyD, Principal Consultant & Part-time Faculty @Extein Consulting & Milano School of Policy, Management and Environment, The New School
Nichol Bradford, Exec Director and Co-Founder, Transformative Tech Lab, Lecturer at Stanford University, CEO of Willow Group
Simone Harris, Certified Emotional Intelligence Coach, Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness Practitioner @Courageous Leadership, LLC and Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute
Rob Nail, Singularity University CEO

What is Emotional Intelligence?

What is emotional intelligence? Although everyone on the panel had a different definition, I think the baseline is the ability to both recognize/understand our own emotions and to recognize/understand/influence others’ emotions. It’s also important to recognize that this is a learned skill, and not some innate trait that you either have or don’t have. There’s a big difference between having emotions and being emotionally intelligent. Many of us learn from people who also aren’t that skilled in this area, so we can all use some help growing this skillset.

If you can’t bring the IQ, bring the EQ, says Nail. Leadership’s role is to understand the culture and emotional space of the business. With this understanding, the leader, knowing who’s in the room and how they operate, can connect the people who know the skills required by the team.

Unbossing an Organization

Bradford describes one of the benefits of having EQ in the workplace is the ability to unboss an organization. Unbossed organizations “focus on collaborative leadership and developing talent through a mutual learning process.” It’s no longer about a Human Resources Department, but Human Capital Department. These types of shifts require a high level of EQ so that employees can both give and take feedback; reduce fear of not having someone who tells them what to do; and self-regulate behaviors, biases, and feelings for the good of the community.

Extein expands on this by pointing out the critical role of empathy. “Empathy requires not only the ability to put yourself in other’s shoes but to understand the shoes they are in and to be interested in understanding.” However, diverse workplaces bring diverse levels of emotional intelligence. Nail remarks that a critical component for the organization is a clear, aligned purpose and intention as well as opportunities to facilitate and develop EQ for those in need.

Millenials and EQ

Millennials demanding a higher level of authenticity – they don’t want to split their identities between who they are in personal and professional life. and they will be the bulk of the work force, and the managers, in the next five to ten years. Companies that are most successful have a strong sense of meaning and purpose for middle management, and not just upper executives. To know your purpose and have a sense of meaning ties in to how much noise is in your head on a daily basis that prevents people from having empathy, from slowing down and getting into the moment to better understand the emotions present.

Research says that employee motivation is based on three areas:
Feelings of autonomy.
Feelings of competency.
Build relationships.
All of these are impacted by emotional intelligence. It reinforces that need for EQ over IQ for those in leadership roles. The smartest engineer, for example, may not be the best CEO for an engineering firm if she lacks the EQ required to provide those feelings of autonomy, competency, and relationships in employees.

Emotional Intelligence is a learned skill, so here are some ways to increase your EQ, as well as that of the organization:
– Slow down enough to look under the surface and not just the surface emotions – meditation, quiet sitting
– Journaling
– Mindful Listening
– Find Ways to “Be in Flow”
– Assess your EQ with Available Tools
– Executive/Peer Coaching for Leaders
– Time to Practice the Skill
– Create an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes and learn
– Use emoticons to share your emotions with others to increase understanding in written communication

How are you building your own emotional intelligence? What about the emotional intelligence of students? staff? community?

For the next two months, I get the honor to spend time, like serious, dedicated, reflective time, with three groups of teachers as we dive deep into the concepts of personalization and agency. Our goal is to define how these terms are demonstrated in an elementary classroom: What teacher moves are present? What are our learners doing? How does personalization and agency impact their learning? Their sense of self?

One of the teacher hubs is a group of 1st grade teachers that would like to spend more time getting to know learners’ interests and concerns.

  • How can getting to know our learners help with social and behavior interactions?
  • How do we get to know each child’s culture and traditions?
  • How do we apply personal interests into core curriculum?
  • How can knowing our learner’s interests help with connecting with other students, like big buddies on campus?
  • How can we learn more about a student’s outside learning, and bring that passion into the classroom?

Plan-Do-Study-Act

What I love about my role is that I am simply the facilitator of their discovery. I find resources to help them explore their ideas, and I guide them through the PDSA cycle of Plan-Do-Study-Act. I’m like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, except that the pumpkin coach I provide is ways to grow in understanding, and discover new approaches/strategies that can be applied in the classroom as part of the pursuit towards the extraordinary school experience.

Below are a few articles I am sharing with the teachers to help provide context around the topic of personalization. I’d love it if you’d share your resources as well, or even . better, ways in which you are providing personalized opportunities for all students to ignite their genius.

Articles

This article shows how personalization uses what you know about students (relationships + academics) to build experiences that meet their unique strengths and needs.

https://www.edelements.com/blog/six-examples-of-what-personalized-learning-looks-like

This article talks more about the partnership between teacher and parent to create a shared understanding of students, which helps to deeply understand the learner, leading to personalization that is meaningful.

https://medium.com/@carolynwilson/curiosity-f5e4cedd5af1

And this article helps build context around personalization, differentiation, and individualization… and the process teachers tend to go through as they head towards a personalized learning environment. It may be helpful to self-identify where you see yourself in the process, and then identify an area for growth/development through the hub plan-do-study-act cycle.

https://www.advanc-ed.org/source/building-personalized-learning-environments

I’ve been wondering about strategic plans lately… during the course of my career I have been part of many strategic planning teams, both writing and executing.

Some plans looked like a football play, with lots of arrows and lines designating who was doing what and when and for how long.

Some strategic plans were gorgeous infographics, with colors and icons and benchmarks to outline what actions are being taken to reach an end goal.

And others were a text document with charts and tables that outlined the steps, the due dates, and the expected outcomes.

Truth be told, it doesn’t matter how it looks.

What matter is how it’s lived, how it embodies the culture of the organization, and the alignment of the goals to the organization values and purpose.

Does the plan reflect the learning and evolving that happens within a people organization or is it a testament to a static moment in time that gets filed on a bookshelf?

Is it a PDF owned by one or a Google Doc shared by many?

Would love to hear how strategic plans function within your organization, and how they impact the work you do every day.

Empathy Can Sneak Up On You!

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

A while back I received an email from a 3rd grade teacher asking me to help her and the music teacher develop an integrated design thinking challenge for the class that would meet both ELA standards and music class objectives. During our meeting, we decided to focus on the topic of JOY.

How might we provide joy to our 5th grade buddies
through an original music composition?

We outlined a plan, and I left the teachers to work their magic.

Today I met with the two teachers because they wanted to discuss how to help 3rd graders empathy map. As the classroom teacher recapped about the experiences thus far, I realized that something far more powerful than just design thinking had already taken place.

As part of the empathy and define process of this challenge, students developed a definition of joy, through their own experiences as well as by interviewing 5th grade students and their parents. The 3rd graders quickly noticed some trends arising in the responses received – many noted happiness; an absence of sadness; and feelings of peace.

When asked what brings people joy, parents shared moments like seeing family after a business trip, or hearing the laughter of their children.

But for one third grader, the answer was very different: not being hated.

Post-It that says "not being hated"

Whoa…

What do you do with an answer like that? For this teacher, she tackled it head on. She asked the class, “Have you ever felt hated in this classroom?” Because she had created a safe place for them to share, a few did share moments when a peer situation made them feel less than loved…hated, even.

Reflecting on the situation, the teacher shared that, even if their musical projects don’t turn out as well as she wants them to, this project is a success because it opened her eyes to the depth of feelings these kiddos have, the complexities of their lives at such a young age, and her need to continue with social-emotional lessons.

That’s the thing about empathy… it can catch you when you least expect it. It doesn’t require an empathy map template or a Post-It. It requires an open heart and a receptive ear, and the capacity to be vulnerable so that you are open to the experiences of others.

I’m always grateful to the teachers that take these risks for our students, and even more grateful when they share their learning with me. It reminds me of how valuable our role is, and how important these authentic moments are to both students and adults.

Humble thanks.

When we go to conferences like this one, we load up on ideas that are going to get us to progress. We have our little tote bag – we’re going to fill it up with ideas. We hear about a new strategy…a new tech tool…we hear about all these great programs other people are doing… by the time we’re done, we are FIRED UP, we are PUMPED, we are ready to go to progress.
And then we get back to our schools…”

– Jennifer Gonzalez in her closing keynote

I’m writing this post from San Diego. Although I am glad to be home with my family and sleeping in my comfy bed, I am sad to have left #SXSWEDU.

Innovation is hard work, especially within an established institution like K-12 schooling. It can be isolating to realize that not everyone sees or believes in your vision for change.

That’s why I love SXSWEDU so much. It’s like finding the holy grail of like-minded educators. Thousands of them! It feeds my soul, refills my bucket, and gives me hope and inspiration moving forward.

So it was perfect that the final day’s keynote, by Cult of Pedagogy founder Jennifer Gonzalez, focused on the Aerodynamics of Exceptional Schools. Jennifer reminded the audience that our excitement and ideas and leaving a conference like SXSWEDU isn’t always met with open arms from eager colleagues. In fact, often it can be met with resistance or hostility. Therefore, how change is introduced is just as, if not more, important than the change itself.

Her tips were on point, and I’d encourage you to watch the entire presentation on your own. But in the meantime, here’s the Reader’s Digest version of her tips:

1. Take a breath – ask yourself – what problems does this solve? What are obstacles? Do I have proof? Can I find a guide? What is my long-term vision?
2. Find allies – (as illustrated with the infamous Dancing Guy video) – When you have a group, it helps you to clarify your vision, it helps you to deal with negativity, and it also makes your crazy ideas seem a little less crazy to other people
3. Set precise goals – different from dreams. “DO” Genius Hour is a dream. Goal is dates, specifics, etc. Backwards map the plan to reach the goal.
4. Expect bumps – build in buffer time. Ask “what can we learn?” Celebrate small successes. Come at me, bro – attitude
5. Invite – too much telling, and not enough asking. Why not a learning menu for adults like we provide to students?
6. Validate – not same as agreeing. Recognize, affirm the feelings or perspective of another person. Ignoring pushback doesn’t make it go away. 
7. Be transparent – especially about failures. Makes you more approachable, more accountable, easier to follow – blog, staff meetings, newsletter, bulletin board, video, podcast
8. Praise – Seek out the positive in those around you, praise them for it, and include their skills in your process

The final tip was to dig deep. She related the story of a Crossfit participant who always pushes himself further. He isn’t afraid to grunt, to sweat, to go all in when he’s tackling a tough challenge. She encouraged us all to be that guy.

This talk really resonated with me. I’ll be honest, I feel like the “set precise goals” is a weakness of mine. I like to dream big and build big. Details aren’t always my thing. I want to create the vision and set it loose on others to carry forward.

But dreams are weird things… think back to the last time you had a really vivid dream. You can picture it like it is still happening. And yet, when you try to explain the dream to a friend, they look at you like you’re crazy. You realize that you forgot part of the narrative, or you can ‘t quite explain the right shade of blue on the 3-headed monster chasing you through the candy store because you stole his favorite Hello Kitty band-aid box.

When goals stay in dream mode, people have a hard time being part of the narrative. They need to see it all laid out so they can find their part, read their lines, rehearse their scenes. Therefore, I need to (and will) be better at laying out all the components.

Thank you Jennifer for a fabulous end to the conference, and thank you SXSWEDU for filling my tote bag with ideas. Can’t wait for 2020!

You can read my #SXSWEDU musings by catching up on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 or learn a ton by following the hashtag on Twitter.