Monday, February 25, 2019

Contemplating "Success," Part 2

In Part 1, I meandered a bit as I contemplated success on a more micro or personal level. It had occurred to me that I, at least, need to success on an individual level before I can see success across a broader spectrum.

In Part 2, I want to talk about how we view success over time. Let me give you a bit of context. I work with schools and school districts for a variety of reasons. When I work with individual teachers, we talk about their goals--what do they want to achieve during and as a result of our time together? We rarely, if ever, talk about what the end result will look like or sound like because it is tied to their pedagogy, so could be hard to measure; however, it is possible to know that there is growth or change. When I work with schools and districts, we talk about their goals, too--again, what do they want to achieve during and as a result of our time together? This is much harder to define because I'll be working with different teachers at different grade levels and often in different content areas.

Some years ago I was working as a consultant for a company for which I was doing product training. One of the administrators said he would consider our work successful if his teachers was using that product at least three times a week. I balked a little. Yes, it's a benchmark, I thought, but it's a false benchmark because it may not make pedagogical sense for them to use it three times in a particular week. And what if they use it five times in a week? Do they get "credit" towards a week when they use it less than three times? We talked through his proclamation, but I also realized his conundrum because how else was he going to measure "success"? After all, we know there are multiple factors that could yield what we consider a successful day for a teacher and his students, and we have to realize that if 24 of those students have a good day and 1 does not, it's still a good day overall.

It's this kind of thinking that prompts my own contemplation of how we connote and denote success.

For any given initiative in a school or district, how does one measure success? More students are doing better on tests? Attendance is better? Reports of student misbehavior is down? Teacher morale is better or up? Some of those things are measurable and others are anecdotal, more subjective.

Is there a correlation of a single initiative to student performance? No. What if there are three or four initiatives? How can anyone know if there is overflow of one initiative into another that is helping improve student test scores or performance on tasks or attitudes in school?

What about administrator support? For any given initiative in a building, were participants voluntold or given opportunity to apply or raise their hands? What kind of administrator support is there for any or all of the initiatives? Is that support equal? Does support need to be equal?

What about the role of the consultant? I work in one school district in which there are at least three distinct initiatives for which there are at least three specific consultants. How effective are we and how does the administrator or the teachers measure our effectiveness? I know how I'd report out for that school district and I know that my success self-assessment would be different for each building. Overall, however, I think they're doing a great job and I've seen a lot of growth over the past couple of years. Can I measure that growth and provide specific success factors? Um, no.

So where am I going with this? I know there are those who will tell you that you have to have benchmarks with timelines, that you have to have S.M.A.R.T. goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. I think that's a worthy objective and I think it makes sense to use the S.M.A.R.T. goals guidelines.

When I start working with teachers and administrators, I invite them to identify a goal for us. Most of them find something fairly concrete, others have far too many things they want to address. We pick one or two things on which to work for the semester. We revisit those goals periodically through our time together and they make adjustments once they have a more realistic view of what they really want to focus on. We think in S.M.A.R.T.-like terms. At the end of the semester or the year, we review. Most administrators are happy with what they've seen and hear.

It's not about test scores. It's about teachers making changes in their pedagogy and students being more engaged. It's hearing different kinds of conversations from students and their parents, from having different kinds of conversations with teachers. It's having teachers will to do quick "show and tell" events with their colleagues. It's a change in culture, a change in atmosphere and attitude.

It's about teachers feeling like they've re-connected with what made them want to teach in the first place. It's about teachers feeling like they have an ally as well as a coach, someone who can and will listen to them vent without judgment or trying to find a reason/excuse/answer, and then helping them work within constraints, or in spite of them.

Success isn't one and done. Success is a slow crawl. It is truly one step forward and three steps back. It is a momentary high followed by a depressingly stressing low. Success is recognizing that today might be a good day or a great day, or not. It is putting in the effort and doing the work, no matter what.

It's about students saying things like "Can we do that again tomorrow?" or "That was the hardest math I've ever done. That was so fun!" or "Can we stay in from recess to finish?".

And maybe it's success for that moment. But it's a moment that everyone felt and saw and experienced. And that gives teachers hope. And that gives students hope and motivation.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Contemplating "Success," Part 1

Success factors. We talk about them often. Probably too often. I know I (too) frequently ask administrators and teachers what success looks like and sounds like in their buildings.

Like many others, I've fallen into the S.M.A.R.T goals trap of thinking about success, and I know better. There is a lot of value in using S.M.A.R.T goals; however, sometimes what we know as "success" isn't measurable nor time-bound. It's not quite "I'll know it when I see it" because there is often a specificity to what we recognize as success. But sometimes we don't know until we see it, though might mean we can't articulate what success looks like and sounds like because we haven't been clear on our intentions and goals before we've started an implementation or an initiative.

I have always loved this quote from Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington: "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed." Of course, in context, it has more nuanced and complex meanings for Mr. Washington, a black man working towards his very particular experiences of success.

What I like about his definition is that it underscores that true success acknowledges and honors the journey. That's what I hope students know, even as we push them towards compliance and task completion. If they believe that success is, for example, finishing a worksheet by the end of a class period, we have done them a serious and egregious disservice.

In "Staying Mission Focused as a Leader," Matthew Howell asks this question in his conclusion: "Did you give your best effort for the students you serve?" It's a compelling question and one of several we could ask ourselves. I have to wonder how many teachers and how many leaders will and do honestly answer that question with a hesitant "no." I wonder how many internal dialogues reflect the vacillation of their rationales as they struggle to try to get to "yes," but believe that through the exhaustion, the frustration, and the host of other factors, they cannot. Did they give their best efforts under the circumstances? Probably? Is that enough? I think so.

So let's follow this a bit. What gets in the way of a teacher, or an administrator, giving their very best for their students? Many will say time as that's the favorite barrier to any accomplishment. And if it's not time, it's some combination of time, money, resources, and/or training. Or it could be because there are just too many initiatives and this is just "one more thing." Sometimes the reason teachers or leaders can't do their best is the students themselves, or the parents. In other words, it is always something outside of the individual that constitutes the barrier for success.

Or is there?

You see, I'm not really responsible for anything other than my own actions, attitude, and behaviors. Sure, there are dozens of things conspiring against me every day, but I still have the choice of how I respond.

I can't help but think of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. In Chapter 9, he articulates his "Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection." The man aimed high, and that's likely one of the reasons he was successful. But what I've always admired and appreciated is his daily schedule and his two questions: "What good shall I do this day?" and "What good have I done to-day?"

Big questions. Good questions. And they remind me what might constitute "success," at least for me. Did I do as much good as I could throughout the day? Did I, despite what I perceived to be as unnecessary and annoying questions or "bad" behavior or attitudes of others, persevere and do my best? Did I leave the internal monologue as an internal attitude release only and focus on making sure I was doing the right thing, even the best thing? I'm never going to answer a resounding "yes" because I'm a flawed human being. But if I can honestly say that I did my best to manage the complexities of the day that threaten to confound or undo me, then I can say I did my best and I was successful that day.

And that is all very well and good for a day-to-day analysis, if you will, of success. But what about success over time? Ah, that is the question for another blog post. . .coming soon.