“Hagdog” – Lessons from a Mentor

HagdogThis is the last week of school in Santa Ana.  Along with graduation and the end of a school year come transitions.  We experience the end of something old and the beginning of something new.  Often, impending transitions bring a certain sense of uncertainty – and yet at the same time we experience the rush of new possibilities and adventures.

That’s how I’m feeling about the departure of Dr. David Haglund, who is leaving his post as the Deputy Superintendent here in Santa Ana to take on a new challenge as Superintendent of Pleasanton Unified up in the Bay Area.  Beyond some Bay Area jealousy, I’m feeling sadness to be losing a friend and mentor.  David will always be the one who took a chance on me – hiring me straight from a charter school system and empowering me to bring a fresh perspective to our shared work.  On paper, he called my position “school renewal.”  In practice, my hiring was a call to challenge the status quo and agitate for a system that could more authentically and effectively prepare students for the very uncertain world in which we all find ourselves.

While I learned a lot from Dr. Haglund – “Hagdog” as some like to call him – there are a few lessons that he seems uniquely qualified to share.  They are concepts that have deeply shaped my own leadership perspective and practice.

The Skunkworks

David is one of the most gifted strategic thinkers I’ve ever worked with.  His mind kneads situations in different ways and directions until possibilities arise.  And he’s patient.  He knows the danger of unnecessarily pressing an issue when it isn’t “ripe.”  He waits for that moment – the opening – when things come together like pulling a common thread all the way from beginning to end.  It seems effortless when it finally comes together.

All the while David worked the backchannels.  Sometimes, the backchannel was a concrete feature, like during a leadership meeting when he encouraged people in the room to text their “in the moment” thoughts and responses to what they were hearing up on a big projector screen.  Sometimes the backchannel took the form of informal conversations – in parking lots, on the sidelines of football games, and during impromptu encounters in the hallway.  He was constantly priming stakeholders.  He was always planting seeds, with the faith that the moment for germination and growth would come – even if it took a little time.

My approach is often the opposite – to burst through the front door with new and well-funded initiatives and programs in hand.  Sometimes I would get frustrated when David would kindly but firmly redirect my thinking.  He constantly talked about the need to encourage distributed ownership.  He was always afraid that if we didn’t allow people to figure things out for themselves – to grind a little – that initiatives and programs would disappear when the money dried up (which, in public schools, it often does).  He wanted to get the work into the marrow of the organization, and not settle for pretty adornments.  He always took the long view.

Access & Pathways

David’s path to educational leadership hasn’t always been strait forward.  He likes to tell students about his own circuitous path in life, including dropping out of high school for a time.  Honestly, it makes me cringe a bit each time I hear it.  But it is genuine.  It is the story he tells because it is the story of his life.  David’s story  fuels his passion for opening doors and pathways for students – even when it comes in unconventional ways.

David has been a champion of our educational options schools – alternative schools filled with students whose own pathways simply don’t conform to the traditional educational experience.  Under his direction, our district has added a night program for students who would rather work during the day.  He revamped our community day school, recruiting talented site leadership who brought a new vision to the learning opportunities for our most troubled and challenged students.  Two years later, what was once a school only spoken about in hushed tones is now rebranded as REACH Academy, and will be moving into a new campus as possibly the first and only WASC accredited community day school in the state of California.  There is no doubt in my mind that Santa Ana’s success raising graduation rates well-above state and county averages has come, in part, due to David’s focus on the pathways for students who just a few years ago would have opted to drop out.

One of David’s largest achievements has been giving the students of Santa Ana access to the digital world that defines our economy and modern society.  Prior to his arrival, the district had about 8,000 electronic devices serving a student population of over 50,000.  David quickly set to reverse this trend, introducing an Access for All campaign that has put “learning devices” and digital access in the hands of every student.  Now the district has more devices than students, along with a robust wireless backbone that permeates the district.  This system-wide commitment was not borne out of a belief that a Chromebook and internet connection would magically transform the learning experience in classrooms.  Rather, it stemmed from a belief that we cannot even predict all of the ways that young people will access learning when they have the right tools.  Yes, there was a pedagogical purpose behind integrating technology into instruction, but the real motivation was much more about the simple belief that our students should have access to the same tools and opportunities as others.

Connecting with Kids

Ask anyone what is unique about David’s leadership and they will likely answer that it is the way he connects directly with students.  It’s not something he does as a leadership strategy.  For David, it comes from a much more personaI desire to interact with and offer individual mentorship to students.  It’s something that David feels he must do.

And that makes sense.  While the rest of us are running around talking about student-centered schools and personalization, David embodies both in his day to day practice.  He doesn’t make the assumption, as many education leaders do, that improving the systemic outcomes is sufficient.  Yes, David is committed to the improvement of quantitative outcomes in a broad sense.  He has pushed for higher graduation rates and levels of English Learner reclassification.  He brought us MAP testing and growth percentiles.  But incremental gains aren’t enough for David.  He recognizes that he has been blessed with a tremendous amount of privilege and power, and that it is incumbent on him to share his social capital with the students and community around him.

That means picking up the phone and calling a university that isn’t sure about admitting a student.  That means buying an instrument for a student who can’t afford a replacement.  That means hosting dinners with alumni in any city he finds himself just to check-in and make sure students know they have support.  He’s the fan base for many individual students who are engaged in the heroic and exhausting struggle of overcoming intergenerational poverty.  He knows he alone can’t get to everyone.  But he tries to model what it can look like and set an example for the other leaders and adults in the system.  He envisions a school district where every employee takes a personal interest and makes a personal investment in individual students outside of what they are “paid” to do.

The “Skip” – Lessons from a Mentor

Skip - Lessons from a Mentor

“Love ya, Skip” – those were President Obama’s words for referring to Headmaster Mary Skipper when he came to visit Tech Boston Academy (TBA) during the 2010-11 school year, the same year that I was working there as a resident principal.  TechBoston was an experiment, part of a network of pilot schools within Boston Public Schools, whose purpose and goal was to dramatically improve learning outcomes for students.  The school’s secret weapon was a team of dedicated, talented teachers who were passionate – no, obsessed – about creating a school environment where the unique strengths and gifts of each student could be recognized, developed, and celebrated.  That collective commitment, combined with Mary’s leadership, resulted in some truly astonishing outcomes for kids. The school had some of the highest growth scores in Math and Science in the country, and was certainly one of the first to go one-to-one with laptops – long before chrome books or iPads made it a thing.

I was recently looking through my school leadership process journal – my illuminated manuscript for leadership lessons during my year of master’s study in Boston – and was reminded about the formative influence of Skip on my development as a school and systems leader.  While the list of lessons learned while part of the TechBoston team is extensive, there were a few key takeaways that continue to influence me in my work leading schools.

Build A Farm System

Talent and commitment are the foundation of any outstanding school, and Mary was an absolute master in both cultivating and developing her team.  She was unrelenting in her pursuit of interns and student teachers.  TechBoston was crawling with volunteer staff.  I was one of three resident principals the year I was at TBA.  Mary had recruited multiple intern psychologists, and over a half-dozen student teachers.  She packed the school with caring adults who were eager to learn and prove their worth to the team.  When it came time to fill openings at the school, Skip already had a spread of potential hires.  She didn’t need to use demo lessons or intricate interview protocols – she had already seen potential hires in action for months.

Of course talent development wasn’t just about new staff.  Mary carefully planned to ensure that she could hold on to her most talented staff.  Virtually all of her staff held dual credentials in general and special education, which not only supported the inclusive instructional model at the school, but ensured that Mary could hold on to her staff when seniority rules kicked in during staffing displacements or transfers.  Of course this required the careful development of official job descriptions that outlined the need for dual-credentialed teachers.

Mary was genuinely interested in the long-term development of her staff. I distinctly remember the email she sent out inviting every staff member to meet with her to share their individual 5-year plans. She openly counseled staff about professional and academic opportunities, and actively sought out promotional opportunities for her staff, even if it meant she might lose someone to other schools or departments in the district. She seemed to trust that talented and committed staff would flock to a school where it was well-known that the principal was pushing her people to ever-increasing opportunities for growth and development.

Strength in a Diverse Leadership Team

Skip’s genius was her ability to build a leadership team – including teacher leaders – that she trusted to unite behind a common vision.  Often, my opportunities to lead and learn were facilitated by other members of Mary’s leadership team..  Part of this was just a physical necessity.  At the time, TBA spanned across two different school sites just over a mile apart from one another, and Mary simply couldn’t be in two places at once.  I spent the bulk of my time at the Lower School, a traditional 6-8 middle school that had been turned over to the management of TBA, where the day to day leadership of the school often fell to two exceptionally capable assistant principals, Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza.

In some respects, Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza could not have been more different.  Perhaps that was the secret of their success.  Mr. Love was a towering African American man, whose rapport with students and parents and whose insistence for a respectful and professional learning environment were unparalleled.  He always called me by a nickname – “Number 6” (in honor of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers defeating my home team Arizona Cardinals to win their sixth Super Bowl ring), yet always made a point to ask my opinion and perspective on important decisions.  Despite my “intern” status, Mr. Love made me feel like a real member of the team, and wasn’t afraid to give me meaningful, significant tasks that would stretch the limits of my capacity.  Ms. Vernazza, though a small-framed white Bostonian, was no less imposing.  A true instructional genius, Ms. Vernazza wore her urgency for student learning on her sleeve. My assigned office was a desk and chair in the corner of Ms. Vernazza’s office.  She was constantly in think-aloud mode, verbally talking through her tasks at the same time that she rifled through paperwork or shot off emails to staff.  If Mr. Love was the heart of the school, Ms. Vernazza was its brain.

Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza were both strong, opinionated leaders.  They often disagreed, sometimes vehemently.  They weren’t afraid to express their concerns and perspectives with one another and with Mary.  Yet once a decision was made, they were loyal to one another.  This loyalty, I think, flowed from a shared recognition that their strengths and weaknesses were complementary.  They carried a deep respect for the work of the other, and often acknowledged their interdependence.  Skip, for her part, encouraged these honest deliberations, drawing on the shared expertise of her team members to successfully move the school towards improvement.  Skip recognized that strong schools are led by teams, whose members contribute unique and diverse gifts and talents.

Authentic Student-Centeredness

The Skip knew her kids.  Usually by name.  She knew their stories, their families, their struggles, and their triumphs.  Her authentic connection to her students not only gave her credibility with staff and students, but informed her decisions in powerful ways.  Perhaps to the dismay of staff at times, Mary always had time to talk to kids.  It was impossible for her not to light up with a smile when interacting with her students.

Skip lived in Dorchester, the urban core of Boston where TBA was located.  She didn’t just work at the service of the community, but was part of the community.  Her student-centered leadership brought her a tremendous sense of credibility and authenticity for students, parents, and staff alike.  It wasn’t just her voice that carried a thick Bostonian accent.

At the end of the day, I believe the secret of TBA’s success was a collective insistence that every student mattered, that the future of every student was worthy of discussion and deliberation.  Even when the leadership team came to the conclusion that the needs of a student outstripped the ability of the school to provide support, the process for making outside referrals was thoughtful and self-skeptical.  The team continually asked itself what it had missed or which supports it had potentially failed to provide.  This deeply student-centered spirit was embodied by the Skip, and flowed throughout the entire staff.

In Pursuit of Scale

Scale

You might have seen the editorial in the LA Times calling out the Gates Foundation for their history of involvement in setting the policy agenda for education in the United States.  It’s worth a read.  While I agree that no single interest group or foundation should be attempting to monopolize the discussion around priorities for public education, I don’t take issue with their attempts to spark improvement or encourage a reform-oriented research and policy agenda.

What is interesting about the article is just how difficult it is to pinpoint what works in education when it comes to reform.  Improving our education systems, at scale, is one of the most pressing and complex challenges we face as a country.  Everybody thinks they have the answer.  The Gates Foundation certainly did – and they learned the hard way how difficult it is to get systemic changes.  Zuckerberg certainly did in Newark – and he learned how inadequate 100 million can be in reforming a school system.

Some reformers use these failures as evidence that the education system simply needs to be dismantled.  That’s the message behind efforts to privatize schools using vouchers or dramatically increase charter school enrollments across the country.  I have to admit that I’m not opposed to thoughtful, controlled experiments in school governance and structure in hopes of identifying new ways to develop and sustain high performing schools for our kids.  And while I believe we have important lessons to learn from both charter schools and vouchers systems, in many cases, charter and voucher laws simply reflect an ideological hope that is not grounded in any real evidence.

But there is a more fundamental question at play, can you scale school reform?  Today, I found myself in an argument with a close colleague, Wes Kriesel, who leads the 21st Century Learning department in our district.  The conversation was sparked by Wes’ declaration that nothing is scalable in education – that it is such a relationship-driven endeavor that it can only improve classroom by classroom and school by school.  There are countless examples of reform initiatives that are carefully developed and piloted on a small scale by founders and designers that experience tremendous success, only to lose their potency when the initiative goes to scale. In essence, Wes and I agree.

Yet I can’t entirely agree that quality education can’t be scaled.  To admit as much seriously questions my decision to leave the classroom to become an administrator (my teacher readers are screaming – “yes!!!”) But perhaps my theory about what needs to be scaled is different.  We need to find ways to scale caring relationships that are filled with love and high expectations for what our students are capable of accomplishing.  We need to scale a diverse teaching force whose life experiences and values reflect the students and communities they serve. I think that is core to my work as a systems leader.

There’s no silver bullet.  We aren’t going to happen upon the Uber of education any more than we can reduce parenting to an app on a phone.  Technology can enhance the tools we have to work with and the horizon of what is possible – but relationships are still at the center of the work we do.  We are still social animals, and relationships are notoriously hard to scale.

Humility

Humility

Every Thursday evening during my year-long Master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, our cohort of 42 aspiring principals gathered to interact with a guest speaker.  Our first speaker was Richard Elmore, one of the gurus of school improvement.  You can imagine our collective excitement, and perhaps a little sense of entitlement, as we gathered that first week to engage in a discussion with such a well-known scholar.

Elmore’s first statement revealed he wasn’t quite as impressed with us as we seemed to be with ourselves.

“I think it’s important to start by acknowledging the fact that there have been a lot more talented educators than you all who had the intention of improving public education who have ultimately failed in their effort.”

The moment was almost cliché.  Here we were at one of the great institutions of higher education, being told that we likely would fail in what we had come hoping to accomplish. That evening with Elmore became an ongoing point of reference for our cohort – it was a testy interaction from start to finish.

What seems clear to me now, is that we all arrived with a bloated sense of our own potential for effectiveness.  All administrators seem to have an effectiveness bias, assuming that their ideas are the ones that will garner results – and you can imagine the implicit bias lurking for a cohort of Harvard-trained school leaders.

In that context, it’s clear why an attribute such as humility is so crucial.  Yes, we need confidence to move a vision forward, but we also need a healthy dose of self-skepticism and an openness to exploring our our weaknesses and blind spots.  We need to recognize our inability to control all of the variables, and embrace all the different actors in the system who ultimately determine the fate of our leadership initiatives.  We need humility.

I was reminded of that in a powerful way last Friday.  We’ve had a shortage of substitute teachers in our district for several years now, and the challenge is never more acute than on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.  Several principals reached out to district office staff in hopes of enlisting additional classroom support.  I elected to run over to one of our intermediate schools for a few hours to help out.

I was excited to spend a few hours in the classroom.  I felt a little like Superman – coming over to save the day.  I genuinely love teaching and interacting with students in the classroom, and I thought this would be just another successful opportunity to build relationships with students and help them learn.  I would be the sub they wouldn’t forget.

I was very wrong.

I guess perhaps it might be accurate to say that my little tribe of 6th graders that day had an experience they would not forget.  Honestly, I got my butt kicked.  Luckily, there weren’t any major incidents.  Nobody got in a fight or cursed me out.  Our kids are far too respectful for that.  But I absolutely could not get them to 1) stay in their seats and 2) focus on the academic task.  It was like I wasn’t there.  I’m definitely not an invisible presence.  I’m 6’2” and I was absolutely assertive in the instructional strategies I attempted to employ.  I’m also a fluent Spanish speaker, and made it clear that I was as “with-it” a substitute as they would experience.

I think I lost them the moment I wrote my name on the front board.  “Dr. Allen.”  Perhaps I was a little hasty in putting my freshly minted new title to use.  They were a little confused.  “So, you’re a doctor? Why are you a substitute teacher then?”  I tried to explain, but they’d moved on.

It became clear, very quickly, that keeping my new friends in their seats for the next 2 hours was going to be a challenge.  I reminded them that they needed to ask permission to leave their seat.  30 seconds later, four students were up and about – all with legitimate excuses – sharpening pencils, getting tissues, putting marbles in the class jar.  It was like keeping water in a cup full of holes.  It was also obvious that I had no idea how the classroom systems worked, and my students were more than happy to take advantage of my ignorance.  At one point with a few minutes left in class, I paused and realized I didn’t know what to do.

Humility is about framing challenges with a sense of curiosity, as opposed to assuming we’ve already got things figured out.  It helps us look inward, instead of externalizing our problems to the people around us.  It keeps us teachable – which ironically, can be a hard characteristic to embrace for educators.  We fain expertise as a hedge against the things we can’t quite explain or the challenges we can’t quite overcome.  We have to always appear competent, especially to those who would judge our work without having much idea of the challenge of classroom teaching.  It’s easy to get defensive.

Last week provided me with an unexpected reminder that we can’t expect those around us to learn if we aren’t teachable and open to learning ourselves.  And that takes humility.

Gratitude

IMG_2928

When I was accepted into my doctorate program at Berkeley, my faculty advisor gave me two pieces of advice:

Don’t change jobs.  Don’t have any children.

In the second year of coursework, my wife gave birth to twins, doubling our number of kids.  Once my coursework was completed, I switched jobs and left the Bay Area for Southern California.  And then, just for good measure, we added baby #5 this past year.  When I look back over the past four years, the immensity of the work starts to stare back at me.

I think about being the principal of a high school while simultaneously taking courses every other Friday night and all-day Saturday for the first two years of the program.  The greatest part of the sacrifice was shouldered by my wife, Lynzie, whose already long weeks of me leading a high school morphed into weekends of graduate school.  The “slow” days of summer turned into three full days of classes each week.  I religiously used the 45-minute BART ride back and forth from San Francisco across the Bay to Berkeley to do my readings and pound out my papers.  One Friday evening, I made half the journey to class in the back of an ambulance with one of my students.  On several occasions, I found myself on the bus at 11 pm after Friday night class, going back up the hill to chaperone a school dance.  And then the twins came.  Honestly, it’s all a little hazy.

Despite the very real time challenges – the experience of doctorate coursework was absolutely exhilarating.  The readings, the discussions, the arguments.  The learning was intense, all-encompassing, and exactly what I was hoping for when I started the program.  I’m deeply grateful, to my advisor, to the professors, and to my fellow students, for creating such a fabulous and challenging learning experience and opportunity.

And then we moved to Southern California and I started a new job.  We were excited for a new adventure, but mourned leaving San Francisco and the friends we came to treasure there.  On more than one occasion during those first weeks, Lynzie and I cried together – a combination of our exhaustion and perhaps even a little fear.  All the while, the dissertation timeline marched on.  Orals examinations, proposal hearings, bimonthly check-ins via Skype, and in-person consultations with my advisor any time I could get myself up to campus.   Nights, mornings, weekends – whenever a spare moment presented itself.

Then the data collection began at the beginning of this year.  I had to wait until after my proposal hearing to start the collection, which meant I couldn’t start until mid-September, exactly the same time that Lynzie was due to give birth to Gabriel.  I pushed myself to conduct my baseline interviews.  I was relieved when September 19th rolled around – the day I’d set aside to conduct my interviews – and the baby still hadn’t come.  Of course that changed at 2 pm as I was finishing my final interview, when Lynzie texted me that her water had broke.  Gabriel was born just after 5 pm that same day.

As the Fall morphed into Winter and Spring, the writing intensified.  I set my weekly goals, either coming in early to work to put in an hour a few days a week, or setting aside half a Saturday to focus and make progress. As March and April rolled around, I adopted a new strategy, which was to lock myself away until I had a finished draft each time that I could send back to my advisor for review and feedback.  That ate up two full days of Spring Break, and the bulk of a few weekends.

Through all of this, Lynzie has been my absolute rock.  We are an absolute team and I am deeply grateful that we’ve been able to tackle this opportunity and challenge together.  Her capacity for work is unparalleled, and she helped me keep the faith in the difficult moments.  Each time feedback came back, she was there to help me square my shoulders and figure out where to fit the 15-20 hours of thinking and writing I knew it would take to make my revisions.  Add to her encouragement the ongoing support and encouragement of my family members, friends, and colleagues at work.  Everyone has been deeply supportive, and I’ve relied on that positive feedback when doubts that I’d ever actually finish crept in.

And then, I finally received the email from my advisor that he was satisfied with the work, and that I could send it along to my other committee members for review and revision.  The timeline drew tight, and still I worried whether I could complete everything on time.  A few more late nights and long weekends and somehow, miraculously, I had all 3 required signatures, just 24 hours before the deadline.

Don’t move.  Don’t have (more) children.  It wasn’t necessarily bad advice. But it also didn’t take into consideration the incredible people around me who have made this possible.

People have been asking me how I’m feeling about it all.  Yes, I feel relieved.  Yes, I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in the work.  But mostly, I feel grateful – for the opportunity and privilege I’ve had to study and learn, and to the incredible people who have rallied around me.

The Paradox of Efficiency

Efficiency

If you find yourself on a quest for maximizing your productivity, you’ll eventually encounter a fundamental paradox: efficiency does not play well with new learning.  We extol the virtue of cutting costs and finding efficiencies.  We similarly describe ourselves as lifelong learners who embrace the opportunity to learn new skills and try on new approaches.  Predictably, we like to see ourselves as deeply committed to both.  But learning, perhaps by definition, is not efficient.

Take driving, for instance.  We all recall the excitement and agony of learning to drive. Some of us, mercifully, escaped our first years of driving without a major accident.  I include myself in that group – plowing into my closed garage door excepted.  Driving is a critical skill in our modern society, and so we persist in our learning, risks notwithstanding.  Efficiency in driving emerges as we practice over and over again.  You’ve probably heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell has made common knowledge.  Expertise and efficiency come with lots and lots of practice as skills move into our muscle memory and well worn cognitive tracks.  It’s hard to remember not being able to drive.  It becomes intuitive.

That’s the beauty of efficiency.  We practice something over and over until we internalize it and can perform tasks with less attention and cognitive load.  Our brains love the efficiency.  If you don’t believe me, you should read Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow – perhaps my favorite non-fiction read ever – which outlines just how eager our brains are to take shortcuts to preserve energy.  We actually are predisposed to think less if we can.  We crave cognitive efficiency.

On an individual level, what does it mean to say we are a lifelong learner?  I assume it means we are deliberately choosing, at times and with some regularity, to be uncomfortable and inefficient.  That’s the genius of the “5-hour rule” you may have read about – carving out 5 hours a week dedicated solely to new learning.  That’s the value in reading books that directly challenge your well tread assumptions and experimenting with routines and practices that inevitably feel clumsy at the start.  It means committing your finite resources – time, energy, and money – to activities that you know will be deeply inefficient for some time.   You hope the learning will pay off in new skills and efficiencies later down the road – but often there’s uncertainty involved.

On an institutional level, what does it mean to say we are a learning organization?  It’s not hard to buy-in to the widespread belief that society is accelerating towards ever greater complexity.  We’re living in a moment where the uncertainty feels palpable.  We’re in the age of disruption.  Entire industries seem to be born over the course of a few short years, while others die out just as quickly.  It’s popular to say that the solution is to foster a learning organization – an attribute where new learning is constantly happening across the organization to address the ever-shifting landscape.  As Elmore would put it, we are constantly asking people to do things that they don’t yet know how to do.

But let’s be honest.  Learning is expensive.  Efficiency comes in doing what you already know how to do.  Just do more of it…faster.

In the context of schools, when budgets tighten, often the first thing out the door is a commitment to professional learning and willingness to experiment with new ideas.  We adopt a hunker-down attitude.  We do only what is deemed necessary.  This is a predictable reaction, and in the context of limited resources and resource needy schools and students, perhaps even defensible.

But it’s a devil’s bargain.

Which is why even in the hard times, you need to create spaces where, rather than doubling down on efficiency, you invest in your creative solutions and moonshot ideas. This is what Tushman & O’Reilly call building an “ambidextrous organization,” where you reap the benefits of efficiencies, while simultaneously encouraging and supporting teams within the organization that are deeply immersed in the difficult work of learning and experimenting with new ideas.  You embrace incremental improvement while incubating the possibilities for revolutionary transformation.

Be assured, if you don’t make that investment, there are others out there who will and are, and they will be ready to eat your lunch.

Rules

Rules

I have a long-running joke with my wife. On occasion, my beautiful wife will remind me of how something is done properly – usually in contrast to how I am currently approaching the task.  Her reminders sometimes have a tone of, “you should already know this Daniel.”  These reminders are usually small matters.  Appropriate loading of the diaper bag.  Correct utensil placement in the dishwasher.  Of course, she is right, and I try to be a conscientious husband and father.  But sometimes there are just so many rules to remember!  So I have to tease my wife.  I like to refer to the Allen Operating Manual, Volume 7, Section 12, where you find the details for correct dishwasher loading procedures.  It’s one of the larger sections in volume 7.

I sometimes have similar feelings towards rules at work.  Every process has a flow chart.  And the processes change, so sometimes the version you’ve committed to memory is no longer up to date.  Our bargaining agreement with certificated staff is 115 pages long.  We have a corpus of board policies and administrative regulations.  All of this happens in the context of state and federal education code.  All of which, I feel obligated to commit to memory.  Which of course I can’t.

On the one hand, I see these “rulebooks” and other operational procedures as  foundational texts.  Just like a talented musician typically builds his or her mastery of the fundamentals – scales, chords, music theory – a talented administrator calls on a robust familiarity with these key informational texts – policies, processes, and red flags.  Creativity and effectiveness as an administrator often flow from a deep familiarity with these sources.  Returning to my analogy of standard operating procedures in my marriage – a healthy relationship is based on the fact that most of the time, I actually do know what the best practice is and I do it.

But rules can also be stifling.  They can limit our ability to envision the full range of possibilities.  They can lock us in to doing things the way they’ve always been done. In some respects, that’s the definition of what a rule is.  We’ve got all kinds of cliches that speak to the danger of expecting different results when we continue to take the same regimented actions.  Relationships grow stale if they aren’t reinventing themselves.

In my opinion, hard-core rule followers don’t make the best administrators.  Too often, following the rules is more about liability and positional protection than it’s about doing what gets results for kids.  Our bureaucratic education systems are notorious for attending obsessively to inputs and processes while paying less attention to whether those processes get us the results we desire for students and families.  Unfortunately, the gut check usually comes when we are called on the carpet for breaking a rule, not for when student academic performance is lower than it should be.

Nor do indiscriminate rule-breakers find tremendous success in transforming schools.  Eventually, breaking the rules catches up with you.  Audits produce findings.  Arbiters strictly apply legal codes.  Soon enough, you may find yourself dealing with the cleanup of hasty decisions, and that slows down the system even more than the old rules and bureaucratic controls.

So, I’m constantly looking for balance.  I’m actively trying to deepen my command of the foundational texts and their practical application, while simultaneously keeping a strategic ear to the ground to determine where we can bend the rules, or throw out the current operational procedures altogether.