Greatest Strength, Greatest Weakness

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“Sometimes your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness if the context changes.” – Harsha Bhogle

Photo Credit: marysmyth(NOLA 13I) via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: marysmyth(NOLA 13I) via Compfight cc

A very experienced leader in our district once gave me a piece of advice as we were discussing leadership and navigating difficult situations. It started as you might expect.  He shared that it was important to identify my greatest strength and use that in those pressure filled situations. Makes sense, right? Then the advice took an interesting turn.  He also shared that in his experience, most people’s greatest strength becomes their Achilles heel. I nodded wisely at the time, but my head had a big question mark over it.

I really didn’t understand how this could be true. Most of the informal and formal leaders I admired talked about “knowing yourself”,  “leading from your strengths”, or “sharing your passion”. Most never mentioned weaknesses linked to strengths.  I am well aware of my weaknesses. Who isn’t?  We all try to cover up those not so stellar aspects of ourselves, hoping that no one will notice. The idea that my strengths and weaknesses could somehow be linked was puzzling and a little scary.

Over time, I found that advice rising to the forefront as I observed others. I saw leaders who were great at building relationships and getting people to like them. But some couldn’t make hard decisions that might displease people. I watched brilliant thinkers create and innovate and be unable to explain these amazing ideas to those they worked with. I noticed that detail oriented excellent organizers sometimes couldn’t see the big picture. I started to get it.

Without reflection, growth isn’t possible, so my natural next step was to turn the lens on myself. One of my strengths is my ability to plan and work independently and efficiently on projects and tasks for a good result. I’ve come to know that the flip side is that sometimes I’m way too independent and don’t communicate or involve the right people in the planning or problem solving.  Realizing what I need to work on helps me focus, in this case on my collaboration and communication. While I can’t fix everything all at once, it provides a signpost to improvement and I try to choose next best doable steps to get there. For example, I write myself little reminders about who I need to communicate with. And I always appreciate when a colleague points out I forgot to communicate with them!

Leading successfully is about knowing yourself. What are your greatest strengths? Could they become weaknesses too?

Co-Learning and Hierarchy: Mutually exclusive?

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Co-learning: when a group of people comes together in a spirit of inquiry to share knowledge, investigate possibilities and learn from each other. (From Edward Brantmeier article)

Characteristics of Co-learning:
*  All knowledge is valued
*  Reciprocal value of knowledge sharers
*  Care for each other as people and co-learners
*  Trust
*  Learning from one another

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

I had a wonderful opportunity during our September professional activity day. I got to sit with both elementary and secondary staff to talk about student learning needs evident in student work and what educators need to learn in order to meet those needs. Talking with people about ideas is my favourite part of the job, and these discussions were passionate and student centred.

In each school, the educators obviously care deeply about their students. They were wrestling with big ideas like integration of technology into critical literacy, problem solving, how to balance classroom management with a focus on higher order thinking skills. I loved the discussion.

At first, I flattered myself that I was co-learning. Wasn’t I open to listening, being trustworthy and valuing the knowledge of all participants? Well, yes, at least in my mind. Then I had two important conversations. The first was with a principal who shared that maybe my presence hadn’t been viewed as positively by staff as I’d hoped. In my eagerness to be transparent, I had highlighted that even though I was a superintendent, I was there to learn. But perhaps that just drew attention to my position and made people uncomfortable. When I spoke in a group, my words carried more weight than others and some felt criticized. Not the trusting atmosphere I was seeking! It was a setback.

The second conversation was with Steven Katz, a thinker, professor and researcher at OISE who works with our district. During a principal learning team meeting, he talked about hierarchy and how naive it is to pretend that it doesn’t exist in a learning session. When a superintendent sits down with principals or teachers, hierarchy exists because of the evaluative component. Announcing that I’m a co-learner and expecting that reality to disappear is naïve at best.

Honestly, I could kick myself! I know that. I have felt it in sessions as a teacher, a vice principal, a principal and now as a superintendent, with my boss. I’ve done lots of reading about trust over the past couple of years, so I understand how it is earned and builds over time through a combination of character and competence. (Steven M. R. Covey)

For a time, I felt a bit stuck. Then I realized that I have to go back to my core beliefs about learning and our work.

Co-learning can happen, even with the spectre of hierarchy at the table.  I’ve experienced it as a principal and a superintendent, after people come to know me better and when I leave my ego at the door. I need time with the schools where I work. I need to accept that the hierarchy exists, acknowledge it, and get on with the work. I also want to clarify my purpose in sitting at the table with other educators. It is three fold:

1) To hear and reflect on their ideas and insights;

2) To interrupt group think and established patterns of thinking; (see Intentional Interruption by Katz and Dack)

3) To interrupt my own thinking so I can truly learn.

I’m ready to get back in there.

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

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Way back near the beginning of my teaching career, I worked at a middle school with a teacher who was in his last few years of education.  He called every girl in his classes “Susie”, and every boy, “George”. Yup. True story. (There were some exceptions for those students who stood out, either for good or bad reasons.)Hand Names

At the time, I laughed a little about it, but I also couldn’t get over how disrespectful it was. That was not a teacher who knew his students.

Fortunately, that is not true for the vast majority of teachers out there. They learn every student’s name by the end of the first week of school. When I talk with educators, not only can I see how much they care about their students, but also how much they know about them.  Educators carry a tremendous amount of information about their students in their head. They glean it from classroom and hallway observations, conversations and student work. As a teacher, I learned to take my class lists and go through each name one by one, reflecting on what I knew about them. If I came to a name that stumped me a little, I made a mental note to talk with that student, to spend time in class with them, and to really examine their work to find out their strengths and needs. It was a great strategy that I have transferred to my current role.

Our district‘s Strategic Directions use Knowing Our Students, Knowing Our Staff and Knowing Our Parents/Community as foundational pieces for the work we do. We can only teach better, learn better and serve better when we know more about them.

It’s really important for me to know the principals and vice principals I work with. As Steven Katz would say, they are my “class”. First, if I see someone at a meeting who I don’t recognize, I like to go right up and introduce myself. It’s bold, but also a wonderful way to learn names. I also start from an asset not a deficit lens and try to listen carefully to what they say, noting both verbal and nonverbal messages. I reflect on my school visits and conversations with them. I want to celebrate their successes and support them with challenges. This is definitely a work in progress since I always have room for improvement.

How do you get to to know your students, your staff or your parents/community better? Let’s share strategies!