The Reflection Pool

Two Essential Questions for Reflection

The end of a school year always prompts reflection. After collapsing exhausted on Canada Day to recover from the whirlwind of June, educators take a few deep breaths and think about their year. That reflection takes different forms. It can be mulling over how your class did as you sip a morning coffee on the balcony, or wondering what you could improve in your approach to inquiry as you walk the 17th fairway, or seeing your teaching approaches through a new lens by reading that educational title that was on your nightstand for ages.

Photo Credit: Flооd via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Flооd via Compfight cc

My reflection is focussed on two questions:

Am I getting better?

How do I know?

Steven Katz, psychologist, teacher and researcher, uses these questions as a basis to measure all improvement, whether as a whole school or as individual leaders and educators. They are simple yet powerful. Where can you look to know if you are really getting better?

This year, I focussed on two areas for my own growth and improvement as a leader. It almost goes without saying that I have many more areas to improve, but I kept in mind that we can only do a couple of things well.

First, I wanted to create a space in principal learning teams and school visits where there could be open and trusting dialogue about school improvement. I also wanted to work on my listening to understand people’s perspectives and experiences (in the interest of full disclosure, this is something I feel like I always need to improve).

These are some pretty nice goals, don’t you think? And that’s really where it stops, unless I have some way of knowing if I’m getting better. One component is my own observations. I see some progress in learning teams with principals and vice principals as they lay out what they are struggling with and hoping to learn about. I watch as some principals ask questions during school visits or push back. I try to be honest and transparent, but I’m not really sure if I’m perceived that way. But these impressions aren’t enough.

Shakil Choudhury has shared that the most important leadership quality is self awareness. We get there through brutal self-honesty and feedback from others. I’ll start by gathering feedback from those I work with through a series of questions:

What does open and trusting dialogue mean to you?

Do you feel the principal learning team time and the structure of the school visit is useful for creating that dialogue?

What can I do to improve the conditions for this dialogue to exist?

What are my strengths as a listener?

What do I need to improve as a listener?

I’ll be back with an update. Here I go!

Phone vs. Email – You Know Which One Is Better, Right?

Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer via Compfight cc

My work world revolves around email. I wish it wasn’t that way. Email is a time sucker. Email is never ending. And worst of all, email is void of tone or context. So the people who read your emails have to guess what tone you might be going for. There are some solutions to this: you can litter your emails with ellipses, exclamation marks and emojiis to convey friendliness or thoughtfulness. That’s pretty much it.

You might think that I had learned this lesson already in my 25+ year career. I guess I’d thought so, too. We’d both be wrong. Just recently, I made a mistake with an email. What I thought was clear and thoughtful, even supportive, was not interpreted that way. The recipient totally called me out – “Sue, why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?” And you know what, they were completely right. I should have called.

Photo Credit: DenisGiles via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: DenisGiles via Compfight cc

The trouble is, when I have a potentially difficult call to make where the other person may be upset, hurt or angry, it does seem easier to email. Jimmy Casas, a secondary school principal in Iowa who I have mentioned before, recently wrote a post ”  Phone Calls Home: “I’m Not Going to Lie… They Scare Me.”  It’s a great post, because we can all relate. Jimmy also offers some thoughtful solutions to the problem. The reality is that while it might seem less risky to carefully craft an email, often it can make a situation worse where the original difficult issue still exists, but now it’s compounded by lack of trust. Ouch! We all know that a phone call or a face to face conversation is best. Sometimes it’s hard.

So now I pick myself up, dust myself off and vow to do better. More phone calls than emails. If you see me around, can you please remind me??


Feedback. Priceless.

Becoming self aware as a person and as a leader is a journey.  Two essential ingredients are reflection and feedback. We cannot truly gauge our success as leaders without asking the people we serve how we’re doing.  Seeking feedback helps us check the assumptions we make about ourselves and our impact.

Last June, I asked our staff to complete a voluntary anonymous survey about my leadership as a school principal.  After reading Leading with Trust by Susan Stephenson,  I realized it was time for me take closer look at my leadership practices and especially my trust factor with staff.  This was a little scary, since I knew that not all feedback would be positive, but I also knew it was the best way for me to grow as a leader.  My Leadership Survey  was based on her example and included some rating questions and two open response questions. Stephenson cautions that sometimes the results can be hard to take.  The purpose was to get better picture of myself as a leader, so I needed the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I was pleased that 54% of staff completed a survey, more than enough to form a good sampling of opinion. The results?  Super interesting!  There were many positives where people recognized my strengths as an organized, committed and passionate instructional leader. Some offered really thoughtful insights on how I could do better. There was a strongly worded criticism, but in the end, it served to make me examine my behaviour more deeply. My biggest challenge was very clear: I need to become more approachable with all staff so they feel they can openly and easily share thoughts and feelings with me.  Reflecting on these results was humbling but incredibly powerful.

My next actions include sharing the results with staff and investigating how to build better trust. I want to become a better leader.  I want to be more effective.  I’ve taken the first step and more steps will follow. I challenge everyone to ask for feedback. Its effect is priceless.