Everything Is Cool When You’re Part Of A Team

I am an educator by trade, though I have been a learner and a leader all of my life. Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Learning to Lead Learning Since 1979 that goes into this topic in more depth, though I think the sentiment comes through just fine in my personal mission statement. My purpose, as I see it: to cultivate communities of learners and learning by connecting with people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand.

Thankfully at this point in time, I have found myself professionally tied to a merry band of travelers who each seem to share at least a modicum of that mission in his or her own heart and mind. Together, we canvas the country seeking to be the learning partners that educators and school districts deserve as they venture into the unexplored reaches of their professional identities. In this team, I feel that I have found my tribe. We embody the feeling of a family- a feeling that I experienced to some extent in my previous career points, though has been amplified with this group in recent months to levels unexperienced to date.

That said, within the construct of this job I get the opportunity to visit cities all across these United States, and usually do so all by my lonesome. While I am traveling independently, I do interact with countless numbers of people while on the journey. In those travels, I have noticed that I tend to operate in slightly strange ways. At least strange relative to your average person.

A Vinyl Sticker With Big Black Letters

Mr Glasses Visitor

I am always a visitor, everywhere I go. I find myself walking through downtown streets and across suburban highways, meandering, seemingly aimlessly, because I can. I am a visitor here- I am not permanent. I end up in conversations with strangers, listening for the soul of the city while also attempting to help that person know that they have a friend for today- someone who will listen and help them find that they can in fact take that next step (terrifying as it may be). I do all of this because if I start the trip as a visitor everywhere I go, I need to end with that new place feeling like home. if I have to be away from my home in order to serve as this learning partner, then I figure I might as well try to help home feel like it came with me.

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I had another realization that has come to hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been talking with one of my teammates about my way of being and the various people I have met along the way, and as I shared she sat in silence on the other end of the phone. When she finally did speak, her first words were, “Wow. THAT is why we need you on our team, because we do not have anyone else like you on it.” (Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, my response: “That’s the beauty of it- we do not have anybody like anybody on our team. That’s what makes us a good team.”)

Her response got me thinking. Not even my teammates- those who “get it” more than any other due to our shared experiences out in the field- not even they necessarily understand my way of being. I felt as if I needed a way of communicating the why of my approach to life such that it could be understood- not only by them, but also a little bit better by me.

The More We Work Together, The Happier We’ll Be

Teacher Leader In You

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I found these words:

Imagine for a moment that one day, you decided to live as if every person you have ever met or will ever meet is on your team. You are here for them, they are here for you, and we are all moving forward together in the same direction for a common purpose. How might that mindset change the way in which you live your life from that day forward?

What I realized is, this is how I live. This is what I do. It resonated so closely with my own experiences, and like a lens brought everything into focus.

Imagine for a moment that it was true, that everyone was on your team. That would include Stephanie, a waitress in North Carolina who is 5 months pregnant with her first child, and her boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember though is no less central to the next steps within their family unit. If they were on my team, I would want to help them process their excitements and their fears about this huge step in their life. If they were on my team, I would want them to embrace the size and scope of this step. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how much their lives are going to change, and take steps from here on out that would help them prepare a world for that new little boy in which he will be successful. I have never been brave enough to consider taking a similar leap, so I applaud anyone who is willing and able to do so, so long as they take the responsibility of that leap as seriously as it is. While I will never meet them again, I hope that one evening’s conversation proves to be a helpful one for that new life entering the world and the parents that will help to grow it.

If everyone was on your team, that would include a team of researchers on a business retreat that I just happened to walk by one evening. They were sitting in a 25-person circle out on a restaurant’s patio, enjoying each other’s company as one whole after a hard day’s work. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how special it is that they elected to circle up as one whole versus sitting separately in several small groups, as such a way of being promotes team unity in ways unimaginable without it. It’s a rarity I do not often see, and if they’re able to name it, then they can replicate it. While I will never meet them again, I hope they keep on making circles of conversation from here on out.

If everyone was on your team, that would include Linda, a customer service representative for the airline of my flight for my very first event as a full-time employee, which was cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction. In talking with my boss about how to go about rescheduling the flight, he referenced the concept of “my fault, their fault, and God’s fault,” meaning that a mechanical failure is “their fault” and as such they need to do everything in their power to make it right. His direction to me: “Give them the business.” (And rereading it, I do not think he meant that I should buy more tickets.)

But if everyone is on your team, how do you “give them the business” in a way that is not destructive while also getting the outcomes you seek? Thankfully, Linda picked up the phone and asked how she could help me. I told Linda what I needed in no uncertain terms, “Linda, I am looking for a teammate and a partner. I had a flight cancelled tonight due to mechanical failure, and I desperately need to have my wheels down in Chicago by tomorrow morning for this professional learning session. Will you be that teammate?”

She jumped onto the team with open arms.

What she found was that the earliest trip out of Richmond left by 10:30am the next day, landing eventually in Chicago by 2pm CDT. My response to Linda: “I think you misunderstood me. I never said I needed to leave Richmond. I said that I needed wheels down in Chicago. I’m talking planes, trains, and automobiles here- if you can get me a flight, I can get to that flight.”

Her response: “Oh! That changes everything- let me see what I can do.”

We found a flight out of Reagan International in Washington DC that was scheduled to leave by 5am the next morning. With it being only a 2-hour drive, and current local time of 10:30pm, I had plenty of time to make it there before the flight. (Unfortunately, a 12am traffic jam on 95 North delayed me pretty significantly, and after gassing up the rental I only just barely made it in time. I will say that DC at 3:30am is beautiful- the memorial for Iwo Jima has never looked so breathtaking.)

Linda was a fantastic teammate. And if she were on my team, I would want those who work with her to know the lengths she went through to help me such that we could reinforce that behavior. So I made sure to fill out the survey at the end. It’s a small gesture, I know- but it’s the thought that counts.

The number of customer service representatives I have since been able to help in that way (because of their dedication to helping me) is moderately staggering. One night, I had been struggling to get access to my bank login and password in order to print out some statements, and finally decided to call customer service. The teammate on the other end of the line (ironically also named Linda- what is it with people named Linda and their willingness to help?) stayed on the line with me at 1:30am CDT for over an hour trying to figure out the issue. Once we finally got it figured out, I asked if there was any way I could be as helpful to her as she had been to me, to which she responded that I could share my thoughts with her supervisor. I did so happily and with fervor, even with it being almost 3am by that time.

These people are all on my team. We are here to help each other move forward, and as I come to embrace that role, I realize that it will take a constant level of personal vigilance to ensure that I continue to make decisions in my life such that I can continue to serve in this way.

What’s amazing to me- none of the stories above about the people I’ve met and joined on my team include any of the incredible educators I have had the privilege to serve. I could tell stories about them for days- I am blessed to have played a small part in their professional journeys, as they have played a large part in mine. They are by default part of my extended family, which grows exponentially by the week. Of course, that level of commitment to service isn’t really all that strange, and frankly I have plenty of real estate to tell those stories in the context that they deserve in order to help others learn from those practices.

This way of thinking was highly influenced by one of my former and forever teammates- a lead coach who has since taken a role as a site-based leader. When I elected to take on this role full-time starting last year, she asked me, “Where will you find your team?” Knowing that being part of a team was important to me, she worried that being out all on my lonesome would end up causing some level of angst. Little did she know the mindset that would emerge as a result.

My Mission, Should I Choose To Accept It

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Spider-Man is one of my many personal influences. My dad used to end each day with me by reading a few pages of a comic as a bedtime story, so I always tell kids that Spider-Man taught me how to read. And if they’re kindergartners, they say, “Mr Glasses…you know Spider-Man?” #kidssaythedarnedestthings

That said, Spider-Man also taught me and everyone else something important- that with great power comes great responsibility.

I do think (as my teammate mentioned) that I have a gift. A gift for connecting with people. A gift for bringing shape to ideas. A gift for seeking to understand. And I think I also have the responsibility to use that gift in service of others in order to cultivate communities of learning. That responsibility brings with it the importance of ensuring that every choice I make in my personal and professional life is also in service of that mission. To do otherwise could potentially cause irreparable harm that would derail that mission, and that mission is far too important to run off track.

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Connect, Commit, Contribute: Lessons on Leadership, Basketball Edition

Upon the passing of basketball icon Dean Smith Sunday morning, I have been reflecting on the impact that athletic coaches (specifically basketball coaches) have had on my own practice. While what I do for a living is “a totally different ballgame” than theirs, I noticed that I have pulled something from each of these leaders that I aspire to apply to my own work in leading learning.

Below are those 5 coaches, ordered chronologically by the time I noticed their effect on my own philosophy:

Mike Hardiman, Varina Rams and Varina Bulls

Coach Hardiman was the first coach I ever played for. As a 12-year old first trying out organized basketball, I lucked out into being drafted on his team. We were the Rams that year, and we won the championship of the league. Being that it was literally my first time playing “real” basketball, I spent most of the time watching (though I did get to play a fair amount).

In watching that year, I noticed that our team was uniquely different than that of our competitors. While our team was talented, no one player on our “starting five” was necessarily the best player on the court. Each, however, had the perfect skills to fit their role in what I later found out was a modified version of the Triangle Offense (which I have since learned a lot about from #2 on my list). All five of those players were on the league’s All-Star team that year, predominantly because of the WE BEFORE ME approach that Coach Hardiman instilled in us.

My role was relatively specific on that team. I could hit a pretty consistent jump shot from the corner, so Coach put me at our baseline forward position on offense. His suggestion? “If you get the ball here, and you’re open, square up and shoot it. You’ll knock it down, and it’ll be the best shot for us to score. Otherwise, keep moving the ball to swing the defense.” His confidence in me made me feel comfortable in playing the role that our team needed me to play.

Defensively, I played a forward in our 2-3 zone, charged first and foremost with the job of getting myself between the basket and my opponents every time a shot went up. Rebounding position was really important to Coach Hardiman- there was nothing less defensible than letting someone else beat you to the spot on the floor most likely to hold the other team to one shot.

Over the years, I played on three other teams under Coach Hardiman’s lead, eventually moving from that baseline forward position to a more versatile offside wing position. He saw me as a creative asset that could make the big baskets when our team needed it, so that’s what I became. While we made it deep in the playoffs every year and I made several All-Star teams of my own, it wasn’t necessarily that success that drove me and my teammates to come back every year: it was the way we felt when we were playing together. Coach Hardiman made us feel like anything was possible so long as we went after it together as a team.

Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers

Like most young men my age, I was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls. HUGE. To illustrate that fact, I’ll make a confession: for upwards of 5 years, I made it a personal mission to wear some piece of clothing that declared to the world my dedication to the team.

Every day. For five years. By a kid living in Richmond, Virginia, 804 miles away from Midtown.

At the time, I attributed my affiliation to the team to an appreciation of Michael Jordan, and for good reason: he was my first favorite basketball player. I had followed him since the moment when I first opened a pack of Fleer basketball cards, flipped through the deck, and said, “Michael Jordan…I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he good?” I then watched the next Bulls game on TV and decided, “Yes. He’s good. He’s REALLY good.” My dad tells me that my fandom began when I saw his first big moment: the open jumper from the left wing when he hit “The Shot” against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Championships, but I really don’t remember all of that.

Of course, I was a huge fan of Jordan. What I learned years later was that I was actually a fan of Phil Jackson.

I loved watching the Bulls play. Every nationally televised game was a holiday in my house, one where everyone knew what I would be doing. (I still remember when our cable provider offered WGN- I’m shocked that I ever made it out of the house after that time.) But it wasn’t just Jordan: it was the team. Like my own Rams teams, I used to love all of the different roles that each of the Bulls played on the team. As incredible as Jordan was on the court, it was guys like Cliff Levingston that I appreciated most. “Good News” would provide a spark to the team with his hustle and energy, always keeping the team in good spirits. Every player on those teams had that kind of voice, that kind of story. Every player had a role.

Coach Jackson caused that WE BEFORE ME mentality with his approach to the game. He instilled a much more nuanced version of the Triangle Offense than Coach Hardiman had used, the similarities of which I did not notice until years later. Jordan used to call it an “equal opportunity” offense, one that kept every player in the flow of the game. While Jordan would often take over the reins as necessary (as one would expect the arguably greatest competitor in the history of the game might), some of the best moments in those historic runs took place when everyone on the team was involved (including this championship-winning three-pointer against the Suns in 1993, when all five players on the court touched the ball).

Those Bulls went on to win 6 championships in 8 years, after which time the team went its separate ways. Phil Jackson made his way to Hollywood, leading the LA Lakers to 5 more championships and 7 NBA Finals in his 11 seasons with the team. I’ve since read several of Jackson’s books (my favorites being Sacred Hoops and Eleven Rings), and what I’ve learned about the Zen Master is how much he values knowing his players, knowing their strengths, and knowing how he can support them not just as basketball players, but as human beings.

Julie Strong, Albemarle Patriots

During my early years as a teacher, I joined the coaching staff of the JV girls basketball team in the school I worked under the tutelage of a neighboring Government teacher seeking a partner in her efforts. She knew I liked basketball, and she knew that I liked teaching, and so I guess she thought I’d fit right in.

Over our three years together as a coaching staff, I no doubt learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of coaching a team from Coach Strong. She taught me a lot about situational offenses and full-court presses, about running practices and organizing plays in the huddle. But what I’ll carry with me the most was the time that we spent building individuals into a team.

Our first year together, we were in a unique position where several students who would generally play JV had been called up to varsity. That meant that several of our players were having their own first opportunity with organized basketball as a part of our team. We won one game all year that season, and few times in life have I been as proud. The same went for Coach Strong- it was the only losing season in her career as a coach, and you would have never known it from the pride she exuded in each player’s growth. That team rallied together and pushed each other to improve, and each grew tremendously over the year as a result. They could have given up at any time, but Coach Strong never gave up on them, and they never gave up on each other.

(That one win was by 20 points, which is significant given that many of the games that year never made it far past 20 points total. With each basket that fell, the team erupted in excitement. Coach Strong has the conscientious nature to talk with the opposing coach to ensure they knew this was their first win of the season, which helped smooth things over.)

What I remember most about those years: we built deep relationships with these athletes, not just as players but as people. Coach Strong helped me to see the importance of getting to know the whole child, not just the student in the classroom of the one subject you happen to teach. These connections outside of the classroom led to significant connections inside the classroom, generating some of the most personally meaningful and inspirational stories of my educational career.

Tony Bennett, University of Virginia

I have been collecting articles about Tony Bennett and UVA Basketball for the past 18 months or so, waiting for the right time to “unveil” them in a post about leadership and teamwork. Instead of doing a lot of writing, I’ll just drop those articles here, along with a few relevant quotes from the articles that reflect why I am so drawn to Coach Bennett’s approach. (Side note: I cannot wait to add many, many more.)

After winning the ACC Championship in 2014 (quoting Justin Anderson, who was quoting John Wooden):

Following UVA’s 2014’s exit from the NCAA Tournament (quoting Matt Norlander):

  • Some coaches are able to discover threads that tie men together through different motivations, and for whatever reason, they simply work in the macro. Honesty and earnestness is a part of it with some people, and Bennett is one of those guys.
  • He doesn’t do swift and pretty. His program projects reflect the way his teams play: slow, methodical, with purpose — and without arrogance or presumption.
  • Cavaliers basketball is now based on five pillars: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility and servanthood.

Describing UVA’s as-yet-unbeaten streak during the 2014-15 season (quoting Jeff White):

  • By the time the `Hoos took the court for practice…the latest polls were out, but there was no mention of the No. 2 ranking, and Bennett offered his players no extra praise.
  • On the ACC coaches’ teleconference early Monday afternoon, Bennett was asked about the national spotlight that’s now shining so brightly on his program: “It’s really irrelevant to how we play, what we do,” he said. “It just comes when you’ve won some games, and it’s there. I think the biggest thing is, whether the talk’s there or not…it’s how you process it, your young men, and what you do with it. But our job is to certainly be vigilant and say, `Hey, are we going to work?’ We always say, `Don’t believe the hype and all those things.’ “

Following this past week’s loss to Duke and the following wins against UNC and Louisville (quoting Tony Bennett):

  • After Saturday night’s 52-47 win over Louisville: “When you whip a donkey, it kicks… but when you whip a thoroughbred, it responds.”
  • “We learned some valuable lessons against Duke. After winning at Carolina, I didn’t want our guys to assume, ‘Oh, OK, we’re back on track.’ No, you’re going to have to scrap for everything. We played for each other and that’s our way. [I told them that] when we do that, I’ll take [this team] against most anybody.”

Update: Commenters’ response to Myron Medcalf’s argument that UVA’s style is bad for the game:

  • A sarcastic response from Christopher John Payne: “Myron’s right. Virginia’s bad for basketball. Also, carrots, apples and bananas are bad for food. We need more donuts, more Cap’n Crunch, more cheese puffs. Too bad Virginia just doesn’t get it, what with their outdated notions of teamwork, selflessness, and hard work.”
  • A rational response from Eugene Belitsky: “If you watch UVA play you’ll notice that UVA often tries to score at the end of the shot clock by choice, while their opponents throw up shots at the end of the shot clock by necessity. A shorter shot clock would mean more possessions but not necessarily more running. UVA, a team with a great per possession scoring differential, would be just fine.”
  • A hypothetical response from Matt Schiffler: “[This article’s] title if the situation were the same, but Duke and UVA were switched: ‘Duke’s unselfish, disciplined play: a new standard for college basketball?'”
  • A response to end all responses from Phillip Sabri:
    • “Virginia plays beautiful basketball. Team-oriented. Unselfish. They don’t sit on the ball on offense. They work for a good shot, the best shot. If they can get a fast break opportunity, they take it. A 90 to 70 game can be far uglier than anything you’ll see from UVA.”
    • “The pace of play is equally or more often than not dictated by how long it takes their opponents to get a shot off. Not infrequently the opposition throws up some last second desperation shot. It is a fantastically disciplined team that plays together.”
    • “Would you rather see a so-called Hall of Fame coach’s team run and gun, throw up lousy off-balance shots, and give up wide open looks or layups…or watch a team that truly loves to play together, [plays] for each other, maximizes their talents, and bests team after team that on paper has them beat?”
    • “There is an awful lot of Hoosier’s (as in Norman Dale and Jimmy Chitwood) in this UVA team–underdogs that come together and can defeat the so-called Goliaths of the sport using their 5 pillars of humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. It is not ugly basketball. It is a beautiful thing.

Update: Chris Chase responding to critics who describe UVA’s play as bad for NCAAB, even with a 28-1 record:

  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? Slow, then quick, improvement. Tony Bennett has been there for six years. His record has improved every year – 15-16, 16-15, 22-10, 23-12, 30-7 and 28-1 (assuming they get to 30+ wins this year, which is a good bet).
  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? Defense, defense, defense. Virginia plays a ferocious pack-line defense…at times, it looks like UVA is playing six to five. They smother. (Here’s a great breakdown.) Why is that a bad thing? It’s more exciting than what 99% of NCAA teams do offensively. Watching good defense is watching good basketball.
  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? They’re blue collar, not blue chip. In the world of one-and-dones and John Calipari, UVA harkens back to the good ol’ days of college basketball. There are no one-and-dones. There are no McDonald’s All-Americans and no top NBA prospects. They’re as blue collar as a team playing in a state-of-the-art $131 million arena can be. UVA is what’s right with college basketball.

Dean Smith, University of North Carolina

Finally, I get to the man that inspired this post in the first place. Coach Smith’s place on this list shouldn’t be mistaken for not knowing who he was. I may have graduated a Wahoo, but I grew up a Tarheel. Some of it was my dad’s influence, some of it was Michael Jordan’s – as after watching Come Fly With Me surely close to a hundred times, it’d be hard not to have Coach Smith as a favorite coach.

No, Coach Smith is this far down the list because until now I have not spent a lot of time learning about him. He is this far down the list as a reminder that I still have much to learn from him, even if he has since passed.

What I know of him up to this point? He originated the Four Corners, which led to the adoption of the shot clock. He coached (almost) all of my favorite Tarheels, including Michael Jordan. He is famously credited with being the only person that could hold Jordan under 20 points per game. (Not even Father Time could do that, as Jordan did not have a single season in the NBA where he averaged less than 20 ppg, even with the Wizards.) He won a championship with that 1982 team, as well as another against Michigan and the Fab Five in the famed “Webber Called Time-Out!” game in 1993. He retired in 1997 with 879 wins, which at the time was the most in NCAA history. (He’s since been past by at least two others.) And he had an arena named after him: The Dean Dome, where I remember seeing a preseason game between the Bulls and Nets (which has its own story), as well as a regular season UNC game when I was visiting the university with a childhood friend.

That’s pretty much it. My knowledge of Dean Smith in a nutshell.

Even just after a cursory glance at his Wikipedia page and around Google, I’m learning (and remembering) more:

  • He is credited with the popularization of encouraging players who scored a basket to point to the teammate who passed them the ball, in honor of the passer’s selflessness. That’s so cool!
  • Also attributed to him: the practice of getting players to huddle at the free throw line before a foul shot. Never missing an opportunity to help the team get on the same page.
  • He instituted the practice of starting all his team’s seniors on the last home game of the season (“Senior Day”) as a way of honoring the contributions of the subs as well as the stars.
  • That last factoid reminded me of “Big Blue,” a practice where Coach Smith would bring in five new players off the bench (often walk-ons as opposed to the scholarship players) whenever he felt like the team needed some energy. It wasn’t a punitive measure for the “regulars,” but a sign that he trusted all of his players to do what was needed.
  • Someone posted Coach Smith’s recruitment letter of Michael Jordan, scanned into this story on FanSided. Such a small gesture, and yet such a huge one.
  • What’s even bigger: this article from the Huffington Post laying out 15 inspiring stories that prove he was more than just Michael Jordan’s coach. Chief among them: Smith’s push for racial integration throughout his career, his support of civil rights in general, and his “one firm rule” that he would drop anything if any of his players ever needed to talk to him, no matter how important it seemed.

I cannot wait to spend more time learning about the life and legacy of this man.

What I have learned so far

What I noticed in reflecting on these coaches is that their impact on me ultimately has very little to do with basketball. It’s a given that I’m a big basketball fan, that each was a coach of one of my favorite teams, and each was an incredible basketball coach at his or her core. All that being said, while each has a firm grasp on the X’s and O’s of the game, that’s not why they come to mind. I’m not that kind of coach anymore.

They resonate the most with me because they all placed an equally high value on their concern for people as they did on their concern for production.Photo Feb 09, 11 27 45 PM (1)

I first ran across this concept as a Managerial Grid model developed by Blake and Mouton back in the 1960s. While it’s gone through several phases in its life cycle, the essence remains true: the approach that gets people connected, committed, and contributing to a mission involves both a high concern for people as well as a high concern for production.

It’s not enough to push for production and expect greatness to happen, just as it’s not enough to care about people and expect anything more than sunshine and rainbows. Effective leaders must do both. And not both in an alternating fashion (which is described as a Paternalistic Style)- they must show high concern for both production and for people at the same time.

What are my own personal next steps to push myself toward embracing the Team style? Here are a few:

  • Help those I serve find where they fit, and vocalize the trust I have in them to succeed, just as Coach Hardiman did for me when I was just learning how to play.
  • Remember that “The road to freedom is a beautiful system,” as Coach Jackson once said in his Mindful Leadership practices. Help people identify clear structures within which they can work together seamlessly, which will allow their individual greatness to blossom to more than the sum of its parts.
  • Get to know people not as students, teachers, and administrators, but as people, as Coach Strong inspired me to do. Listen for those passions that make people’s eyes light up, and connect with them in order to learn from them.
  • Embody into everyday practice the five pillars that Coach Bennett has instilled: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility, and servanthood. Last week, my teammate used similar language: “The tension between unconscious competence and conscious competence? That’s humility.” Definitely something to reflect on.
  • Point to thank those who “pass the ball” such that it leads to success, as Coach Smith encouraged his players to do. Celebrate the selflessness of the team, and contribute to it by looking to pass to those who have the best shot available.
  • Commit to the mission, commit to the team, and contribute every day.

“For the strength in the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength in the Wolf is the Pack.”

PS Closing with that Rudyard Kipling quote felt just about right, until I realized that it indirectly sings the praises of crosstown rival NC State. No matter, it’s just a little too good to pass up.

RIP Coach Smith. Thanks for the memories, both old, new, and yet to be.

Discordant Metronomes & Connected Educators

Learning in order to lead learning again, this time by exploring a really freaky phenomenon.

I recently ran across a fascinating video (aptly tagged in the category This Is Awesome) of 32 discordant metronomes achieving synchrony in just under 4 minutes. Check it out:

Is that not incredible? My favorite part is the one hold-out on the bottom right, most visible around the 2:07 mark. Eventually, even that single outlier comes into phase with the rest of the group.

The key to this transformation (as highlighted in the referenced article) is the surface on which the metronomes rest. The board as a foundation appears quite rigid and static- though if that were the case, the metronomes would remain out of phase with each other. A closer look reveals that the board in this example is flexible, free to move with the rhythm of the system. As each metronome swings from side to side, the board acts as an “energetic intermediary” that facilitates transfer across the system. It is only because of the flexible surface of connection that this alignment of individuals can occur.

What Is It That Brings Us Together?

Most of the posts containing this video have explored the science behind it. While EXTREMELY tempting, that’s already been done, so I’ll refrain. (For those curious, check out this video by physicist Adam Micolich, this post from CBS News, and this article by professor Jim Panteleone of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.)

I was drawn instead to the role of interconnectedness in bringing about organizational change. Watching this video makes me wonder, what are the various ways that groups of individuals are connected such that they can reinforce each others’ patterns of behavior? For school leaders: if these metronomes represent our teachers, what are the “energetic intermediaries” that help them move together as one?

So far, I’ve come up with three that stand out to me:

Mission: Educators are first and foremost passionate about helping kids learn. All nuance aside, developing quality learning experiences for all students is the common bond that connects us all within the profession. When we as individuals allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our practices through the mirror of this core belief, those practices that do not align with this mission become more apparent (and are more likely to change). Those acting in isolation of this mission could swing on indefinitely without a reconnection to this common purpose.

Social Networks: Educators are also human, which means that we are social creatures. As we connect with others through a variety of social networks, we are more likely to align to those around us. These networks (whether built through online social media tools like twitter and Pinterest or via in-person connections across a hallway or building) allow individuals to engage in the cyclic process of sharing their own practices and learning from others. By staying connected, we become more aligned, and behave more like one system.

Leadership: This phenomenon encapsulates how I view the role of school leader as being first and foremost a connector. The school leader connects the individuals within a team, school, or district in support of their efforts, much like the floor in this video example both supports and connects these individual pendulums. Some takeaways for me:

  • The system began as a discordant group of individuals, as disconnected parts of a system often do.
  • A rigid, unresponsive figurehead allows individuals to continue in chaotic discordance, much like the static table would have done for the pendulums. This inflexibility limits the power of the leader’s connection.
  • In contrast, a leader who listens to the individuals within the system, reflects shared elements of those individuals’ practices and behaviors, and moves in reinforcing harmony in accordance with those practices can be the true connector that to help otherwise isolated individuals to learn from each other.
  • This kind of responsive connection slowly but surely brings about system-wide alignment, so long as we have the patience, flexibility, and perseverance to allow it to emerge.

This video ultimately reminds me of NBA coach Phil Jackson and his view of leadership (from his fantastic book, Sacred Hoops):

The wise leader is of service: receptive, yielding, following. The group member’s vibration dominates and leads, while the leader follows. But soon it is the member’s consciousness which is transformed. It is the job of the leader to be aware of the group member’s process; it is the need of the group member to be received and paid attention to. Both get what they need, if the leader has the wisdom to serve and follow.

School leaders: Where do you see yourself in this example? Where do you see your school or district? In what ways do you transfer energy from individual to individual throughout the system, and in what ways do you prevent that transfer? What does it looks like when your group members’ vibrations dominate and lead while you follow, and how might that process lead to successful alignment?

Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We just happen to be on the verge of Connected Educators Month, a time that the US Department of Education has identified for us to celebrate “online communities of practice and networks in education.” Your story might just be that one nudge of reinforcing energy that will help those of us connected together through the “energetic intermediary” of the blogosphere to grow together as more successful leaders in the future.

Blogs of Faith and Devotion

During the MSNBC Teacher Town Hall on September 25, 2010, Van Meter superintendent of schools and #edchat enthusiast John Carver (@johnccarver) had the idea of asking, “What’s Working?” on Twitter. ACPS teacher Paula White (@paulawhite) suggested that we all go write a blog about what’s working in education, and share our stories with the hashtag #educationnation.

See below for these blogs of hope (more will be added as they are posted under the hashtag #educationnation):

In Made to Stick, Chip & Dan Heath write that stories have the power to get people to act.  Some stories help us know how to act in a situation, while others inspire us with energy to act.  What are your stories?  Please share them over the hashtag #educationnation, as these stories will help all of us, our colleagues, and our communities take the steps we need to take right now.

What’s Working? Making Practice Public!

As a response to the MSNBC Teacher Town Hall on September 26, 2010, ACPS teacher Paula White (@paulawhite) suggested that we all go write a blog about what’s working in education, and share our stories with the hashtag #educationnation. Here’s mine:

What’s working right now for me in my practice as an educator is the unprecedented access I have to discuss teaching and learning (within my school division, nationwide, and across the globe), and the growth opportunities that this level of public practice presents to me every day.

I have colleagues that open their classrooms to me in my school.  During lunch, my former teammate and I would talk about our upcoming plans for classes, and would often discuss a new practice we were planning to do with our students.  When I asked if I could watch and see how it worked out in his class, he welcomed me in.  The trust paid off, and I grew as a result – seeing his classroom sparked ideas for me related to the little nuances of our craft…ideas I may never have had without the opportunity to see him practice.  I like to think that he grew as well – in our follow-up conversations, he would talk about his impressions of the class and ask for my thoughts and feedback, which led to adjustments in his future class periods.  If something I said sparked a curiosity in him, he would come by to see my class as well, and the cycle of growth continued.

I have colleagues that open their classrooms to me across my division.  As a group of instructional coaches in our county, we seek to replicate the opportunities for these reflective partnerships that promote professional growth.  Since the beginning of the school year, I have started several new connections with teachers who have e-mailed looking for a reflective partner in practices as diverse as starting experimental design projects, gauging student progress, or planning learning opportunities during a field trip.  With each opportunity, I help the teacher see their practice through a new set of eyes, usually finding ways to connect them with other teachers.  Some of those teachers are wrestling with these same topics, while others have found a way that works for them (but are looking for ideas just as well).  When we make our practice public, we can learn from the connections that follow.

I have colleagues that open their classrooms to me across the world.  Just this week, I have read new blog posts written by educators who are inviting me into their classroom practice.  Their thoughts spark ideas in me, and their questions inspire me to seek new answers. I learned from two teachers in Iowa in Riley Lark’s (@rileylark) practice of standards-based grading, and Shawn Cornally’s (@ThinkThankThunk) continued goal to promote truly student-centered learning.  John Sowash (@jrsowash) pushed my practice from Cincinnati by sharing his lessons learned from “flipping his classroom,” while stories from Kansas’ Jim Knight (@jimknight99) about recognizing the fear inherent to professional growth helped me to recognize how the fear vs growth relationship applies to my own work.  I even had a chance to help, responding to Brooklyn’s Sam Shah (@samjshah) in his desire to find ways to get his kids to think about graphs differently, all because he had both the trust and the desire to tell everyone about it.  By sharing his practice with me, both he and I have grown in our profession.

Like any art, skill or science, I grow when I see and hear about the practice of others.  As I continue to grow as an educator, I will seek out more opportunities to make my practice public, and I hope to inspire others to do the same – that is what is working for me right now!