Leadership Thoughts | Issue #85
Dr. Tom Butler, Executive Director of the Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, recently gave a presentation at the National Dropout Prevention conference. His presentation was about the nationally recognized trauma program for children created by the Intermediate Unit. While at the conference, he attended a session presented by Ray McNulty, President of Successful Practices Network. If you are unfamiliar with Ray McNulty, check out his LinkedIn profile.
The session’s title was, Using Both The Future And The Past To Guide Our Work; since Tom and I are working on a project to create a series of leadership symposiums about the current and future of education, he shared McNulty’s PowerPoint with me. The PowerPoint created an opportunity to do what Duff Rearick refers to as “think about.” I had the chance to think about the big idea and various key concepts. I will share three of McNulty’s slides in this week's newsletter with my “think about” for each. I encourage you to “think about” what each slide means to you and its relevance to your organization and leadership.
Slide #1: Pace of Change
Like it or not, change is inevitable! We can lament all we want, but that won’t stop the tide. The pace of change will continue to increase. I’ve become a student studying the change process. I’ve accepted the notion that profound change requires a fundamental shift in thinking. All significant changes will challenge our current beliefs and assumptions. It is the responsibility of leaders to usher in productive change. Leaders need to understand both the process of successful change and the barriers to change. When I think about change, I can see a distinction between "change" and "innovation"--more about that topic on another day. Most effective change initiatives--innovations in education--fail not because they weren't appropriate but because leaders don't pay enough attention to the change process, which Peter Senge calls the Dance of Change.
Slide #2: Best Practices or Next Practices
When I saw this slide, I thought, well, that answer is obvious, to improve current best practices and next practices. Then I started to dissect the words on the slide; pause your reading here and go ahead and “think about” the purpose and meaning behind the slide. At the risk of sounding like a negative Nancy and antagonizing friends and colleagues, I don’t think we (educational leaders) do either very well. Don’t get me wrong, there is promising research and even a list of best practices available, but too often, the challenges associated with implementing go unresolved. This means that except for the “true believers,” most educators revert to the way it has always been done. As McNulty states in his presentation: “The Future gets pushed aside.”
Slide #3 Not a Problem
The third slide represents a “curve ball” that McNulty presented and, in my opinion, is the most notable of the session. Although he did not clearly state the problems (I think that was on purpose), he said, “the bad news is that there are no solutions to these problems; the good news is that these aren’t problems. These are polarities.” As I followed his reasoning by making inferences from the slides, I discovered the value of McNulty not identifying the “problem” and the cleverness of the participant inserting their problem(s) into the line of thinking. Hold on, it is a little confusing, but more to come.
Now think about this, not everything is just a problem to solve. A solution exists for problems; there can be a right or best answer. A polarity generally contains opposing ideas, ongoing and unsolvable. Several examples provided by McNulty are:
Students’ responsibility for learning and teacher responsibility for learning
Teaching content and teaching strategies to learn content
Freedom and Responsibility
Empathy and Toughness
Keeping Control and Empower Others
The first step in working with polarities is recognizing the difference between a problem with a solution and polarities with no solutions. The next step is to understand that blended polarity tends to change intensity and influence. McNulty refers to this as polarity’s ebbs and flows. The opposite end (pole) is not generally in balance; at any given time, one pole will take precedence over its counterpart. Think about the example given above. There are times when empathy, for example, takes precedence over toughness. Both empathy and toughness are a point of view, and both are best practices.
The pace of change will not slow; we will be confronted with change faster than ever. The impact of these swift changes is challenging for us as adults, and the effect on children is even more devastating. Our task is to prepare children for this constant barrage of changes. How can we, as school leaders, abandon the rush for the next best practice and focus on fully implementing the current best practice? We must consider the difference between a problem with a solution and a dilemma with no answer.
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