Serving Leadership

Sometimes when I am trying to define what we mean by “service learning” for our students, I’m confronted with what it means for school leaders…for me. These discoveries are most definitely not new or original, in fact they seem almost trivial. I know I am still in the process of learning each lesson, and still much in need of practice. As I was reading what smart people than I say about servant leadership, here are a few principles that kept surfacing.

1) It’s not about me. I know it’s been said before (Purpose Driven everything!), but it’s really not. When those reporting to me, or others I’m responsible for, have succeeded, I did my job…I have succeeded. It doesn’t really matter how much time I invest, how clever an idea sounds in my mind, how passionate I feel, or who gets the credit. My job is serving others. For a teacher, the job is about the students. For a Leadership Team — guess what — it’s still all about the students! We are all here to equip students. If they are learning and growing in a nurturing and inspiring environment and applying what they learn to serve others, we are doing our job. If they aren’t, then we need to address how to fix that. Our jobs are not about our own career development or about building our own program or having a school of influence. I am here to serve God by serving this community he loves, and that means everything I do is not about my own gratification, but about others.

2) Appreciate others. Of course, this applies to students, but also to parents, to colleagues, to our community, to whomever God brings into our lives. People are weird, but they are fascinating! When we look for those aspects of others that reflect God’s image and are unique from all others, we can be thankful for even the oddest or most irritating person, and find something good in them. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” We need to find ways to celebrate this weird and wonderful place filled with people with their own stories, their own cultures, their own backgrounds. We need to let people know how much we value them and how really interesting they are. We can be generous with praise and try to assume good motives when someone behaves in a way that annoys us.

3) Know people. Of course, we struggle to know all our students’ names, and some of those do not come easily. We might know when they are late and who might be failing or getting into trouble. But do we know what motivates them? What fills them with joy? What makes them angry? What do they do when they aren’t on campus? This is not just limited to teachers knowing students though. Do we take the time to know more about the people we work with than the job we do? Of course, we need to be professional and respect each other’s privacy, but we can demonstrate a sincere love and interest that goes beyond the roles we play in a limited time and place, and goes deeply into who we are as people.

4) Empower others. Our jobs involve discipling, mentoring, equipping. We do what we do, so that the students leave our schools to make their mark on the world, so young teachers learn their craft, so parents are supported in their challenging roles. Sometimes this means we allow others to make mistakes and to refrain from criticizing when they do. We set the example of fearlessness by being energized by learning and by trying new things. When we allow others to shine while letting them know they are safe, valued, and loved, we create a nurturing place for students — and also our colleagues — to try, fail, pick themselves up, and try again. Then we celebrate when learning happens!

5) Be quick to forgive. When people have the freedom to fail, they will sometimes make trouble or knock into those of us standing next to them or cause us inconvenience. Sometimes this happens even when they aren’t doing something noble like attempting some grand new thing; sometimes people are just annoying. It’s important for us to remember that we are too. Sometimes I am grumpy or sharp-tongued or forgetful or do really stupid things. I always see the reasons for these unpleasant traits: not enough sleep, a growling stomach because I missed lunch, feeling misunderstood, someone else’s lateness that makes my job harder…there’s always some greater context for myself, and I easily make allowances for my own bad behavior. The thing is, everyone has their own context and their own story of why they do the things they do. Of course, we want to hold each other accountable, but we also can assume good motives when describing bad behavior. We can be quick to forgive, even when we might need to confront.

No rocket science here, but sometimes being a school leader means going back to the simply complex matter of loving and serving other people.

 

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Core Values

Defining a culture while immersed in that culture is harder than it looks. It’s a little like describing what it feels like to breathe air, when breathing air is the only thing we know. We have nothing to compare it to, so no obvious way to describe its taste or smell. On the other hand, identifying and describing the values that create our culture is vital if we want to be sure we preserve those values.

Dipping a toe into current politics (with fear and trepidation) we have heard the slogan “Make America Great Again,” shouted from stages and seen it printed on baseball caps. There is an enormous gap, however, between opinions over when that greatness actually existed. Was it prior to women being able to vote? Before the Civil Rights movement? During the Slave Era? To know what makes a specific culture or time period great requires taking a close look at the values during that time period. The goals an organization (or a country) is trying to reach need to be supported by, and consequently sustain, the values it espouses. “Being great” sounds like a reasonable goal until we take a closer look at the values it might mean embracing again. After a closer look, I’m positive I don’t want a past definition of greatness!

I am relieved I am not the leader of a country, but as a school leader, I still need to be careful we aren’t imagining some ridiculous, outdated, or even dangerous values we are trying to attain or maintain. With many new initiatives on our horizon, it was a really a helpful exercise for us to take a close look at the core values we hold, to name them, and consequently, to be more intentional about basing decisions on what would help to preserve those important ideals.

I stepped into this position when our school board was already examining the values recorded in school documents. I did not even know what this list of words was until my first board meeting, so an awareness of our values was obviously not part of the daily life of teaching, learning and working at my school. It was actually a good list, but as we looked closer, they might have described any well-intentioned organization. How could we identify and clarify the values that were implicit and make them more explicit? As a novice, I needed some information, so first I looked back at some of the required reading for my Masters of Educational Leadership program. I researched online. I talked to smart people. I still kept thinking in circles, trying to figure what our values were and what we wanted them to be.

Then last spring, I was sitting on the floor in the back of a meeting room at a camp where our student leaders were involved in a leadership retreat. I watched as they were putting into practice the ways they had been taught and trained while attending our school. They were clarifying facts, listening to each other, sharing ideas, engaging in a healthy exchange of ideas, and allowing their thinking to soar beyond boundaries. My colleague and I began conversing about what we were watching, and how it seemed to epitomize the best of what we were trying to achieve in the lives of our students.

Suddenly, an epiphany smashed into my consciousness with a blinding flash: what we were observing were our values in action. These students were closely examining truth. They were seeing the best in each other. They were practicing community in a collaborative and cooperative spirit while moving in a clear direction. As my friend and I began identifying the behaviors we were seeing, I furiously scribbled notes.

As a Christian school leader, I needed to be sure that what I thought were examples of the strong values of our school in front of me, were indeed grounded in scripture and growing out of our statement of faith, and also naturally contributing to our school mission. As I researched, each ideal did seem to have a basis in God’s Word and seemed to be practices we already valued and were also genuinely striving to attain, though perhaps we hadn’t ever quite identified them in a formal list.

From this point, the collaborative process continued. I sought advice from fellow Leadership Team members. Were we on the right track? Did these make sense? Did it matter that they were not a list of character qualities as in many organizations, but rather a set of strongly held beliefs? The edges of the phrases were sanded; the picture they created was adjusted and balanced. Then I shared them with the board. The core values had to come from the heart of who we were as a school, and the board needed to be able to support them and own them completely. I clarified that this was only a proposal, and we took them apart piece by piece and put them back together as a team. We made a few changes, but experienced a high level of unity and agreement, as we all felt a strong sense that these did describe who we were and what we held dear. The board felt a sense of resonance with the three values and they approved them unanimously.

Since we agreed on this set of core values, they have immediately felt comfortable, like finding shoes that fit perfectly or being able to sleep in my own bed after a long journey. We have organized communication about school around them. They have been a way to structure all staff meetings. They have already been a way to test ideas and think about unifying themes.

The process of identifying core values has been a helpful step in understanding what makes us unique as a school, to celebrate the good qualities that define us, to know how we need to make an effort to maintain these values and not slip into carelessness, and to make decisions that will bring us closer to the ideals that we know we want to be ours. We don’t want to be looking back to some era that seems “great” in the light of nostalgia, but to be the place right now that God wants us to be.

 

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Happy New Year

I doubt anyone has been waiting with baited breath for the latest episode in “Lead Like Mom”, but 2017 was not a year for reflection or writing for me, and the postings have ranged from sparse to nonexistent. Here is evidence of my New Year’s resolution for 2018: TA-DA — I’m back!!

Journaling was never a natural practice for me, partly because I carried this irrational notion that to start a journal, I had to update the journal on everything that had happened in my life up until that point of writing; I always ran out of steam after a few paragraphs describing my early childhood. Over the past few months, the challenge has been more along the lines of time management pressures and a change in the nature of work, producing a struggle over when I should write and in knowing what is still fair game to share, but I don’t want to be looking backward as I begin again. 2017 is now my early childhood…on to the present!

Learning to lead leaders is taking me to a new level of leadership learning. Every educator, perhaps every person, leads someone, but finding the points in common between leading others ranging from my kids at home, a classroom of children or teenagers, a division of high school teachers, or a conference room of school leaders has been truly both stretching and rewarding. I strongly desire to lead from who I am, not pretending to wear someone else’s dress-up clothes. On the other hand, I want to continue to learn and grow in my leadership skills, maximizing my own strengths and never being too old to try new strategies. To lead with integrity.

I truly believe that team leadership is not only the most effective way to move a school forward, but it is also the most fulfilling way to do it. I love working with our team! The positive aspects of collaboration do come at a price: it is hard work! I am reminded of the expanding growth of families. When a young couple goes through their first Christmas together, everything is sparkly and exciting, until one of them realizes: you do THAT on Christmas Eve? And the long line of compromises begins. As children arrive, each with their different ways of processing, their diverse needs and strengths, their various likes and dislikes, the negotiations and concessions continue. Then come the in-laws. One may be a vegan while another is militantly carnivorous. One is an adventurer while another reads the biographies of those exploring new frontiers. There is no good or bad in these contrasts, but there seems to be no end to the give and take and finding common ground.

So it is in forging new leadership teams. Misunderstandings happen easily and it is all too common to lack clarity in the way we work toward what we think is the same goal. Something may seem obvious to me, until I hear another’s interpretation.

Our team took the time to take the Enneagram test this fall, and to have a facilitated discussion of what our different personality traits mean in the way we work together as a team. There are many tools available to assess the ways we think and behave, but we found this one to be particularly helpful. Our team spans the spectrum of different styles of processing and diverse motives that drive us. We have rule followers and rule challengers. We have members who strive for achievement and those who strive for peace and unity. As we are able to see another’s surprising reactions to an issue, we are better able to process it through a filter that allows us to remember each person’s motivation and the things they might struggle with. We are able to frame communication in a way that others are better able to understand and respond to us. We can interpret comments in a way that allows us to see the best in each other, rather than to be hurt or shocked.

Living by a school calendar means we get two starts to the year: one in September and one when the rest of the world celebrates. Lofty, unrealistic resolutions are usually a wash up by February, but resolving to continue to learn, to grow, to reflect and to continue to forge ahead in cultivating a team that loves and leads together seems possible. Happy New Year!

 

 

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Elevator Speeches

Our students sometimes use an activity called “elevator speeches” to help practice public speaking and also distill the main idea of a topic into what they could say in the three minutes it takes an elevator to go from the lobby to the top floor. Never mind what the others riding in the elevator would think if someone began giving a speech to them, or the fact that buildings are all different sizes and elevators come in all different speeds. But I digress…it’s a useful activity in school.

I spent several days last week giving elevator speeches about my life. I was at a conference on board governance (never thought I’d be saying those words all together!) for like-minded schools from all over Asia and a few from Europe and Africa as well. The conference was held in Phnom Penh, which was interesting in and of itself. I did learn a lot, but what I am thinking about right now is those “elevator speeches” that fuel the dinner table conversations at conferences such as this.

“So, what school are you from?”

“CAJ, in Tokyo.”

“Oh, I know someone from my organization who used to send their kids to some school in Japan. Do you know ___?”

“Yes, actually, I taught all 3 of their kids!” (This probably wouldn’t happen in other conferences, but the world of international Christian schools, though multi-cultural and multi-national, is a very small town!)

“So what brought you to Japan and to being the head of school?” Here is where I needed that elevator speech, because how does one condense 35 years of life into something that can be said before the dinner gets cold? Coincidentally, the thrust of the themes of board governance focused us on thinking through what values and vision makes each of our schools unique and doing what we do best.

As I was thinking through how to explain the journey that brought me from a newlywed teacher on a Far East adventure to staying in one community for decades and taking on a job I swore I would never do, our board was thinking through what short phrases could describe our own DNA as a school. We are still working on the wording, but to paraphrase, we came up with a shared belief that “all truth is God’s truth”; a conviction that each student, staff member, and connected family member bears God’s image and is worthy of respect; and a passion that we are designed to live in community. These shared beliefs form the web that holds us together and creates the environment where we work and learn.

I was reminded of a family road trip where my husband challenged us to come up with a family mission statement. This assignment can put a real damper on playing the alphabet game with billboards and road signs, but we tossed around a few ideas with no real enthusiasm until the youngest of our tribe gave her own version of an elevator speech. She proposed, “I think we’re supposed to have fun serving Jesus and loving the people he brings to us.” The elevator had reached the top floor. There was nothing else to say.

There will always be plenty of time and room for the unpacking, describing, telling the long, unabridged version of our stories. Sometimes though, it is really helpful to think through the essence of why we do what we do. Of who we are, how we got here, and where we are going. I’m still working on my elevator speech of how I went from 6th grade teacher to head of school, but thinking through mission, vision, and values is helpful to focus me for now.

 

 

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Backwards Designed Leadership

I remember the first time I encountered the phrase “backwards design.” Teachers now live and breathe it when designing curriculum: we think carefully about what we want our students to know, do, or understand and we think backwards from that end point about how to get them there. The first time I heard educators talk about backwards design though, I feared it would lock me in, take away my flexibility, force me to ignore the teachable moments. With experience, I learned that it actually did the opposite. When I was clear about where my class was going, I could freely take the detours because I was confident about the destination.

When I first stepped into leadership, a good friend reminded me I would still be a teacher, just with a different sort of classroom. I’ve seen how this is true in many ways, but backwards design is one of those myriad occasions where teaching is teaching, no matter how old the students or how complex the content or skills. The concept of backwards design may even be more important in leadership than it was in classroom curriculum.

Living intentionally and leading well keeps coming back to the guiding principles. Sometimes the principle is so overarching it is archetypal: how do we target the school mission? Sometimes the principle we are aiming for is specific to a given situation: How do we keep students safe? How do we create a culture where staff members feel empowered to innovate? If the leadership team isn’t clear on the principle we are choosing to be guided by, we may do good things without ever really accomplishing what we need to do to be the best we can be.

Each of us is somewhere on a continuum between being task oriented and being socially motivated. A leadership team needs people on both ends of this spectrum, but understanding the mission that unites us is what brings the spreadsheet expert and the relational engineer together for the good of the organization. We are able to share our gifts, our experiences, and our creative ideas to chart the course to reach the goal.

 

 

 

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Principles, not Rules

Recently, a group of teachers took one of those personality tests based on the Meyers-Briggs categories. They found it helpful as they were learning more about each other and how to work as a team, and apparently, these professional conversations led to speculation about what personality type I am. The world is divided into 2 basic personality types: those who like personality tests and those who don’t. I actually get a kick out of all those little tests on Facebook; I can tell you which Disney Princess I am most like, which country I really should be living in, and which Harry Potter character I most resemble, so I jumped right into the test. You can take it if you like through this link: <https://www.16personalities.com/>.

No surprises. Even with a new test, I still come out as ENFP-A. I realize these Meyer-Briggs-type tests have a controversial basis in hard research, but I think they are interesting and fun. When I read these results, the letter that screamed “WARNING!!” as to my qualifications for my job was that “P” toward the end. People tend to fall into a “J” category (judging) or a “P” (in this test, prospecting). To quote the description that came with my tests, “People with the Judging (J) trait do not like to keep their options open – they would rather come up with five different contingency plans than just go ahead and deal with the challenges as they come. They prefer clarity and closure, always going with the plan rather than the flow…Judging types are much stricter when it comes to law and order.” This sounds like the principals or heads of school we always see in the movies. I picture the principal trying to catch Ferris Bueller in that iconic movie bearing his name.

Does one have to be a “J” to be a school leader? The description went on, “In contrast, Prospecting (P) individuals are much more flexible and relaxed when it comes to dealing with both expected and unexpected challenges. They are always scanning for opportunities and options, willing to jump at them at a moment’s notice. People with this trait are perfectly aware that life is full of possibilities, and they are reluctant to commit to something that might well prove to be an inferior option in the future.” Is there hope for a relaxed rule-breaker like me?

I have found that collaboratively coming up with the guiding principles that will govern decision-making about any given discussion, issue, or project can be a bridge between the judgers and the prospectors. For example, when we set out to create a Child Protection and Safety handbook, we formed a team that would research and read as much as we could on the subject. We brainstormed for several hours over several weeks, before seeing the patterns that provided us with three main guiding principles. We knew that we wanted staff members to be committed to being visible, accountable, and have appropriate use and balance of power when dealing with students. Once we had those three principles in place, we could apply them to a nearly endless stream of situations. We knew we couldn’t possibly list every potential scenario, but using these principles has certainly made deciding whether an action is appropriate or not much easier.

Now when our Leadership Team needs to create policy or make a decision, the first question we ask is, “What are the guiding principles?”

I suppose the practice of always using principles is something of a rule in itself, but I’m willing to live with that because it provides a balance between the clarity and closure my J friends need with the flexibility and options we Ps need.

 

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Patterns

I have lived my life by the patterns of the school year for over half a century. While I can wear party hats on New Years Eve and sing Old Lang Syne (who am I kidding–my husband and I usually go to bed at 10:30 on December 31 and say “It’s got to be New Year’s somewhere!”) the year really begins in the middle of August. I am now two days into new staff orientation at my school. I miss the lazy days of summer, the chance to read, walk, see friends, and visit family, yet there is something that just feels right about the school routines, the natural rhythm of such a familiar ritual that my body simply knows how to dance to it. Don’t get me wrong: I do miss the beach, but this is familiar.

Familiarity can be very dangerous.

Despite the fact that I have been participating in the world of academics for nearly a lifetime, I can never lose sight of the fact that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela said that, and he ought to know. Cynicism is an enemy I battle on a daily basis. So much of what I do gets undone; students sometimes don’t seem to care; parents can be unreasonable; teachers can be petty. It’s easy to go through the motions, to just stay the course through the familiar ruts, to respond to the inevitable criticism with sarcasm or contempt. When I do that, I fail to recognize the high and holy calling I have and I potentially misuse the powerful weapon of education.

We as teachers and school leaders need to maintain an attitude of wonder — at the content we teach and those with whom we learn, both students and colleagues. Elizabeth Barrett Browning caught this attitude in the poem “Aurora Leigh”, where she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

When we look at wonder at each student, at our colleagues, at the amazing knowledge that we explore, we have a choice to gasp in awe, take off our shoes in worship and delight, or to sit around and eat blackberries…or nachos. Socrates knew a thing or two, and he wrote, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

There is nothing wrong with having a comfort level with our jobs. If we are the right fit for education, it shouldn’t feel scratchy or prickly to our souls. But we do need to keep our sense of adventure and surprise, a willingness to try something new, and an excitement of all that lies ahead in this new year. As the great philosopher, Dr. Seuss wrote, “You’re off to great places, today is your day, your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”

 

 

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