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Friday
Jan062017

When problems are a blessing

Last Wednesday the district leadership team met to discuss the findings of a leadership style survey we all took. I added the results of this HUMANeX analysis to my pile of similar activities - StrengthFinder (1 and 2), Myers-Briggs, etc. While I find such tools interesting, I am not sure exactly if they have had a lot of impact on my "leadership style." Leadership, like happiness, is not something about which I spend a great deal of time contemplating.

What the session did make reflect upon problems and one's perception of them.  My second highest ranked "talent" was as problem-solver. While I certainly have times that I wish problems came less often and easier to solve, having a job that is basically solving  people's problems (which have become one's own problems) makes for interesting work.

I learned the hard way just how important it is to have a job with challenges. After two overly-challenging years as a high school English teacher fresh out of college in a poor rural district in Iowa, teaching 6 classes, having 5 preps, and sponsoring class plays, speech contest, the yearbook, and the school newspaper plus working at a gas station on the weekends to pay the bills, I swore I wanted a job that required no thinking whatsoever.

And I got my wish. To support myself and my family while I attended graduate school, I got a job in "central sterilizing" at the University of Iowa Hospital. 3-11 shift.

Although central sterilizing sounds like a rather unpleasant activity involving the removal of body parts, what the department actually did was clean and prepare surgical equipment and supplies. Steel instruments needed to be washed and disinfected through a trip through an autoclave. Three-gown-packs of surgical gowns, drapes, towels, and bowls were endlessly prepared. This was my usual job - to stand at a table, laying down a large cloth into which I would place gowns, towels, and bowls in a specific layout, fold it, tape it, date it, and place it on a cart that would later be pushed into a giant autoclave. Every evening, five evenings a week, 8 hours an evening.

After two weeks I was going crazy with boredom. But I stuck out the job for the 15 months it took to get my masters degree. When I returned to the classroom, it was with a fresh appreciation for problems - and having a job that required solving them.

Jonathan Kozel advises picking battles that are big enough to matter, but small enough to win. This can be applied to problems as well. We need to learn to ignore those problems that are too big to solve within one's own sphere of influence, but not to dwell on the unimportant. There is a problem-solving sweet spot, akin to Csikszentmihalyi's flow experience depending on the task at hand falling between boring and frustrating.

So the challenge then I have as a leader is to help my staff find that problem-solving sweet spot, identify the battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to win, and perhaps most importantly, see problems as a blessing, not a curse.

Tuesday
Jan032017

Can a computer teach kindness?

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

                           South Pacific - Rogers and Hammerstein

Values are learned. But despite the muscial observation above, can they be taught? Especially by a computer program.

So I found this article interesting: 10 Best Apps to Promote Kindess in the Classroom (GettingSmart, Dec 30, 2016. Mainly aimed at younger students using simulations, these apps are a radical departure from most activities I have experienced in computer play - how many points can one rack up by killing monsters, pigs, zombies, etc.. At least one "kindness" app, does retain the spirt of competition:

3. The Great Kindness Challenge: School Edition
Ages 4-18
(iOS)

The School Edition of this app is perfect for the classroom. The “acts of kindness,” such as “Smile at 25 people” or “Pick up 10 pieces of trash,” are appropriate for students of all ages and teach them simple but important acts of kindness they can do every single day. Set a goal with your classroom, and the countdown timer will remind everyone how long they have to reach their goal along with the number of acts of kindness left to complete.

Good to see there is nothing that can not be done for extrinsic reward and the satisfaction of wiping up the floor with the competition. Sigh.

Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of kindess. In a 2005 column, A Secret Weapon - Nicess*, I suggested it "has a bigger impact on our effectiveness and job tenure than any technical or professional skill we might hone." and added "...  behaving well is learned, not genetic. And I continually look for those who can teach me the skills that make me a person with whom others like to work."

I don't suppose there is much harm in having a child play with an app that is supposed to teach a deep, very human affective behavior like kindness.

But I sure as hell wouldn't depend on it. One adult demonstration of a positive interaction with another individual will "teach" more that all the apps the iPad can hold.

* Niceness is Minnesotan for kindness.

 

 

Sunday
Jan012017

Why you should take a job nobody else wants in 2017

I always get a chuckle when I show this "inspirational" poster:

Why might your principal regret cutting your library position? Might it be because she/he now has to find another teacher to do some tasks that it's hard to get others to do? Such as:

  • Webmaster
  • Test proctor
  • Digital citizenship instructor
  • Parent newsletter editor
  • Sponsor of ____________ club or activity
  • Makerspace facilitator
  • The United Way staff organizer
  • Textbook/equipment inventory master
  • Keeper of the passwords
  • PTO liaison
  • Gifted and Talented coordinator
  • And ....

In any school there are jobs that nobody wants. That are outside of one's job description, perhaps outside the traditional duties of the profession itself. That are a real pain in the ass. Unless I was 100% sure of my job or I didn't care if the next round of budget cuts would impact my position, I would not just take on such jobs, I would seek them out.

Why? Budget reductions are always about choices. Cut librarian or cut the music teacher. Cut the librarian or cut the textbook budget. Cut the librarian or raise class sizes.

Here's the thing. Your boss should pause for a very, very long time before cutting you if it means finding some other teacher to take on the jobs nobody wants. It's not noble. It's not ideologically pure. It may not even be professional.

But it's practical.

If nothing else if you do get cut, you will have the satisfaction of knowing the idiot who did it will be suffering as well.

Original post Nov 9, 2011