Sunday, October 23, 2016

Branding 2.0

Branding... it is one of those words in education that generally garners one of two reactions... either educators love it and see it as an important aspect of the work in schools or educators push back against it because they argue that schools aren't businesses and that creating brands is about perpetuating perceptions and not focusing on realities. Well, I, for one, see branding as a powerful and important part of our work as educators because it can be transformative if done thoughtfully and with intentionality.

For the purposes of this post (and beyond), when I use the word branding I mean the following...

1) The work we do to tell our school/district stories using different digital platforms to accelerate and amplify the story beyond our context;

2) The work we do to engage our families in the learning within the school;

3) The work we do to create an identity that allows all members of the community to connect in some way;

4) The work we do to elicit a positive (hopefully) emotional response from the kids, staff and families when they think of our school/district;

5) The work we do to ensure that the brand promise we make to families matches the brand experience of our students and staff; 

6) The work we do to build high levels of transparency between home and school as a vehicle for developing trust;

7) The work we do to celebrate kids;

8) The work we do to help redefine the narrative of public education in this country by spotlighting the many positive things happening in our schools;

9) The work we do to communicate our brand through a personalized school/district vision or mission statement;

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to connect with educators from around the world and contemplate the power of telling our collective school/district stories and branding our educational spaces. The conversations have been incredibly thought provoking for me because I have engaged in discussions about the difference between the personal brand versus the school brand; the discomfort with feeling like educators are bragging when they are sharing their school stories; and finding the time to actually do the work. Through these exchanges, which have occurred both face to face and through various social media platforms, I have been refining my thinking on the importance of telling our story because the impact it can have goes deep and it can truly change the work unfolding within an educational organization.

How does that happen? How does taking pictures of kids within schools and sharing them through social media change what's happening in schools? How can branding a district or school or classroom be transformational? It comes down to one word... intentionality. Yes, we must be incredibly intentional and thoughtful about the brand we are building through the story we are telling because the results can change everything. 

Branding 2.0

When Joe and I had the privilege of co-authoring The Power of Branding: Telling Your School's Story (thank you Corwin Press and Peter DeWitt for that awesome opportunity), we spent a lot of time framing the concept of branding and storytelling within the context of schools. Our emphasis was on helping educators see the importance of being the Chief Storytellers within their spaces on their way to branding their classroom, school or district by using different platforms and approaches - a branding "how-to" of sorts for educators. 

Now, the time has come for Branding 2.0 - the branding with intentionality that goes a bit deeper. 

Here are the 5 steps to Branding 2.0 for educational leaders:

1) Spotlight the instructional practices that you hope to see become the norm within your school/district. For example, let's say there is a focus in your school on small group reading instruction, when taking pictures during classroom visits capture the moments that embody best practices as it relates to small group reading practices because those are the things we hope to see in all classrooms.

2) Be intentional about the pictures you take so in addition to telling a story for the community the byproduct is personal and professional development. For example, if you see a fourth grade teacher using Minecraft in a meaningful way during a math lesson, instead of just tweeting out the pic, tag some other teachers from that grade level or school on the tweet so colleagues can see what is unfolding in each other's classrooms. What can happen as a result of this practice? Here are some possibilities...

  • Teachers can discuss the lesson during common planning time and figure out next steps;
  • Teachers can use that idea as the impetus for a session at an upcoming EdCamp session (both within and beyond the district);
  • The activity can pop up in other people's classrooms as a result of a collaborative share;
  • Teachers can decide to explore other ways to incorporate Minecraft into their learning experiences;
  • We break out of our silos;
  • This could lead to intervisitations so teachers in the same building can learn from each other's expertise;
  • The list can go on and on...

3) Get kids involved in capturing the learning experiences in  their classrooms. We explored this possibility in our latest book, Hacking Leadership, whether in the form of social media interns or classroom photographers, there are meaningful ways that we can turn over the storytelling to our kids so we amplify their collective voices and give them ownership of the story!

4) Use your Twitter feed (or Instagram posts or Facebook wall) as another source of information for planning future professional development sessions. Get a team of teachers together (and maybe some students) and start planning future PD sessions/days based on what you are seeing as emerging themes in your story. What are you seeing a lot of? What are you seeing some of? What are you seeing none of? Use the answers to these questions to help plan next steps in regards to learning and teaching in your school/district. 

5) Use your Twitter feed (or whatever platform  you use) as an important data point when assessing yourself as a leader and reflecting on the practices of the educators in your space. When leaders tell me they don't have the time to tell their story I typically push back and argue that they are not doing a critical part of their job. The reality is this (IMHO) - posts on SM come as a result of classroom visits and if a leader is spending more time in their office than they are in classrooms (yes, I know there are exceptions to this) then they need to rethink the way they are doing their job and reflect on priorities. When we spend time in classrooms, even if the impetus is to tell our story, we are also seeing what is happening in regards to the actual teaching and learning - the norms, the routines, the practices, the resources being used, the strengths, the needs, etc. This information will help us reflect on how we can best support our teachers and students; this information will also help us when we sit down to write up an observation or evaluation - we will have so much valuable and rich information if we devote time to this important work!

Although I know there will still be some pushback on this whole notion of branding in education, I think the possibilities that come as a result of Branding 2.0 far outweigh the concerns. 

So, are you ready for Branding 2.0? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below... do you agree? disagree? do you have more to add to the list above? I would love some feedback so that I can refine my thinking and broaden my point of view because I believe Branding 2.0 is about intentionality and the only way to be intentional is to be informed!         

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Critical Conversations

Our Work Is Challenging

"I am so glad to hear that I am not the only educator dealing with this issue!"

I cannot count how many times I have heard the statement above (or some variation of it) over the last several years. In fact, I have said it myself dozens of times; and for all the times I have said it out loud, I have thought it to myself hundreds of times. 

It happens in that moment when we break free from our silos and engage in conversations with other educators. At some point during the exchange we hear someone else utter the words that have been floating around our heads for days, months and maybe even years. The words that have potentially been weighing heavy on our hearts and souls because we thought we were the only ones; we thought we were alone; we thought we were a failure... but, we are not! 

The reality is, we are one of many and the time has come to engage in more and more of these critical conversations with other educators so we can escape our silos and engage in discussions that will help us in many ways. Whether these discussions merely help us feel less isolated or help us find a solution to a problem we have been struggling with or even make us appreciate that someone else's reality is worse than our own, we are better as a result of engaging in critical conversations. 

Where do these critical conversations happen?

The contexts of these critical conversations is incredibly important when considering the outcomes. For example, while we often engage in conversations in our own districts and schools, sometimes these discussions are not the most fruitful because we are regularly struggling with the same issues and thus become fixated on the problem instead of seeing a path towards a solution. Don't get me wrong - these internal discussions are important too because they help us come together and potentially work towards a solution but the time has come to engage in critical conversations beyond our contexts. Here are some possibilities...

1) Go to a local EdCamp and just talk to people! EdCamps are a great place to connect with like minded educators and just talk about the kids, the work and the profession. EdCamps are also an ideal space to spontaneously suggest a session to discuss a problem of practice!

2) Join a Twitter chat and decide how you want to engage! Chats can be a great source of inspiration and a treasure chest of ideas so join a chat that meets your needs. A chat participant can just sit back and watch the flow of ideas or can share their own ideas or even engage in "conversation" by responding to someone else. 

3) Organize a gathering at a local coffee house or book store so people from different educational organizations can get together and engage in some critical conversations. Recently I had the chance to participant in a book talk at the Whitehall Barnes & Noble and it was great because a small group of us just spent a couple of hours talking, comparing experiences and sharing ideas. 

4) Organize a Google Hangout with edufriends! Yes, thanks to social media, we can develop amazing and sustainable friendships with other educators from around the world so why not organize a video chat and get everyone together (virtually) to share what is going on in their professional worlds?

5) Join a book club or book study! Yes, critical conversations anchored in a shared text can be incredibly powerful because they allow participants to deliberate ideas, broaden their respective points of view and inform their craft! Best thing about book studies or talks in 2016 is that they are often happening on digital platforms (Voxer, Facebook, etc.) so people from around the country can connect from their couch and talk shop!

Why Are Critical Conversations Important? 

Clearly I think that critical conversations are important. With that being said, I do think we need to be mindful of the goal of those conversations so we can avoid a "gripe fest" where we only focus on the problems. To avoid that situation, here are the 3 steps for framing critical conversations so that they are powerful and productive... 

1) Share The Struggle... yes, our work as educators is a struggle sometimes and we encounter hundreds of challenges, issues and problems each year so sharing the struggle is an important part of the process. This is where we can be reminded we are not alone and we break free of the silo!

2) Ponder The Possibilities... after framing the struggle(s) engage those around you in a really critical aspect of the conversation - what are the possible solutions, answers and next steps. There is a saying I have encountered many times on SM: "The smartest person in the room is the room," and I have found that to be true. When I am struggling with a problem, I lean on friends, colleagues and members of my PLN to help me see the possible solutions... and there are often many!

3) Optimize The Opportunities... after pondering possible solutions, now leverage those ideas and reframe the struggle or problem into the opportunity it really is! Yes, ultimately, problems are opportunities in disguise. They are opportunities for innovation, growth and for becoming the next/better iteration of ourselves as individuals or as an organization. So, get out there and optimize the opportunities!

While I know the idea of engaging in critical conversations in education is not a new one, the reality is that many educators are still stuck in a silo. Whether they are a classroom teacher, building leader or superintendent, the silos are real and often times, incredibly limiting. So, let's get out there, connect with other educators and have those critical conversations because together we are better! 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Initiatives Should Be About People

Initiative Fatigue... What Is It?

Recently I was having a professional conversation with a colleague from another state about the impact of initiatives in education. We discussed the reality that educators often feel overwhelmed because of the increasing number of initiatives within their schools or districts. As depicted in the graphic above, which represents the work of Dr. Doug Reeves, we see that as we lay new initiatives over "old" initiatives (which may in fact have been new the month or year before) and that may be pushing educators closer to overload and potentially burnout. While I am not certain that initiative overload leads to burnout, my colleague and I did discuss that initiatives often lead educators to feeling stressed, crunched for time and pushed to "cover the curriculum" because they are dealing with initiative upon initiative. 

What Is The Problem With Initiatives?

I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners. Why are initiatives in education so problematic? Here are a few reasons based on my experiences as an educator...

1) Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set... whenever I think of the initiatives I have experienced as a teacher (and even as a principal), they generally revolve around a new "research based" program, resource or system. Whether rolling out a new math textbook or an online reading program, the initiative is almost always focused on the resource and not the people implementing the resource. We consistently devote professional development to unpacking a program/resource but rarely devote time to developing the skill set of the educators within our spaces. 

2) Initiatives are piled one on top of the other... I was a teacher in a district once that, over a 2 year period, rolled out four different literacy based initiatives - FOUR initiatives in less than 20 months, which comes to about one new initiative every 5 months! Three of the initiatives were reading based and one was writing based. Yes, as teachers we appreciated the access to all these "wonderful research-based" resources but we weren't quite sure what the priority was and how we were supposed to (if we were supposed to) fit them all in throughout the day. Talk about initiative overload! 

3) Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids... I cannot count how many times in the last 20 years I have been part of an initiative that was based on a decision influenced by what "most" other schools/districts were doing instead of being influenced by the what our students needed. For example, recently I was talking to a colleague about how her district made a decision about a new phonics program for their primary grades. So, the story goes that there was a hot new phonics program many districts were using a few years ago and because the leaders in those districts raved about its impact on their students (there was no data shared - just word of mouth), the leaders in my colleague's district adopted the program and it became the next new initiative. Although the program was piloted in some classrooms, no other program was piloted so it was clear from the start that the choice had been made before the pilot even launched!

4) We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it... even though some places keep piling initiative upon on initiative on school leaders and teachers, people are shocked when educators express feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by said initiatives. Many educational leaders would argue that the one full day of professional development devoted to unpacking a new resource should be enough and thus the resource should be successfully implemented within every classroom. Unfortunately, we know that is not usually the case - one day, or even several days, of professional development are not the key to a successful initiative implementation. Does it help? Sure. Does it equate to sustainable implementation? Not necessarily!

Yes - this list can go on and on but you get the idea... initiative overload is a reality in the world of education. Unfortunately, initiative overload is not making things better for our kids instead, it is leading many educators to feel overwhelmed and burned out and neither of those are good for our kids.

How Can We Eradicate Initiative Overload?

Although I would not profess to be an expert on successful initiative implementation (in fact, I have been guilty of doing everything I described above when I was a principal), I would offer the following ways we could possibly make initiatives more sustainable, well received and successful...

1) Make the initiative about developing educators' collective skill sets and not about a program... the time has come to make the focus of new initiatives about the developing skill sets of our educators - not about the new program they are implementing. For example, if a district is recommending a new math textbook series, don't make the initiative solely about that the series and its many resources; instead, devote a significant amount of time to professional development for our educators to be more effective math teachers. Or, if a district is embracing the Teacher's College Writing/Reading Workshop, don't make the professional development solely about unpacking and implementing the Units of Study; instead, make the professional development about understanding the "gradual release of responsibility for learning" instructional model because that is the foundation of the reading and writing workshops. Make it about the people and their skills; not about the program and the many resources!

2) If a new initiative is being recommended, then offer a suggestion for what we can let go of moving forward... we can no longer expect educators to add initiative after initiative within their classrooms with no guidance or discussion about where the new initiatives fit in and what old initiatives can come out. Every beautiful garden thrives when the weeds have been removed... let's spend time pulling the weeds in education and removing what we don't need and focusing on what we believe is best for our kids!

3) Make the new initiative about doing what is best for OUR kids instead of doing what is trendy... whenever we are recommending a new initiative, it should be rooted in our own, district-wide, action research that speaks to addressing the needs of our students. We should be looking at data, discussing our students' readiness levels and informing our instructional decisions based on various details. Yes, it is easier to just implement something other people are talking about but if it is not what is best for our kids, based on whatever data we have triangulated through our action research, then we shouldn't make it our new initiative! Let's face it, any new initiative recommended solely because of what other districts are doing will be destined to fail!

4) Listen to our educational leaders and teachers when it comes to how initiatives are going and work from there... we can no longer ignore the cries of educators when they are telling us that they are stressed and overwhelmed by a new initiative because they are the people who are going to determine the outcome of the initiative. We must listen to the issues and concerns, we must discuss the successes and challenges, and we must recognize that any new initiative is unsettling because it is pushing educators to do things differently. We must recognize that we are asking educators to embrace new approaches, mindsets and techniques and that takes time to happen... it takes years to happen. If we want to see a successful initiative, then we must allow the roots to grow deep and take hold by nurturing and watering them... not by ignoring them!

While I don't have research to support all four points I am suggesting above, I am speaking from my own experience as an educator for 20 years and specifically my time as a teacher and principal. We must begin shifting our expectations and practices when it comes to new initiatives and always keep the focus on the people, not the program or resource! 

What do you think? Is initiative overload a reality? How can we address initiative overload?