Who is Thriving?

For the regular readers I have, you may have noticed an increase of late in my blogging. This is not a result of any resolution or real intention but likely a by-product of less time and engagement on social channels and a desire to better flesh out my thinking and ideas and seek out those interested in providing more thoughtful feedback and interaction.

It’s obvious to anyone that education right now is a tough place to be. I suppose that’s true for many industries and organizations but any data, report or story you hear says education is not a profession that is very appealing. We all can list a number of factors, many outside of our control, some are long-standing systemic challenges and others might be new due to societal unrest. I can tell you my colleagues and I at ALP are working to support communities with long-term solutions around workplace wellness and leadership specifically to work towards a better future.

But no matter the challenges and circumstances, there are always those who thrive. This is essentially the definition of a positive deviant. Positive deviants are folks who have the same resources as others and yet succeed and thrive while the majority of those around them do not. They typically use uncommon approaches but also are likely unaware of their approaches as they assume others are doing the same things they are. They’re the ones who, when you ask them about something that’s working well, often have difficulty identifying what it is they’re doing. I’ve been seeking these folks for decades.

So today I’m more curious than ever, about which educators are thriving. Which teachers, principals and leaders are excited about their work, feel energized and satisfied with the work they’re doing? Obviously, this doesn’t mean they are oblivious to the challenges that exist. They aren’t toxically positive but overall they love their work AND would encourage others to join them. This speaks to the fact that they don’t see themselves as special or different than their colleagues. They assume anyone can feel the same way they do about this work.

If you fall into that category, please share. If you don’t but know someone who does, either tell them to post something and share or maybe you can speculate on their behalf. I’m not simply curious about who is thriving but why. What is it about your circumstances and situation that is giving you hope? What have you done to get there? What are others doing around you to support you? And finally but of lesser importance, what uncontrollable events or circumstances have impacted you and your workplace?

Understanding How Communities Work

Having held the title of “Community Manager” and been directly involved in this work for a decade, you’d think I’d know more about the topic. The truth is I’ve been searching for a framework, structure or maybe a magic bullet the whole time. By many accounts and metrics, I’ve had success in this role. I can think of all the events, relationships and connections that I’ve made and fostered and feel pretty good. And yet, I still struggle with how to articulate what community really is and how it can be created, designed and how to grow and nurture it.

I suppose it’s much like teaching. Yes, there are many frameworks and strategies that can be useful ways to think about teaching but the reality is, teaching in schools is really about connecting with humans and that is something that comes with uncertainty and variables that are very difficult to control.

My current role with ALP includes a continued pursuit of building and creating community. It’s always a challenge to explain this to those inside the education world, let alone those outside it. I continually reflect on things that have worked for me and others. When I engage others in this conversation in broad terms, the way each of us thinks about community is very personal. While I know and believe there is no magic bullet, I’m trying to create enough opportunities and spaces for everyone I serve to find their community while still being able to see how they all work in concert.

It begins with the word itself. “Community” is one we toss around quite a bit. Is a classroom a community? Is the MOOC or course we take a community? Are those you interact with on Twitter a community? Yes? Maybe? No? Whether you use the word is not critical but I suppose I’m talking about someone consistent or known group of people that you feel some connection to and some sense of belonging. That to me is the key difference between networks and communities. Networks are weak ties and belonging and connection are not critical. Typically, the larger the network the better. People are nodes of information and ideas that you can access. Communities have some degree of obligation and affiliation. They can be named and identified.

As I think about online communities I’m trying to understand how platforms to support and influence communities. Sometimes communities reside in a single platform. These can be open or closed spaces. Closed spaces allow for more intimate, focused conversation that is better at creating a sense of belonging and trust. Open spaces are more inclusive and allow people more freedom to move in and out.

A great personal example for me that helps me analyze how online communities work is No Laying Up. They are a group of young golf enthusiasts who have built a large audience based on some fresh takes on the world of professional golf and golf in general. While beginning with a Twitter account, they are now mostly known for their podcasts but also have a Youtube channel where they are producing high-quality content as well as a message board and Instagram. They also host the odd in-person event and tournament which many take advantage of. My personal connections are mostly with the podcast and Twitter. The message board and forum are definitely for the hard-core members. I essentially consume the content without much interaction. Do I think of myself as a “community member”? Only in the sense that community is a word I understand and use frequently. Obviously, with their large numbers of followers/fans/members, each one would describe their associations differently.

So my wondering after all that rambling is what kinds of online community spaces, platforms and interactions work for you? Given my definition, what online communities do you belong to? Do they have an in-person component? What do you enjoy or benefit from most with those communities? I’m asking you to do a weird thing here and that is please leave a comment. Thanks.

Why Am I Still Using Social Media?

Since the inception of social media which emerged in and around 2005-07, it has gone from something as silly and useless to essential and powerful to dangerous and divisive. Perhaps all of those elements remain in some respects but certainly, the danger and divisiveness is the dominant narrative. If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma or done any other extensive reading, you’re quite aware of the harm it has and continues to cause our society. There isn’t a current issue that isn’t ripe for controversy, misinformation and vitriol. We’re overheating everywhere.

When I joined Twitter in 2007, it was definitely a silly and seemingly useless space. There were no such thing as followers, hashtags or mentions. As someone interested in the power of connectivity and networking, I found it to be a fantastic way to find interesting people. While some were already using it as a space to share serious and useful content, I just wanted to get to know others. As an educator is was a virtual staff room. A place where educators would come together to try and get away from the challenges of teaching but like any teacher will revert back to the job and look for support from colleagues. When I did work in schools, my personality was such that I tended to be the one to lighten the mood. I intentionally would tell stories about my family and life that usually had me as the butt of the joke. As a group we also loved sharing stories of students that were generally endearing and funny. It was rare that we shared stories that demeaned students. I was fortunate to spend my career surrounded largely by caring, thoughtful educators who loved children. But I also found a role to create a culture of joy and laughter. As I gained confidence in my own leadership, I began to see this more clearly and purposefully over the course of my career.

This same disposition is what I tried to do with my social media experience. Early on, this was pretty easy and it was the way I began to connect and relate to people from around the world. I think one advantage of those early days was its lack of status and metrics. Everyone was equal and I think it made things less competitive as there was nothing to compete for. Over time, of course, it did become more structured and promoted as a place to share resources and ideas. This wasn’t something that was particularly exciting to me as my resource and ideas were coming from longer form sharing via blogs or subscriptions to others’ bookmarks. But Twitter and Facebook (I’ve never used this much for professional purposes) began to evolve and become more mainstream and my viewing it as a “virtual staffroom” began to dissolve. I realize many were able to maintain it’s purpose and value, I was not. As a result, I would occasionally venture into political and educational tweets that were nothing more than my version of the “airing of grievances“. Even my more thoughtful questions and wonderings often had divisive qualities to them. The bottom line is I wasn’t staying true to my nature of building a culture of joy.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to engaged in deeper conversations about education and politics. I do. But in the same way that barging into the staffroom and going on a rant about something was usually seen as inappropriate, I don’t want to do that anymore. Again, it’s not about ignoring issues or toxic positivity but rather protecting spaces. When certain staff began to dominate and bring their grievances and problems into the staffroom during a 15 minute break, we would see others choose to stay in their rooms. On the occasion I was perceptive enough to notice this shift, I would work hard to change the narrative and return the space to a time where we could rest, laugh and be re-energized.

And yet it’s become more difficult for me to make Twitter great again. I would blame the platform for much of it and it’s also about how folks choose to use it. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to voice their opinions. debate and change people’s minds. There are examples for sure of how social media has influenced and supported change both positively and negatively. Some would argue it’s my privilege that allows me to avoid these conversations. Perhaps, but as I said, I’m not opposed to having hard conversations in fact I welcome it but hard converations, in my opinion, require relationships and spaces where ideas can be shared in full and civil discourse is prized and promoted. I don’t think social media is that place.

All that to say, while I understand why many have deleted their accounts I still find value and take pride in making someone smile. That’s not a small thing. Laughter and joy are something we’re running short of and my privilege and blessings suggest I share them with the world. This doesn’t mean I never ask a question or tweet something more serious. I just want to be more careful that it doesn’t divide but encourages. But my best work comes from sharing my grandkids, sports, my wonderful marriage and my own unique sense of humour. I want to believe social media can still do the things I thought it could do in 2007. Connect me with smart folks and provide a space for me to share joyful things.

If you don’t follow me on Twitter, here’s a treat for you.

I can’t do much for folks during this really challenging time but maybe i can bring a smile or two to the world. I’ll take that as a decent contribution. These comments today validate my efforts. Thank you.

“Whatever it Takes” I’m not sure…

This post was born out of a conversation I had with teachers a few weeks ago. I was sitting in a computer lab with about a dozen top-notch educators who had either been using Discovery Education’s Science Techbook or were just being introduced to it. After exploring it for an hour or so and having lots of dialogue one teacher said something to the effect of, “I don’t see why any teacher wouldn’t use this. It’s got everything you need, aligned to the new curriculum. Not only is it an amazing resource, but it’s also a real time saver.” To which another teacher replied. “It is a time saver but in order to get there, you likely need a couple of days of PD or just time.”

I suddenly had an image in my cost benefit analysis scale.

It occurred to me that this is essentially what humans are doing constantly as they explore and entertain new ideas. Is that cost worth the benefit? Also, what is the cost and what is the benefit? Whether it’s software or a new initiative or policy, professional learning or teaching strategy, this is what we all do intuitively. Most often in education and likely any organization, new ideas begin with the benefits. After all, why even explore something if we don’t see or think there may be benefits. Many times innovative ideas are the most challenging because the benefits are largely perceived and speculated rather than proven. In addition, the process of exploring new ideas has benefits even if it’s not as successful as we might have hoped. The other challenge is cost. While implemented a new app or strategy might appear to have zero cost but that’s false. The time and energy devoted have a real cost and must be considered.

There are many things that are introduced and expected of teachers that are not innovative and yet the costs and even the benefits are somewhat nebulous. What’s the cost of adding 3 students to a class? What are the benefits and who benefits? Difficult to measure no doubt.

The reason I’m writing this, however, is to address a common mantra from many education pundits and leaders: “Whatever it takes.” This line conjures up images of athletes sweating profusely or playing through an injury to win. Win at all costs. This idea assumes that you should have no regard for yourself and sacrifice everything. After watching a few documentaries on brain injuries from football and hockey, I can tell you many who regret the “whatever it takes” sentiment. Considering nervous system repair supplements can be a healthier approach to managing and recovering from such injuries. These supplements provide essential nutrients that support nerve health and may help mitigate long-term damage.

While I don’t think teachers are facing CTE, I do think that teachers and leaders need to be more aware of the cost/benefit ratio. I’ve often heard it said that “if it’s good for kids then we should do it” On paper that sounds good and right but again it ignores the fact that some ideas are very costly. For example, let’s say a school recognizes that students could use more attention and care outside of class. So it would be good for kids to have after-school programs. It might be good if the same teachers who teach them all day could spend an hour after school with them in a less structured format. They would strengthen their relationships and potentially help students flourish more. But there are human costs. Whatever it takes?

Providing strony bukmacherskie students with access to the best technology, furniture, musical equipment, having class sizes of 15 are all good for kids. But there are financial costs. Whatever it takes?

You might be saying “that’s not whatever it takes means” But that statement does not acknowledge the costs and benefits. Lots of things are good for kids but that doesn’t mean we should enact them. One problem we have is if a teacher suggests they may not want to devote extra time to learn something or do something directly for a student, they are labeled or thought of as selfish, uncaring or resistant to change.

Speaking out against something that seems inherently good for kids is taboo. But sometimes that argument is valid either because of the financial or emotional cost and sometimes because the benefit is relatively small. The “Whatever it takes” message suggests it’s about valour when I might suggest it’s a bit hyperbolic. Not only is this statement used to prop someone up as if to tell everyone how much they care about children but it also assumes that perhaps others don’t. Whatever it takes might be a belief my wife and I hold for our own children but we don’t need to remind ourselves of this or hear a motivational speaker tell us we should care for them. I’m not sure teachers do either. I never held the same depth of care and love for my students and I don’t think we should. Yes, we have many students who don’t have that kind of love but we still can’t extend the same love for our students as we do for our own. That’s not an uncaring statement, it’s just the truth. Managing our time and energy is critical for long-term success of ourselves AND our students. It’s possible to be PRO-teacher and PRO student. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I’m not usually one for data but I think weighing the cost/benefit of anything we do is natural and perhaps we just need to better articulate and examine those costs and benefits. Maybe we need to hear from teachers I visited with who had some clear sense of the benefits but also recognized the costs. “Whatever it takes” seems to imply unlimited resources. If you’re the one suggesting “whatever it takes” be clear in what the benefits are and acknowledge and listen to those that may see and have to bear the costs that you don’t see. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about kids, often they’re just trying to take care of themselves.

Finding and Developing the Willing

The idea of student empowerment over engagement is a growing conversation and trend in education. Rightly so. Many emerging ideas such as genius hour, project-based learning and others are designed to empower students. As we examine and reflect on any implementation of these ideas, we typically hear some reference to “motivated students”. If students are seen as motivated, any kind of independent learning is more likely to work. Conversely, people’s resistance to giving students more ownership and autonomy is often because they don’t feel their students are motivated.

I had a chance to visit Thames Valley School District this week in London, Ontario. I had been to the district before and seen some of the innovative work they are doing. They have a long-standing art program at one of their high schools that embodies so many of the principles of empowered learning. In addition, they recently have developed a “school within a school” concept. Essentially they are working with  grade 9 teachers who were asked one question: “What if there were no subjects?” From there the district outlined the “bumpers” (must still address curricular needs, no major additional funds, must work in teams) and now nearly 20 cohorts have been formed where students are indeed driving much of their learning in a non-traditional way. I talked to many students as they were working and sharing their passion projects and it was evident they owned it. Watching the teachers be true facilitators and support and see real agency being given to students is what learning and school should be. The district’s role was to create the conditions for this to happen.

I also had the chance to chat with several teachers at lunch. As they shared their successes and challenges, I asked them “What do students need to be successful in these programs?” They talked about willingness vs motivation. Motivation suggests they have a sense of what they want to learn and just need to be let loose. While there are students who definitely fit into this category, there are far more who might not be motivated but are willing.

When you look the chart above, the motivated are the ones benefiting from empowerment. While it many might say all students should be empowered, I’d argue many aren’t ready for that yet. They don’t know what they don’t know but they would like to get there. If students or teachers are willing, I think they’re close to being motivated. The disposition of a great learner is an admission of lack of knowledge and skills, but a desire to grow them.

The teachers at Thames Valley recognized that many students, they assumed were motivated, were simply willing. They may or may not know what they’re passions were and definitely lacked the knowledge and skills to pursue them. The teachers have been working to add these skills more intentionally to their experience. The degree to which reflection was embedded for both students and teachers is what will enable their success and sustainability. The teachers were articulate and thoughtful in describing their shortcomings, needs and next steps.

After this conversation, I began to think more about the idea of being willing. The reality is, many of these types of programs exist all over the world and generally are filled with motivated students and teachers. Creating the conditions for these folks to thrive isn’t always commonplace but it really is the easy part. But creating the conditions for learners to learn and create isn’t necessarily what’s going to work for the less willing. Creating willing students and teachers is the real challenge.

I think the diffusion of innovation model shows a fairly similar distribution between the willing and the motivated. I’ll argue that the innovators represent the motivated. They, in fact, don’t even need direction or support. Those early adopters represent the willing but perhaps need some support and direction to move forward with innovation. Those in the early and late majority need a lot of support, direction and perhaps even convincing. They’re waiting and watching the motivated to see if indeed things will work. When schools and districts refer to “pockets of innovation” they’re talking about the first two groups. They have teachers who are doing the right work in spite of the lack of support and those districts that have gotten somewhat intentional have found ways to support the early adopters. These are the easy folks to support. They don’t need much in terms of resources and money. But of course, most teachers and students lie on the right side of the graph.

This is really the greatest challenge we face. I think this is much more of a long-term grind and I’m not entirely sure how to get there. Engagement remains an important part of this process. Teachers sharing their passions and interests isn’t necessarily a bad thing and in fact, should be embedded into all student experiences. But digging deeper into what it takes to develop willing students and teachers is key. I think it’s a fairly complex question in part because it requires deeper relationships. Those relationships need to be founded on trust and the greatest challenge is building a culture of trust. A student may indeed develop a willingness to learn and take control of their learning with one teacher but unless their next teacher and experience allow them to continue that journey, they’re likely to revert. In the Thames Valley district, when teachers were given the opportunity to craft their own programs with no subjects and increased autonomy, one clear response was, “Don’t tease me”. In other words, these teachers, like millions of others had been burned by leaders who may have promised them an opportunity that sounded great but either was not what they thought it was or it didn’t last.

I’ve officially hit the rambling stage, fully aware I’m trying to take a very big issue in education and trying to make some sense of it. I suppose I’m simply asking these question:

Do you see a difference between willing and motivated?

What does it take to create and develop willing teachers and students?