By Crystal Land, Head of School, Head-Royce School
I’ve just started watching the remake of the 1960’s show “Lost in Space” whose reruns I watched as a child. Back then (when I was 10), I loved the campy show, the cool-looking set and of course, the intense characters. But most of all, I loved Will Robinson, the small boy for whom everything seemed to converge, even in the darkest of moments. In the new rendition, the young Will Robinson finds himself in unknown and unusual circumstances and somehow manages to view the world with an open, flexible and accepting perspective. He is small, sensitive and extremely resilient. He even manages to turn an angry alien into a devoted robot friend, all due to responding authentically to the moment. Every time he is in danger, he hears, “Warning, Will Robinson!”--if we could all be so lucky!
So, what in the world does this have to do with the theme of “resilience over strength” in our schools? I can’t help but think about the ever-changing landscapes of our schools. In many ways we are exploring different worlds with new kinds of schools (online, blended, one-to-one, semester programs), a diverse population of learners and ever-changing challenges in the hiring, training and retention of our faculty. It’s not exactly “alien” but if we are not careful, we might certainly be outdated in this unusual landscape.
This year my school focused on strengthening our hiring practices by becoming focused and strategic. And we have needed to! Situated in the Bay Area with a high cost of living, we are losing qualified faculty members to other locations where housing, cost-of-living and childcare is more affordable. We’ve also observed changes in mindsets about teachers’ career as those new to the profession (many of whom are millennials) may be embarking on a short exploration of the teaching field, not a 15 or 25 year commitment. In addition, the need for more diversity in our teaching team is also an imperative. According to Whiplash, we need to adapt to the new environment rather than adhering to the way it was: “Over time focusing on resilience over strength may also help organizations develop more vibrant, robust, dynamic systems, which are more resistant to catastrophic failure.”
How do we ultimately hire and then retain teachers who will meet all these needs? I believe we need to adapt our perspective and approach to the hiring process with a laser sharp focus on retention, diversity and flexibility. “Back in the day” schools often focused on traditional candidates--those who were specifically interested in teaching. These candidates often hailed from prestigious universities, were highly focused on content, and were interested in investing in a career in independent schools. As we see millennials move in and out of the profession and navigate costly geographic areas, we need to think about a shorter retention window of three to five years, strong salaries to allow teachers to live in key metropolitan areas, training and mentor programs to help them be successful, and vibrant professional development offerings make staying for longer than a few years more enticing.
Additionally, my administrative team has carefully focused on “strategic hiring”--searching for candidates who can forward our school’s strategic priorities, are able to work with a diverse community, who connect effectively with students and who are exceedingly flexible in both content and programming areas. The research on hiring a diverse faculty and administration is clear--it works to make organizations better at all levels. As Katherine W Phillips, author of “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” (Scientific American, June 2014) states, “The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”
We may not be able to keep our faculty as long, but perhaps with more flexible, supportive and well-crafted hiring, we can be more nimble in our approach to this key area of success for our schools. Every year I interview seniors as they depart from the school. Year after year they cite their teachers as the the single most important factor in making their school experience stand out. As I continue to watch “Lost in Space,” I’m reminded that we need to meet this new world by learning from our mistakes and adapting to a changing environment. Ito and Howe state that there is “No Fort Knox in the digital age.” The status quo is no longer an option; it’s crucial that we adapt.
By Colleen Schilly, Head of the Lower School, Hillbrook School
Let me set the scene for you.
It's 11:30am on the Friday before Spring Break. The sky is clouded over and the trees are rustling overhead. Leaves shake raindrops that have collected during the day's sporadic downpours onto the ground below. On the sidewalk, two grown adults sit on the ground. I am one of them. I am aware we look ridiculous and out of place. I am aware this is not the best spot for a strategy session...but here we are. Behind me is a classroom of 11-13 year olds I am responsible for. They are busy trying to compile short videos that tell the story of their expeditionary learning experience that week. A short distance away is a young child who desperately wants to be successful, but for many reasons on this particular day is not. A series of bad choices have resulted in removal from the classroom....and now my colleague and I are stuck. What does this child need right now? What do the classmates need? What does the teacher need? What decision best balances the tension between necessary logical consequences and compassion? How will we enact our decision in a way that protects the child's dignity? Also, how am I going to help my group of middle schoolers finish their summative project when we can't properly format the video files? How many emails are piling up in my inbox that will need attention and thought after these things are done? Did I forget to eat something today? Are my jeans going to be all wet when I stand up from this concrete sidewalk? Is it Spring Break yet?
This scene, while unique in specifics to me on April 6, is representative in nature of the challenges of teaching and educational leadership today. Working with humans in community has always been both incredibly rewarding and (unsurprisingly) complicated and sticky. Add to that the proliferation of email and smart devices that, while making many aspects of life and work easier and more efficient, have also made everything faster. it is increasingly difficult to do just one thing at a time. It is increasingly complicated to prioritize taskswhen there are so many avenues by which a new potential problem or proverbial fire might present itself. As leaders and teachers, how do we survive the fast-paced, ever-evolving, and multifaceted nature of our work? The authors of Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, suggest that the answer is resilience over strength. They write, "The classic illustration of resilience over strength is the story of the reed and the oak tree. When hurricane winds blow, the steel-strong oak shatters, while the supple resilient reed bows low and springs up again when the storm has passed. In trying to resist failure, the oak has instead guaranteed it."
I would add that in order to truly be of service to children as educational leaders and teachers we need to cultivate a form of resilience that allows us to do more than just survive the work. The day I described above is excruciating and exhausting if I am merely seeking to survive it. Instead, I propose that there are 5 key behaviors that resilient leaders and teachers can practice to maintain balance and thrive in our profession.
Resilient leaders and teachers anticipate disruption. We expect that things will not always go according to plan and are agile enough to pivot quickly. We start "from the assumption that however strong your system is, it will be compromised... Resilience doesn't necessarily mean anticipating failure; it means anticipating that you can't anticipate what's next, and working instead on a sort of situational awareness." We recognize that no matter how skillful a leader or teacher we are, we WILL face opposition, challenge, and people who just plain don't like us. There will be difficult parent meetings, students who challenge and confuse us in new ways, and lessons, meetings, or projects that don't go quite according to plan.
This means that resilient leaders and teachers also normalize discomfort. They accept that in life and work they will encounter the disruptiveness of friction, frustration, and challenging emotions. They do not lead, plan, teach, or coach with the goal of avoiding or preventing uncomfortable moments. As Jeff Howe writes, "By trying to win, I'll always lose. Only when I accept that there will be no winning or losing, just events unfolding and the way I choose to react to them, do I succeed." Resilience is not an easy muscle to build. Like everything it requires practice and, by nature, truly practicing the art of resilience requiresdiscomfort. Growth requires feedback and feedback requires a healthy level of familiarity with uncomfortable moments and feelings. Brené Brown puts it best in her book Daring Greatly:
"I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not getting comfortable with hard conversations but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized. 'We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable... We want you to know that it's normal and it's an expectation here. You're not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.'"
Accepting and normalizing the sometimes uncomfortable nature of existence allows resilient leaders and teachers to cultivate mindsets that are open to possibility. This is the heart of the "teachable moment", the opportunity that presents itself that is, at best, peripherally related to the original plan but more often than not is completely tangential. An openness to possibility allows for creative, positive, and unforeseen new strategies, connections, insights, and more.
As Ito and Howe point out, "A resilient organization learns...and adapts to its environment." When we are open to possibility, resilient teachers and leaders are able to adapt through listening and reflection. As poet Alice Duer Miller writes, "Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us." When we are careful, vigorously interested, present listeners we are able to more deeply understand and empathize with those in our care. Habits of reflection keep us from stagnancy and reflection is the practice most likely to safeguard against repeating the same mistakes and failures time and again.
Finally, resilient leaders and teachers need to prioritize effective self-care. This means something different for every individual, but I firmly believe that unless we take care of ourselves by setting and respecting the boundaries we need for wholeness, rest, well-being, and joy then the siren song of notifications and news feeds and updates and email and other people's "emergencies" will almost always end up dictating your inner world and priorities, and at worst color your perception of your own effectiveness. Intentionality has impact. Resilient leaders and teachers are intentional about what we give our life's time and energy to.
These practices don't promise resilience, but I do believe, as with all things, that practice makes better and will result in a steadily replenished well of stamina to joyfully, thoughtfully persevere in the profession. Empathy, flexibility, and gratitude are more powerful sources of fuel for the journey than rigid, uncompromising rules and systems.
By Carla Silver, Head L+Doer, Leadership+Design
April is nearing a close, and May is about to sneak up on all of us school people - throwing the inevitable curveballs at us. It is actually a perfect month to dig into the eighth chapter in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Jeff Howe and Joi Ito. We’ve been enjoying this book all year, but somehow the topic of “Resilience over Strength” seems to be timely as we prepare for the most relentless month of the year.
As an originator and neophile, I rarely read the same book twice or watch the same movie over and over again. Why would I do that when there are so many other books to read, and movies to watch? I make a strange detour from this behavior when it comes to podcasts. I will sometimes listen to the same podcast two or three times - maybe it is because I can’t easily look back at my favorite parts (although the transcripts are often available) or maybe it’s because I am an auditory learner. Regardless, there is one podcast I have listened to about a dozen times - a Freakonomics episode from March 2016: How to Be Great at Just About Everything which is essentially an ode to the resilient and persistent learner. I guess I listen to this one on repeat because I am ever hopeful that I will become truly great - at something.
Freakonomics host Steve Dubner, builds this podcast around the work of Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University who has studied this topic for most of his career. His work has inspired the 10,000 hours idea that Malcolm Gladwell write about in Outliers and the “growth mindset” theory of Carol Dweck. Ericsson’s research has supported the idea that with enough “deliberate practice” humans can achieve a high level of skill in almost anything. While Gladwell prescribes a magic number of hours, Ericsson believes that 10,000 hours alone is futile and that it is all in the kind of practice we do and the coaches/guides we have along the way. It helps to have some innate talent, but talent alone is no guarantee of greatness. In his 2015 book Peak:Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson writes about the highest achievers in any given field. “The clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have-the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.”
The most important distinction of Anders Ericsson’s work is that the simple act of repeating a task will only get you so far. You can get to a point of automation and general competency, but simply running 5 miles a day or even 10 miles a day, will not improve your running after a certain point. Instead your practice must be purposeful which according to Ericsson means it is focused, requires feedback and forces you out of your comfort zone. It requires a certain amount of resilience to imperfection and the ability to of fail forward. The brain is amazingly adaptable when put to the right training conditions, and with these three elements in place, anyone can drastically improve.
The implications for us as educators from this research are profound and go beyond promoting a growth mindset in students. While growth mindset is probably a prerequisite to deliberate practice - one needs to believe they can actually learn something and get better at a skill or knowledge - it is really just scratching the surface. As educators, it means we also need to design the right kind of practice - not simply repetition and regurgitation - and it means we need to be giving feedback - lots of it. Most importantly, we need to be prepared for our students to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. John Kotter calls this the “productive range of distress” and it is necessary for growth to occur.
This isn’t just about student learning either. I believe it means that as the profession of teaching evolves, we are all going to need to engage in deliberate practice if we are going to be truly great at our work of designing meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences for our students. And as leaders, we will need to hold ourselves and our faculty and staff in that same “productive range of distress.” Like a good coach, we need to know how hard to push and when recovery is necessary, but we can’t expect growth and improvement without discomfort.
My friend and colleague Christian Talbot of Basecamp often asks whether a school seems to operate from a position of scarcity or abundance. In other words are there a finite amount of leadership opportunities or awards or experiences that are limited to the “top tier” of students - the innately strongest? Or are there ample opportunities for those who might have a budding interest and are willing to work hard to improve, excel or even do what it takes to become truly great at something? What does your school do to provide opportunities for the students who may not be the strongest, but just might be the most resilient - and what are you doing to cultivate that resilience and allow it to emerge? This is not the same as giving everyone a trophy for participation. This is about helping every student to pursue a level of greatness at something.
Meanwhile in our organizations, we need to be more resilient than ever as we adapt to rapidly accelerating world with paradigm shifts. As Ito and Howe smartly write, “We are all infallible. No matter how strong we try to appear, something can take us down. There is no institution or person that is too big to fail. We know that now, in an age of disruption and dislocation.” Therefore, none of us personally or institutionally can rely on what have perceived as our strengths simply because those are things we have always done well. How can we be so sure that those same attributes still hold the same value to a new market, and what if some other school or organization or individual can simply do those things better and add more value? We need to develop greater adaptability, a willingness to take risks and try new things, and a tolerance for failure. These three things will provide us, as Howe and Ito write, an “immune system” for the future. We don’t always need to be proving our strength, but rather practicing resilience if we want to thrive.
By Steve Morris, Head of School, The San Francisco School, Originally published in Headspace, the Blog of SFS
Last week I had one of the absolute best days of my 14-year SFS career - I had the great privilege of shadowing a 2nd Grade student from drop off until pick up.
For those of you who are not aware, this past January, SFS embarked on a year-long Schedule Redesign process. Under the guidance of a firm called Leadership+Design we convened a committee of thirteen faculty and administrators to reimagine our schedule from preschool through 8th grade. Our plan is to reveal our new schedule in January of 2019 (to be put in place for the fall of 2019). However, we are prototyping small tweaks to our existing schedule already as we truly hope to make an impact that serves our students as soon as possible with this process.
As part of our Schedule Redesign process, committee members are taking an empathy-based approach. What that means in this case is that each committee member, plus me, shadows an individual student for an entire day (spanning all of the grades). This will give us an opportunity to gain insights from the perspective of the lived experience of our most important “users” - our students. In becoming anthropologists in our own school, we are gaining an understanding of a student’s day from start to finish, allowing us to gather stories and snapshots that will ultimately help us frame student needs and opportunities for growth while creating our new schedule.
So - back to one of the best days of my time at SFS... My day-long shadow of a 2nd Grader revealed so many wonderful things about SFS. I had many takeaways, and below are a few:
Master teaching : The first lesson of the day was a 60-minute math session. This was wonderful on many levels because I got to see 2nd Grade co-teacher Maggie Day teach a “Units of Measurement” lesson. Maggie had an incredible “tool belt” on display during this complex lesson. Throughout the class, Maggie facilitated at least five different student transitions that incorporated direct instruction, group and individual learning, and student collaborative time. In the end, I was thrilled to see that every student was challenged where they are as a learner.
Student engagement : It gets no better than hearing student exclamations like, “Yes!”, “Wow!”, and “How cool!” as a teacher describes an in-class activity. This is exactly what I heard as the 2nd Graders listened to the description of the upcoming science experiment. I sat with my shadow student and her partner while they carefully dissected an owl pellet, and I honestly got lost in the belief that I was watching real scientists at work. The students carefully used the tools and materials they were given, made insightful hypotheses about the insect parts they were discovering, and beautifully collaborated in figuring out the best way to manage their process. “Look, Steve, we found another bird skull...holy mackerel!”
Importance of play : OK...I have to admit something. During my time at SFS, I have only gone on the adventure playground slide once (when I first started) and I have never held one of the chickens. Does that surprise you? There was no turning back on this shadow day for me. As we raced out of the classroom door, I was immediately shepherded by a group of students to the slide, instructed on the various ways I could go down, and I was off...not once, but twice! Once I reached the bottom, the students brought me to the barn where I was shown how to properly hold a chicken, and all of the sudden Tamsley, the chicken, was in my arms. Meanwhile, a middle school student had brought her iPad to the barn with instructions about how to diagnose our bunnies for heat stroke (For what it is worth, I have held the bunnies many times!). The rabbit was, in fact, suffering from minor heat exhaustion according to this 7th Grader, so the students took the bunny to the air conditioned library, where, yes...the rabbit spent the rest of the day. My time with the students in the Adventure Playground seemed to come just at the right time. After two plus hours of deep classroom learning, I was a bit surprised how much I too needed the playtime. This offered us a time to recharge our batteries, and prime our pumps for the second half of the day.
Specialty classes play an essential role: The second half of the day was filled with two speciality classes - art and music. In addition to seeing wonderful teaching on display, I think what surprised me the most is how much these two classes gave students the opportunity to shine in different ways. For example, students who may have had a quieter voice in one of the earlier academic classes, were differently engaged during these sessions. There were new leaders in these classes, and roles and responsibilities seamlessly changed for some. Additionally, I was so pleased to see that history was alive in music when James gave a lesson on the Boston Tea Party, and science was very present in art as Tiphani discussed the various dynamics of bird life as students drew their birds. The integration of our speciality classes into the overall school day clearly plays an essential dynamic in student learning.
In closing, one of my biggest reflections is that the students were “all in, all day.” They rarely slowed down, and were always eager for what came next. Meanwhile, I was exhausted by day’s end! I learned so much about our students, teachers, time at SFS, as well as the fact that I too have a friend in Tamsley the chicken. I can't believe it has taken me this long to do something like this, and although this day had a specific purpose for our Schedule Redesign, it is something that I plan to do every year going forward!