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#School, a place where you compose your life!

August 9, 2017

Composing a Life, a book written by Mary Catherine Bateson, explores the artistic achievement of four of her successful friends, as well as her own life as a writer, researcher, and anthropologist.  Through studying the life histories of her friends, she discovers that composing a life is possible in the midst of confusion, failures, and other discontinuities.  Composing a life requires a sense of purpose, a commitment to creative collaboration, and a realization that being nurtured and supported promotes individual growth and fulfillment.

As a follow up, I listened to her On Being interview with Krista Tippett posted on August 3, 2017.  While absorbing her wisdom, I was thinking about how her anthropological insights apply to schooling in the 21st Century.  The title of her book, Composing a Life, seems like an appropriate metaphor for how we should think about a school’s purpose.  As educators, our shared goal might be to get to know our students, guide them through learning ideas we value and believe are important to becoming a conscientious citizen, and help them compose their future selves.  In this context, I think compose is such a beautiful word.  They are the artist forming a piece of art which is their life.  We could think of ourselves as their mentor or teacher, giving them feedback on their work of art as it evolves over time.  Bateson says this as she responds to a question about what composing a life means to her.

And I was looking for a metaphor that would allow them to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of women’s role was creative, that it as an art form.

While some may read this connection and think it’s an unrealistic idea of what school is or what it should be, I see it as inspiration, an idea to work towards or an image of what to become.

Because our complex, interconnected world shifts and changes around every corner, educators are being called to reimagine school.  Over the past 10-15 years, many educational thinkers are challenging us to reconsider our purpose, structures, practices, and policies.  We have experiential learning, project-based learning, blended learning, the flipped classroom, online learning and degrees, changes in assessment practice, and many more.  Schools are embracing some of these ideas but strongly resisting experimenting with most of them, especially schools that hang on to “older ways” of teaching and learning.  Will those schools become obsolete?

Bateson says:

I  mean I think we now live with constant change.  And so they’re onstage without a script.

Schools, in the face of government or parent pressures, are sometimes reluctant to write their own script on how to best meet the learning needs of their students.  We (schools) need to be thoughtful and bold in our approach to adapt to the societal and global changes we face.  Ultimately, our responsibility is to prepare our students to fully function in the world they will inherit.  Here again Bateson gives some probing insights into how we might think about our purpose.

I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves. (Tippett is reading this from Bateson’s writing.)

So how can we help our students become artists of their own lives and less victims of a society that pressures them to conform to a set of expectations.  How do we help students into discovering what is possible, what their life’s work is meant to be?

In Bateson’s imagination, she conjures up the image of homemaking.  Tippett asks her to explain what homemaking means to her.  She says:

Well, creating an environment in which learning is possible. And that is what a home is.  I mean that is what we want the homes that we give to our children to be–places where they grow in many, many different ways.  They learn how to connect with other people,  They learn how to care for others. They learn particular skills.  They learn their own capacities and how to trust other people and how to trust themselves.  They learn what respect is.

What a powerful way to think about school, equating schooling to her definition of homemaking.  There are so many parallels.  How many times have you spoken with colleagues about what school could or should be?  It probably sounded a lot like how Bateson describes homemaking.  What is striking about this image is that it doesn’t describe school (home) as a place where students learn content and facts.  They learn about themselves as human beings.  Of course content and facts are an important ingredient in learning, but they are not essential.  The essential learnings are more about being a respectful, cooperative, caring, and risk-taking human with well-developed social and emotional skills.

(See a previous Center for Teaching post titled, What qualities make for an ideal school or classroom, if you want to learn more.)

I found myself very interested in her views of cooperation versus competition.  She is clearly a proponent of collaboration as a means to grow and change, even while recognizing that competition has played a central role in our evolutionary success.  She says:

Yes, and that very often major accelerations of change came out when a group of people got together and learned together and dared to think new thoughts and then pass them on.  And the point is that the evolutionary part of that was in the relationships between the members of those small groups, feeding off of each other’s imagination and insights and wisdom and then spreading them out in the society, going forward.

Reflecting on her views, I can’t help but think about teacher teams.  Whether we use a professional learning community structure or some other team structure in school, we need to commit to making time for teachers to work on collaborative teams, move from isolation to collaboration.  When teachers learn together, play together, and create together, they become a source of productive, positive change in their school.  As a result, school becomes a more vibrant place for students to learn.

Reflecting on the Book of Job, Bateson says this:

And then God says, “Look. Just look.  Realize how beautiful it is, how complicated it is–the wonder of Creation.” And wake up.

Let’s develop a sense of wonder about school, about the possibilities for what school should be for all students.  We need to tap into our creative energy, reimagining some of our expectations and practices, so that schooling is like Bateson’s view of homemaking.





“First do no Harm,” developing a teacher’s inner work life.

July 29, 2017

Physicians learn early in their education that adopting an ethical position as it relates to treating patients is of utmost importance to their medical practice.  They take the Hippocratic Oath as they enter to a lifetime commitment to not doing harm.  The expression, “first do no harm,” is often the phrase that comes to mind when we think about a physician’s commitment to their patient’s care.  While the phrase doesn’t actually appear in the Hippocratic Oath, it does summarize in a powerful way a physician’s commitment to a patient’s health.

I recently finished a book written by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.  Their writing prompted me to reflect on leadership in schools, building school community, and promoting a culture of creativity and risk-taking that leads to personal growth for adults and students.  Their research describes the key factors that impact establishing a strong inner work life.  They define inner work life in this way:

Conditions that foster positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favorable perceptions of colleagues and the work itself.  (Page 1)

The figure below outlines the factors that impact building a strong inner work life.

Page 85 of The Progress Principal

The three factors they describe are: (1) progress principle, making progress on real work; (2) catalyst factors that support the ability to make progress on work; and (3) nourishment factors that support the emotional growth of the individual.  While all three are critically important, their research puts significant emphasis on making progress on real work.  They write:

Making headway on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term performance. (Page 68)

After compiling data from 238 people, 26 project teams, 7 companies, 3 industries, and 12,000 journal entries they concluded that the progress principle accounts for the productivity of people in their work.

Of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work. (Page 77)

However, the influence of setbacks in one’s work are powerful deterrents to developing a strong inner work life.  I found important lessons to be learned for school leaders as I was reading this section.  While they develop the case for the influence of positive events, they point out that negative events can get in the way of making progress.

If you want to foster great inner work life, focus first on eliminating the obstacles that cause setbacks.  Why?  Because one setback has more power to sway inner work life than one progress incident. (Page 92)

Their evidence for this powerful idea is quite compelling.  Here are some ideas they explore (page 92-93).

  • Small everyday hassles at work hold more sway than small everyday supports.
  • Negative team leader behaviors affect inner work life more broadly than do positive team leader behaviors.
  • In their study, people write more extensive journal entries surrounding negative setbacks than they do with neutral or positive events.
  • There is a strong connection between mood and negative work events than between mood and positive events.
  • Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive actions.

They conclude that we (leaders) should design or facilitate work environments that:

removing obstacles impeding the progress of individuals and teams can make a big difference for inner work life and overall performance. (Page 93)

Simple design to “first do no harm.”

It starts with the leader of a school, a division, a department or a team of teachers.  My experience tells me that teachers want to know that their efforts are contributing to meaningful progress.  Teachers’ continual daily progress, both in the classroom and on teams, contributes to the success of the school and the quality of teachers’ inner work lives.  As a school leader, we must consistently facilitate progress, and most importantly, remove obstacles that could potentially “do harm,” harm to a teacher’s inner work life.  Leaders need to identify the obstacles unique to their organization and commit focused energy to diminishing their influence.

Building a culture that honors productive conflict

April 25, 2017

On the heals of working with some school leaders on conflict, I read and listened to these interesting pieces that connect to our work as educational leaders.  First, a piece appeared on Brain Pickings, David Foster Wallace on Leadership.  In the article and podcast, Debbie Millman reads about leadership from the writings of David Foster Wallace, a writer and professor who received the MacArthur Fellowship but died at an early age from suicide.  The second article was in Tools for Learning Schools on Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict.   In this piece, Anthony Armstrong looks at how to address conflict in school communities.  Finally, Krista Tippett’s (@kristatippett) On Being interview with Padraig O Tuama entitled, Belonging Creates and Undoes Us Both,  inspires a spiritual and holistic approach to think about conflict, relationships, and resolution.

While each of these articles covered different aspects of culture and conflict they all addressed the importance of facing conflict in open and honest ways, a fundamental quality of strong leaders.  As educators, we know that conflict is often at the surface begging for our attention.  Conflict can result from challenging relationships between different community members or differences in philosophy, goals, and desired outcomes.  As leaders, we receive little training in how to build a strong, inclusive culture that nurtures productive conflict.  For example, orchestrating productive and difficult conversations is a skill we tend to learn on the job rather than receive professional training from knowledgeable experts.  While trial-by-fire experience is unavoidable and necessary, we need high-quality training and feedback to improve, so that we can effectively lead or participate in our communities of learning.

David Foster Wallace describes a leader as someone whose

real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

He goes on to say that real leaders make it possible for us to reach beyond our “limitations, selfishness, and laziness.”  From his description, I see real leaders as people who understand and value the “other.”  In that way, when situations arise that present with conflict, they are committed to resolution with everyone’s best interest at heart.  They work on behalf of honoring personal integrity, boundaries, and feelings.  When in the presence of effective “real leaders” I have experienced profound confidence that conflict resolution is a high priority.

I liked all three of these pieces because they focused on embracing conflict as a form of energy that can move a community into a better place.  In learning how to embrace conflict, the author of Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict, Anthony Armstrong, discussed the importance of three ingredients illustrated in the graphic below.  These three ingredients come from the work of Williams and Hierck (Authentic alignment in a PLC: Moving from compliance to commitment, in press).


The three ingredients are: (1) having a shared purpose; (2) adopting norms that guide work towards a purpose; and (3) using protocols for when norms are not followed successfully.

In my own work, I have seen leadership teams struggle moving through conflict because they have not adopted a shared purpose or norms that guide their work.  Too often, the team is caught unprepared to navigate through conflict towards a resolution or outcome that works to everyone’s advantage.  A leadership question might be: how can we turn a conflict into a learning experience for everyone?  Assuming norms have been established, a group can sometimes find itself bogged down in their work because a norm has been violated.  If the group fails to use protocols for addressing behaviors that violate norms, it might be difficult to get back on track.  Respectfully naming behaviors that derail a process can be a powerful way for groups to address conflict and transform themselves into a high-functioning team (see the work of Patrick Lencioni on the five dysfunctions of a team).

In the article, Armstrong also writes about the importance of good communication and leadership to build a culture “that facilitates productive conflicts.” (p. 3)  To be successful at this work, the authors propose that all stakeholders need to feel invested in designing solutions to resolve conflict.  To invest in this work, the leader has to value establishing a collaborative, high-functioning team in which members trust one another.   While Armstrong provides technical solutions to the challenge of engaging in healthy, productive conflict on teams, it is more likely that the challenge is an adaptive one requiring an astute leader.

Padraig O Tuama, the leader of Corrymeela, a community of people devoted to working for peace and reconciliation, shares his keen insights into how differences can be resolved and people live and work in harmony.  In the interview he says:

And I think that is one of the things that, for me, spirituality as well as conflict resolution is about. There’s — so much of things are saying, “I wish things were different.” “I wish I were somewhere else.” “I wish this were not happening.” And what David Wagoner says is, “The place where you are is called Here, / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”

He refers to the poem by David Wagoner, Lost.   The words and ideas in Wagoner’s poem challenge the reader to understand the power of being present.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.

– by David Wagoner

In the interview, Mr. Tuama goes on to explain the meaning of the powerful stranger and being in the present.

And powerful strangers might be benevolent, but only might. Powerful strangers can also be unsettling and troubling. And powerful strangers can have their own hostilities, and have their own way within which they cause you to question who you are and where you’re from. And that is a way within which, for me, the notion of saying hello to “here” requires a fairly robust capacity to tell the truth about what is really going on. And that can be very difficult.

Speaking the truth is such an important part of healthy, productive conflict that focuses on resolving the tensions between polar opposites.

Mr. Tuama has some penetrating things to say about the tension between understanding the other and agreeing with the other.  He says:

And I suppose one of the things that being closeted for many years helped, actually — not that this is good advice, but it is wisdom, retrospectively — it helped me to understand some of the dynamics that were happening underneath the kind of public things people said in order to then think, when it comes to having conversations about anything that divides us, that understanding itself is a really wise thing. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing.

When things divide us, the situation in many moments of conflict, we need to listen deeply and try to understand the other person without projecting our own inner feelings on the person.  We need to remember that understanding does not mean agreeing.  How can we best express our understanding, especially if we don’t agree?  Mr. Tuama suggests that asking good questions, like “can you help me understand this,” can be one way to explore the level of understanding we have for the other.

And often, our public discourse, whatever the issue that’s dividing us, it needs a wise framing. It needs careful questioning. And it needs a way within which we can speak about these things, recognizing that words have impact. And often, if people use unwise words, they return to their intention. “Well, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that.” Without paying attention to impact.

While each of these three pieces is unique in its approach to suggesting how leaders address conflict, my attempt was to knit them together to tell a powerful story about the value of creating teams that can see their way through healthy, productive conversations about difficult situations.

I would strongly recommend these pieces if you lead an organization that struggles with productive conflict.  It might open up some windows for understanding how to do this important work.

Learning little-by-little to love our only world on #earthday2017

April 24, 2017


I am not big into resolutions, although I have a goal to challenge myself to get out of my “comfort zone.”
As I move into summer 2017, I want to promise myself this: appreciate the Earth’s grandeur as Mary Oliver expresses in her poem, Starfish.
while I lay on the rocks, reaching into the darkness, learning little by little to love our only world.
We live on a precious planet that while resilient in some respects is constantly being assaulted by our reckless habits.   If you want to see the implications of our uncontrolled growth and demand for more and more things, read this piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Pollution Rising, Chinese Fear for Soil and Food.  If we continue to show little respect or love for our planet, where will we be in the near future?  A world without starfish?
Here is Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem for inspiration to love our planet.  It comes from her book of poetry, Dream Work.
In the sea rocks,
in the stone pockets
under the tide’s lip,
in water dense as blindness
they slid
like sponges,
like too many thumbs.
I knew this, and what I wanted
was to draw my hands back
from the water – what I wanted
was to be willing
to be afraid.
But I stayed there,
I crouched on the stone wall
while the sea poured its harsh song
through the sluices,
while I waited for the gritty lightning
of their touch, while I stared
down through the tide’s leaving
where sometimes I could see them –
their stubborn flesh
lounging on my knuckles.
What good does it do
to lie all day in the sun
loving what is easy?
It never grew easy,
but at last I grew peaceful:
all summer
my fear diminished
as they bloomed through the water
like flowers, like flecks
of an uncertain dream,
while I lay on the rocks, reaching
into the darkness, learning
little by little to love
our only world.
~ by Mary Oliver ~
Hope you have a wonderful day!
Bob Ryshke

Blue Ocean or Red Ocean strategy, which leads to lasting innovation?

April 20, 2017

Watch this short video from Harvard Business Review to see an answer to this question!  It reveals a way to think about strategy within the context of sustainable innovation in an organization.  How is this relevant to schools given that most of us “look the same” or do the same thing?  Thoughts?

Learning to #apologize, the art of healing!

April 4, 2017

In K-12 schools, communities composed of intricate webs of student-student, adult-student, and adult-adult social interactions, we tend to expend minimal energy designing or adopting programs that help students and adults navigate complex social interactions.  When relationship problems do arise, we handle them in the moment usually with more reactive rather than proactive focus.  Of course, some schools bring in social-emotional curriculum to help students learn to thrive in their school community.  This is certainly an important first step.

But in the end, do we hold ourselves accountable for defining the indicators and outcomes we want to achieve through our efforts?  Do we place as much value on a student’s social-emotional growth as we do on their academic growth?  Consider this, we eagerly assess a student on a scale of A-F or 100-0, hopefully not zero, with regard to their academic growth.  Academic achievement or grading conversations consume considerable time and energy in a teacher’s, student’s or parent’s school experience.  However, we spend little quality time discussing a student’s social-emotional growth, and we certainly don’t “grade it.”  You’ve heard the saying, “what we assess is what we value!”

In this post, I’m suggesting schools spend time thinking about, designing, and implementing programs, structures, and conversations centered on the social-emotional growth of students, and make use of research in neuroscience which confirms that social-emotional learning supports overall cognitive growth.

Healthy social-emotional development in young children correlates with healthy cognitive development and therefore creates a strong foundation for future school achievement. (1)

Neuroscientists are conducting research on different aspects of how a person navigates interpersonal relationships.  The research is providing a window into how the decisions we make in relationships impact our overall emotional health and happiness.  For example, Sabrina Strang and colleagues published a 2014 study, Neural Correlates of Receiving an Apology and Active Forgiveness, which illustrated that the act of apologizing and forgiving activate neural pathways that lead to the development of a stronger empathy response.  The authors write:

Activation in a network of frontal, temporal and parietal regions is often found in empathy processes. Empathy includes emotional as well as cognitive processes. By simulating the emotional experience of others we can intuitively understand what the other person feels.

In schools, do we model for students the power of an apology?  Do we design learning environments where students are taught how to work through complex interpersonal relationships?  Do we encourage them to process their feelings, apologize when they hurt others, and forgive those who violate boundaries?  As adults, do we model these healing behaviors for students as we navigate public adult-adult relationships?  My experiences in a variety of schools has been that these programs or experiences are hit-and-miss, and generally only happen when a situation becomes a crisis.

On March 30, 2017, Krista Tippett published her On Being interview with Layli Long Soldier, “a writer, a mother, a citizen of the U.S. and of the Oglala Lakota Nation.”  She is the author of the book of poetry, Whereas.  You can read an excerpt on the Poetry Foundation website (click here).  In the interview, Long Soldier reflects on the impact of personal and national apologies on her psyche or our national psyche.  She tells a power story about her father’s apology to her about not being there in her formative years.

And when I was in my 20s, he came to visit one time and unexpectedly, he was sitting at breakfast with me and apologized for not being there. And I think there was something in the way he said it. He cried when he said it. And I could feel it, I could physically feel that he meant it. And really — and I can say this to this day — in that moment, all of it was gone. Like, all that stuff I’d been carrying around — it was gone. It was lifted. And I feel, in many ways, we started new from that point on. I really have not had the need to go back and rehash things with him and so on. We started from that place forward. We’ve known each other in a different way.

She goes on to comment that:

I think there has to be a kind of trust building in order for any kind of apology to be effective, whether it’s interpersonal or at a national level.

In her interview, she references the United States congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans in 2009, which was enacted as part of the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act.  The apology was not public, and was buried deep in the document (click here).  Layli Long Soldier heard about the apology months after it was official, but never through any public forum.  I had not heard of the apology because it was never part of our national dialogue.  Former President Obama’s failed to understand how making this public was instrumental to the healing process.  Here is a quote from the apology (click here for more details):

To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the federal government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.

An apology is only meaningful if it comes from the heart.  The words, expressions, and sentiments have to resonate with those who are on the receiving end of the apology.  If you listen to Layli Long Soldier’s interview, then it’s clear the US apology to Native Americans did not come from the collective heart of the American people.  It was a legally crafted set of words, buried deep within another document, that we were afraid to share.  I would conclude that our national psyche, our social-emotional health, was still unapologetic for all the hurt we caused Native Americans.  A public apology by then President Obama, in the form of a ceremony at a sacred Native American site, would have been a more meaningful resolution to the long history of pain we caused.

In our schools, we need to teach students how to give and accept apologies as a way to heal.  Healing is a process and an art.  It requires a strong inner voice and a moral grounding that allows for an expression of vulnerability.  Being vulnerable is a quality that leads to establishing trusting relationships.

(1) Ready 4 K, The Importance of Social and  Emotional Development in Young Children, Megan Waltz (click here)

Adopt five simple strategies to improve your #leadership skills

April 2, 2017
Feedback loop.Tjan_Page_2

Alignment: Adapted from Tjan’s model


Finished reading a piece by Anthony Tjan (@anthonytjan) in Harvard Business Review, 5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware, written in February 2015.  He begins the article with the line:

You can’t be a good leader without self-awareness.
While he doesn’t actually reference the work of Richard Boyatzis, Resonant Leadership, or the work of Daniel Goldman on the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, his five ways of becoming more self-aware align well with these authors’ ideas that effective leadership links directly to one’s emotional and psychological health.
Tjan’s five ways for becoming more self-aware are:
  • Meditate
  • Write down your plans and priorities
  • Take psychometric tests
  • Ask trusted friends
  • Get regular feedback at work


His explanation for each of the five ways is short, interesting, and compelling.  Seems simple enough to design a way to function at work that includes each of Tjan’s suggestions.

I love his four questions that he asks himself when he meditates:
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I doing that is working?
  • What am I doing that is slowing me down?
  • What can I do to change?


Of course, asking the questions is one thing, being honest with myself as I reflect on each question is the hard task, but the important one to get right.  The learning or insight comes from being open and honest about each question.

In my own work, I too meditate at different times throughout the day, using only a few minutes to quiet myself, focus on my breathing, and sit in silence as a way to re-center. I find it extremely helpful to take these mindful pauses.
Under the suggestion of writing down plans and priorities, I thought he idea of mimicking Ben Franklin’s idea of the balance sheet was quite clever.  Being conscious of the things we do well or our perceived weakness and assessing progress in both areas strikes me to be an important self-reflective exercise.
Tjan writes:
We have to rely on the feedback of our peers, friends, and mentors.
How often do we talk about feedback, but rarely do we get this conversation right?  If we are honest with ourselves, feedback can be challenging to hear, process, and make useful.  It requires work.  As Tjan suggests, there is no more important work to be done if you want to be an effective leader.  Leaders are learners, who learn best when they engage others in sharing information about how things are going.  His simple two-step protocol is: (1) have a process for collecting feedback; and (2) effectively manage it.  I think this implies that as the receiver of feedback, I need to take it seriously and it should be ongoing work.
Tjan concludes with the statement:
Building self-awareness is a life-long effort.
So it is.  Let’s begin now if we want to get the most out of our leadership potential.
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