A Bases-Loaded Lesson in Leadership

One of the essential characteristics of positive leaders is a non-negotiable commitment to mission and purpose. It is something we all know and yet leaders lose sight of mission and purpose almost as a matter of routine. When we begin to lose sight of our mission, we begin to make decisions that are counter-productive and serve secondary agendas rather than our  primary mission and purpose. Inevitably, outcomes are adversely affected.  What follows is a true story and example of how easy it is to lose focus on purpose.

I am a passionate baseball fan.  I love to watch baseball and coach baseball and, when I was young, I loved to play the game.  Some of my most memorable lessons in positive leadership were learned while coaching Little League Baseball®.

One season, during the all-star tournament, which is the path to Williamsport and the Little League Baseball® World Series, I was honored to manage our league’s all-star team of thirteen 12-year-old ball players. While we did not advance beyond our district tournament, it was a special opportunity and memory.

While scouting  a game that would determine our next opponent,  I observed another league’s manager, a fine gentleman I am sure,  get so wrapped up in the heat of competition that he lost focus on his purpose.  In an elimination game, his team was trailing by a run in the last inning and the tying and winning runs were on base with two outs.  At bat was his team’s best hitter. 

I was standing at the end of the dugout where I could hear every word. The coach called his player over, a strapping twelve-year old, and said, “We need you buddy!  It’s all up to you!  Don’t let us down, the whole team is counting on you!”

I was astonished to hear those words come out of a coach’s mouth in any kind of youth sports’ activity.

The young man walked to the plate full of determination and proceeded to pop up to end the game—an exciting victory for the other team.  The 12-year-old batter walked back to the dugout with his head hanging.  His manager put his arm around the boy and said, “Forget it!  You did your best.”

But, of course, it was too late.  As his coach’s had directed, the boy carried the burden of success or failure for his team, and he had let them down. It was the kind of outcome that may be the only thing that young man will remember from what was a stellar baseball season. In his mind, in the most important at-bat of the year, he was a failure and a loser.  All I could do was shake my head.  Little did I know I would be confronted with a similar opportunity.

My team played the next evening and we went into the bottom of the last inning trailing by two runs.  Our best hitter was due at the plate, there were two outs, and the bases were loaded. 

The words that popped up into my head were, “We need you buddy!  It’s all up to you!  Don’t let us down, the whole team is counting on you.” Fortunately, I realized what I was thinking.  I shook myself by the scruff of my neck and was thankful I had an opportunity to learn from another leader’s mistake. 

When I called my best hitter over for a quick pep talk, my approach was different from what I witnessed  twenty-four hours earlier. I put my hands on his shoulders and smiled at him.

“This is the at-bat you’ve been dreaming about for as long as you can remember. I want you to relax and take a deep breath.” I gave his shoulders a playful shake and continued, “Now, enjoy this moment! Give it your best effort and whatever happens, I’m proud of you.”

My story has a different ending, as well.  The young boy responded with a grand slam home run for a dramatic win—the kind of which dreams are made.

Did my message make a difference?  You may draw your own conclusions, but I believe it did.  It helped the child approach the situation as an opportunity to succeed using his talents and abilities, and all the hours he had devoted to practice.  When we eliminate the fear of failure, even when it is a possible outcome, children and adults are able to give their best effort.

The most important lesson has to do with one’s focus on one’s mission.  My purpose was not to win baseball games rather to provide young boys and girls with an opportunity to learn to play the game of baseball; to experience the thrill of competition and the value of teamwork; and, to develop their athletic potential and self-discipline.  My job was to teach my players to give their best effort without fear of failure.  This particular game was just one of what will be a life time of opportunities for this boy to excel at something he loves to do. I was only an instrument.

Because of his success, I was able to share the celebration of it. Had the outcome been different, my job would have been to encourage him to keep striving, as nobody “bats a thousand.” As an instructor in another sport once said, “if we are not falling down once-in-a-while we are not really skiing.”

My counterpart had been focused on his own needs, his own desire to win a game.  On this one occasion he viewed the child as an instrument of his own objectives. It was not that his desire to win was inappropriate rather that it was not his job. It was one example of the many secondary agendas that so often distracts us from our primary purpose.

In education, where our stated purpose is to help kids learn, a secondary agenda is when, to achieve operational efficiency,  we attach more importance to keeping pace with an arbitrary calendar or schedule than we do to giving students the time they need to learn each lesson.

A Lesson in Positive Leadership Prompted by a Valued Colleague

In a recent Tweet, our colleague, Amy Fast, @fastcrayon wrote:

“I too often take for granted that people who consistently demonstrate excellence need and deserve feedback too. . . . We need to take care of our people.”

This is an important lesson in so many ways. We all need affirmation. It is important that we feel appreciated. We need to believe the work we do and the effort we make is observed and valued. Many managers are so focused on looking for things people do wrong and need to improve upon they rarely give positive feedback, even to the best people in their organization.  

During the early years of my leadership and organizational development consulting career, I had an opportunity to witness an extreme example of a boss whose total focus was on the things his people did badly. I included this anecdote in a book on Positive Leadership I wrote and self-published in 1980. I used the book as resource material in the many Positive Leadership seminars I gave to the employees of my own organizations, of many of my consulting clients, as well as through the Continuing Education Program of Indiana-Purdue University of Fort Wayne (Now Purdue University of Fort Wayne).. The book was updated and republished in 2013 with the title, The Difference Is You: Power through Positive Leadership[i],.

Here is the excerpt about an owner, who started his business out of his garage and turned it into a multi-million-dollar company:

“I spent some time with the owner of a small but profitable company with only seven employees.  The owner was constantly complaining about how difficult it was to get good help.

“No one wants to work anymore!” he cried. “They don’t appreciate what a good thing they have, working here.”

He wore his frustration out where everyone could see, which caused a great deal of consternation among his people.

“I can do every job in the company,” he boasted, “better than my people!”

“I see,” was my reply and then I asked, “How much are you paying these people?”

“Probably close to $200,000 per year,” he responded, in shock as if he had seen that number for the first time. “My God!” he continued, “You would think for that kind of money I could buy some decent help.”

I thought for a moment and then responded, “I think I’ve got a simple solution for you.  In fact, it’s so simple I’m surprised you haven’t thought of it yourself.”

He didn’t say anything right away but just looked at me.  Finally, he asked, “How much is this going to cost me?”

“Well, it’s such a simple solution I am almost embarrassed to charge you anything at all.   But, since I would soon go broke if I gave away free advice, why don’t I bill you for one hour of my time and we will call it even.”

My client was skeptical, but we shook hands on the deal. “Okay!  What is this simple solution?”

“Just get rid of all of your staff,” I announced, “and do all the work yourself!  You do it better anyway and then you can pocket the $200,000 in payroll costs every year.  Heck, in a few years you’ll be able to retire on the money you save.”

Needless to say, my client was not particularly happy with my suggestion and he, “damn sure wasn’t going to pay me for a ridiculous piece of advice like that.”

When he finally calmed down, we discussed his attitudes at some length because it was his attitude that was the problem.  He finally acknowledged that he could not be everywhere at once or do all the jobs at the same time and, in fact, after much gnashing of teeth, he admitted that he needed his people.  He acknowledged that, in spite of all his knowledge and expertise, he was incapable of running his business by himself.

As we talked about his attitudes, he began to see that the message he conveyed, daily, to his people was that they should be grateful for their jobs and to him for giving them jobs.  He routinely conveyed his lack of appreciation for them and his lack of trust and respect for them.  Not once had it occurred to him to thank his people or tell them how important their contributions were to the success of his business.”

 

Sadly, giving formal performance assessments in many businesses and other employment environments has devolved into a grading process that documents success or lack thereof, not unlike the grades we give in our schools and classrooms. When giving performance assessments to adults in the workplace, or to children in school,  the focus should be on the two-sided practice of recognizing and celebrating excellence, on the one hand, and identifying learning and development opportunities, on the other. If our focus is on helping people at work or children in school do the best job of which they are capable, master their jobs or subject matter, and learn how to create success for themselves, it is imperative that we do both.


[i] Hawkins, Mel, The Difference is You: Power Through Positive Leadership, Createspace (an Amazon format), 2013

The Process of Success: another Lesson for Positive Leadership

Another of the key attributes of Positive Leaders is that they possess an understanding of the process of success along with a commitment to the relentless utilization of that process; a commitment to action.

People dream about success and about doing great things, often. Many young people fantasize about winning the lottery or making millions of dollars as a professional athlete or recording star. Few of these young people know how to convert their dreams to plans to action. Many adults think that success is a state of perpetual affluence. These men and women do not realize that affluence is nothing more than a possible consequence and not the essence of success.

Many of you who are reading this page have the ability within you to succeed right where you are, just by doing things differently, by learning the process of success and by rededicating yourselves to positive values. You can improve your performance on the job, enhance your career, have a more satisfying marriage, and get more joy and meaning out of life. These things can happen, now! Success can be personal, interpersonal, or organizational but it is always tied to clearly delineated objectives, a willingness to act, and is always measured through our relationships with other people.

What, then, is this process of success? It includes a mission in life, rooted in positive, life-affirming values; a positive attitude and approach; passion; a vision of how things can be; specific goals and objectives; an implementation plan; and finally, a commitment to action. It is that simple, but it does not stop there.

Action creates change. Change requires that the vision be re-examined, that the progress is measured, that the goals and objectives are adjusted, that the action plan be re-engineered, and that our actions themselves are modified accordingly. The process is repeated until we have converted the dream to reality; until we are satisfied. But satisfaction does not come easily if it comes at all.

The more we accomplish, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more we imagine. What is vital is that our values, those core principles that sustain us, are not altered but remain rock solid.

It is a positive leader’s propensity for action that distinguishes him or her from men and women who simply manage. Positive Leaders make things happen. These individuals are at the peak of their art or craft. How do they do it? Well, of course, they have talent—but then many people have talent. The world is full of talented people who think back on opportunities in their lives and say, “with a little good luck I might have made it!” But, many talented people do not make it and good fortune may or may not deserve the credit for their outcomes. We all have good luck but not everyone is prepared to capitalize on it when it comes.

It is said that winners make their own breaks and this we have found to be especially true. Those of us who blame everything on bad luck are not accepting responsibility for our outcomes. Remember, it is not until we accept responsibility for the challenges we face that we acquire the power to overcome them.

If we reflect on the opportunities that have come our way, we discover that they came unexpectedly, often catching us off guard and unprepared. We might say it was bad luck that good fortune, in the guise of opportunity, called upon us when we were not ready. Often, bad luck is little more than lack of focus, readiness, and preparation for action.

Understand your purpose and mission and re-examine them routinely. Establish goals and objectives for yourselves. Make a commitment to those goals and objectives and dedicate yourself to doing everything in your power to facilitate them. Work hard to develop your skills and discipline yourself to a regimen that will maximize your talents and energies toward that end.

Be persistent despite the obstacles that present themselves and the setbacks that befall you. Know that all the work and effort you put forth is preparation for the time when opportunity knocks. When opportunities do present themselves, take positive action using all the skills and abilities in your arsenal and all the energy at your command.

Action is the key. Even the ideas of an Einstein or a Jefferson have little value until they are acted upon or communicated.

Positive Leaders rarely complain about things because complaints are powerless and are little more than a form of whining. Positive Leaders offer alternate solutions—what can we do differently to produce more desirable outcomes? If we think back to our fundamental definition of positive leadership, it is acceptance of responsibility for increasingly more desirable outcomes; for relentless improvement. This is what Positive Leaders do.

The process of success is crucial for addressing the challenges facing public education in America. Educators have every right to deflect the blame for the disappointing outcomes of so many students but that does not excuse them from accepting responsibility for seeking better solutions. The outcomes in public education demand action.

Does utilization of this process guarantee success? No! There are no guarantees. It does, however, improve the odds of successful outcomes so dramatically in one’s favor that success moves from possibility to probability. Teach yourself the process and make success a probability in your life!

Growth Mindset: an Essential Tool of Positive Leadership

This past weekend, I was pleased to receive an invitation to help @LeeAraoz prepare for a presentation by sharing my experience with growth mindset. I was asked to post a video on his growth mindset Flipgrid.

Because of a combination of not figuring out how to post my video on his Flipgrid, and the distraction of yet another in a long series of remodeling problems on our home, I missed my opportunity. Given my belief in the importance of a growth mindset, I will share my thoughts, here.

When I first heard the term “growth mindset, I had to stop and think about what it meant. After a little research, I was excited to discover that I have been talking about and teaching the concept for decades. In my leadership consulting practice, I referred to the concept of learning continuously as striving for “relentless improvement.”

I much prefer the more apt and elegant descriptor, “growth mindset.”

I have long believed that this focus on relentless improvement, growth, and learning is an essential tool of positive leadership, whether as a manager or supervisor in a business organization, a principal of a school, or a teacher in the classroom. We must always strive to pry open our minds to growth. We must be willing to challenge our assumptions at any point in time as we work to be better at what we do and produce better outcomes.

Change and growth are an essential part of life for both people and organizations. When the outcomes we produce tell us something is not working, doing nothing is irresponsible. It is a silly analogy, I know, but imagine changing the decorations on a cake but never baking a new cake. Sooner or later you’ll have a mess on your hands.

Someone, many years ago, shared with me the advice of a ski instructor, who said:

“if you are not falling down once in a while, you are not really skiing.”

When we extend ourselves to the cusp of our knowledge and experience, we fall down. It’s what we all do; it is how we learn. The best advice I can give people is “don’t sweat the mistakes we make, celebrate them.”

“Stop complaining,” is another challenge I offer to current or aspiring positive leaders. Complaints are the province of the weak and powerless. When unhappy about some aspect of your life, job, or organization, instead of complaining, offer a better idea or solution. If you do not have a better idea or alternate approach of your own, become a positive advocate for someone else’s proposal for change. If no one has a better idea, put your heads together and discover one.

There will always be a better way if we take the time and teach ourselves how to search for it. Train your mind to push the boundaries of your imagination, to reject complacency, to ask tough questions, and challenge your assumptions. Nothing hampers a growth mindset like complacency and inertia.

My mission in life, for the past decade, has been to stop the failure of disadvantaged kids. These kids are not destined to fail, and they do not struggle because they are incapable of learning, or because they have bad teachers and bad schools. If we listen to these kids, and observe their behavior, it becomes apparent that they are “street smart.” They learn what is important to them and they learn what works for them in their unique environments. The only way to convince them that what we are striving to teach them is important is by convincing them, through our words and actions, that they are important.

Growth mindset is an essential tool of positive leadership.

When disadvantaged kids struggle and fail in school it is because the education process in which their teachers are expected to teach does not allow them to give every student the time, support, and attention they need to overcome their disadvantages. Those disadvantages, un-remediated, leave young people at the mercy of discrimination.

Until teachers give up, themselves, and leave the profession they chose with such high hopes and aspirations, I can assure you they do everything they can to give kids the time and attention they need to learn. The education process in which teachers are expected to work, however,  is not structured to support them in that effort. The education process at work in American schools, both public and private, has become brittle and unresponsive to the changes taking place in the world in which their students must live and teachers must work.

The moment a process, product, service, or idea can no longer be improved is the point at which it becomes obsolete.

That’s why I developed The Hawkins Model©. It offers an education process that has been designed to serve teachers and students as they do their important work, not the other way around. It’s a simple question of “who exists to serve whom?”

Never underestimate your power to influence to the world around you. Cultivate a growth mindset for yourselves and create an environment that fosters relentless growth and learning for the people around you.

The Second Most Important Lesson of Positive Leadership.

The most important lesson for those who aspire to be powerful, positive leaders is that it is not about you. The second most important lesson is to focus on one’s purpose and, almost always, that purpose/mission is to satisfy one’s customer.

In the private sector, focus on customers is easy because it is the customer who buys goods and services. Dissatisfied customers can act immediately to take their money and seek out other suppliers. If that dissatisfaction spreads, the enterprise is at risk of losing their ability to compete.

In the public sector, of which public schools are a part, there can be a disconnect between leadership and dissatisfied customers.

Unlike buyers of consumer goods and services, the end-users of public education (the community, parents and employers) are faced with limited choices. Rarely can they take their money and seek out other providers of education services. With no consequences with which to deal, leaders of schools and other public institutions  are under minimal pressure to alter what they do. In the absence of choices and meaningful responses from educators, the dissatisfaction of the community festers.

It is this author’s belief that striving to replace our nation’s public schools with a smattering of uninspiring charter schools is a classic example of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Contrary to the perception of many public-school educators and advocates, however, education reformers—with  their focus on charter schools, vouchers, and digital learning—are driven by neither a greed for profits nor for a reliable pipeline of automatons to work in their factories. Just the opposite is true.

An over-supply of unthinking workers is the very thing employers are unhappy about.  And, while reformers may want their charter schools to make money, profits are not the motivation. There are much easier ways to make money.

The true motivation for creating charter schools, in present day, is to create an environment where dissatisfied parents can take their money and seek out a better school for their children; to have a choice. Having such choices puts pressure on providers to produce better outcomes.

It is this observer’s assertion that reformers are not out to do harm rather they are misguided. Just changing the name on the door does nothing to differentiate charter schools from public schools. Different teachers working in different facilities matters little if they teach in the same way. And, no, it does not matter that they rely more heavily on digital tools. Varying media does not alter the essential nature of the learning environment.

It is a positive environment that fosters learning and it is the quality of relationships that create positive environments.

What superintendents and local school boards must understand is that it is not enough to believe their schools are effective nor does it matter how hard their teachers and principals work, or how dedicated they may be. Neither does it matter that the societal issues of poverty, crime, discrimination, and segregation make it difficult for educators to do their jobs. These are excuses. The only thing that matters is whether a school’s outcomes are acceptable to their communities.

The challenge for leaders of public education—their essential purpose—is to accept responsibility for the outcomes with which one’s customers are disappointed and find solutions that work for all kids. Societal issues do not diminish the need for change, they make it more compelling.

In public education, or any other setting, innovative solutions must be sought outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Finding them requires that we go back to the drawing board and challenge our assumptions about what educators do, and why.

Throwing out the bathwater of public education but not the kids is a formidable challenge. Professional educators must take the lead and would do well to invite corporate America to join them in addressing this most significant challenge for 21st Century America. Only by working together and rallying around innovative solutions can educators and corporate America marshal the resources necessary to transform the American educational system.

The education model I have developed is an example of just such a solution and I invite superintendents and corporate leaders to examine it at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Reinventing Public Education: A Categorical Imperative!

Transforming/reinventing public education in America is well within the realm of possibility because it is a relatively simple human engineering challenge. The obstacles to its realization exist not in the architecture or mechanics of a solution rather in the politics of change. Those obstacles begin with how difficult it is for people to step outside their paradigms and envision a different reality. Being able to envision a new reality is important to all human beings but is imperative for educators if we are to insure equality in education.

The danger we all face when confronted with a long history of disappointing outcomes is succumbing to resignation that we are powerless to alter those outcomes. It is so easy to become inured to the human consequences.

In public education, disappointing outcomes have been a fact of life for generations and the consequences have had an adverse impact on virtually all aspects of American society. Teachers entering the profession almost always believe that all kids can learn but, over time, they are confronted with the reality that so very many of them do not. Some educators succumb to the proposition that there are children who cannot learn.

That so many of these students are poor, black, and other minorities makes it inevitable that some men and women—not a majority, we believe—will draw unfortunate conclusions. Educators must be challenged to reject stereotyping or profiling by racial, ethnic, or any other categorization and conclude, instead, that the problem is not that these kids all look alike, rather that they experience similar disadvantages.

This tradition of unacceptable outcomes will not be altered until educators take a paradigm leap and imagine a new reality outside the boundaries of conventional thinking. Envisioning an alternate reality does not guarantee a solution, however. Even when we discover a transformational solution, we are still faced with one of greatest challenges facing organizations; we must overcome the paralysis of inertia.

What teachers, principals, and other administrators must do is simple. They must acknowledge that what they are asked to do in their schools and classrooms is not working for many students, especially the disadvantaged. They must be encouraged to forget about what the critics say; forget about the corporate reformers and the politicians who have been influenced by them; and, forget about test scores.

The only thing that matters to teachers is what they see in their classrooms. Not all teachers can see the pattern from their classroom, however, nor can all principals. Those educators blessed to work in high performing schools must not turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by so many of their colleagues.  They must remind themselves, often, that “if not for the grace of God, that could be me.” They must stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in our most challenging schools and districts.

Superintendents have a special responsibility to provide positive leadership and in districts populated by struggling schools and failing students, superintendents must be strong enough to share the truth of what they witness. Their responsibility includes their students, the men and women who staff their schools, and the communities they have been chosen to serve. It serves none of these interests to act as if everything is okay.

It may be unreasonable to expect all top administrators to break from tradition, but they must be  relentless in challenging the assumptions of conventional wisdom. When these leaders see a long pattern of academic distress, they must feel compelled to act because if they do not, who can? 

It is not my desire to shower these good men and women with blame, but I do challenge them to accept responsibility. Blame and responsibility are two entirely different things. There is an essential principle of positive leadership that suggests “it is only when we begin to accept responsibility for the disappointing outcomes that plague us that we begin to acquire the power to change them.”

It has long been my belief that the top executives of any organization must be positive leaders with a passionate commitment to their mission. I have observed far too many leaders in education, whether superintendents or principals, who appear to be administrators more than powerful, positive leaders. Because most were hired and are evaluated based on their administrative experience and skills, we should not be surprised. Those graduate programs for school administrators that do not place great emphasis on leaderships skills must be challenged to rethink their mission.

It is my assertion that the absence of dynamic, positive leadership in school districts throughout the U.S. has given rise to a groundswell of dissatisfaction that, in turn, has opened the door for education reformers. These reformers—also good men and women—are only striving to fill a void of leadership. They see inaction from the leaders of public schools in the face of decades of unacceptable outcomes. Those outcomes are the millions of young people leaving school without the academic skills necessary to be full partners in the American enterprise.

What is unfortunate is that the solutions these education reformers and their political supporters offer have proven to be no more effective than the public schools they are striving to supplant. And, why should we be surprised when all they do is change buildings, call it a charter school, and ask teachers to do the same job they would be asked to do in public schools. They rely on the same obsolete education process and it is inevitable that they will get the same results.

This flawed education process impacts every child, adversely. To disadvantaged students, those impacts are often devastating.

Once again, I ask the reader to consider an alternate approach; a new model designed to focus on relationships and giving every child as much time as they need to learn every lesson, at their own best speed. Please check out The Hawkins Model© not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment.

The ultimate measure of the success of our schools is not graduation rates, or the percentage of students going off to college. Education must be measured by each student’s ability to utilize, in the real world, that which he or she has learned; regardless of the directions they have chosen for their lives. Education must be evaluated on the quality of choices available to its young men and women.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, or superintendent, how does one explain that all your dedication, best efforts, and innovation over the last half century have produced so little in the way of meaningful improvements in the outcomes of disadvantaged students?

Blaming outside forces is unacceptable. If the pathway to our destination is obstructed, do we give up or do we seek an alternate route? If we succeed in treating the illnesses and injuries of some patients does this let us off the hook in dealing with people whose illnesses and injuries are both more serious, and more challenging? “They all count, or no one counts.”

It serves no purpose to beat the superintendents of our nation’s public school districts about the head and shoulders, but we have a responsibility to hold them accountable. 

If teachers would rally together and utilize the collective power of their unions and associations to challenge conventional wisdom, they would gain support and become a revolution. The same is true of administrators and their associations. If teachers and administrators would link arms, they would become an irresistible force, not for incremental improvements, but for transformational change.  

Is there any doubt in the reader’s mind that if teachers and administrators were united behind a positive new idea that would assure the quality of education of every one of our children, that their communities would rally to the cause?

Educators, you truly do have the power to alter the reality that is public education for every child in America.

Should not our Schools Be Set Up On the Basis of How Children Learn?

One of the principles of Positive Leadership is to challenge people to re-think their underlying assumptions about why we do what we do. Education in America provides a perfect example of a system or education process that demands a complete re-examination.

Think about how children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many opportunities to practice whatever it is they are striving to learn. We understand that some children learn more quickly than others and, when we are teaching them to walk or ride a bike, we do not push them to learn any more quickly than they are able. We know that the only thing that matters is that they do learn.

When children make a mistake while learning to walk or ride a bike, they fall down. When that happens, we pick them up, we comfort them, give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again. When they finally get it, we celebrate their accomplishment just like we celebrate all victories. Victory is just another word for success.

What we don’t do is tally the number of times they fall, nor do we diminish the degree to which we celebrate their ultimate success based on the number of mistakes they made along the way. We also do not push them ahead before they are ready.

If we are helping two children learn how to ride a bike, simultaneously, and one child catches on more quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling and tell them time is up. Neither do we push the second child to take off in pursuit. We certainly do not start teaching both children more advanced skills, rather, we give each the attention they need appropriate to their progress.

We continue to work with the child who struggles and we do so patiently, providing lots of support and encouragement. Once both children are riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly, nor do we celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one rides every bit as good as the other and has just as much fun. Once one masters a skill, it no longer matters, in the least, that one student took longer to learn than another.

Now, think about how we teach children in many of our schools. We present a lesson to the entire class and we encourage them to practice, both at school and at home. We call it homework, not practice. The next day, we gather up all the homework and we review the most common mistakes that students make to help them learn from their mistakes. We, then, require our teachers to do one or more of three things that are incomprehensible when you think about it.

The first is that we do not, routinely, give struggling students whatever extra time they need to understand their mistakes. If they are to acquire a sufficient level of mastery of the subject matter to demonstrate to us that they understand and can use the knowledge or skill, proficiently, they must have time to learn from all their mistakes, even the uncommon ones.

Secondly, teachers will either record the grades of their students’ practice assignments or give or withhold credit for those assignments. They, then, factor a students’ scores/credits into their final grade at the end of the grading period, which often influences their grades at the end of a semester or school year.

The third unfathomable thing teachers are expected to do is require struggling students to move on to the next lesson in a textbook or syllabus, ready or not. It is as if the designers of the education process did not consider that for students to understand many lessons, they must be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. Teachers are expected to let their students advance without the prerequisite knowledge and understanding they will need.

The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the education process and entire American educational system is that we move everyone along to make sure we cover, within arbitrary time frames, all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process.

It was not always this way. When we first began teaching children, in a classroom setting, the only thing that mattered was whether each child learned as much as they were able at their own best speed. How, along the way from the early days of public schools until now, did we gravitate away from a focus on individual student achievement to an environment where we judge schools and teachers based on whether their classrooms are on an acceptable pace with respect to academic standards?

We also label the students who learned more quickly and successfully as “A”  or “B” students or “honor” students and, we label the slower kids as “C”, “D”, or even “F” students. We may or may not feel some sense of concern that these labels may follow our students well into the future, but that is what is expected of teachers. We ask teachers to shove aside their reticence and plunge ahead.

If we look closely and carefully, we will probably be able to tell that the kids we have labeled as “A” or “B” students seem to be having more fun and demonstrate more enthusiasm for learning than their “C, D, or F” classmates. Certainly they enjoy more success. In fact, it does not take long before it becomes clear that the latter group of children is having no fun at all and are demonstrating a diminished enthusiasm for learning. Oh, well, as the saying goes, “it is what it is!”

We observe this fully understanding that it is as much fun to learn successfully as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose? How can one learn how to be successful without experiencing success?

If we were to examine this practice from a positive leadership perspective, what an educator, school principal, school superintendent, or educational policy maker would do would be to step back and begin to question what we are doing and why. These positive leaders would begin to challenge some of their assumptions.

The truth is that every time we push a child on to a next lesson before they are ready we are setting him or her up for failure. It is this practice, as much as anything else we do, that leads to an unhealthy focus on failure throughout our entire system of education.

If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin questioning the fundamental assumptions of your leaders and policy makers.

You are also invited to examine an education model in which all these issues have been examined and where the way we have structured teachers and classrooms, and the way we  teach kids, has been re-envisioned. The result is an environment where we give our students the time and attention they need to learn every lesson and we evaluate teachers on how well they focus on that priority. It is amazing how, when we expand our paradigms, the possibilities multiply.

Quadrilateral Pegs in the Round Holes of Public Education; Revisited

Author’s note: In hopes of retaining a presence on social media, while writing my new book, I am selecting a few of the most widely-read blog posts from the past. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how many of these remarkable professionals seem unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered since I began school 67 years ago. Teachers labor in an education process that has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, it is easy for them to discount the merit of my education model as the work of just one more outsider telling teachers how to teach.

My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your hearts and minds to a new idea. If you see merit in what you read, I am asking you to help spread the word to other educators that there is an idea worthy of consideration.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. Over a nearly fifty-year career, I have worked with kids for 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and in a volunteer capacity for nearly 20 years. I have lead organizations; taught and have written a book about positive leadership; solved problems; created new and innovative solutions; reinvented production and service delivery processes; have written four book and many articles; have done testing for the military; and, while writing books, have spent ten years working as a substitute teacher in the same public school district from which my own children graduated.  Also, I have been a student of “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

The experience of participating in and observing what happens in public school classrooms as a substitute teacher, was an incredible opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. What I witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that does not meet the needs of a diverse population of students.

If you can imagine what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students in the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids will become the men and women who must lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole, from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they lack the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These education reformers, policy makers, and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve.

As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace. Many of these charter schools have failed to meet expectations in community after community.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids from every community in America. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We cannot produce the results these children and their communities need, so desperately however, until we examine the current education process through the lenses of a “systems-thinking” approach. Systems thinking allows us to challenge our assumptions about what we do and why. Only when we have taken the time to understand the flaws in the underlying logic of the existing education process will we be able to alter the way we teach our nation’s most precious assets and the way we support our teachers as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes have been and will continue to be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st Century.

I have been working to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level. I am seeking superintendents of a public-school districts willing to test my education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools.

You, our superintendents, know what the data illustrates and you know that what you have been asking your teachers to do has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way.  Most importantly, you know the number of elementary schools in your district that are languishing no matter what you do.

Yes, I understand the data produced through standardized competency exams is a totally inappropriate way to assess the performance of our teachers and schools but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The results of these standardized tests do tell us one thing of inestimable value.  They tell us that the education process does not work for millions of children no matter how hard our teachers work on behalf of their students .

We often cite poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why so many of our students fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education, we leave the most vulnerable at the mercy of discrimination.

I challenge teachers, principals, and superintendents to ask yourselves whether there is anything you have done differently, over the course of your careers, that has resulted in a significant improvement in the performance of your students, in the aggregate. Yes, you can cite examples of individual students whose lives have been altered, but what about your student body as a whole? Your underperforming elementary schools and their teachers and students are waiting for you to do something different; something that will help them be successful. How about now?

It is time to consider a novel approach in which a new education model is crafted around the important work our teachers and students must do. It is a model designed to support them as they strive to meet the unique needs of an incredibly diverse population of American children.

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time to examine the model, not seeking reasons why it will not work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment. Are your students and their beleaguered teachers worth the risk of a couple of  hours of your time, given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

At my website you will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream with this and almost 250 other articles about the challenges facing public education.

Our goal must be to arm our nation’s young people with the skills and knowledge they will need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

A Word about Teaching Teams, continued:

Nothing generates success more than success itself. When teammates begin to see positive changes in the attitudes, behavior, and academic performance of their students it is incredibly motivating. The more success the team experiences the more confident and motivated they become and the more powerful and enduring the bonds with each other will grow. While we hope teammates will learn to trust and care about one another and will also learn to inspire one another, sometimes people do not get along. As uncomfortable as such times may be, in a team setting it cannot be ignored because it has an adverse effect on everything that takes place.

In the existing education process, teachers might question the capability of a colleague in the next classroom, but their focus is on their own classrooms and their own students. In a team setting, the walls between us do not separate us, they embrace us. They are part of the environment we mold to serve our mission. The need to find resolution makes it easier to reach out to one’s principal, seeking help. Also, it is easier for the principal to respond because they are not walking into a situation where they expect to find someone doing something wrong who must be disciplined. What they find are professionals who need help in solving problems that are, often, nothing more than breakdowns in communications. Because of their shared commitment, team members will be likely respond to such intervention in a positive manner.

There are times when the principal may find a toxic environment that requires that an individual be re-assigned. While this may never be an easy action to take, it is almost always welcomed by most of the team. Often, it comes as a great relief to the person who is re-assigned. In such cases the principal is viewed as a problem-solver rather than a problem-seeker, lurking in the halls to find someone doing something wrong.

For those teachers who have had less than inspiring experiences with principals, please note that we will discuss the subject of positive leadership in a later section of this work. We will be encouraging principals to become positive leaders, not administrators, and we will be encouraging the colleges and universities that educate school administrators to teach them how to be positive leaders, not just administrators.

The team environment we wish to create changes a classroom into a laboratory where we help each child develop their potential, whatever their point of embarkation. We also want to create the same types of bonds between students as we do between teachers and students, and between members of the teaching team. The environment is designed to encourage creativity and innovation. Teaching is craft that is always under development. In the type of collegial setting we seek, teachers will work together to engage students in their own learning adventure and will also seek to engage parents.

Many parents, particularly those who have had negative experiences in school, will demonstrate apathy and even skepticism. When one’s own experience is negative it is difficult to expect better for one’s children. Once parents begin to observe changes in their children; when they see their children making progress; when they find them enthusiastic; when their children are always talking about Ms. or Mr. Teacher with fondness parents will begin to develop a curiosity about what is going on in their son or daughter’s classroom. When they observe their son or daughter enjoying success, parents will want to see it firsthand. Success and winning are contagious, even for those of us sitting on the sidelines. Eventually, parents of our students will be pulled into the process as partners with their child’s teacher; partners sharing responsibility for their child’s education.

As children begin to gain confidence in themselves; when they not only discover that they can be successful at school, but also that they can create their own success, a magical transformation commences. The classroom becomes a secure, safe, and exciting learning environment. As kids learn new things, their imaginations will take flight. Every answer to a question will generate more questions and kids will, also, begin to discover things about themselves. They will discover talents they never saw in themselves and develop skills they never envisioned.

As they begin to view themselves in a new light through the lenses of confidence, children will begin to dream. Gradually, these youngsters will begin to take a little more ownership of their own futures and accept responsibility for the directions of their lives. Most importantly, they will each be a developing a powerful self-esteem that will enable them to exert more control over the outcomes in their lives. They will have real choices about what do in life to find joy and meaning. Their powerful self-esteem will enable them to overcome most of life’s challenges. If they are black or other minorities or members of religious faiths other than Christianity, they will be able to overcome discrimination when it threatens to cut off avenues of opportunity.

The growth and the development of their students will be enormously gratifying for teachers and will bring them the potential for true fulfillment. As the end of a school year approaches, teachers will be pleased to replace saying goodbye with “see you soon.” In The Hawkins Model, teaching teams and their students will continue their important work for longer than an individual school year.

It Is Time to Mold the Classroom Around Ts & Ss! Please Help!

We cannot afford to waste another school year. Next fall will be here before we know it and we must find superintendents who are willing to test a student-teacher-parent focused education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools. And yes, there are underperforming schools in both urban and rural school districts throughout the U.S.

Many of you reading this post are educators. We follow each other on Twitter so you have heard me make this plea, often. Please join the small but growing number of educators who have been both intrigued and excited after reading the education model I have developed. The model is based on my fifty years of experience working with kids, as an organizational leader, as a leadership and organizational development consultant, and as a substitute school teacher.

It is a model designed to support the important work of our teachers and students not impede their efforts. Please help me find a superintendent willing to test my model in one of their underperforming elementary schools next fall, for the 2019/2020 school year.

I ask you to:

  • Read my education model;
  • Follow my blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream:
  • Follow me on Twitter;
  • Share your enthusiasm for my model by “Retweeting” and “liking” my Tweets and by sharing my blog posts to the people whom you know and with whom you work;
  • Reach out to other educators, beyond Twitter, and encourage them to read the model; and, finally,
  • Implore superintendents, principals, and other administrators in your network to consider testing my model in one of their underperforming elementary schools

 

If you do, we can transform public education in America and begin repairing a nation that is becoming dangerously divided. I believe this is the only way we can preserve democracy in America for future generations.

If you take the time to read my model you will see that there is a solution to the challenges facing American schools, but it requires that we abandon a century-long tradition of employing incremental changes. These challenges demand that we go back to the drawing board to create an education process engineered to produce the results we seek.

Our children, their teachers, and our nation are in desperate need of an education process that rejects the failures of the past and put our focus on helping children learn so that they can use what they learn in the real world. Passing state standardized tests is meaningless if kids cannot use what they learn next semester, next year, and beyond. The same is true with respect to high school diplomas.

Please consider this informal analysis of students in my home state of Indiana.

ISTEP+ results in Indiana have been released, recently, and the numbers are staggering. Also understand, that Indiana is not unique. What we see in Indiana is true in school districts in virtually every state in the union and it has been true for decades.

ISTEP results for nine counties in Northeast Indiana show that there are at least 40 schools in which less that forty percent of the students in two or more grades, have passed both the English Language Arts and math components of the ISTEP. These exams are given to students in grades 3 to 8 and, again, in high school.

There are an additional 45 schools in which less than thirty percent of students, in two or more grades, pass both ELA and math components of the ISTEPs.

These schools represent both urban and rural school districts and both public, private and parochial schools. And, no, charter schools are no exception.

It is understood that we shouldn’t be testing. It is understood that many teachers and schools are under tremendous pressure to teach to the test. It is understood that high-stakes testing is the worst possible way to assess the performance of teachers. It is true that some of the tests, themselves,  may be flawed. None of these things, however, justify disregarding what the results tell us.

What the results of high-stakes testing tell us is that the education process, itself, is fundamentally flawed. It sets children up for failure. Disadvantaged kids, many of whom are children of color and/or who begin school with a low level of academic preparedness, suffer irreparable damage because of the education process.

This damage occurs despite the heroic efforts of our children’s teachers. Blaming teachers is like blaming soldiers for the wars they are asked to fight.

If that were not bad enough, there is research to show that many of the students who do well on such tests do not retain what they have been drilled to reproduce—to regurgitate—for more than a few weeks or months. As a former employer, I can attest that an alarming percentage of these young people are unable to use, in a real-world work environment, what their diplomas certify that they have learned.

The State of Indiana has begun letting students use the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to help qualify for graduation when they are unable to pass their ISTEPs.

As one of many individuals who administer the ASVAB, both in schools and for young men and women seeking to enlist in the military, I can attest to the fact that more than 30 percent of the high-school graduates and high school seniors seeking to enlist, are unable to get the minimum score to qualify for enlistment. The percentage of minority students who are unable to pass the ASVAB (achieve a score of at least 31 out of a possible 99), is substantially higher, over fifty percent.

This is a national tragedy that, through the balance of this 21st Century, will have devastating consequences for American society. I would also assert, that the policies of neither Republicans nor Democrats will be successful if we do not act to replace the flawed education process employed in our nation’s schools. There are no short-term fixes and we cannot return to earlier, simpler times.

It is imperative that we act now!