The Three Biggest Time Killers We Do Little to Avoid

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Teachers overwhelming cite time (76% of those surveyed) as the thing they wish they had more of each day (Primary Sources). Teachers want additional time to assess student work, plan lessons, and meet with colleagues. On the flipside, staff meetings, professional development, and logistical tasks are listed as inefficient uses of time.

And, while I agree these responsibilities could be streamlined, I also believe there are additional contributors, which collectively kill as much or more time than staff meetings or paperwork, are under our (teachers) direct control, and yet little is done to address or change these practices. What I am referring to are our conversations: in the hallway, in the lounge, in meetings.

Conversations and Better Conversations
Last week marked the end of a year-long, intensive instructional coaching workshop led by Jim Knight which I attended (you can read my previous reflections here or here).

While the workshop focused on instructional coaching, much of the content applies to life in general; my learning from the workshop has positively impacted both my professional and personal life.

Case in point, the lessons I learned on how to communicate more effectively with others. In Knight’s session on better conversations (based off the book by the same name) Knight outlines the steps we should take to improve as conversation partners. These criteria ultimately lead to increased productivity and camaraderie. Knight includes an entire chapter on the importance of finding common ground with those whom we converse.

Knight suggests using the acronym ICARE (interests, convictions, activities, roles, experiences) to help us identify safe categories we can explore with our conversation partners to find similarities.

What if we find common ground, but the bonds are destructive?
Since the workshop on Better Conversations, I have keenly observed others engaged in conversation to see how they find common ground with their colleagues.

I have seen many positive examples of people connecting through ICARE conversations about favorite sports teams, graduate school classes, and weekend plans.

Conversely, I have also seen people finding common ground in non-ICARE ways (including me). Whether conversation partners are aware of this or not, many people find common ground rooted in judgment, gossip, or negativity. These likenesses certainly do not garner positive outcomes, and frankly, they are an unwise use of our most coveted commodity- time.

Judgment
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of structure at home.”

“I know. Johnny came to school without his homework log signed for the third week in a row.”

Judgment is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. People often engage in this type of talk and feel as if they have found solid common ground. After all, this is a discussion between two people who share a common belief (it is important for students to comply with teacher orders) which appears to be rooted in the best interest of children.

However, there is an underlying judgment of the students’ parents here (they aren’t doing what they need to do). Additionally, there is a judgment of the student (he should still comply even though he may not have the same opportunities to do so). And, frankly, this type of conversation is not productive. Yet, week after week, year after year, some teachers will continue to engage in conversations which are founded in judgment without consideration of what can be done to alleviate the problem.

Gossip
“Did you hear that teacher is being reassigned?”

“Yes, I heard that. But, I am not surprised. She really struggled this year, and I heard there were a lot of parent complaints about her.”

As Jane Austen once said, “Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”  These “spies” are quick to share their observations in an effort to preserve their own status. Gossip does not help the subject (what could have been done to help this struggling teacher earlier in the year) and gossiping immediately extinguishes trust. If you gossip about one person, everyone knows there is a chance you will one day gossip about them, too. Without trust, productivity is compromised, and again time is wasted.

Negativity
“Students have no accountability anymore. They are in for a rude awakening in the real world when there are no retakes.”

“I know. Every year we keep lowering our standards for students.”

Negativity may be the most pervasive conversation killer and it is also highly contagious. Negativity places blame and focus on problems rather than promoting ownership and a focus on solutions.  Simply, negativity brings everyone down, including our students.

In the end
Judgment, gossip, and negativity are a part of life. From time to time we all engage in conversations which allow us to vent. And, this is ok. The key is, recognizing when these practices are habitual and destructive. At this point, a change must occur. And, that change starts with us.

Few people volunteer to step up and redirect toxic conversations. Many of us try to avoid conflict and fear repercussions. Plus, it can be uncomfortable to be the voice of dissent, even though the dissenting voice is positive.

Yet, my question is, how do you feel when you mitigate your feelings and allow toxic conversations to continue? For me, I wind up feeling safe in the moment, but terrible after the fact. To find a happy medium, I employ the three suggestions below to safely redirect judgment, gossip, and negativity.

  • Be Proactive: Bring up your concerns, but make them about yourself (even if it is really about someone else). “I was wondering if you could help me. I noticed that I pass judgment on the families and students who don’t complete homework and I don’t like this feeling. I can imagine you feel the same way. How can we work together to better address our students’ needs?”
  • Excuse yourself: When gossip rears its ugly head; our tendencies are to either join in or to listen, but not participate. However, silence can indicate consent and give gossipers an unspoken thumbs up. To stop gossip, we need to remove outlets. Therefore, create a mental bank of excuses which you can use to remove yourself from gossipy conversations, “Oh, I left something in the teacher workroom…Sorry to cut you off, I need to use the washroom before my students get back from specials….I am about to go meet with so-so, can we talk later?”
  • Kindly state an alternate point of view: I recognize this can be hard to do. As stated, negativity is contagious. If someone sneezed, you would offer them a kleenex or move away from them to protect yourself. We need to treat negativity the same way.  Acknowledge your colleague’s point of view and kindly share another perspective, “I understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating when students take longer to learn, and we need to reteach. But, since our job is to ensure all students succeed, what is the alternative? If all else fails, go back to suggestion number two and excuse yourself.

How else do you seek to find common ground with your colleagues? What successful strategies have you used and what other obstacles have you encountered and how have you worked to overcome these barriers?
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Teachers: Do We Appreciate One Another?

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Recently, my school district completed our second annual, year-long professional development program we call “mini-con.” Our theme this year was assessment, and I facilitated a course which was attended by 26 enthusiastic and dedicated professionals.

Over the year, our group spent time discussing and studying a variety of facets related to assessment. Teachers then applied their learning (individually or in teams) to create an assessment for their students. These assessments had a number of desired criteria. In short, we aimed to create assessments that:

  • authentically assessed a prioritized standard
  • had clearly defined learning intentions and success criteria which were mutually understood by the students and teacher
  • promoted student ownership

Needless to say, we were not talking about creating multiple choice tests. This was hard work.

At our last session, learning was facilitated by the participants themselves. Teachers shared a bit about their experience creating and using their new assessments. The goal was not for teachers to showcase their “best” work. Rather, this was an opportunity for teachers to ask their colleagues for feedback and answer each other’s questions.

The mini-con session was 90 minutes, and I spent the entire time sitting back and basking in the glory of what the teachers shared. There were a variety of highlights, namely the risks teachers took as they tried new ways of assessing students, how teachers collaborated with each other to analyze student work,  and how technology was integrated to formatively assess students in relevant ways. Teachers were transparent about their processes, emphasizing both celebrations and struggles.

I felt very proud of this tenacious group, and I was extraordinarily appreciative of their effort and strong will to grow as professionals.

On my ride home from work that day, I thought to myself, “How perfect that teacher appreciation week is soon. I can show these teachers how grateful I am for them.”  But, my train of thought was interrupted as I had an epiphany of sorts centered around these questions:

  1. How had I shown appreciation for teachers throughout the year?
  2. Do other teachers show appreciation for their colleagues regularly?
  3. Are our methods of showing appreciation for one another effective?

When it comes to appreciation, do we all speak the same language?
Several years ago, I read The 5 Languages of Love by Gary Chapman, and while this book primarily speaks to personal relationships, I have found the basic premise to hold true for a variety of interpersonal circumstances.

Basically, Chapman asserts there are five ways humans show affection for each other:

  • By giving gifts
  • By sharing words of affirmation
  • By spending quality time
  • Through acts of service
  • Through physical connection

Chapman goes on to explain that people have a primary and secondary love language which they use to express affection. These languages are also their preferred ways to receive affection.

Chapman cautions that just like with all languages, if two people speak different languages they may not understand each other. For example, if an individual feels affection through words of affirmation and someone gives them a gift to show their love, the recipient may not feel loved just by the receiving the gift alone.

Therefore, if we want to make sure our feelings for each other are properly communicated, we need to speak the same language. I can give a gift if that is my love language, but if the recipient of my gift speaks the language of words of affirmation, I need to also include a thoughtful note or explanation. Chapman suggests watching how others show affection toward others to figure out how they prefer to receive love.

OK, but how do love languages relate to teacher appreciation?
Results of a new study, Teacher Job Satisfaction and Student Achievement: The Roles of Teacher Professional Community and Teacher Collaboration in Schools published in The American Journal of Education conclude that a positive school culture and teacher collaboration are essential for student achievement. Additionally, a recent article in Forbes Magazine cites evidence from multiple studies all which indicate employees who feel appreciated are more productive and have more positive feelings about their work/workplace than those who feel unappreciated.

And, it is here where teacher appreciation and the 5 Languages of Love intersect. As stated, studies show employees who feel appreciated have stronger performance than those who do not feel appreciated.

When surveyed, teachers consistently report feeling underappreciated (OECD).  This leaves me wondering something: how many attempts at showing appreciation go unfelt because the wrong “love” language was unknowingly used to express gratitude?

Probably many. But, there is more to this than just using the right language.
Teachers most frequently say they feel unappreciated by society and administration.  And, it is easy to look outward at factors we cannot control, we can’t make society appreciate us. But, when we look inward, we must ask, what part do we, teachers, play in creating a culture of appreciation?

Sometimes we get so caught up in how busy we are and how physically and mentally demanding teaching is that we forget to show appreciation for others who do the same strenuous job.

Then, we have weeks like this one (Teacher Appreciation Week) where teachers across the country are showered with sweet treats in the teacher’s lounge, and are given tokens of appreciation from students, parents, and administrators. But, how many of us take the time to show genuine appreciation for each other on a regular basis?

When we consider ways to improve school culture and create positive, collaborative environments which ultimately benefit students, we often look to our district’s administration or the government to foster conducive conditions. Yet, we overlook the vital role we (teachers) play, individually and collectively, in contributing to a positive school climate.

So, in the spirit of teacher appreciation week and along the lines of the 5 Languages of Love, this week, take a step back and observe your colleagues. How are they expressing their gratitude toward others? Are they sharing words of affirmation, giving gifts, offering service?  Once you determine your co-worker’s language of love, consider these 5 ways to show appreciation for your teaching colleague(s) every day of the year:

  • By giving gifts- surprise your colleague with breakfast.
  • By sharing words of affirmation- Acknowledge what you appreciate about your colleague and share the specifics in an email, note, or in person. “I appreciate how you always keep our team student focused…”
  • By spending quality time: Look at your PLC meetings as quality time. During a meeting, share an example of something you have successfully implemented with your students which you learned from one of your PLC members.
  • Through acts of service: cover your colleague’s extra duty or make copies for them, because you value them, not because they asked.
  • Through physical connection- smile at your colleagues when you see them, everyday.

How else will you show appreciation for your colleagues? Share your ideas and more importantly, share the results. How has showing appreciation for each other impacted your school’s culture?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.