Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Fireside Chat"

How do you communicate?

Do your shareholders know what your vision for the future is? Do you share your beliefs on educational hot topics? How can you be sure anyone is actually listening? Recently, I was approached by my High School Principal, Kathleen Procopio, to gauge my interest in participating in a new concept she proposed entitled "Fireside Chat with the Superintendent" with her staff. Initially, I will admit I was a little skeptical, will this be a "Fireside Chat" or a "Firing Squad" of complaints designed to criticize recent decisions. I must share this honest first thought because it demonstrates an uneasiness that is sometimes felt between administration and staff members - and staff members admittedly are skeptical about administrators. My initial insecurity came as a result of previous real experiences where a staff member could not pass up an opportunity to morph into a "sniper" so they could take shots at the administrative decisions. Thankfully those experiences were in other districts earlier in my career. Pleasantly, after 2 years at my current post in Millville, NJ, I can honestly report that I have never been treated disrespectfully by the staff. Considering the positive experiences so far in my current district I agreed to participate in the "Fireside Chats" - after asking several questions about the format and purpose of the meetings. I continued to dwell on why there is often a disconnect between administrators and staff members. We all want the same thing, right?

In Millville, our teachers work in common planning periods on their professional development targets. Currently their targets include development in the Classroom Instruction that Works instructional model from McRel. The time normally dedicated to their professional development was devoted for one full day to a question and answer session. Millville's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Dr. Pamela Moore and I began our day at the High School at 7:15am. We observed the arrival of students and staff members, enjoyed morning announcements - and the energy of the high school as it wakes up.

Our first session started around 8am and we finished our last session at 1:30pm. The professional learning lab was organized with large round tables conducive for discussion, a small round table complete with a floral table cloth and flowers in a vase, there was a looping video image of a raging fireplace presented on the whiteboard, pleasant music in the background and catered treats from our culinary arts students. It became apparent to me that this was really an exciting and unique opportunity to engage with the teaching staff members - and they went to great lengths to create a welcoming environment. Each session began with a brief introduction by each staffer - their name, their area of expertise, and their years experience. After introductions, we jumped into discussions ranging from retention to the vision for the district. Each session had a specific feel based on the dynamics of the group but in general there was humor, insight, and enthusiasm for their profession. One teacher during his introduction said it best, My name is...and I teach students (different than most who ended with the content they teach). I loved the subtlety of his point - that while all of us have a particular expertise, at the end of the day our role is to educate kids! After the sessions ended, I was left awestruck by how well my vision was received by everyone! I shared my values and beliefs while learning how these things resonated, or missed, with the staff members. I was able to add context to their work in the field which will hopefully provide them with a greater sense of purpose. Simply addressing the reasoning behind our expectations and strategic plan appeared to have great value to the staff members. It was also a great opportunity to listen to their concerns, thoughts, and vision for our district. I deeply believe we need to afford people with the chance to challenge the process along the way. If we want to achieve excellence, we need to have people challenge the status-quo. It was in this moment that I realized there was a communication gap!

Leadership depends on the leader's ability to connect with those being asked to follow. A leader who conveys a clear and convincing vision will find people doing outrageous things to support them. The converse is true, a leader who fails to do so will be met with people going out of their way to derail the process. In order to ensure you are not the later, you must find a means to communicate your vision, values, mission, and goals often. Simply saying them once at the start of the year or only in print is not enough. People crave personal contact with those entrusted to lead them.

Prior to this experience, I believed my vision was communicated clearly, that my values and expectations were clear - I now realize that I can and must do more. I will continue to express my thoughts through the many public speaking opportunities - through the written word - on our district web page, emails, letters, this Blog - with a new understanding that those methods are mostly one way communications. I plan to repeat the "Fireside Chats" in every school next year at least quarterly.  suggestion to any of the leaders out there looking to take your district or school to the next level - engage in a "Fireside Chat" or whatever you want to call it - ask your staff ahead of time, what questions or concerns about the school or district would you like to know more about - and then, sit down with them, roll up your sleeves and chat! You would be amazed by how many people will willingly follow a sound vision and plan for the future, so long as they know what that vision is and understand the plan's purpose.