Superpowers for School Leaders: Control Z

Recently I found myself in a far more corporate setting* than I am used to.  It was the kind of meeting where the Powerpoint diagrams looked like cubist paintings and the jargon flew around the room like sloppy joe’s in a middle school food fight.  I was having a hard time following the conversation so I started tuning into the dialect.  All sorts of computer functions have  reverse engineered themselves into the language.

       The Dialogue                                                       The Translation

“Can we double-click on that?” “Can we go deeper on that topic and learn more?”
Bookmark that” “Come back to that later.”
Can we go offline and download that conversation?” “Dummy, you shouldn’t have skipped the last meeting.  I’ll tell you which email to read later.”

My middle school mind started to wander into the realm of super powers.  What computer function do I wish I could employ in my real life?   What computer function would serve me best as a school leader? While I’d love the ability to search quickly (keyword: “8th grade English teacher” or “bathroom vandal”) or highlight key information (imagine certain kids or teachers walking around with yellow outlines around their bodies) I would probably make the best use of Control Z.

The opportunity to take back certain decisions as if they had never occurred would be wicked cool and constantly useful since the mistakes I made as a school founder and leader could fill several shelves (not to mention the additional book cases for errors as a husband and father).

One of the stickiest books I have read in the last few years is Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz which urges us to become connoisseurs of failures.  Schultz calls herself a “wrongologist” and in that vein I have been thinking about categories and patterns in the school leadership mistakes I made.

The mistake mistakes are the easiest to identify and thus the easiest to control Z.    For instance:

Starting a new school with a French elective and no reading remediation was lame-brained.

Hiring could be a whole chapter here but I learned a lot from bad hiring (often by teaching in someone’s place).   However the mistakes I most wish to control Z are the firings I avoided.  I repeated these mistake out of failure of courage rather than knowledge.

The rabbits in Australia* mistakes are ideas whose positive or short term consequences are out-weighed by their unintended negative consequences.

Lots of  rabbit in Australia mistakes arise from the founder or founding staff assuming the modeling is enough.  In my case I tended to half model important practices and then feel shocked that they weren’t being executed the way I imagined.  I would often model tough discipline in settings where staff, especially new staff, could observe.  I neglected to pull them into the follow-up conversation where the student and I make sure the relationship was mended or the call home where I listened to the parent more than talked in order to know they felt the consequence was fair.  The tough discipline spread like the proverbial rabbits only without the follow through that made it meaningful. 

All students raising their hands all the time is a rabbit in Australia  mistake.  Enthusiasm was a school value.  We believed that demanding all hands in the air made it safe for even the shyest or coolest kid to raise their hand.  The whoosh as a cafeteria full of kids shot their hands in the air made everyone feel like we were a rocket taking off.  However as this piece of our culture spread as the school and kids grew we saw that the unintended consequences were many:

  • Kids were so focused on raising their hand that they skipped the step of thinking about their question or answer.
  • Teachers spent lots of time encouraging, cajoling, begging, and threatening kids to raise their hands.  As a result precious time slipped away where the teacher could have made the lesson more engaging or used a broader repertoire of moves to develop participation.
  • Dave Levin adds one more: the sound of crickets can be a powerful check for understanding.  If no one is raising their hand the teacher knows something is wrong with the lesson.  Raising hands became a compliance issue rather than an opportunity to see what kids were thinking.

Someone might read this and feel validated about minimal class participation.  No fricking way.  All kids should raise their hand at some point in the lesson.   Certain points in a lesson should always pull the kids forward in their seats and demand every student respond to the stellar question or ask one of their own.

The next post will dig into QWERTY mistakes.  I’d love to hear other suggestions or thoughts about school leadership mistakes.

* In full disclosure:  The meeting above is an amalgamation of several recent experiences and the Control Z idea is totally stolen from a series of conversations with Dave Levin.

**The reference to rabbits in Australia The rabbits were introduced as pets by colonists.  They soon overran the continent.  According to Wikipedia (I learned my research habits from my eighth graders) “they are suspected of being the most significant known cause of species loss in Australia.”

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One Response to “Superpowers for School Leaders: Control Z”

  1. Hawke Says:

    Great post, Caleb…a few more mistakes come to mind:

    1. Font selection errors: Don’t use Brush Script when Arial will do.
    2. Font size too large: You want to make decisions that are better left to others. You scream your vision at everybody.
    3. Font size too small: You diminish your impact by whispering your vision too quietly.

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