Questions When School Leaders are Exploring

In my last post about persisting with questions I focussed on problems and negative things.

What about exploring questions and actions to grow school capacity and thinking about change? As a leader are you being told what you want to hear or are you getting into the real world of your school’s interactions.

As a school leader use questions and inquiry to discover what the silent ones are thinking and doing. Across the staff there will be some who never say much during public forums and debates about issues. How do you get to learn more about their thinking and action?

Maintaining an open door policy as a school leader is all very well but there are likely to be inhibitions imposed on teachers, students and parents when they try to express their opinion and views in your office. Especially if those views differ from yours.

Assuming you are a great listener would you try this? Deliberately seek out teachers on their territory at times they are likely to be able to give you a few gems of understanding. Go to their classrooms after school and have a conversation where they set the agenda – this does not need to be formalised and if you engage in this regularly their agendas will produce new and interesting views of problems and possibilities. Simply asking for them to tell you about what is on top for them may well give you insights you did not expect. Once staff get to know you are exploring when visiting their territory their confidence in speaking up about issues of importance or even express criticism of you is likely to be enhanced – you are then into the rich veins of gold called “what do we really think around here?”

Visiting others on their territory can of course be a regular and quite casual process – if you regularly move around the school both adults and students will impart useful comments. This does of course depend on you the leader providing clear evidence you want to hear all sorts of view points and the good with the bad.

How would you start this process? Why not make the first visit to the teacher who in your opinion has the worst classroom (in terms of its physical quality)? May be they have never been visited before? (I had a principal who in 11 years never visited my classroom at any time I was there!) Maybe they will be very pleased you know the conditions they work under when it is too cold or too hot etc.

Why not visit the teacher who is always reluctant to accept new plans and direction? Really listening to her/him may well open your understanding of their educational values. Have you ever listened without interruption for three minutes or longer? You may be surprised what you hear!

Why not go round the school on the first wet and cold day of the year? Students and teachers alike will be happy to tell you about their learning and being in school conditions. Puddles and cold winds perhaps sharpen the mind!

Why not welcome complaints and criticism from anyone? Listening in-depth to the concerns can often grow your working relationships and over time that can lead to educational growth outcomes. Thanking someone for complaining alters the whole way they respond – the chances are they become less steamed up about the issues and then find it easier to explain what matters to them. In my experience parental and community complaints are a rich source of possibilities – they will have thought about complaining many times before making contact with a principal and may well have told others before they tell you. Welcoming that complaint and thoughtfully responding to it will help in the long run – perhaps you will gain a parent who starts to spread good news stories around and tells you first when he/she thinks things have gone wrong.

This photo gallery from Uncommon Schools in New York State captures many of the reflections I have noted above.

Exploring questions with an accompanying listening and open mind are leaders’ greatest assets!

George Couros, Four Questions to Lay the Foundation for a Culture of Innovation, helps sharpen our minds about the power of questions and how we ask them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Questions when doubtful?

This focus point jumped at me as I read the Business Section of the New Zealand Herald on Friday 3 February;

Kate Jorgensen, Kiwi Rail CFO – “my real lesson is that you get an answer and something in your gut tells you it is not right, always follow through, always keep going until you’ve got the right answer.”
Quoted in Herald Business 3 Feb 2017 – Kate Jorgensen was commenting on a lesson she learned soon after she graduated from university. She was interviewing elderly victims of a fraudster and found many had asked the fraudster questions about doubtful looking transactions. However the fraudster never replied to the questions. The victims all gave up asking again! Until it was too late!
This brings to mind the examples of inappropriate or illegal actions by staff of New Zealand schools.
One example involved an IT technician in the early days of school IT networks, making sure he could use the school server for his own nefarious actions. He set up new locks on the room and space where the server was using the excuse that only he needed access as others could mess up the system. The principal asked about these and accepted the answer but was left uneasy.
Still questioning in his mind three of four months later the principal attended a session about school IT safeguards and was told by the police that the most important thing to do was to know what your IT experts are up to. Be suspicious of locks being changed, access to servers only being the role of the one expert and the expert “doing work on the server at all hours of the day or night”. The police also insisted on persistent questioning – all the “dumb questions you can think of”
The principal looked at his BOT Chairman who was also there and said, “We have a technician who is doing all those thing!”
They discussed things with the police and that night broke into the server room and the police forensics team had a field day uncovering use of the school system as part of an internet porn ring.
The principal had got the answer.
Every year in New Zealand a few teachers have inappropriate relationships with students. All too often these cases occur over quite long periods of time and on reflection other teachers in the school can say, “I thought that Teacher X was being unprofessional and it was not appropriate but when I mentioned my view X brushed off my concern.”
One instance involved a teacher ingratiating his way into the minds of teenage girls in his form class and consequently isolating them and touching them inappropriately.
We in the school were concerned enough to warn the Principal that things did not seem to be as they should – after an investigation the Principal said there was nothing to be concerned about. We accepted this – despite the teacher taking photos of the students in his class for a database of his making, using a darkroom with students, having special counselling sessions with female students.
Fortunately our guidance counsellor kept on questioning – until finally a student confirmed she had been touched inappropriately by the male teacher. The Guidance Counsellor’s persistent questioning and joining up of the different pieces of information led to instant dismissal and a prison sentence for the teacher.
School finances can lead to similar need for strong persistent questioning. A classic example involved the Principal using a school bank account as his own personal money source. He had an imprest (petty cash) account set up and controlled the use of this account even to the extent of ensuring it was regularly topped up. Members of his Board of Trustees asked about this account and were told “it was not their business to confirm how this money was spent.”
After several years the Principal left and the new Principal confirmed in no uncertain terms the BOT had been “taken for a ride”  – following investigations the previous principal was found to have carried out similar fraudulent actions with community groups he acted as Treasurer for.
In this instance it is really hard for community members of a BOT to keep asking the dumb questions when things seem wrong. However we should applaud each time such questions are repeated.
Kate Jorgensen will not be surprised to think of her persistent questioning being one of the most powerful tools when dealing with bullying by students or teachers. Small signs can when added together over a series of questions and answers provide the picture to uncover bullying and injustice. Yet all too often we as teachers do not want to believe bullying actions are occurring or that other teachers are being deliberately unjust in their treatment of some students.
Sometimes we think that if we have passed on our concern about something we have done our bit and the Principal or Deputy Principal will handle it from here. (All too often these concerns can get lost in the busy flow of their daily work and may not get dealt with for weeks!)
Perhaps we all need a “warning light” question list when becoming aware of situations that cause us to be uneasy;
  •  why do I instinctively feel that is not right?
  • why has that student changed in the last month or so?
  • What am I not being told?
  • Why did I get the brush off in that answer?
  • Why did the teacher not look at me as he answered?
  • What other questions could I ask to widen the scope of my checking?
  • Who else might be able to cast some light on this situation?
  • Why is only one staff member in charge or involved wirh this? (money, activity, group)
  • Who else needs to know about my concerns?
  • How can I remember to re-visit this concern shortly? (In a week or month no more.)

These are all negatives – I wonder what happens when you keep on questioning as a leader in search of “great ideas and things going on around here”?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Publish for Possibilities

Digital citizenship is loudly proclaimed across compulsory education in New Zealand but do we know what we want it to be? Do we work to ensure it opens up possibilities for our school students and leaders or do we tread with caution and doubt its value?

George Couros, a visionary school leader in Alberta, Canada, has in his The Principal of Change Blog outlined some very useful insights to youth in his country and their views and actions on the internet in Positive, Negative or Neutral? Crucial conversations on Digital Citizenship?

He discovered that students were careful in their use of the internet and showed him what their digital footprint was like. However they did not display anything about their interesting capabilities and capacity to learn. Perhaps because it was not cool to do so.

If as George suggests resumes will be replaced by your online presence then there is a message for not only students at school but also for school leaders and educators at all levels.

His message for those guiding students of school age could well be for learners of all ages;

  1. “Is your footprint positive, negative, or neutral?  What would others say that don’t know you?
  2. How do you want to be perceived offline? How about online? Is there a difference in your actions in those spaces?
  3. It is important to show who you are as a person, but to also understand that this is a an open room and to be thoughtful of others.  Have fun but not at the expense of someone else.”

I know for years I ignored the thought of having an online presence that included my thinking and learning – despite the fact I have worked online in school leadership linkage for well over a decade!

My first tentative steps in the use of WordPress were made six years ago, with Twitter and LinkedIn being minor excursions on my behalf at times over the last four years.

It is only now that I belatedly recognise that I have been a “lurker” for most of my internet time and have not added enough value to others leadership learning by including my own thoughts and spending time curating useful connections/resources/etc that I have come across.

I suppose I am now facing the challenge that communities of learning do not yield full value to their members unless there is a healthy balance between “publishing” and “lurking.”

Publishing tentative understandings can be very valuable if others connect their thinking to them and pass on their understandings – rolling through a series of interactions will no doubt help us all to arrive at new knowledge and thinking that none of us alone could manage.

Now what about teachers as leaders. As innovative learning environments appear in the reality and minds of teachers and students can we see new layers of leadership emerge as expertise is shared more readily and sharpened as teachers grow their capacity not because they know more but because they are prepared to publish more.

Principals and other school leaders could develop “innovative leadership environments” where they publish their thoughts for others to reflect upon and add to. This would of course be built into a trusting environment such as Jan Robertson outlines in her recently published book.

Reference: Roberson, J. (2016) .Coaching Leadership: building educational leadership capacity through partnership. Wellington: NZCER (E-version available at $15 from

This blog has been placed in my WordPress blog as recognition that its tentative suggestions need a bigger audience than can be found in the “walled garden” of the New Zealand National Aspiring Principals Programme (NAPP)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Curation: What is it and why is it important?

First published in NAPP My Portfolio 31 January 2016 – added to WordPress July 3, 2016

Curation sounds awkward. How does it add value to learning for us as leaders?

Steven Anderson sheds light on curation – by making it simple.

In NAPP we are encouraging network development and supportive interaction so learning is easier. Steven Anderson makes this point;

“The Internet has allowed us to retrieve as much information on any topic from pretty much any source we want. Wading through the junk can be tough. We have to rely on the collective knowledge of our friends and colleagues to help us sort the good from the bad. (Because remember, alone we are smart but together we are brilliant.)”

However I agree with Steven Anderson – retrieval and collective knowledge are only half the process.

Curation involves using “web based tools to locate, filter for value and then save for later”.

Note in Anderson’s article the emphasis he places on Evernote, Pocket and Diigo – as this article was written in 2014 things change and you may well have other online apps that provide way stations for new information and filtered resources of value.

I would add the point that we never need to be concerned about missing out on valuable knowledge – valuable knowledge will come back to the surface again provided you maintain your “dipping into the internet” at regular intervals. Your network will bring back ideas and information in all sorts of ways provided you interact with it reasonably often.

Using Twitter is a great example – I am not great at posting on Twitter but I find spending short periods of time every day or so will bring to the surface a diverse range of educational resources and ideas from the diverse range of educators on my “following” list – perhaps in 2016 I’ll get better at curating some resources and sharing them on Twitter.

One of the delights of the internet is the way it keeps on adding possibilities to our learning – curating may well be more valuable than we think initially.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Messy Situations Make Us Uneasy, But Can Improve Our Thinking

First published in NAPP My Portfolio 21 February 2016 – published in WordPress 29 June 2016

I follow Mindshift on Twitter  and enjoy the way ideas and actions are added to my learning framework as a result.

In this example Tim Harford uses a TED talk to elaborate on Messy Disruptions and how active use of them can add power to our thinking and lead to results beyond what we might expect.

Our instincts as teachers and leaders in education always craves the normal and comfortable – as a Principal I would often think of a “normal week” – by this I thought of a normal timetable with no interruptions from special events (such as sports), disruptions from upheaval (teachers illness, students behaviour, angry parents etc). It took me years to recognise that the interruptions were the normal and that our school as a “living breathing being” was simply being human.

Harford’s point about dealing with complexity by deliberately adding disruption is powerful. His example where four friends are less likely to solve complex issues/problems than three friends with an awkward stranger (or in our case a grumpy parent/teacher) really makes you stop and think about how we need to shift our thinking and not be trapped by comfort and security.

I suppose the Mindshift message is that unease and disruption push us into higher levels of thinking – have you ever been leading a meeting and as a result of “disruption” from someone else’s thinking had an “aha moment” been able to capture it and then speak about a better plan/intent than the one you began with.

I wonder what Twitter will throw up as a disruption this week?

Posted in Personal Learning Environments | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Networks and Leadership with Harold Jarche

First published in NAPP My Portfolio May 16 2016 – published in WordPress 29 June 2016

I enjoy Harold Jarche – he regularly provides insights into the way networks are developing and changing. His reflections seem to fit well with coaching and thinking in depth about leadership and change.

For quick reads and enjoyment in thinking further make use of his thinking: for example his 13 May reflection – go to PKM to Learn is to Do 

PKM refers to Personal Knowledge Mastery – “PKM is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society.” I like the point about Masters not needing management!

Seek Sense Share.JPG

In his reflections he refers to Perpetual Beta as being the way the culture of an organisation is.

“An intelligent culture has a sense of ‘perpetual beta’, encouraging curiosity and
not just a willingness to experiment but active experimentation at all levels.
Without the keystone of intelligent communication it would be difficult to adapt
to perpetual beta and a spirit of continuous experimentation. Culture is built
upon daily actions. Trust is an emergent property of an intelligent organization,
stemming from a healthy workplace culture.”

This quote is taken from his Adapting to Perpetual Beta short book – he has summarised his blogs from the last 10+ years into three volumes – go to Books in Beta to see if you want to buy them.

Interestingly I purchased the books – they are sent electronically – and forgot to add my e-mail into the instructions – Harold replied with a personal comment within 15 minutes and sent the books.

Enjoy the growth of ideas and PKM.

Harold’s point about culture always being on the move in an organisation is a great reminder. All to often in schools we refer to school culture as though it is not evolving and changing. The evolution occurring so gradually sometimes that we do not notice and at other times the changes can be disruptive.

Posted in Personal Learning Environments | Tagged , | Leave a comment

New Learning: Stephen Downes Reflections

First published in NAPP My Portfolio 9 March 2016 – published in WordPress 29 June 2016

New Learning, New society by Stephen Downes (Presentation 354, Made at Ryerson University, Toronto in Feb 2015)

During the past 8 years I have enjoyed listening to, seeing on video and reading Stephen Downes reflections about the internet and learning.

His suggestions about learning moving more and more along a path that will allow us to own our own learning and how we go about it strikes a chord of appreciation with me. In particular his point that we need to work and learn based on our own values (moral purpose) and ensure that our learning allows us to grow and appreciate our cultural heritage in autonomous ways.

His references to connectivism and the fact that the power of learning is generated by the network connections and the processes involved in interaction – it is not the giant sources of knowledge at the nodes in a network that drive new learning it is the interaction by people across the network.

His concern that all too often our strategies and plans for our schools are based on the models of the past even when we are applying new technologies – in other words the factory model controlling and directing what is learned and gathering data related to “achievement” is very powerful across all education systems.

All too rarely do we have control of our own learning destiny.

Listen to Downes for 15 minutes – he is interesting. Note you can subscribe to his regular flow of online postings – see the links on the page linked to above.

Posted in Personal Learning Environments | Tagged , | Leave a comment