Thursday, July 31, 2014

Strategic Thinking and—School Therapy?

Over the past few years I have found myself moving in circles that involve school advancement as much as the teaching-and-learning side of the house. Here I have been made privy to both the anxieties of independent school leaders on matters like enrollment and fiscal sustainability and the solutions—or at least the paths toward solution—that schools in our time are embracing. On the one hand there’s the matter of branding, recruitment, financial aid, and enrollment management, while on the other there’s the bigger question of strategy and of setting of priorities beyond the moment. 

Tiffany Hendryx, a friend and a professional brand-and-marketing guru with whom I occasionally partner on various projects, has noted that much of her work in these areas these days is taking on the character of what used to be called “strategic planning.” My complementary observation has been that a thoroughgoing school self-analysis and marketing study makes many of the same demands on a school as the traditional self-study and committee visits that are part of school accreditation. 

Alas, the legacies of both “strategic planning” and “the accreditation process” frequently have much in common: both are big-deal productions with lots of players, lots of effort and disruption, and lots of lofty language and good intentions that all too often result in reports that live out their days in dusty binders or thick, yellowing file folders, unconsulted and unremembered as the urgencies of each successive moment determine the actual course of the school. All the hard work and high hopes are soon forgotten, or remembered just enough to breed ruefulness or (much worse) cynicism. 

The observation that Tiffany and I have shared is that a full-on, serious, intelligently and thoroughly undertaken marketing or branding effort—call it what you will—grabs a school’s attention and generates real action far beyond a “strategic plan” or accreditation. I suspect that this is because the marketing effort has a significant and easily identifiable price tag, beyond the consultant fee of a traditional strategic plan or the incidental dollar costs and uncalculated human costs of accreditation. A board allocating several (or more than several) tuition-equivalents toward helping the school find itself and its external market is likely to pay more attention in the long term to the recommendations of that effort than to a complicated report written in consultant-ese or education-ese “for internal use only.” 

The more sophisticated the people in the “marketing” world become, the more they understand and can speak the language of schools and education to those for whom this is a first language, just as they can speak the language of advancement and “business” to those within schools whose concerns are either external or operational. The best “marketers”—and I keep using quotation marks because this term seems both inadequate and too freighted to express what I really mean—have enough knowledge of trends in educational best practice to assess what their clients are doing and might be doing, or doing better, in their classrooms. This all goes to the simple mantra of know who you are—say who you are—be who you are, the fundamental goal of any school, to deliver the experience it promises. The very best of these programs offers schools a manifold path toward this goal, which ought to be the holy grail for every school. 

Tiffany and I have occasionally joked that this work needs a new and better name, beyond even strategic marketing or even strategic thinking. “School therapy” comes to mind but is probably a dog that won’t hunt because of its negative or “deficit” connotations. But the idea is to help a school understand itself more deeply and then adjust both its internal behaviors—programs and policies—and its external presentation—the so-called advancement functions—to become the whole and integrated institution that it purports and believes itself to be, acting on those propositions and beliefs consistently and to the very best of its ability. If those aren’t the goals of therapy, I don’t know what are. 

New models of strategic thinking are taking form, some fast-track and short-horizon and others, like the “zero-based” methodology developed by our friend Grant Lichtman, making rigorous demands on school personnel to examine their own practice and purposes in the most fundamental ways. All of this is to the good, toward the improvement of the independent school breed if you will, and it can only help schools find ways to serve students in better ways.

Based on my own experience and my contemplation of what could yet be, I am a fan of the idea of bringing a school’s external face and internal life together, to create an iron-bound relationship between what a school says and what it does that is both harmonious and honest. As families look for schools that can match their dreams for what their children might become, it’s going to be more critical with each passing week that schools know how to communicate what they offer and offer what they communicate. If it takes a little therapy to help a school to achieve this, it’s time and treasure well spent. 

As a kind of epilogue I’d offer one more thought: That the school that is truly doing what it says it does is going to be a happy place. The ruefulness or cynicism fed by the knowledge that a school’s rhetoric has hollow spots or that its programs aren’t all they could be evaporates when words and deeds are brought into authentic alignment. Happy, confident teachers and administrators make for happier students and families, and we all know what that means to a school’s true “brand” and its future.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Letter to New Teachers

Note: This post originally appeared here in July of 2011. It has proved to be both popular and durable, and as the 2014-15 school year approaches, it seems appropriate to re-post it—PG

In a very few weeks school will be starting, and you will be starting a wonderful new career.

You are probably excited, and probably scared. A dozen large questions loom in your consciousness, trading places with one another in the Anxiety Gavotte that troubles the dreams (and waking thoughts, too) even of experienced teachers: Will I know my subject matter? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my new colleagues? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too? Will my school be a good fit for me?

You’re entering the profession at an exciting time, as I’m sure you have been told. Technology really is changing everything, and even the methods used by your very best teachers, perhaps just five or six years go, are undergoing some major changes. Thought leaders in our world call these changes “disruptive,” and many of them are just that. It’s likely that your school, although they may not have said this in so many words, will be looking to you, who are probably younger and casually adept at thinking about things through a Web 2.0-kind of lens, to quietly set an example for your more senior colleagues.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Paying It Forward: Further Thoughts on Why We (or at least some of us may) Teach

In my last post I suggested that a powerful motivation for some teachers seems to have been a desire to “correct” the teaching that they themselves experienced. I probably implied, without meaning to, that this is a sole impetus for those “restitutional” teachers, as if they were only driven by a desire to fix the teaching thing, at least for their own students.  

I realize that this isn’t quite fair, and, like most human endeavor, the motivations for most of us are complicated and manifold. 

As much, for example, as I have been pleased to work for many years in an environment that seems to offer an antidote to some of my own experiences, I am also aware of and grateful to the many fine teachers that I had and whose efforts, and occasionally whose style, I have hoped to emulate, in some way to continue or carry forward the gift that they gave me. If restitution is a powerful motivator, so is what might be called paying it forward. There are moments when I realize that my career has been a poor tribute to many of those who taught me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Restitutional Teaching: Another Thought On Why We (or at least some of us may) Teach

I have had some wonderful teachers in my life—a solid bunch in my public elementary school and another group in my independent junior high–high school. They shaped and influenced my life in ways I wish I could still tell them about; I’ve managed to get to the survivors, but all of this was long ago.

But I've had some serious clinkers, too: a trio of junior high and high school math teachers who killed off what had been a real enthusiasm, and too many senior teachers and a headmaster in high school who contrived to create an overall ethos so redolent of “guilty until proven innocent” that even my goody-goody self was often uncomfortable and unhappy. I confess I’ve also come to resent that my all-boys independent secondary school offered essentially nothing by way of instruction in the arts, presumably because such pursuits were neither suitably manly nor “rigorously academic” in the way the Old Guard there defined the term. I had loved my regular and well taught art and music classes in elementary school and had been encouraged by the teachers to further pursue both.

Which brings me to an observation I’ve been making for years but never fully explored: that there is something that I call “restitutional teaching,” the idea that for some of us a portion of our motivation is to see to it that what was done unto us or our friends as children: the squashing of spirit and passion, the dehydration of subject matter until it was truly arid and meaningless, the petty and often unintentional unfairnesses and humiliations that can scar kids for a lifetime.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Failure Studies

We’ve been reading quite a lot about failure lately, and clichés and nostrums aimed at getting teachers to embrace failure and to encourage students to do the same trip up and down my Twitter stream at the same rate similar exhortations to embrace “excellence” might have done twenty years ago, before a couple of stock market crashes (one just for dot-coms, one for everyone) and a brace of nasty, ceaseless wars. At least we’re trying to be realistic.

Failure is pretty wonderful, we’re told, and it is axiomatically the ancestor of all success. It’s certainly true that folks who don’t experience failure, either because they’re intentionally insulated from it by well-meaning but misguided responsible parties (parents and teachers and that sort) or because they are fortunate enough to get most things right most of the time, are in for a hard time of it when their ship inevitably grazes a rock or collides full-on with an iceberg. It is a truism that trial-and-error, the technique by which even the most intentional of us often wind up using to get from Point A to Point B, is very much about making and then correcting errors. It’s an iterative process; so, pretty much, is everything. Welcome to the world. 

Once upon a time I knew and loved a man who had devoted his life, quite unintentionally at first but ultimately with full awareness of his predicament, to failure. I’ll not name him, but he was my father-in-law, a PhD neuropsychopharmacologist who had pursued his science after a stint as a medic in Patton’s army, where he liberated, if that is the word, several death camps; he had come to the conclusion that the world was a pretty crazy place and needed all the help, scientific and otherwise, it could get. We’ll call him Doc, which is how his neighbors, students, and colleagues referred to him.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Father’s School—for Me

For a long time after my father died two and a half years ago, I would occasionally have dreams in which he was present in the world of the dream but not present in my direct experience in the dream. He was there, but not right there. I imagine this is a not-uncommon experience.

More recently, however, he has made appearances, although there hasn’t been much communication that I recall between dream-Pop and dream-me. But one of these dreams awakened me to something I’ve been thinking about, which is, Things my father made sure I knew when I was a kid.

For example, my father wasn’t always entirely impressed by my teachers, and on occasion he would do the intellectual equivalent of strapping explosives to me before sending me off for some interaction with one of them. Once it was to teach me the term “aeger,” which in British university usage is a medical excuse from something. (How did he know this? Beats me. It’s the kind of thing he liked knowing.) I handed some poor teacher a note requesting an aeger from athletics, prompting a request for an explanation. When I gave the explanation, the teacher was certain I was being disrespectful and flippant, which perhaps to an extent I was, and before the episode had ended I was required to write a note of apology to the teacher.