Stop Going Through the Motions: Change a Culture Together

We are all different. It is a beautiful kind of thing.  Culture is the formation of beliefs, values, goals, management style and the practices of an organization. One of the most difficult tasks as a leader is to change a culture. No matter how strong a person is by nature she or he will be opposed to change of any kind. Because change is unknown and it is uncomfortable. Many questions occupy a person’s mind.

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Am I going to keep my position? Will I have the same power? Will I stay in the same team? Is my employment secure? What is wrong with the good same old same old? Why do we need to change anything, we have been doing a great job already. Culture of the organization determines its success and sustainability. Without change, while everything is evolving around us, it is impossible for an organization to survive and to continue to be a top performer.

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You need to take it slow and gentle. If you do not want to lose people on the way that is. There are a few steps in changing a culture.

  • Observe, analyze and find the root of the problem. What is causing the issue? Staff, policies, inconsistency, lack of accountability, lack of trust, lack of transparency, lack of recognition? Surveys are a good place to start. Ask for people’s input and see what they think. If it is done anonymously you can get more reliable feedback. In addition, meet with a few staff and leaders and ask their opinion and experiences.
  • Get your team to understand why change is necessary and what happens to the organization if it is not done. There is a shift in education. The traditional way of teaching children is proved to be ineffective. Didactic teaching, teacher centered and teacher directed methods are detrimental to creativity and critical thinking skill development. If you have teachers with many years of experience but closed to improvement and new practices that are proven to increase learning, that is a change that needs to happen. Last week, there was an article on WTOP talking about a teacher who decided not to give students homework. She explained how children need to spend family time and continue to form their bonds with families. This teacher preferred students to study hard at school, spend a lot of time on teaching, learning and wanted them to rest, play and have quality family time. This is exactly what happens in Finland. Research shows that this education style increases student capacity and success.
  • Using the term Leadership as opposed to Management is also a progressive approach. People who lead the organization, school or another business, need to be on board with the culture change. Staff respects leaders who listen and take their concerns and feedback into account. They get encouraged with training opportunities and career advancement. Always look into current staff to see if you can promote within to fill a position. After all, a leader cannot do the work without her or his workforce.
  • Plan ways to increase quality of the workforce and retention. Change the staff lounge to make it calmer, prettier and more relaxing and fun to be in. Everyone deserves a break and doing so in a comfortable environment makes it even better. Promote collaboration by forming teams or groups.
  • The answer to the question “what is in it for me?” is an important one to think about. Have a positive attitude and express your appreciation as appropriate and as needed. Try to balance when so that it has a value. Ask for input as often as possible.

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Is it Real? Authentic Teacher Relationships in Education

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“Children are shrewd judges of character; they know whether a teacher is authentic, and they respond accordingly” -Laura Colker

While there are many types of relationships built with families, community and children in education, another relationship that is just as important is the relationship built amongst teachers in and outside of the classroom.

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There is a shift occurring in education. A classroom teacher is not alone anymore or should not feel alone as there is a larger connected professional community of educators and leaders in the field. Establishing a strong healthy reciprocal learning community where teachers reach out locally and globally does several things:  it supports everyone involved from novice teachers to seasoned ones. A reciprocal exchange of ideas occur and connection creates a local and global community of educators.

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Learning goes beyond the walls of a classroom. It is impossible to know everything, education is always changing and so are we. We are always in a process of becoming. If we stay the same with the same outlooks then we become like a pool of stagnant water and stagnant water collects flies and mosquitos. Think like an ocean: waves moving, not a still pond.

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A machine that moves, never gets rusty (Turkish proverb)

In Early Ed we have co-teaching teams. Relationships should be and do several things: 

  • Healthy and strong
  • Authentic
  • Continues learning
  • Open, honest and reciprocal
  • Non judgmental
  • Supportive not co-dependant

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How do we grow? How do we become authentic? By learning from each other, with each other and pushing each other to a higher level. By knowing what you stand for and why. It is almost like making the muscles that we never knew existed move and get stronger. There is no single way to do something or teach something and there is nothing more dangerous for an educator than hitting the glass ceiling or becoming complacent.
Smart people surround themselves with people who are smarter than themselves. Progressive and positive partnerships support personal and professional growth. Educators must be in a cycle of learning.

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There is no other way of growing and providing the best learning experience for the children. Education is evolving and we need to be on that train going towards the direction where there is more light and better ways to have an impact on generations to come. It is possible to do so if we are open with one another and take constructive criticism rather than making it personal. Everyone has something to offer. Everyone has something to learn. There is no teaching without learning.

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When Things Fall Apart: Resiliency and Having the Courage to Get back Up

Bruises happen. Children fall and they get back up. Life catches us off guard and no matter how cliche this may sound…life is full of surprises. This is the part where resiliency comes into play.

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The ability to endure and bounce back is vital to sustain what we have and keep moving forward. Getting a scrape or falling down hurts. Let’s face it. “When we fall we must get back up.” We must keep moving. Taking this lesson from childhood into adulthood still resonates.
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We get hurt, we get back up. All of us at some point have been hurt in insurmountable ways. It takes longer for some to get back up but the thing is getting back up is worth it. There is a whole big life that goes on out there.

I remember as a child I lied. I gave a forged note saying how great I was doing in school when in fact I was doing horrible. When my sister opened and read the note she asked “Did your teacher really write this note?” I said, “yes.” She asked again, “I’m only going to ask one more time; did she write this note?” I said “yes.” The next day I walked into our apartment and was taught my first lesson: Never lie. It wasn’t that I was not doing well it was the fact that I lied about it.

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We went to school together to talk with my teacher and she told the teacher to give me more work and put me back into my former classes. (I was performing so badly that they had placed me in remedial, unbeknownst to my sister). The teacher said, Jill just lost her mother and that could explain so much. My sister looked and said something I will remember forever “That is no excuse. Our mother would be rolling in her grave if she knew Jill was failing.” Resiliency. It’s being bruised. Its enduring. It’s having the courage to rise again. To hold and keep your form even with the scratches and scrapes during life. Even when things fall apart.

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If not all, most of us face with events that are not desirable. Being disrespected, ignored, neglected in different ways and unappreciated are all hurtful things. How about being stabbed in the back by the people we loved and trusted for so long? This is life and things are not always in our control.

It is crucial for our children to learn these lessons early in life. Not at the same depth as us adults but disappointment and sadness will happen. It is not useful to sugarcoat everything and hide the truth because it is hurtful. The important piece is that we deliver the message appropriately and still teach the lesson so they become resilient in time. They need to bounce back and give it another try.

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My son is orange belt in karate. Last weekend due to our jam packed schedule, he had to attend the class with red belts. He begged me not to go in and said he was super scared. I convinced him to give it a try and there he went…

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Master was teaching them a new move but because my son was just learning level 3 and they were learning level 6, he panicked. Every time master called a move he was doing it wrong. Tears started building up in his eyes and he started hiding his face. After observing red belts making the same mistakes and deciding he can get help he started moving faster. I sighed deeply with huge relief. I wasn’t able to go out there to comfort him or to help him. He gathered himself up and moved on. The class was over and he said to me “Mommy, I am sorry I doubted myself. It was hard at first but I can do what red belts are doing. Do you think Master David would promote me to red belt?” All I thought was my work as a mother and of course my husband’s, was paying off. He felt failure but didn’t give up. In the end, he was proud of himself and so was I. Don’t be afraid of falling, as long as you find the strength in you to get back up, all will be well.

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Changing Lives Together

Several years ago, a mom walked into my office with her twin boys who were barely a year old at the time. She looked fragile, slim with a smile on her face trying to cover a sadness that was sitting deep inside, most likely for a long time. She was in her early twenties. She said she wanted to enroll her boys to my program. There was an urgent sense of wanting to help this family that covered my mind and heart. After completing her enrollment process, I conversed with her. I asked her what she needed from the program, how could I support her and anything else that she wanted me to know. What I learned from our conversation was not unique but unsettling. A single mom who was abused by her mother’s boyfriend, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, out of high school trying to find a job and living in an apartment with roaches and surrounded by drug users. I was unsure of how to handle this young mother…what to say to her, how to say it… I admired how she felt comfortable and opened up to me, sharing that her mother reported her to the police because she was gay and using drugs. They needed to take the boys away from her. By the time she was done talking, she was in tears apologizing and I was sitting across from her trying to hold my tears in with a big knot in my throat.

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A couple of weeks later, both of the boys were having medical issues. I was supporting this mom by asking questions gently and ensuring she trusted that my goal was just to help her become strong and able for her children. She was going to the hospital every week and they were giving her the run around. I was coaching her to ask questions to the pediatrician after figuring out she did not know what to ask and she entrusted doctors as they were educated and they were “doctors” in her mind. We were spending eight hours with these boys and our observations were clear: they were not getting the care they needed!

I asked the mom to call the doctor’s office and I would put the call on speaker and I would speak. She was fine with it, in fact appreciated me taking the time to help her. I realized that all this time, a registered nurse was attending her children not an actual pediatrician. With all due respect to registered nurses, these boys needed a doctor not to mention a specialist. The RN was extremely rude on the phone trying to belittle the mom saying she did not know what she was doing with her children. She went on speaking in that “I know every thing because I am the RN” voice until I pushed back by saying I would write a letter to the hospital and I would ensure to follow up until these two children received the care they needed. When I was finished, I had the contact information on my notepad. In a few weeks, both children went through tests, one was diagnosed with autism and the other had severe gastrointestinal issues that were being addressed by specialists. The journey was not over for this family.

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Mom was extremely upset and emotional about her twin boys’ situation. I made a referral, which resulted in ABA therapy, and wrap around service that included home visits and support for mom. This was incredible. Mom stopped by my office every single morning praying for me and thanking me because I cared for her, her family, that I did not treat her differently because she had a mental illness and she was gay. As we thought things got better, we had another situation. One of the boys was working with the ABA therapist three times a week. The first one was fine but the second one they assigned him was impatient, forceful and not nurturing. I could not bear seeing this picture one more time. The second time I observed her work, I called her supervisor and shared my observations and concern. The same day mom came to my office and said that the home visitor was talking down to her and that she felt very uncomfortable. I followed up with the home visitor who was also one of the supervisors in her agency. She told me that there were roaches on the walls and that the TV was in the same room where children sleep. She added that mom needed to move out of that house if she needed her children to get better especially since one of the boys had asthma.

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The interesting part in this conversation was her tone. She was sharing these things with me with disgust. I wanted to say, “Yes genius, this family is on WIC, mom is in training to get a job and this is the apartment the housing assistance is paying for, and yes there is a long waitlist for a better place”. Well, I did not because I knew I had to keep it professional. I said thank you and asked for an in person meeting with mom and me in my office. Within that week, we met. I asked one of my colleagues who is a clinical social worker to sit in for this meeting. I wanted to make sure I was not missing anything because I was not a social worker and I had to cover all my grounds for this mom. I had to advocate! The owner of the agency, home visitor, mom, my colleague and I met. I saw exactly what mom was telling me…

  • You have roaches in your home, it is not safe for your children
  • They need to eat better food because they need better nutrition
  • You cannot let them sleep in the same room with a TV
  • You need to spend more time with them to bond
  • If you had a job …

After the last part, it was a blur to me. Mom was crying and they were still stating all the negative facts to her as if no one was aware and concerned. I ended the meeting, called the referral agency, shared our concerns and what took place. They followed up with us in person and ended their contract with that particular therapy agency. It took a little bit but it happened. This is only one family I am speaking about. Mom kept in contact with me for a while even after children transitioned to public school. I heard things are getting better for them. This is an example how we all can advocate for children and families. It may sound like social work but it is an extension and continuation of what we do: support children, educate and empower families, enable them to help their families. This is the only way we can make a difference. One family at a time.

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Like Berna, I vividly recall a set of experiences that define first who I am and who I am in the process of becoming and second the how and the why I help others. It’s never the evil people that are the most at fault in times of crises and chaos, it’s the people who never speak up and fight for what’s right.

At some point, everyone needs help. How can we teach children Blooms Taxonomy if Maslow’s needs aren’t met? It’s as simple as that. I grew up in Scranton in Townhouse projects and although our family didn’t have everything we had each other and that was more than enough for me.  Understanding this and where I come from: my roots so to speak, I get life. I get that it’s not about the money or the material things but the time, loyalty and authentic relationships. Throw in music, food and conversation and you have all you need.

When I moved to Washington, DC I walked into a small box sardine like apartment. I lived in unit 4. Koolaid stained carpet. Roaches. A defective heater that was tagged with warnings of don’t use. I cried.  Hearing gun shots my first night, coupled by pattering of sneakers on concrete I thought: what did I get myself into? The next day held my answer. I showed up to my neighborhood and found a child locked out. I let my dog Courage outside and the three of us became friends.  Everyday “Johnny” would come and ask to play with Courage. Eventually, we put up a basketball hoop to which a neighbor complained and threatened to call the police on us. The children absolutely looked forward to playing everyday. We couldn’t take that hoop down.

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My next door fiftyish year old neighbor who I learned could not read during a Home Depot run as we were trying to find water resistant liners, when hearing the name police immediately freaked out. I calmed him down and said I will call the police myself to ensure the hoop was allowed in our alley. And, it was. Then I walked over to the other neighbor’s house to talk and negotiate the hoop. My neighbor said that the hoop was going to destroy her quality of life as she was retired. I responded with “What about the children’s quality of life?” Together we created some rules of the hoop. Some were that children had to stop playing on it when the streetlights came on, absolutely no drugs and treat each other kindly.

This not only gave children something to do but created a community of support. It was by far not perfect but nowhere is. Every neighbor-hood has its problems but the question is, is what kind of neighbor do you want to be? We can all be advocates easily and it starts by being a kind and understanding neighbor.  Often, I think of how I’d like to be treated…then I act accordingly.

Yes, it is a lot of work but didn’t we all choose to do this? Belittling, criticizing, judging, isolating, pushing down and away are not the ways we will gain these individuals and show them how life can be better. It is by taking that five extra minutes to make a phone call, ten extra minutes to look someone in the eye and truly listen, speaking up for them and standing by them until we try every way and use every power we have. If we do not, who will? Never underestimate how you can change a person’s life and in return how they change yours.

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Leading from Within: From the Classroom to Leadership

Posted by Jill Telford and Berna Artis

“Courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway.” –Dr. Robert Anthony

Once a preschool teacher, I recently began my work as an assistant director.

Based on what I have experienced and researched so far I learned that it’s best to have one foot in and one foot out of the classroom. It’s like taking a pulse of the place and people as a collective. Just like with students it’s checking in and meeting them where they are, learning from them and working together. As I reflect on what will soon be almost a complete year as a school leader, I pause and take a deep breath. Two words: growing pains.  It takes a lot of hard work, working smart, collaboration and most of all courage to lead.

In my heart I always wanted to be an educator. Given the privilege to serve others is what is in my being…it is in my genetic make up, my DNA, my blood. It’s in my soul. It’s inevitable. It’s unavoidable no matter where I end up or what I do in life.

I have a vision. I still consider myself an educator and learner first and foremost. With this in mind, I enjoy keeping a pulse of our program. I look forward to saying hi and good-bye to everyone each and everyday. I look forward to seeing how others are truly doing and how they are feeling. Think: Mr. Rogers.

I believe every single person in this world deserves high quality and equity in education no matter where they are or where they’re from. I live to push everyone to realize and grow into his or her fullest potential.

There are 3 major takeaways and reminders since stepping and growing into this role:

  1. Being in Classrooms

Educators should never forget what its like to be a child/student. I take this perspective as I think about myself…I promise never to forget what its like to be a teacher. It’s similar to when I think and reflect on my experiences growing up…I never want to forget where I came from. My experiences made me the person I am today.   I work to spend time in classrooms not eyeing every little thing. I see the little things but I focus in on those little moments. The good things, the kinds of things that remind me why we are here in the first place to care, guide and challenge our children. In return to be challenged and learn from each other, families and children.

  1. Understanding, Empowering and Empathizing with Others

Taking time to understand other’s points of view. Perception is reality. Taking time to truly understand where others are coming from is important to me. It’s like two people looking and gazing at a work of art but feeling and seeing something completely different. I work and take the time to listen in order to understand why they are seeing it the way they are.

  1. Connecting, Building and Maintaining Relationships

I saved the best for last. When eating something delicious I like to save and savor the last “best” bite for last. Relationships are at the heart of our existence and being. No one wants to listen, be with or work with a person who does not genuinely care about them. Working to know everyone on a personal level is vital. I think about it like this: great teachers get to know their students and families. Knowing your people is important. Asking them how they are doing, creating outings and go to them. Work should not feel like work. You should want to be there.

Looking at leadership from several perspectives, I share some of the interesting experiences with Jill. I have taught 4th to 12th grade prior to taking my seat at the administration desk. I strongly believe that once you are an educator, you are an educator for life. A leader in a general sense must LEAD. To lead, one must possess the ability to listen and collaborate. As a leader in the field of education, you must possess other special skills such as high emotional intelligence and understanding the people you work with. I say “work with” because a good leader leads by taking part in the team.

On a daily basis, I am a very busy person. However, I enjoy taking the time to talk with my teachers, greeting children and families, squeezing in a little time to sit on the floor and play with children. This is not my main role of course but the classroom is where the action is. I remember my days being in the classroom and asking, “Who came up with this policy or regulation? Have they thought about this or that? This is unrealistic.” It seemed more “drop down” policy or rule rather than “well thought and realistic”. I have been in the trenches of teaching. I have faced many challenges and learned how to over come them and how to figure out a way to reach the goal. I am a firm believer that people like us make the best leaders. Why? Because we have been there and we have not forgotten what it was like. And we know and realize how it is now.

A leader approaches situations collectively and with a solution finder attitude. No matter what sector you work in, there are always going to be challenges, hardships, problems and negativity. A true leader gathers the team around, brainstorms together, takes everyone’s ideas and feedback into consideration and moves forward. There may be times when failure is inevitable. A leader knows what to take away from it as a learning lesson and shares it with the team trying to figure out how to avoid falling into the same situation again.

I enjoy empowering the people I work with. The stronger they get, the stronger I become. It is a cycle and a positive one. We grow together. I find coaching the most effective and enjoyable way to raise the bar for everyone. Seeing someone achieve makes me happy and gives me the biggest satisfaction. Just because I am no longer in the classroom does not mean I cannot influence what happens in the classroom. Better yet, now I can do it for more than one classroom at a time. I can establish a culture of doers, go-getters, problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators.

The most effective leaders are effective because they respect the mission, vision and the employees of their organization. They set the tone, establish a shared goal and produce a plan involving everyone. They are the role models. They get up regardless of how many times they fall. They are persistent, strong and have confidence not only in themselves but also in their teams. True leaders are inspirers and cultivators.  True leaders have courage.

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