Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finding Balance

Well it's over. Year one as a principal of Catholic high school has come and gone. I was asked the other day at a graduation party, "what was the hardest part of year number one?" I answered, "finding balance." What is it and how do we find it? We have obligations to our students, staff, and of course family. I see the biggest challenge looming ahead as not building new facilities, working with the staff, or raising test scores but rather finding the right balance to work and family that I don't turn crazy?

I'm hoping that many of you who read this have some answers or advice on this topic. The main point of the blog is to share ideas and strategies with one another. I'll share three examples from this past year that push me to the question of boundaries and balance.

I've inherited my position from a hard working single lady who made it a habit to attend as many events as possible. I can't in justice to my family attend as many events as she did. I knew going into the school year that this would more than likely become an issue sooner or later. As a high school administrator there are many people to share this burden with: athletic directors, deans, assistant principal etc. We do a fairly nice job of splitting up the main games and covering all the big rivalries but alas there really is something every night. I tried to make it a goal of seeing every sports team play at least once.

As I attended a certain girls athletic event late in the year a mother came up to see me and commented sarcastically how nice it was to see me at the game. She then went into the little bit that I should really be at more of their games blah, blah, blah. It had been one of those perfect days of unannounced visitors and little fires to put out so I was not feeling very charitable. I responded in an equally sarcastic tone stating, "You are absolutely right. I need to be here more to see your daughter play. Because you know that at the end of my life, as I lay dying my one regret will probably be that i've spent most of these past few evenings with my own children and not watching your daughter play sports." The crowd around us started to chuckle uncontrollably and as predicted the mother stomped angrily away. Another one to put high on the ask list for our new facilities. I should have been more charitable but I couldn't help myself. The setup was just too good.

The second situation had to do with phone calls to my house over the weekend from a parent who apparently needed to speak with a teacher. I had spoken with the family earlier in the week and explained that their child should really take it up with the teacher and learn how to advocate for himself instead of coming strait to the principal. The parents agreed. Apparently they agreed so much that they had to call me at home to ask for a teacher's cell number so their child could call the teacher. I explained kindly that the teacher would probably be more than happy to speak with their child before or after school during the normal work week and is busy during the weekend with their family. They just didn't get it. I now have caller ID.

The third incident deals with vacation. I think I have a pretty generous package of twenty days in addition to the regular breaks that can be taken throughout the year. I ended up taking two days out of the twenty. I'm feeling this could have been a big mistake but it never seemed right to just up and leave when there was work to be done. I'm not a micro manager and the subordinate administrators seem to find no problem taking all of their vacation time. Am I a chump or is this normal for the principal to end up left manning the fort while everyone else is away to play?

I know that many of you have been at this for a much longer time than I have and any advice or help you can give on finding the right balance would be truly helpful. If you feel like sharing some of your own boundary issues by all means please do. I think we all get a little chuckle from them and then instantly think of people in our own schools who fit that bill.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Changing Behavior

As school leaders much of what we are asked to do involves changing human behavior. We are asked to push teachers and staff to embrace best practice. We are asked to find ways to increase student learning and achievement. Essentially we are judged by how effective we are at producing change in the schools we lead. How effective are we at moving some of the stubborn asses we work with towards new behavior?

How then do we go about changing human behavior? A great new book that is climbing its way up the New York Time's bestseller list is titled "Influencer". What is so compelling about this book is its research driven look at numerous instances of how having the courage to address core behaviors and beliefs can lead to substantial change. As most of us begin our summers free of some of the distractions the normal hustle and bustle of school provides we begin planning. We start to ask how can we make the next school year even better? Most of these plans involve changing behavior of staff, students, or parents to be successful.

"Influencer" breaks the elements that change behavior into three groups: personal, social, and structural. The authors relate these points to two demonstrated accomplishments where the ability to change behavior has had profound impacts. The first is the little heard of campaign to eliminate the "Guinea" worm in tropical villages in Africa. The success of this campaign is so profound that this disease is almost entirely eradicated from Africa. No magic pill or forced immunization campaign brought about this change but only an effort to change human behavior. Another powerful example in the book is that of Dr. Silbert and the Delancey Foundation in San Francisco. This organization for years has been rehabilitated those souls lost to chronic crime, violence, and substance abuse into productive, happy, contributing members of society. How do they do it? They change human behavior by addressing three levels of motivation: personal, social, and structural.

The first part deals with personal motivation. Before the change can take place in action it must take place in thought. Thinking must change. One great way to change thinking is by the use of the vicarious story. Reaching the core of flawed or contrary thinking rests with allowing others to see through story why the thinking must change. This provides the internal motivation at the personal level. After this comes the demonstration of why the change is needed and beneficial. In Africa the Guinea worm survived because of poor practices using unfiltered water. Tribal and community leaders were recruited to visit a test village where inhabitants were taught to filter the water using cotton screens. They returned to tell the story of how tribes and villages have defeated the guinea worm. These simply pieces of fabric filtered out the guinea worm larvae from the water. Once ingested these larvae grow to be full size worms which puncture the skin as they leave. Exiting takes weeks to months and is excruciatingly painful.

The second step in changing behavior involves social pressure. Using peer pressure in a good way can help aid with compliance. Leveraging peer opinion and pressure can be a great motivator for change. We all seek the approval of our peer group for our behaviors. Enabling peers to influence one another in a positive way can lead to change. In the Delancey organization living arrangements and rituals are deliberately organized to confront one another on behaviors that are damaging to themselves and as a whole.

The third rests with changing structures. Changing structures deals with how behaviors are recognized and rewarded to increase the desired behavioral change. Careful consideration must be put into place before incentive programs are introduced. The authors recount numerous stories where incentive plans have gone horribly wrong. They also document some situations where incentives worked very well. The authors reference studies at hospitals where the main culprits in spreading germs by not washing hands adequately was actually physicians. A simple incentive plan of starbucks gift cards for those caught properly washing their hands worked wonders for compliance and significantly reduced the number of deaths and illnesses caused by poor hygiene on the part of physicians.

It is interesting to think what applying these strategies to some of our chronic poor-behavior problems might do. What would it look like to apply these three principles to a desired change around student absenteeism or the nuisance of dress code violations?

Let's give it a collective try. A reader of the blog from South Carolina is interested in what school's do to address the issue of students arriving late to school. Let's see what we do and see if the level of effectiveness of individual school programs correlates in anyway to these three principles mentioned above. Please take the time to fill out the survey below.