I spent some really hot days in the middle of the past week in Baltimore, Charm City, home to a number of independent schools and (apparently) a whole lot of cooks specializing in crab in various forms—and in making diners very, very happy.
It was also the site of the FolioCollaborative Summer Institute, where I had the chance to work with 50 or so amazing school leaders in a series of conversations about Folio, an initiative originally out of McDonogh School that calls itself “a framework for holding conversations around teaching and learning to promote teacher growth.” Growing out of a pretty neat system built by McDonogh folk (Tim Fish and Jack Hardcastle get original credit, I think, but the enterprise has grown some) to capture information useful in the school’s evaluation process, Folio is much more about promoting authentic communication between teachers and the people who supervise and lead them.
The Summer Institute had teams and a few individuals from over 20 schools, and to say that I was pumped by the experience would be the understatement of the year.
Real conversations, it seems to me, are the essential and probably undervalued resource in all our schools that can move teaching and learning forward. How often do we approach institutional culture shifts by dealing with our faculties en masse rather than as individuals? Even when we know where challenges lie, we tend to place a kind of blind hope in the idea that momentum will push the stragglers and resisters (oftentimes well meaning people) along, devil take the hindmost—except that the hindmost still have teaching loads. How much more effective might our work be if we approached our faculties one teacher at a time? Of course, that takes time and the capacity to hold sometimes difficult conversations, so it’s easier to do other things instead.
My “guest presenting” counterpart has an answer to the conversation piece. A certified life coach and a former school head of exceptional talent, Abigail Wiebenson had us all spellbound—if a little apprehensive—at the idea that we could develop the capacity to hold those conversations—as denominated in the title of one of the Institute’s “texts,” Fierce Conversations. I’m pretty much hooked.
I’m excited by Folio and have been ever since I saw it as a standalone at McDonogh some years back. It’s elegant, it’s simple but powerful, and it speaks the language of teachers.
It’s powerful enough, in fact, to be attracting a growing number of independent schools to the nonprofit Folio Collaborative spun off by McDonogh and headed by Tim Fish. At the Institute most participants were about to embark on the use of Folio—academic administrators and at least one H.R. specialist—whose jobs it will be in 2012–13 to guide faculties through a brand-new process built around developing personal goals for professional growth and then working, under guidance, to achieve them. For many schools there is some explicit link to evaluation, which only makes sense. And then there’s one of Folio’s mantras: Every teacher, every year. No one evades the responsibility for growth. And administrators have to take on the job of making this happen.
Naturally there was quite a bit of nervousness in the room. Call it what you will, mandatory evaluation or monitored professional growth makes faculties nervous, and the potential of Folio, its power, can make it seem to new Folio administrators and their faculties rather like a Jedi light saber in the hands of farmboy Luke Skywalker. It’s a potent tool; used wisely, it can have transformative power as schools become increasingly deliberate and smart about helping all teachers grow.
So part of the Institute program was knocking back some of that nervousness, and as our conversations—deep ones about teaching, teaching standards, and the very nature of schools—proceeded, I had a kind of a revelation about the nature of new initiatives in schools and why they sometimes come a cropper.
Even when they come from committees of wise owls or enthusiastic teachers instead of springing from the fevered brain of an administrator, many of the most exciting and promising ideas that find their way to implementation in independent schools get us jazzed because it’s easy for the visionaries in the group to immediately jump to the veritable New Jerusalem that these ideas, fully implemented and matured, seem to promise. Even if we’re not quite sure exactly what the path from Now to the Golden Future will look like, we dive in, because we know that this idea will make teachers’ lives, and kids’ lives, and the whole culture of the school better.
I think most of the time we’re even right about the long-term vision and the delightful image it creates.
But here’s my revelation, and a new mantra—at least for me—that goes with it: Keep expectations proportional to expertise. In other words, don’t let your expectations for this new idea in the moment, especially for something brand-new—run ahead of your level of mastery of the idea in that same moment. Experience is a powerful teacher, even for pros, and we know how critical it is for leaders to have not just knowledge but a deep, highly contextual understanding of an idea and its “why” before they can create the conditions for that idea to take root in a school’s culture.
I think back, as I suspect many of us can, on GREAT ideas that went south on us because we asked ourselves, our managerial colleagues, and our teachers to do things about which we did not have that deep, highly contextual understanding. We asked everyone to run when we should have started out walking.
This doesn’t mean not to embrace new ideas and new ways wholeheartedly, and, when necessary, right now. It means that as academic leaders we sometimes need to know more about how to do things before we do them, and especially before we expect faculties, even the most capable and well meaning faculties, to do them, too. Nothing spells failure, and nothing leaves a worse aftertaste, than initiatives undertaken way too quickly or in bites way too big that fizzle and disappear, feeding disappointment and cynicism.
Sometimes waiting, rolling things out in steps, keeping expectations modest (which is not the same as low, if you please), offers a much better path to success than even the most enthusiastic, YES!! kind of immediate total immersion.
So, next time you have the greatest idea since sliced bread, take a deep breath before jumping in with both feet and expecting everyone else to jump right along with you. Keep expectations proportional to expertise including, most of all, your own.
Fortunately, the wisdom of Tim, Abigail, and the other Folio leaders was well up to the task of getting this message out. Keep it simple to start with, keep goals achievable and clear, and let faculties themselves develop, in time, an understanding of what Folio could mean, and become—realizing this potential all the more fully in time because they will all truly understand it. It’s a lesson any of us with a great idea should remember.