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Five habits of the heart: the work of Parker Palmer

July 23, 2016

I attended an Academy for Leaders retreat in WI this past week, sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal.  We had the pleasure of spending a day with Parker Palmer (Parker), the author of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.  There are many glowing reviews of Parker’s book, so I won’t venture into that space.  However, I would like to share some important learnings from our time with him at the retreat.  Parker spent his day with us reflecting on his Five Habits of the Heart through the lens of personal stories.  I want to share and elaborate on some of the insights from his stories.

Learning from Parker is one of those experiences where you have to be in his presence.  So my descriptions will not do justice to his wisdom.  You can learn more by watching short video interviews with Parker on each habit of the heart (click here).  This would be a recommended way to learn because Parker has such a clear and compelling way to share his ideas and thoughts.

His five habits of the heart are:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

You can find a description of each habit of the heart in his book on page 45.

With regard to the first habit of the heart, Parker talked about the importance of being connected and knowing that through our togetherness we can accomplish great things, but that each person has to forge a unique path that fits a “life worth living.”  He posed this question to us: “what is it you can’t not do?”  The thing “we can’t not do” represents a window into our calling.  He suggested to us that while the journey to fulfill one’s calling might feel like swimming upstream at times, be protective of it.

His second habit of the heart was expressed through these words: “In learning to value otherness, we are learning to value the strength of diversity.”  He shared personal and interesting stories that illustrated for us what otherness meant to him.  He also suggested that we might be unable to connect to and understand otherness unless we could see ourselves as “other.”  If we see ourselves as the norm and everyone else as “other,” then it’s likely we will stand apart from them, seeing ourselves as superior.

I must first understand my own otherness. (Parker Palmer)

One way I thought about the second habit of the heart was through the lens of my “whiteness,” which could be perceived as a threat to an African-American person.  Unless I understand my “whiteness” deeply, I will not be able to deeply appreciate the value of their “blackness.”

yinyangThe image or metaphor that comes to mind with this second habit of the heart is the ying and yang symbol.  The concept illustrates how opposite or opposing forces are actually interconnected and part of a whole.  While each is distinct, the two can be integrated to represent wholeness.  For me, this helps illustrate what Parker meant by appreciating and understanding otherness.  While distinct, we are part of the larger whole of the human race.  It isn’t sufficient to merely understand the “other,” we have to understand how we are “other” as well.  When it comes to human cultures, no culture can be projected as the “norm.”  If our species is to survive for the long haul, then we must understand our otherness and work towards integration and wholeness.

The third habit of the heart has to do with being able to hold the tension between two polar opposites.  Our leadership team at Westminster has been studying the writings of Nick Petrie and working with him on a consulting basis.  In his work on leadership, he writes about the importance of navigating the tension between reflection and rumination, stability and change, or the work-life balance.  Handling each of these tensions requires an ability to “stand in the gap” between them, finding an equilibrium that promotes growth.

In his work on the third habit, Parker spoke about reclaiming the “beginner’s mind.”  His example was about coming fresh and new to a disagreement, not as an expert but as a beginner.  Often the beginner approaches the issue by hearing the other side, while the expert is more focused on framing the answer from a known point-of-view.  Approaching a tension from the beginner’s mind point-of-view might result in asking the question: what’s going on?  This open-ended question begs for more learning.

The fourth habit of mind has to do with developing and sharing our voice which leads to greater agency.  Parker writes, “expressing our version of the truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others.” (page 45)  In his work with us he said: “The shaky voice is more trustworthy than the confident voice.”  The implication is that the authoritative voice is often closed to further learning, while the emerging voice is often eager to learn.  Parker encourages us to find our voice and use it for good purposes.  He writes:

And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change.

His fifth habit of the heart speaks to the importance of building community in all areas of our life.  However, building community does not happen independently of the other four habits of the heart.  A person needs to become self-actualized, understanding self and other, live into the tensions in life, be a team-player, and wisely use voice for inquiry and healing before building and living in community with others becomes a reality.  Parker writes:

It takes a village to raise Rosa Parks.  Without community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a manner that multiplies.

He goes on to suggest that it took a community of people to convert her actions into social change.

While incorporating the five habits of the heart may seem like a long journey, Parker believes it is within the grasp of every person.  At the conclusion of the book on page 193 he asks a set of questions:

Are we faithful to the community on which we depend, to doing what we can in response to its pressing needs?  Are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth from us?  Are we faithful to the eternal conversation of the human race, to speaking and listening in a way that takes us closer to truth?  Are we faithful to the call of courage that summons us to witness to the common good, even against great odds?

He believes if we can answer these questions, using faithfulness as our guide, then there is hope that we can learn to live into wholeness in a “beloved community.”  (page 193)

Sadness fills my heart but I stand with a #calltoaction

July 16, 2016

The events that happened in Nice, France on Bastille Day bring sadness to my heart, especially as we witness the suffering of innocent people at the hands of terror.  Pictures of those killed in the attack, especially the ones lying on the street draped in a cover with a stuffed animal nearby, break open my heart.  All the human potential that was lost as a result of slaughtering innocent lives is hard to imagine or understand.

I have just finished a book by Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.  It is a powerful piece of writing.  Palmer’s insights into how we must live as a community of people are poignant, revealing his deep understanding of the human condition.

He closes his book with these words:

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr understood all of this deeply and well (his reference is to the full engagement in the living of our own lives).  He (Niebuhr) wrote the best words I know to bring this book to a close.

Here are those words.  When I read them they spoke to me about the challenge ahead as we try to make sense of the countless acts of terror around the world that have killed thousands of innocent lives and leave us on edge wondering can we learn to live together in peace?

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

(Parker references Niebuhr’s words from his book, The Irony of American History, 2008)

Managing classroom behavior with an APP, are we serious?

June 5, 2016

I assume we could all agree that the teaching profession faces many challenges: increasing class sizes with cuts in state funding; cyberbullying; designing for effective parent involvement; meeting NCLB expectations; aligning to the Common Core standards; designing interesting and relevant curricula; and salaries that don’t align with the complexity of the work.  (average starting teacher salary is $35,641 and average teacher salary is $53,649, (click here))

So while scanning Flipboard I came across this resource, promoted to solve a teacher’s daily challenge of managing classroom behavior.


Are we serious?  Improve classroom behavior with an APP!  Now I’m all for integrating technology in the classroom, but really, using an APP to “control” student behavior.  This illustrates why the teaching profession struggles being taken seriously.   We come up with the most ridiculous ideas for doing our profession’s work.  Let’s use our intellect, the research, and our understanding of child and adolescent behavior to give teachers the understanding and tools to help manage student behavior in the classroom.

Here are non-technological ways to help teachers improve their management of classroom behavior.

  1. Show all students that we care for them and know they have the potential to master the learning.
  2. Let’s not give up on any student no matter what the circumstances.
  3. Let’s work hard to design interesting, relevant and meaningful curriculum.  Most of the challenging behavior students demonstrate in the classroom comes from being disconnected from the learning.  If the learning is interesting, fun and engaging a student’s behaviors are focused on learning not misbehaving.
  4. Use strategies to build intrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivators, like class dojos, are ineffective, or at best inappropriate tools, for helping students develop self-monitoring skills that will serve them well beyond school.  Life is not full of “carrots and sticks” to shape our motivation and behavior.  So let’s not use them in our classrooms.
  5. Let’s realize that all “good student behavior” comes from effective adult role modeling in a student’s life.  So let’s design useful educational programs for parents and teachers that are research-based and will give them the necessary tools to understand what motivates a child or adolescent.
  6. Let’s understand that all good classroom management techniques are relational in nature.  The best teachers I know manage their classrooms well because they have the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills needed to work with students.

It’s not about an APP!  It’s about relating to students on a personal level, showing them you care and understand, and giving them interesting things to do that are appropriately challenging.

This APP is promoted on a website, SimpleK12: Professional Development in your Pajamas.   I think that’s part of the problem.   It’s very hard to take this website seriously.  No informed educator in the field of professional development (that I know) would suggest that you can do this “hard work” in your pajamas.  Good professional development is job-embedded, ongoing, requires the investment of hours of time and attention, and is tied to research being done in our profession.  I doubt it can be done well in pajamas.

So let’s not get pulled in by these seductive ads and ideas.  If you want to change your students’ behavior in the classroom (or any other important challenge you want to address), work hard, consult with trusted colleagues, and handle it interpersonally.  Don’t use an APP and don’t rely on the time you have in your pajamas!


@PaulTough on #Grit and Supporting Parents in Schools

May 22, 2016

Paul Tough wrote an interesting article in today’s New York Times Review entitled, To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.   He references a 1986 study carried out in Jamaica that looked at different kids who fell into three study groups, each receiving a different type of intervention.  The intervention that had the greatest impact on kids’ lives was:

the one that received hourlong home visits once a week from a trained researcher who encouraged the parents to spend more time playing actively with their children: reading picture books, singing songs, playing peekaboo. (May 21, 2016)

I think we have always known that parents who play, read, and engage in a variety of ways with their children impact their development in significant ways.  Tough writes:

The Jamaica experiment helps make the case that if we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the adults who surround them.

Schools, especially those who serve students coming from underserved homes, should think about providing parent education, parent networking, and home visits as a way to help a family support their child’s growth.

I find Tough’s use of the term non-cognitive capacities instead of social-emotional skills an interesting construct.  In schools, we look for fancy programs to build “social-emotional skills” when we might be better served by looking at how to build “habits and mindsets.”  Different from skills like reading, which you never forget, non-cognitive capacities are contextual.  Whereas I might show some grit and perseverance in my science class because the teacher expresses an interest in me, I might withdraw and give up in my history class because the teacher doesn’t notice me or see talent in me.

These non-cognitive capacities are built early in a child’s life.  Parents play a central role in this work and sometimes need coaching, especially when they are consumed by other issues.  Tough refers to the importance of coaching parents in how to do this critical work.  He writes:

When parents get the support they need to create a warm, stable, nurturing environment at home, their children’s stress levels often go down, while their emotional stability and psychological resilience improve.

Later in the day, Paul Tough appeared on WABE’s Weekend All Things Considered.  The program, Teaching The Intangibles: How to Ingrain Grit In Students, revealed his insights into how schools and teachers can help students develop the habits of mind necessary to be successful in school and life.  While he focused on the supporting the development of non-cognitive capacities, he did not focus as much on the role of parents.  I would suggest reading his article and listening to the podcast to get the full picture of his point-of-view.

Listen to the Podcast

I think this is the important work in all schools and classrooms across America.

Teachers working on #teams can build a strong community of practice

May 14, 2016

There is excellent information in the literature that when schools provide time, space, and structure for their teachers to work on teams, doing meaningful work, the community of practice that results can improve instruction and student outcomes.  The time we allocate can come in a variety of configurations, such as grade-level planning meetings, meetings by discipline, or vertical planning meetings.  The space we provide for teachers to meet should be inviting, a professionally-oriented space that contains all the materials they need to take their ideas into action.  Finally, the structure we provide should guide teachers towards improving their practice, giving them sufficient flexibility to assess their students’ needs and progress while adjusting the pathways to better serve the needs of all students.

In ASCD’s recent edition of Educational Leadership, Naomi Theirs interviewed Richard DuFour for an article entitled, Educators Deserve Better.  I have always been impressed with Richard DuFour’s clarity of vision for effective team practice through a professional learning community structure.  As he spells out in the interview, there are two conditions that teacher teams must meet in order for their collaborative practice to make a difference.

First, absolute clarity about what they are collaborating on-what is the nature of the work, what is the right work.  Second, the support needed so they can succeed at what they are being asked to do.  (page 13)

The administrative leader provides the guidance and support for the second condition, time and space.  Administrators need to create the conditions, regular scheduled time for teacher teams to meet and a professional learning space that contains all the materials needed to launch ideas into action.  Leaders cannot take either of these responsibilities lightly.  Can you imagine Google, Apple, First Data, Facebook, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or any other excellent corporate or non-profit entity not supporting their teams with team to plan and a professional space in which to plan?  We know these organization invest heavily in supporting teams of people working collaboratively towards shared goals.  How do we measure up in our schools?  

Richard DuFour points out that schools and districts that have seriously invested in professional learning communities (PLC) have demonstrated significant progress in student improvement indicators.  However, teachers in PLCs don’t just meet to discuss random topics that surface in their work.  They meet with a common purpose and use agreed upon protocols.  

There has to be a common goal, a common accountability.  (page 13)

Teams have to set objectives and decide on important questions that they intend to address through their collaboration.  Here are some questions DuFour suggests teams use in setting up their work (page 13). 

  1. What do we expect students to learn in the course and in unit by unit?   We can think of this first question through the lens of what we want students to know, understand and be able to do (KUD).
  2. What evidence will they gather along the path of learning to be sure that students are mastery the targets we want them to hit?  He references the importance of teacher teams creating common formative assessments.  Creating these assessments helps teachers focus on the learning outcomes they expect from their students.  This evidence is what teacher teams use to make adjustments in their strategies to be sure all students are learning, whether they are struggling or advanced learners. 

The important work of teacher teams is to create a culture in which each teacher recognizes the strengths and challenges of every other member.  In order to move the team’s practice to new levels of competency, there has to be open and honest communication on the team.  Each person has to be willing to share his or her strengths to improve the team, as well as being willing to learn from other team member’s strengths.  “Rising tide raises all ships.”  In their HBR article, The Discipline of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith distinguish between groups and teams.  On teams, individuals share leadership, are mutually accountable, share a common purpose, have collective work products, have open and honest conversations, engage in problem solving, evaluate their work products, and do “real work” together (page 113).  While DuFour does not elaborate extensively on “how” people work or the culture they create, Katzenbach and Smith provide that context.  So thinking about how their models could work seamlessly, side-by-side represents the answer to the question: How can we best create and support effective team cultures within our schools?

DuFour points out:

In schools that have sustained a commitment to the process (PLCs) over time, and have focused on the right work, it’s been terrific (the outcomes). (page 14)

What I like about the interview with DuFour is that he draws a clear dichotomy between teachers working on teams and teacher evaluation.  He points out that administrators should do the absolute minimum when it comes to “evaluating” teachers.  Administrators should invest all their energy into setting up and supporting an effective PLC structure.  If they do that really well, then teachers can “self-evaluate” and hold themselves accountable to the team.

The way we are going to improve schools is not by supervising and evaluating individual teachers into better performance’ it’s by creating a culture in which teams of teachers are helping one another get better.

For me, this is a powerful idea!  Help teachers shift from being groups of individuals working in silos to teams of teachers working on shared goals towards a common purpose.  Teachers should be accountable to one another, learning from one another what it takes to master the complex craft of teaching.  However, we cannot will this culture into existence.  Administrators, in collaboration with teachers, need to learn the strategies for working effectively on teams, implement them with fidelity, and practice being in open, honest dialogue with one another.  In DuFour’s world, it is very important that the conversations on teaching and learning be “evidence-based.”  If they’re structured this way, he writes:

The other thing is to train team leaders in terms of having difficult conversations and strategies for presenting things in a way that isn’t hurtful.  If conversations are actually based on evidence and you’ve got a leader who knows how to lead that discussion, you can move away from the gentlemen’s agreement that we won’t be critical of one another.  (page 15)

 But let’s not pretend that achieving this outcome is easy.  It takes patience, expert guidance, and lots of practice.  The pillar that holds up the whole structure is open, honest and respectful conversation between people.  Knowledgeable and sensitive administrators have to groom teachers at all levels to be leaders so that the school has a coalition of teachers who can take on these responsibilities within PLCs.

DuFour points out that principals and other school administrators need a ‘critical friends community’ in which they’re working through their own leadership challenges so they have the knowledge, support and bandwidth to effectively lead teachers into a PLC structure.  This is hard work that requires a high-level of commitment on the part of schools or school districts.  We have to invest energy and resources to achieve these important outcomes.

Beauty: words of wisdom from a Nobel physicist

May 4, 2016

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel physicist, was interviewed by Krista Tippett as part of her program, On Being.  What does a physicist know about beauty?  In the interview, Why is the World so Beautiful, Wilczek uncovers a very personal, professional, and insightful perspective on beauty as a threshold concept.  This piece will help you understand beauty through the lens of a scientist, but also understand beauty as an ideal that is more central to the human experience.  

If your school is interested in #STEAM education, you will find that Wilczek provides clarity around an integrated studies approach to “knowing.” I think he illustrates a pathway for how beauty could be used as a unifying theme to design an integrated approach learning.

I hope you enjoy listening to Wilczek express a different way of thinking about beauty.  How can we help our students develop associative thinking skills that lead them to be “Wilczek-type” thinkers?

Does #accountability work to improve performance?

May 1, 2016

I read these two articles a few months ago: (1) David Rock, Josh Davis and Beth Jones, Kill Your Performance Rating; and (2) Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, Reinventing Performance Management.  Both of them led me to rethink my views on models for teaching supervision and evaluation.  Both articles make the case that external accountability systems do very little to improve a person’s performance at their job, especially when the system is designed to rate the person based on a set of subjective standards.  Should we have external accountability systems, I think the answer is yes, but we need to be quite clear what purpose they fulfill?  Should we have standards that all employees have to master?  I think again the answer is yes so long as the standards are tightly aligned to the work a person has to accomplish.  However, extrinsic accountability systems cannot trump or supplant the need to create conditions that promote intrinsic accountability.

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, makes the case that a “carrots and stick” model is not an approach that works to improve performance, especially when the performance demands initiative, personal commitment, application of skills, judgment and an ongoing desire to do a good job.  He makes the case that motivation to improve, an internal driver that ignites a fire inside us, must come from within the person.

If we want to design a system for accountability that improves performance, say improved instruction in the classroom so that all students learn, then we need to design conditions for teachers that foster the development of intrinsic accountability.  We should create conditions in schools that help teachers see the importance of role modeling self-improvement for their students.  If I expect my students to grow and learn, then I too need to grow and learn in my teaching practice.  If teachers are accountable to themselves, believing we expect them to demonstrate in a variety of ways that all students are mastering the goals and objectives laid out for them, then it is more likely they will design strategies and outcomes that illustrate their success.  We should set up the conditions for teachers that we (the system) values data that demonstrates students are engaged in learning, applying what they’re learning, and understanding themselves as learners.  Our goal should be to create conditions for teachers to become accountable to self first and the school second.

We have all the data in the world that informs us that system-imposed teacher evaluation processes do very little to improve teaching practice.  Stephen Sawchuk wrote a piece for Education Week entitled, Teacher Evaluation: An Issue Overview.  Here is a quote from the beginning of the article.

All that momentum aside, the results of recent changes to teacher-evaluation systems are, as yet, difficult to quantify. Most of the new data show that a great majority of teachers score just as highly on the new evaluations as they did on the previous ones, and it is unclear whether the reforms have systematically—or broadly—led to teachers to receiving better feedback that is translating to better teaching.

A teacher is more likely to construct a path towards improvement if they’re intrinsically motivated and see themselves as a learner.  They have to be curious about the questions: (1) are all my students learning what I believe are the “enduring understandings;” (2) can all of my students apply what they are learning in novel situations; and (3) are all of my students sufficiently engaged and enthusiastic about what I expect them to learn that see themselves as successful students?  Finally, are the conditions in schools designed to ask teachers to assemble evidence to illustrate positive answers to these questions?

If the answer to the last question is no, then school leaders need to work much harder to understand what’s required to create a culture where intrinsic motivation is the norm. It won’t be a “carrot and stick” culture according to Daniel Pink.  It won’t be a culture that values extrinsic accountability above all else.  It won’t be a culture that fails to understand how to give effective, growth-oriented feedback to teachers.  It won’t be a culture that fails to align its feedback system to its professional growth system.  Finally, it won’t be a system that values the individual above the team.  All the research points to the value of setting up a culture in which collaboration is expected.  We need school cultures that align individual responsibility to collective expectations and norms.  Teachers working in professional learning communities or critical friend groups create a culture in which teachers learn from other teachers.

In their article in Harvard Business Review, Buckingham and Goodall write:

In a public survey Deloitte conducted recently, more than half the executives questioned (58%) believe that their current performance management approach drives neither employee engagement nor high performance. They, and we, are in need of something nimbler, realtime, and more individualized—something squarely focused on fueling performance in the future rather than assessing it in the past.

What would an effective intrinsically focused and extrinsically aligned teacher evaluation system look life?  It would have to be nimble, work with teachers in realtime and be differentiated for the individual.  I would add that in addition to these elements it would have to encourage and value a teacher’s growth over time.

In their article, Rock, Davis and Jones write:

According to the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a management research group, surveys have found that 95 percent of managers are dissatisfied with their PM systems, and 90 percent of HR heads believe they do not yield accurate information.

Again, they draw the same conclusions that extrinsic, organization imposed, and ratings-oriented evaluation systems do not work.  They suggest that we abandon the rating-oriented performance system and rethink the model.  They offer the ideal of a guided conversation model, a model that asks the supervisor to really get to know the person to whom they are giving feedback.

In either a structured or a guided conversation, one key element is to prime people—both the employee and the boss—to induce a growth mind-set. This improves how people listen to feedback, encourages them to set stretch goals, makes it easier for them to put in extra effort toward a worthy project, and helps them learn from positive role models.

In his commentary about teacher evaluation in the Every Student Succeeds Act in Education Week, Ross Wiener, Vice President at Aspen Institute, writes about three strategies that he believes good evaluation systems need to take into account.

  • Ensure that evaluators are trained and certified to focus on professional growth, not just ratings
  • Allow districts some flexibility in account for student learning
  • Test and ensure the integrity of the evaluation system

Interesting that in the first strategy he suggests we focus on professional growth not ratings, but in the second strategy he “applauds” states using ratings.  Granted he suggests the ratings consider multiple data sources, not just students scores or principal observations.  Nevertheless, he fails to point out the dismissal history of external accountability systems as a way to improve teacher quality and student achievement.  They have not worked and will not work until schools and school districts understand the importance of building a culture in which teachers are nurtured to rely on their intrinsic motivation to improve.  In order to achieve this goal, teachers need to see themselves as learners.

So the time has come to invest in setting up a culture (school culture) that encourages teachers to develop the intrinsic motivation to improve their practice to meet the needs of all of their students.  What does that culture look and feel like?  We have to design for this culture.

Finally, we must redesign our extrinsic accountability systems to: (1) work in the background to support the intrinsically-motivated teacher; (2) be aligned to a set of standards for good teaching, standards that teachers help design and understand; and (3) require that all those in leadership are well trained to give teachers really effective feedback.

We can do this.

Center for Teaching Posts on Supervision and Evaluation

  1. What is the richest feedback we can offer teachers in an #evaluation?
  2. Get to know a #teacher for an #evaluation to be meaningful!
  3. Effective Supervision and Evaluation: The self-reflective process
  4. Teachers Crave Meaningful Feedback & Want to Learn!

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