How would you describe a great leader? How would you describe a not so great leader? Heather Lyon, an author, central office administrator, and graduate instructor for pre-service administrators, explores these questions. The conversation extends to explore, “how similar are the characteristics of a quality teacher leader in the classroom to a quality educational leader in a school or across a district?”
Find Heather on Twitter: @LyonsLetters
E-mail Heather: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Steve: 00:34 We are all leaders. I’m excited to have Heather Lyon return as a podcast guest. She had previously shared the ideas from her book, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn, It’s a Narwhal,” and she has since published a second book that focuses on engagement strategies. I asked Heather, who is an assistant superintendent in Western New York to join us today to expand on a blog that she wrote about leadership. Welcome Heather, and thank you.
Heather: 01:08 Thanks for having me.
Steve: 01:10 In your blog, you opened by describing a reflection activity on leadership that you had taken part in, and then you described that you also use it now in the training that you do with pre-service administrators. You wanna just tell us a little bit about that activity?
Heather: 01:29 Sure. So the blog post that I wrote is called, “Mirror, Mirror,” and I actually learned about this activity from Jasmine Kullar, who is an assistant superintendent in Cobb County, Georgia and she tricked us, is really what happened.
Steve: 02:53 So the activity, in effect, caused you to look at everybody else’s leaders and come up with the list rather than looking at your yourself as a leader.
Heather: 03:05 That’s right.
Steve: 03:06 And then she flipped it on you and so now you had to look at that list.
Heather: 03:12 Exactly. She said, hold up a mirror to yourself because everything that you want to see you should be doing, and everything that you said that you don’t want to see you shouldn’t be doing. Yeah. Made an impression. So I wanted to make that impression too. So I asked my graduate students who are pre-service administrators to do the same thing in the same way. I don’t spoil the end for them. Come up with a list. And just like it was for us, it’s easy for them to describe particularly, what not so great leaders do. And so they say things like, for not so great leaders, they are close minded and hard to communicate with, poor leaders, someone who is unable to reflect, and someone who struggles to find the best in people. Micromanagers lack effective communication regarding expectations and performance feedback. We can all relate to that.
Steve: 04:09 So let’s flip it. Give us one at a time. Some of the things that that come up most frequently that people describe when they’re describing that the effective leader.
Heather: 04:22 Yes. So a great leader is a person who is able to listen and process different views and concerns. In addition, a person who is able to delegate and make decisions based on data and strategies.
Steve: 04:37 So when I was reading that, it caused me to think of a piece that I had come across sometime probably in the last year on intellectual humility and it was a Daniel Pink article, but he was describing questions that Warren Berger had suggested leaders should ask. And the two that you just mentioned really triggered me to this because the one was, do I think more like a soldier or a scout? He described it that the soldier knows where you’re going and that’s where your focused attention is on reinforcing where you’re headed versus the scout who’s out gathering that information. And then he connected to would you rather be right or rather be understood?
Heather: 05:38 Oh, good question.
Steve: 05:40 Aren’t those great?
Heather: 05:41 Yeah. I love just about anything Daniel Pink writes.
Steve: 05:45 What’s another one that’s on that list?
Heather: 05:49 Yeah. I really like this one: A great leader is someone that puts others in a position to lead. They’re only powerful to the degree that they empower others.
Steve: 06:01 Wow. There’s a quote that I’ve been using in my in my coaching workshops that I just came across recently. This one happened to be from from Adam Grant and he suggested that part of everyone’s performance review should be the degree to which you caused growth in other people, and that you couldn’t consider yourself a peak performer – and he was talking about any organization – you couldn’t consider yourself a peak performer unless you looked and pointed to the growth that other people have gained from the opportunity to work with you.
Heather: 06:48 It really changes a dynamic of what leadership is meant to be, doesn’t it?
Steve: 06:53 And I have to tell you, whenever I’ve been in an activity where I’ve been asked to think of great leaders that I’ve worked with, right to the top of the thing is the growth that they caused in me. One was my very first principal as a beginning teacher and everything he did, all the opportunities he created not just for me, but for lots of people on staff were all about growing us and the effectiveness of the school group because of the work that he did.
Heather: 07:33 What you are saying makes me actually think about my dissertation. And it was on the impact of leadership theory, on leadership practice, because you can’t become a positional, formal administrator in most places in the United States without going through leadership preparation training. So that kind of made me cranky as a teacher because I felt like, just promote me like I can be a good leader
Steve: 09:10 I’ll tell you the other connection that that makes for me is looking at instructional coaching.
Heather: 09:17 Yes.
Steve: 09:18 And when people are looking and selecting an instructional coach, being a solid teacher is critical to being a solid instructional
coach, but not sufficient.
Heather: 09:30 Correct.
Steve: 09:30 There are a lot of great teachers who don’t have that separate skillset that you need to be successful in that instructional coach role.
Heather: 09:41 Yeah. Which that then makes me think about really, the twist from this semester when I did this activity with my students. And so, at the end I say, hold up a mirror to yourself. You are a leader right now, no matter what position you’re in right now, you’re a leader, even though you are also studying leadership. But we got into a conversation about really just take the word leader out and replace teacher. Like, how would you describe a great teacher? How would you describe a not so great teacher? Because really, the same traits are true, right? You don’t want to be with a close-minded and hard to communicate with teacher. You don’t wanna be with a poor teacher as someone who is unable to reflect and someone who struggles to find the best in people. Like, those are characteristics of poor teachers, whereas good teachers are people who are able to listen and process different views and concerns and so forth.
Steve: 10:35 So how do you feel about the teacher then is is lead learner in the classroom? And in effec,t the administrator’s lead learner in the school.
Heather: 10:49 That’s right. I believe that.
Steve: 10:52 I’ll give you a Steve Barkley phrase.
Steve: 11:01 Mine with leadership is that the job of the leader is to model the model.
Heather: 11:07 I love that. To model the model.
Steve: 11:10 So if you have a picture in your mind as a teacher of what the learner is, then by being the lead learner in the classroom, you’re
modeling those behaviors for your students. Yes. And then if I move into administration, now in effect, I’m a model of those behaviors.That leads to then tough questions being asked. If teachers left the faculty meeting and went back and structured their classroom the way I just structured the faculty meeting…
Heather: 11:46 Yes. Would I be happy to see that.
Steve: 11:50 If the way I gave teachers feedback from a walkthrough observation was the way teachers were giving feedback in the classroom, those leadership pieces come in.
Heather: 12:04 Which is why with my own graduate students, I say to them, listen, we’re not gonna focus on the grade here. We’re gonna focus on the learning. And so whatever it is you do, when I give you feedback, because I’m not gonna give you a grade until you read the feedback and respond to my feedback. But when you get my feedback, if based on my feedback, you think there’s more learning that you can show me, show me the learning. So when they’re asking, can I redo this? Can I have more time? Do you have more learning you’d like to show me? If the answer’s yes, then we both win when you have more learning to show me, because this is not about the grade. I say to them, listen, one of three things at least is going to be true at the end of this semester or when you graduate. You are either going to be an administrator for my own children, or you’re going to be a colleague of mine. We’re gonna work together. And, or at the very least, you’re gonna have my name on your transcript. You better damn well be good. I need you to be good, no matter what scenario that is.
Steve: 13:15 That’s great modeling. There was there was a word that I don’t think I found looking at both sides of the list that you gave. And the word that I was playing with was was managing. And here’s one of the activities that that I do when I’m describing for teachers the role of focusing on teaching and the role of focusing on learning, I put up these two lists. So the one list says, teaching can be neat, orderly, sequential, managed, and documented. And then I put up a second list that says, learning is often messy, spontaneous, irregular, non-linear and complex So one of the first times I had that up, I had a teacher in the audience go, “I’ve known it all along!”
Steve: 14:17 And I said, sir, please share your, your understanding. And he said, I’ve told my principal for years, there’s no need to plan
Heather: 15:22 Yes.
Steve: 15:23 And I take the word learning off and I put the word leading? So managing can be neat, orderly, sequential, managed, and documented. The problem is leading is often messy, spontaneous irregular, nonlinear and complex. That jumped out at me when I was reading your piece that that people were seeing that connection between leading in the classroom and leading in the school. If a teacher can’t plan, if a teacher can’t manage, they can’t make the learning part happen.
Heather: 15:59 That’s right.
Steve: 16:00 But if they only focus on that and they’re not focused on the learning, then I would see in leadership, if you can’t manage the
school, you won’t be able to lead it. But if too much of your time gets embedded in the management part, too much of a focus gets on the management part, then you don’t have the focus over on the leading part.
Heather: 16:23 I think my biggest take away this past semester, in addition to that you can take out leader, put the word teacher, and really you can take out the word teacher and put the word person because this is what we want. These are traits of good people, great people versus not so great people. Not so great people are close-minded and hard to communicate with. Doesn’t matter if they’re a teacher or an administrator, is that there seems to be this narrative that administrators are somehow taught or groomed or whatever to predispose to be more managerial, more not so great. And yet, the opposite is true. We’re actually in our pre-service, taught to do really great leadership things. I had a lot of students the first night, I asked them, you know, why are you pursuing this, this degree? Why do you wanna become an administrator?
Heather: 17:28 And many of them said something to the extent of, I want to be able to be a leader that I haven’t had, which means to remember what it’s like to be in the classroom. And I was just struck by that because most administrators that I have had the gift of working with, it’s not that they don’t forget, it’s that I think teachers think that everybody – because they don’t have enough opportunity to see others doing the work. And so they believe that other people are teaching like they teach, are doing the messy things, are allowing for that spontaneity are planning for spontaneity, and that’s not always the case. And so, great leaders have to figure out how to hold not so great people accountable for their not so greatness and help them either become better or exit. And that’s the real work.
Steve: 18:29 That’s why in my leadership work, I have a continuum that goes from evaluation to supervision, to mentoring, to coaching. And so you want to handle everything that you can possibly handle in the coaching role, you want to handle there. Which is actually no different than a teacher in a classroom.
Heather: 18:48 That’s right.
Steve: 18:49 But when that role won’t work, you now have a responsibility to move to the mentor role. And when that doesn’t work, you have to
move to the supervision role. And then, there is times that I have to move to that evaluation side of administration.
Heather: 19:05 And that’s what great leaders do, because you don’t coach somebody who’s drowning. I learned this from Paula Bevin who
worked for the Danielson Group. I have a lot of Paula Bevin-isms, but one of them is that you don’t coach a drowning person because coaching is an action of equity. But we’re not equally drowning. And so a drowning person, you don’t ask them, what stroke do you think you might need in order to get over here? No, you throw them a lifeline, you get them to the deck. So you don’t want them to continue to drown, but you also don’t want them to take you down with them. You need to be the leader in that moment.
Steve: 19:50 Well, I have a story that you may want to tell your tell your grad students. I”m currently coaching an individual who last year became an instructional coach for the first time, and due to circumstances in the district, became an assistant principal this year. And I’m still having my coaching sessions with her, but at the end of the second month of being assistant principal, her statement was, she’s going back to apologize to every administrator she’s ever had in her past, because suddenly the doors have been open and she’s she’s seen things from a perspective that she’s never been able to look at before.
Steve: 20:52 Listen, it’s been a great pleasure to to, to chat with you again and I’ve just got a question in in my mind I’d like to close out here with. I know that there has to be a major connection between all of the study and research that you’ve done on engagement for teachers in the classroom and looking at engagement from the leadership of a school and I’m wondering if you might want to make a few comments on that to to wrap us up today.
Heather: 21:30 Sure. Thank you for that opportunity. So I just wanna briefly talk about the title of the book, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn, It’s a Narwhal.” It’s this concept that we often think of engagement as mythical. Like kids would applaud at the end of a lesson or like every kid’s gonna do their homework without issue. But really, engagement as a narwhal are things that are more nuanced and complicated. Like, kids aren’t going to applaud for the teacher, but you do want them to have pride in their work. That’s engagement as a narwhal. Not everybody’s going to do their homework, but you do want kids who are like, I’m focused on the learning here. And so this is something that is helping me grow as a learner. And quite honestly, you phrased it best when you were talking about the messiness of what learning looks like. Everything that you described as learning is what I would phrase as engagement in learning.
Heather: 22:29 And so that messiness, that spontaneity, that digging deeper. And so that is true, and I write about this in the books, that the engagement framework is not limited to children. It is applicable to all of us everywhere. And so we really need engaged teachers and engaged leaders who are focused on the learning that they’re doing, that are willing to be messy and spontaneous and all of that stuff because that really is engagement in the work. Nobody wants to work with, or for people who are just robotically going through the motions and just collecting a paycheck. And so I appreciate the opportunity to make that connection.
Steve: 23:14 Thank you. Thank you again. Tell folks the best way to get in touch with you.
Heather: 23:19 Sure. They can visit my website, which is lyonsletters.com or you can email me email@example.com and you can also tweet me, @LyonsLetters is my handle.
Steve: 23:39 We’ll be sure to add those to the lead-in to this podcast. Thanks again.
Heather: 23:44 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 23:47 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.