Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Are We Learning As We Go?

To more accurately assess the learning processes within the department, I have begun by investigating existing practices, their origins, and the importance of the practices held by the constituents.  I have had the opportunity to participate as an observer in some meetings; and, more recently, as a participant in others.  

Within the special education department of the district, routines including weekly coordinators' meetings and monthly psychologists' meetings are practiced.  The director leads these meetings; an agenda is provided, and virtually all matters presented are business-oriented.

Certain coordinators have also elected to conduct meetings of certain groups that they oversee.  This includes, for example, Occupational Therapists' meetings, Autism Leadership Team meetings, etc.  These meetings are not an expectation of the director.  Coordinators that choose to hold these meetings typically provide an agenda.  The agenda may be utilitarian or flexible... or a combination of both.  

A coaching model is followed throughout each of the layers within all of the instructional departments of the district.  This long standing district tradition is adhered to in the special education department.  Coaching sessions are, typically, one-on-one meetings between, for example, the director and a coordinator.  Coachings are held from once a week to once a month, and are conversational in format.  Topics covered during these discussions may address questions from the subordinate, students on their case load, guidance from the director (including correction), and other matters. 

In addition, certain sub-groups (e.g.: speech therapists, etc.) meet by choice to discuss best practice, research based strategies, and other job-alike topics.

While there is apparent purpose and a positive outcome in the structures and routines observed thus far, some questions continue to surface...
  • Given the predominantly task-oriented emphasis and energy of group meetings, and because coaching sessions encourage individualized support, how are efforts toward organizational learning accomplished in the larger group?  Across groups?
  • Does sufficient learning occur within the coaching model to accommodate for such a potential disconnect?
  • What - if any - differences can be observed between coaching relationships involving leaders that desire to do their jobs and those that want to keep their jobs? 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Turning Theory Into Practice

Organizational learning exists when the members of an organization are compelled to find resolution for a challenging situation they are facing within the organization.  Because organizations are continuously faced with challenges and change, in order to improve their practice, they must strive to individually and collectively examine their methods for resolution in both contemplative and evaluative ways.  As a means of encouraging my own understanding of organizational development and learning, I have chosen to study the practices of one department within the unified school district for which I currently serve as an administrator.

The district serves approximately 23,000 students in Junior Kindergarten - twelfth grades.  The special education department is the smaller organization that I have elected to observe within the district.  There are currently approximately 2,500 students receiving services under the auspices of special education.  This exceeds the commonly held guideline of 10% of the total population.  The special education department provides services ranging from speech and language to more restrictive learning environments including special day classes.  

District leadership spans from the superintendent and assistant superintendents to department directors.  The director of special education oversees special education staff and programs.  In addition, it is her responsibility to supervise health services and the crisis response team for the district.  The special education department members that she directly supervises are coordinators and school psychologists.  The present director is in her third year of service in this capacity, having previously worked as a Learning Center/Resource Teacher and middle school assistant principal.

While an honest assessment of my choice in examining this department would include mention of convenience because of my own connection with the special education department as the principal of a school with four special day classes, I believe that I have a sincere desire to grow as well.  In examining the practices of the department in conjunction with my site practices and beliefs, it is hoped that I will be open to seeing room for growth and seeking to improve - both locally and in connection with our sister schools, the special education department, and the district as a whole.               

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Schools Were Built For The Students

Organizational transformation requires the committed, coordinated effort of every stakeholder.  In education, it necessitates the clear-headed vision of educational leaders that strive for the empowerment of employees at all levels.  Recognizing that empowerment enables all layers of the instructional team to do their jobs well, and improves the processes and technologies that need changing with the goal of encouraging improved student outcomes, it must take center stage.  Provision of a clear, unified vision is another of the most critical responsibilities of the leader.  This is especially true in education.

Living, learner-centered environments recognize that service to students is their fundamental purpose.  In tandem with serving students, these settings support teachers, educational leaders, and even parents and members of the community.  

Open, self-managed models are lauded as the most desirable of systems... and with good reason.  Within them, participants are proactive, cooperative, results-focused, and committed to seeing the job through.  Leadership is shared and productive; the results are considered by all to be worth the effort.  

Learning-centered educational systems support learning for all students, and focus on individual needs in instructional decision making.  Teachers and educational leaders recognize that learners and learning are the necessary emphasis of all considerations; their energies are spent on the use of research-based strategies that are constantly being honed for improvement and individualization.  Because they are keenly aware that schools were built to serve students, not for the purpose of creating a place for them to work, their classrooms and schools are productive, student-centered environments.

If only all schools could be like that...          

Monday, January 26, 2009

Race To The Finish

In its purest sense, organizational learning seems to beckon us to strive for excellence throughout the pursuit of the goal.  As we perform organizational tasks, consider and evaluate our strategies in executing them, and compare both the immediate and long term success of our efforts, we are immersed in a process that draws its life from time.

Appreciative Inquiry, Organizational Diagnosis, and even the World Cafe Model are long, slow processes that require time and effort in order to achieve the desired results of understanding and change - leading to meaningful and lasting improvement.  Root causes of challenge in organizational systems are not readily revealed.  According to our reading, "significant time and effort are required to trace problems to their origin" for deep organizational diagnosis to be successful.  

Similarly, Appreciative Inquiry, which takes its roots in action research, is a "work in progress".  It is constantly morphing as the input, ideas, and (even) the emotions of the participants are considered.  Because the goal of Appreciative Inquiry is to change social systems, and one of the key components necessary to successfully accomplish this involves affirmative projection, the process is "open to continuous reconstruction".  Taking the time needed to evaluate and reconstruct what is working and has worked is essential, but requires time.

The World Cafe Model can promote change and productivity.  By creating intimate, warm, inviting, safe meeting environments where conversation is encouraged, instead of the impersonal meeting places more typically experienced, participants are more likely to be engaged in discussion, and to believe that they are part of a meaningful process.  

All of these things take time.  In a world that applauds speed; a world where efficiency and productivity are associated with success, strategies such as these may be considered luxuries for which there is insufficient time.  

But how can that be true?  Organizational learning seems to be - in its best execution - an ongoing process of learning and improvement through learning.  Despite current economic trends, and the temptation to race to the finish line with quick fixes and ready-made answers that often accompany such crises, we must recognize the beauty of taking time to reach conclusions that may be necessarily open to refinement.  In order to make authentic improvements in our practices, we must resist the tendency to listen to the competitive sound of the tick-tock of the clock.  Instead, we must be inspired to consider the best of what is, the possibility of what might be, the responsibility of what should be, and the potential of what can be.                   

Monday, January 12, 2009

Organizational Theory in the Real World

I am back, and this quarter my meanderings are related to a decidedly different topic... one whose focus is human through and through...
The study of organizational theory - and its impact on institutions both educational and those of the business world - has many facets.  While the emphasis of most theorists appears to be on reflection upon the effectiveness of practice and efficiency in the workplace, human response is the continuous underlying theme that gives it a heart and a soul.

My initial response throughout the readings has been to seek an understanding of the theories presented by each of the authors.  However, with each theory, there is an example of a "real life" experience (either current or from my past) that corresponds with the research.  Despite the fact that these theories are associated with organizations, it is clear that they play out in virtually every human interaction that involves groups that are working with a purpose or goal.

Tuckman's theoretical model of forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning is one of many examples of this.  Certainly, most have observed and experienced this in association with their working relationships... That movement from the initial phase marked by dependence and the desire for acceptance; to the period during which conflicts may arise as roles are established and problem-solving becomes the focus; into a time of creativity, when authentic sharing is evident professionally and personally; to the period of experimentation in which the interdependence of group members lends itself to productivity; to the final stage of task completion, in which members may experience a sense of loss as they move from giving up control to giving up inclusion in the group.  

While all groups do not move through each of the stages, and, at least according to some theorists, the stages are not necessarily linear; forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning are familiar points on the path that successful groups that I have participated in have followed.  

Within this cohort, whether prescribed or self-designed, groups that I have worked in that have been put to the task of ongoing challenges have moved from the initial phase of orientation to the final phase of productivity.  In groups in which the pairing has been less frequent, there has even been the sense of loss associated with the adjourning stage.  

Human endeavors are human.  Therefore, while theories exist, and they may provide a helpful guide to what can be expected to repeat in the future within similar frameworks, there is no hard and fast rule about people.  It is likely that I will continue to be fascinated by the research in this field.  

Am I more prone to recall Tuckman's model because of the rhythmic and clever terms he uses to describe each stage?  Perhaps.  But it is more likely that, like other research we are reviewing and practices we are studying, the hook for me is the relationship between what is defined and what I have experienced.