Start your first class with a question … and a promise

As in any group of diverse individuals, learners come with varying identities, histories, levels of motivation, prior knowledge and experiences, as well as different wants, needs and openness to change. This means that teaching is inherently as much about process as it is content. By that I mean holding a dual focus on how people learn, participate and engage (process), as well as the substantive knowledge, skills and information required to meet your course’s learning outcomes (content).

In fact, I suggest that the process may be even more important than the content, given the rapidly changing landscape of professional practice across virtually all disciplines. The proliferation of knowledge in any given field is so vast and accelerating that the skills of curating, critiquing and assessing knowledge, and bridging knowledge to application, are the most important capabilities students can master. In other words, students most need to learn how to learn. 

It is tempting to approach teaching from a content mastery perspective versus from a “deep learning” perspective. Resist the temptation! By all means, prepare lesson plans, lecture notes and course reading lists. But create a space in the lesson plan for students’ own self-discovery, peer-to-peer collaboration, applied/experiential learning and exploration. Include as many questions as answers in your lecture notes. And approach your students as equal partners in the learning process: you have expertise and professional or scientific knowledge in your field of study, and they are experts in their own lives, including their hopes and dreams for the future.

Whether I am teaching in a face-to-face or an online classroom, I like to start the first class of every semester with a question and a promise.

Here’s the question: “What are you curious about? You’ve enrolled in this class on [insert course title]. What would you most like to learn more about?”

This sets up the expectation that each student has a voice in their own learning, and that they are at the centre of the work we will do together. It also reminds students that the course is more than just another grade or credit towards their diploma. They will actually get to learn about things that interest, excite and inspire them!

And here’s my promise: “My cornerstone commitment to you is my intention for this class to be among the top tier of courses that you have ever taken. I am committed to supporting your success in an outstanding learning experience – so I am eager to hear your feedback as we go, to help me deliver on this promise to you.”

While this may seem a tad grandiose, the promise simply reflects what every student yearns for in their deepest human heart: an opportunity for transformation, discovery and inspiration. I signal from the very start that I want only the best for the class, that I genuinely care, and that we are in this journey together. By modeling my own highest standards, I set an implicit example and expectation that they will bring their “A” game as well.

In short, I think the most important advice for a new professor is orienting ourselves to supporting students’ learning, versus delivering content. That shift changes everything, including ourselves.

 

smooth-sailing

Management is a way of doing; leadership is a way of being

When it comes to leadership I’m no expert. Learning to lead reminds me of learning to parent: despite the proliferation of manuals, when push comes to shove the answer is in myself, not the manual. Lessons on leadership are everywhere and ongoing.

Here are some of the leadership lessons I have been thinking about. These represent my best intentions, even if not always fully realized. This is about the journey.

Practice radical authenticity. Encourage others to do the same. The more we bring our true selves to our personal and professional relationships, the more joyful and connected we become. We are all connected.

When others disagree, get curious. Discover more. Go beyond valuing alternate perspectives  – fearlessly evoke them. Seek not to be understood, but to understand.

You are always leading, even when you’re following. Leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about supporting others’ success, modeling integrity, being accountable and caring passionately. Align how you follow with how you lead.

Disrupt the status quo. Homeostasis is the enemy of innovation. We are all always striving for that perfect balance, but when we find it that’s usually the signal that something is about to change! As Aldous Huxley said, “Every ceiling when reached becomes a floor.”

Affirm autonomy – always. No matter how non-negotiable the directive, policy, task, procedure…never forget that people always have the option of walking away. And when given an ultimatum, many do. “People are most able to change when they feel free not to.”

Live your values and learn what others value. Find avenues to link work with these deep, personal values at every opportunity. That is meaningful work.

In short, leadership is wholly volitional, decidedly not positional, and most effective when unconditional.

 

 

 

lovebot

 

Find your light

 

I’ve been collaborating with a colleague who teaches performing arts in putting together a “stage presence” workshop for educators and presenters. Our joint approach was sparked by a hallway conversation a few months ago about how stage and theatre performers have much in common with teachers: both need to foster an immediate, emotional connection with the audience/class, and both need to create and sustain an atmosphere of excitement, engagement and inspiration. In addition, all performers, teachers and presenters occasionally experience equipment malfunctions, bad venues, challenging audiences, and unexpected events. What separates the veterans from the beginners is in how we respond, improvise and model ‘grace under pressure’.

A common axiom among theatre performers is to “find your light”. That is, step out onto the stage and find the spotlight. Lately I’ve been thinking about the implications of metaphorically finding your light. In a classroom or lecture hall there aren’t usually spotlights and curtain calls, and the best educators are more occupied with facilitating students’ learning as opposed to occupying centre stage. So, what does finding your light mean in the context of presentation and teaching skills?

I think that in teaching and presenting, our “light” is our truest, most authentic self. If we can model authenticity in a group, with all of the attendant risk and vulnerability that entails, we encourage others to do the same. It is something of a paradox – approaching a presentation as a conversation versus a performance is the essence of great performance! Theatre ‘works’ when it’s a conversation with the audience (either explicitly in experimental theatre, or implicitly in traditional “never break the fourth wall” approaches). And while acting, by definition, involves assuming a character, great actors fully inhabit their character. All that we teachers/presenters have to do is fully inhabit ourselves.

There is something about stepping up to the front of the room that makes people freeze up. It’s a shame when that happens, because we are most engaged when we encounter others as their real selves. Finding your light is about shining your light – for all to see.

 

perfect daisy

 

What’s the ideal proportion of time spent doing the stuff you have to do, versus time spent doing whatever you want to do?

 

It was supposed to be a glorious day off until I had to schedule an urgent dental appointment. The only available opening was 4:15 pm, allowing ample time to anticipate the procedure and all its attendant aversive qualities. Did I mention that I loathe needles? An act of supreme courage carried me over the threshold and kept me in the chair.

The next morning, sore of mouth and jaw, I forced myself out of bed for an early meeting. Pelting rain. Juggling briefcase, handbag, umbrella, keys and coffee, I lost my footing on the slick wood surface of the back deck en route to the garage, my hot coffee making a graceful arc through the air and onto my just-dry-cleaned cream-coloured dress. Not a good look. Back into the house for a frantic wardrobe re-boot.

As I drove to work, I asked myself: in the ideal world, what proportion of my life would optimally be comprised of doing things that are enjoyable, versus the percentage of time spent in doing the myriad, often unpleasant or less pleasant, things I have to do. Including the things that are good for us. My initial calculation was approximately 70-30 (in favour of the more pleasant and enjoyable aspects of life). But then, I started thinking about values, learning, growth and expansiveness. After all, it’s the hard stuff that shapes us.

A couple of days later I’m still not sure what the perfect balance would be. Perhaps the proportion is supposed to vary, depending on timing and circumstance. For example, during a fabulous holiday it would be close to 90% in favour of doing whatever we want. In more challenging times, the times that really test what we’re made of, it can feel closer to 5%. I asked a friend what she thought. Her take was that there is no wanting or not wanting to do, there is only to be fully present in each moment (as in Buddhist non-attachment and mindfulness). Which I agreed sounded extremely wise, a lifelong learning journey in itself, and easier said than done.

The thing is, nothing beats the feeling of making it through tough times. The deep satisfaction of accomplishment, and the deeper happiness that comes from having made a meaningful difference.

After all of the rain, last night’s full moon took my breath away.

 

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rain drenched peony

 

I woke up early this morning to a magnificent summer storm.

 

The incomparable sound of rolling thunder and rain; finally quenching the thirsty garden and filling puddles for small wild things.

cute baby raccoon

water droplets on leaves

Step outside and smell the very essence of summer.

 

 

Vector illustration of 3d rings. Background design for banner, poster, flyer. Hand drawn watercolor paint splash.

 

The most important time we can spend is in developing the capacity of others

 

At a recent leadership institute where I co-facilitated, there was considerable discussion about the challenges of balancing operational or administrative responsibilities together with the inspirational, transformative and exciting work that is deeply satisfying and of the greatest organizational value. Participants shared that they often feel so bogged down in the day-to-day, it’s hard to find time to pursue strategic and innovative projects – let alone vision them!

I think this feels true for most administrators – in higher education or elsewhere. In a way, the conversation that the group had juxtaposes the polar opposites of a continuum: from managing through to leading. And in response to this dilemma, it was natural to get caught up in the “righting reflex“: collectively problem-solving around things like time management, setting priorities, finding efficiencies and performance management. However, upon reflection, these solutions were really management focused ideas. None of them got to the heart of the problem.

So…what would a leadership-focused approach look like? The shift in the room happened in response to a question that I’ve asked myself:

If every member of your team was working to their fullest capacity, expending their collective discretionary energy, and was truly excited by their work and contributions, how would that impact your own time and capacity?

This question opened up a whole new conversation, now centred squarely on leadership. The beauty of the question is that it highlights how supporting and developing our teams is the most essential role we have as administrators (that is, as leaders). The only way we can realize relentless innovation and thrive in conditions of rapid change is to open up a space for individuals to step into their own leadership potential.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Day-to-day operations will always need care and feeding, and engaging teams in distributed leadership is as much (or more) art as it is science. Plus, there may be very real resource inadequacies and/or employee performance concerns. However, on the whole, feeling overwhelmed by details is a symptom to pay attention to. It’s a cue to ask the above question and fearlessly look in the mirror.

And to ask a follow-up question: Where am I focusing, and what more can I be doing to unleash the potential of my team?

We all want meaningful work, to be inspired, to make a difference and have an impact. To be happy. Leadership isn’t just about increasing organizational productivity or freeing up more time for ourselves – when we invest in the capacity of others, that might just be the most deeply satisfying work we can do.

 

 

Plastic Toy Blocks for Child and Adults

Planning for Positive Change

In each of three previous posts, we looked at Motivational Interviewing (MI) as having four key processes and reviewed practice exercises targeting the first three processes:  engagingfocusing and evoking. In this article we examine the fourth MI process: planning.

Commitment language is predictive of behaviour change, and is distinct from preparatory change talk in that it embodies implementation intentions. Consider the following example:

commitment language continuum

Reference: Miller and Rollnick, 2012: 290

 

What’s the hurry?

Practitioners often rush toward action planning prematurely, resulting in clients’ reactance and disengagement. Learning to recognize – and strengthen – commitment language signals to us when it is appropriate to move toward the planning process in MI. Also, remember that the four processes are recursive. In other words, even when we hear strong commitment language, clients may still experience ambivalence (evoking process)  and decide to re-examine their goals (focusing process).  And, as always, we need to continuously engage and re-engage with the other person (engaging process).

 

Strategies to Strengthen Commitment

Here are some strategies to strengthen clients’ commitment for change:

  • Engaging in a supportive and collaborative working relationship
  • Focusing on clear goal(s) for change
  • Linking the person’s values with their goals
  • Evoking the person’s own motivations for change
  • Developing a specific change plan
  • Determining what step(s) the person is ready, willing and able to take.

 

MI commitment language

 

 

We can’t force a plant to grow, but plants are likely to thrive under the right conditions. What about human growth and realizing our potential? Motivational Interviewing provides the “right conditions” in which people can become ready, willing and able to make positive change.

 

Reflective Practice Questions

Consider a challenging client – one who does not seem to be making progress. Based on your understanding of the four processes of MI (engaging, focusing, evoking, planning), where do you think you need to be with this client? Are there avenues for small, incremental change that you could focus on to evoke commitment language? What might these be?

Come up with a reflection or a question that would evoke commitment language.

 

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