Friday, December 27, 2013

Five Leadership Lessons from "A Christmas Story"

Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary
Rock Island-Milan School District 41
Milan, Illinois

I suppose like many of you, I spent more than a little time this holiday season watching "A Christmas Story" and once again reliving Ralphie Parker's quest to receive his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time) for Christmas. It's a great story and one I connect with on many levels. However, somewhere around my tenth viewing of the movie this year, I began viewing it through a new lens and I realized there were some leadership lessons I could learn from young Mr. Parker and his family. Here they are.

1) Know What it is You Want and Set a Plan for Getting It--We've heard it said a hundred different ways--neither action without a plan nor a plan without action are going to get you what you want.  Ralphie may not have been able to articulate that but he certainly showed he understood it. From early in the movie, we see Ralphie working his parents at every turn to get that Red Ryder BB Gun. Think about that scene at the beginning of the movie when he put the Red Ryder advertisement inside his mother's Look magazine. This was the beginning of a complex effort that didn't always work out the way he planned, but in the end (spoiler alert!) his efforts got him what he wanted.

Lesson: Be able to clearly articulate what it is you want and set a plan for making it a reality.

2) Be Agile and Seize Opportunities When They Present Themselves--Not everything went Ralphie's way but when they didn't he was able to quickly think on his feet and adjust his plan. Consider the scene at the kitchen table when Ralphie's mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas. So eager was he for the coveted "blue steel beauty", that he blurted out exactly what he wanted--"A Red Ryder 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Oooooooohh." Almost immediately he recognized his error and "immediately began to rebuild the dike" saying, "I was just kidding. Even though Flick is getting one. I guess I just want some Tinker Toys." Realizing that his mom "would never buy it", the wheels began turning to come up with yet another plan. Three different plans in 30 seconds. Not bad.

Ralphie and Randy's mom was also an expert in agility.  How many of us would be able to come up with "How do the little piggies eat?" when Randy wouldn't eat his dinner and the "starving people in China" comment didn't do the trick?  As disgusting as the piggy trick might have been, there's no denying that it got the job done.

Lesson: The ability and willingness to be agile and to take a path that might deviate from the original one can be an important attribute in getting us to our end goal, whether it be a BB gun, getting your kid to eat a meal, or getting a group of people to see a new way of doing things.

3) You Don't Have to Go at It Alone----Ralphie encountered so many setbacks in his quest for his Red Ryder.  When Ralphie looked around and appeared to be alone, he searched for allies.  He turned to Miss Shields who offered him a chance to articulate his wish in the theme, "What I Want for Christmas".  When it appeared that he was never going to get his parents to come around to the idea of a BB gun, Ralphie turned to Santa.  He sought out those he thought might be able to help him reach his goal. Now, the allies he enlisted didn't always help him get what he wanted, but Ralphie realized he needed help, and asked for it.  And let's not forget, it was Ralphie's father at the end of the movie who turned out to be his greatest ally.

Lesson: You can accomplish more by enlisting the help of others than you can possibly accomplish alone.  Don't be afraid to ask.

4) Set Aside Time to Reflect--When all seemed lost with his parents, Ralphie decided to turn to Santa for help.  When did he decide to do this?  When he was in bed, it was quiet, and he had time to reflect on what had gone wrong, where he was, and what he needed to do.

Lesson: Find some quiet time during each day to reflect.  It can lead you in directions you might never have considered otherwise.  (Principals, this next bit is just for you.  You may have been sold a bill of goods that you should NEVER shut your door during the day and you should ALWAYS be accessible.  Nonsense.  Time for reflection is an important part of your job.  Shutting your door for 15 minutes out of a ten hour day is not only acceptable, it's essential. Stop feeling unnecessarily guilty about it and get it done.)

5) Stay Positive in Spite of Setbacks (Turn Adversity Into Opportunity)--A classic scene in the movie occurs when the Bumpus's dogs come storming into the kitchen and destroy Christmas dinner.  Ralphie's mom was practically inconsolable.  Ralphie and Randy were in shock.  What did the Old Man say?  After letting his initial anger abate, the Old Man shifted gears and said, "Alright! Everyone upstairs and get dressed.  We are going out to eat."  He led his family and showed them that they weren't going to wallow in self-pity or anger at the Hillbilly Bumpuses and their dogs  No way.  They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and discovered the delights of "Chinese Turkey" and being serenaded by the wait staff singing "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells".  They would never have created this cherished memory if not for the Bumpuses "mangy hounds" and their assault on the Parker kitchen.

Lesson: Positivity is a choice. You can let setbacks bring you down, or you can look for the opportunities in them to create a different path to your destination.  What do we want for our families at Christmas?  To create memories that our kids will carry with them forever.  The Parkers created a memory and while it was certainly different from the one they intended, I would posit that it was probably better.

I don't intend this to be an exhaustive list of the qualities that effective leaders need to possess, just lessons I was able to glean from "A Christmas Story".  I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and the leadership lessons you may have taken away from the movie.  I would invite you to comment on this post and share your ideas!  And, as always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Eight Rules to Effectively Deal with Upset Parents

Mike Nitzel
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan School District #41
Milan, Illinois

Effective educators love to interact with others. We like people or we wouldn't do what we do. And while most of the time our interactions with other people are likely very pleasant, there will be those times when we will need to deal with parents who are upset for one reason or another. While most of us don't like confrontation, especially with parents or guardians who are upset, we should bear in mind that confrontation in and of itself does not need to be a bad thing. Confrontation can help us get to the other side of a problem or an issue. However, what we seek is productive confrontation of issues. Like it or not, it is up to us to make sure that any confrontation becomes productive and seeks to resolve the issue or issues at hand. Here are a few simple rules I try to follow to handle confrontations with upset parents.

1) LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN--Educators are problem-solvers. It's who we are and what we do. But as a result, we often have a tendency to want to jump in and start talking right away in an effort to get to a resolution. Don't. When parents who are angry about this or that want to come in and talk to you, let them get whatever is bothering them off of their chests. Sometimes it's not pleasant, but most of the time the opportunity to just air their grievances without being interrupted, to simply say what they want to say, is the first step to reaching resolution to the issue. Sometimes it's all they need. Everyone who is upset about something needs to know that they are being listened to. Let them know at the beginning of your conversation that you would like to take notes and then take careful notes of what they're saying. You will be able to refer back to them later when it's your turn to talk and you will be able to deal with their issues without interrupting them.   

2) PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING--Give your upset parents your full attention. Provide non-verbal cues that let them know you are listening. At an appropriate time, reflectively listen and clarify; say something to the effect of, "What I hear you saying is…. Is that correct?" However, avoid interrupting and attempting to refute what they are saying point for point. You'll get your chance to talk.  This is why you're taking notes. Look back at them when it's your turn to talk.  

3) WATCH YOUR NON-VERBAL CUES--Actions do speak louder than words. You can tell your upset parents all you want that your interested in what they have to say, but if your body language says something different, that's what they will listen to. Be cognizant of your facial expressions. For heaven's sake do NOT roll your eyes, slump in your chair, play with papers or exhale loudly as a result of their comments. Be rational and practice active listening.  

4) DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY--Sometimes this is easier said than done but it is so important.  We work with kids. We put our hearts and souls into what we do. We take our work personally.  However, we can't afford to take what others are saying personally, especially when they are angry.  To do so will only escalate conflict. Upset parents can say some unfair and frankly ugly things sometimes. We could react emotionally. Don't. We need to help de-escalate and help get everyone to a rational place where we can all work together to come up with solutions. We can all be emotional. We should expect our parents to be emotional about their kids, especially if they think their kids have been wronged. It shows they care. Meet emotionalism with rationality. You can blow off steam later if you need to. In appropriate ways, of course!  

5) USE COMMON VERNACULAR AND AVOID EDUCATIONAL JARGON--Nothing can escalate a situation more than making people feel that they are being talked down to. It's thoughtless and disrespectful. Get rid of the acronyms and talk to people in ways that they understand. We speak a different language in our work; we use terms like "standards-based grading", "formative assessment" and "RtI". We can't afford to assume that everyone knows what the heck we're talking about. Think about how you feel when you go to the doctor and she uses a bunch of terminology that you don't understand. It's scary and intimidating. Would you rather your doctor tell you that "have a little bump we want to take a closer look at" or "you have a 2 cm lesion that bears further testing and closer scrutiny"? Many of us don't ask questions for fear of looking ignorant, or worse. We shouldn't put anyone in that position if we are seeking resolution to a situation. Resolution begins with an understanding of the variables of the situation and that can only happen if we're all speaking the same language.  

6) PROXIMITY--Used appropriately, this can be your best friend. It's really hard to be angry with someone who's physically close to you. If you feel physically safe in the situation, try not to put a desk between you and the person you're talking to. Sit next to them, making sure not to invade their personal space. My friend Jimmy Casas (I strongly urge you to follow him @casas_jimmy if you're not already) taught me a great technique that I've found to be very effective. If it's appropriate, try to begin your conversation in the main or outer office. Sit down right next to the person and say something to the effect of, "I can see that you're pretty upset. I'm here to help. How can I help get us to the other side of this?" It's pretty difficult for someone to let the expletives fly in front of an office full of people. Once they've begun talking calmly and quietly, that's a good time to move into your office.  

7) PRACTICE CULTURAL COMPETENCY--Understand that not everyone agrees on what is polite or socially acceptable. As our cultural diversity has broadened, so has the definition of "polite" and "acceptable". Don't assume that a person who is not looking directly at you is being impolite. In some cultures, it is rude and disrespectful TO look someone in the eyes. For others, language you might consider rude or disrespectful is just a part of their regular, everyday speech. Be careful of correcting someone who's manner of speaking we might believe to be rude. Be careful of saying things like, "We don't talk like that in this office." Keep your eye on the ball. Remember what you're looking for is a resolution to the issues. We all look at the world through our own lenses, but in situations involving confrontation you will be well-served by practicing a bit of empathy and cultural sensitivity.  

8) FOLLOW UP--I find this to be the most missed opportunity in conflict resolution and in building productive relationships. Once you've reached consensus with your parents on how to deal with an issue and you've had an opportunity to put a plan in place, pick up the phone and call the parents you're working with. Ask them how things are going and if there is anything else you can do. Let them know that you're always there to assist them with issues they have and that you genuinely appreciate their concerns. How many times have we lamented uninvolved parents? Parents who are upset are parents who care. Leverage that. Not only let them know you appreciate them and their concerns, work to find meaningful ways to get them involved in the life of your school. They can become your best allies. It's true. I've seen it and lived it.  

These are just a few simple rules that I have found effective in dealing with angry parents. I'm sure you have more that have worked for you. I would love to hear them! Please feel free to comment on this post and share your ideas. And, as always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!