Author Archives: Sandy Wozniak

Plowing Through Tough Decisions by asking the Right Questions

Navigating winter storms takes on a whole new layer of complexity when it comes to school districts and decision making – ice, snow, floods, wind, and cold are all important considerations when it comes to making the call.  Using the pertinent questions from TregoED problem solving and decision-making frameworks can help you plow through these and other complex decisions with both speed and confidence.

These decisions often reflect what makes all education leadership decision-making difficult:

  • Urgency and deadlines
  • Elements (e.g. safety and risk assessment) that are top priority
  • A large variety of complex ramifications to consider
  • Multifaceted and sometimes unpredictable circumstances at play
  • Passionate and differing perspectives.

Whether your decisions be complex or relatively simple, emergency or routine, making good decisions requires the same basic ingredients:  criteria, priorities, risk evaluation and implementation plans.  Using a question-driven framework to help you gather and utilize those ingredients is the heart of strategic decision making.  Having those questions in mind, whether you are following the full framework or just need a quick overview, ensures that you will have considered all the relevant issues.

There’s more

But getting it right is not the only benefit to having strategic decision-making skills as a leader.  Increasing your leadership capacity in decision making can provide:

  • Skills for effective, enduring solutions in a wide range of situations
  • Increased confidence in the end result
  • Better handling of conflict and/or involvement of others
  • Greater commitment from participants
  • Greater trust and transparency
  • Increase time efficiency

Want to hear more about complex decision making in practice?  Read  https://districtadministration.com/making-complex-decisions-with-confidence-and-clarity/

Interested in a 30 minute webinar?  Register today for our February webinar Streamlining Thinking for  Quick Decision Making.

Collaboration: Not always easy, but always worth it!

Great minds don’t always think alike – as a matter of fact, having a variety of thoughts and opinions often can help you come up with a better strategy or solution to challenges that lie ahead. In fact, Temple Grandin strongly advocates for inclusive thinking championing the idea that when great minds don’t think alike there is more likely to be great innovation.  Involving stakeholders gives you the opportunity to hear different perspectives and ideas, clarify needs, and maximize resources to develop a coordinated and cohesive plan.

How do you wrangle different perspectives?

How do you coordinate and facilitate large groups with differing viewpoints and make them all feel like their voices were heard and considered?  Using collaborative tools or a step-by-step strategy to collect, organize and utilize information can be the key to peaceful and satisfying conversations around complex topics.

Knowing the importance of community involvement in matters of planning and funding, Tuscaloosa City Schools (GA) trained 28 facilitators to gather input from internal and external community members in ten face-to-face sessions – giving 1400 people a voice. Using a modified SCAN framework, facilitators were able to build an understanding of community priorities around future planning and funding.

From our schools to the White House (to Thanksgiving Dinner), managing community engagement over hot button issues has become a struggle. Using a solid process, like SCAN can help you collect, analyze, and prioritize input to help you make difficult decisions and develop better, well-supported solutions.

We congratulate Tuscaloosa City Schools for their comprehensive work and their commitment to their students and strategic use of TregoED tools not only to benefit current students, but to bring about systemic change that will benefit future students. TCS Schools – we like the way you think!

Tuscaloosa Team Demonstrates Strategic Steps to Success

As we approach the end of the calendar year, schools are just getting started.  Many schools all over the US have lots of new and different” initiatives in the works.

Those initiatives may be focused on areas as widespread as achievement gaps, attendance, equity, safety, etc., but the basics of implementing a successful initiative remain the same:

  1. Work collaboratively to develop a cohesive coordinated plan.
  2. Use internal and external stakeholders to maximize resources.
  3. Implement the plan with proactive steps.

We worked recently with Tuscaloosa City School’s College and Career Readiness Team, led by Director Kelly Norstrom, to develop a comprehensive plan to prepare students for success beyond high school in an ever-evolving world.  Their commitment to follow the three basic steps outlined above helped them find solutions, resources and achieve excellent results.  They invited a diverse group of internal and external stakeholders including industry leaders, community leaders, counselors, administrators, parents, and students to be engaged in the process from start to finish.  By doing this, they were able to maximize the impact of the school system’s and surrounding community’s resources.  Following the above steps made them more cognizant of how they plan, who they plan with and how they communicate.

Based on the results of Tuscaloosa’s College and Career Readiness Initiative, they were awarded the Benjamin B. Tregoe Award for Strategic Leadership in Education. We congratulate them for the results that they achieved through their strategic efforts.  For more information on how the Tuscaloosa City Schools approached their challenge and their results read this Success Story.

.

What Keeps School Leaders Up at Night?

When we recently asked current administrators “What keeps you up at night?” one thing that they all mentioned was that increased community involvement brought increased (and often stressful) preparation for (or rehashing of) difficult conversations.

Many times, going into a difficult conversation – whether it be with parents, colleagues, students, or community members – you prepare yourself with talking points as if you are preparing for a debate. If you indeed do have the conversation – you might “hear” the “other side,” but you hear it through your own filters, or you may jump the gun, anticipating points and in an effort to make your points and never hear the other side.

Focus on what’s right, not who is right

Without developing some kind of understanding, difficult conversations can go south very quickly.  When trust and understanding fall by the wayside, outcomes become less than satisfactory. Going into a difficult conversation with the right questions rather than the right answers can help you achieve a collaborative, satisfying resolution.

Process can help

Using a variation of SCAN – Situation Appraisal – can help you prepare for difficult conversations.

Step 1 See the issues:  set the stage for a conversation rather than a debate by setting the tone and purpose and demonstrate neutrality – ask questions like these to get their perspective:

e.g., “Can you tell me what your concerns are?”   “What do you see as the real problem?

Listen for information: feelings, concerns, fears, goals, “words behind words.”

End Result:   Building TRUST

Step 2 clarify – ask questions that will help you separate opinions from facts, listen intently, clarify similarities and differences identify common ground.

e.g., “What do you mean by?” “Can you explain so I understand?”

Listen for similarities and differences and identify common ground.

End Result: You’re on the same page!        

Step 3 Determine priorities-use common ground to develop “musts” to drive solutions.

e.g., “what is the most serious of your concerns?” “What concerns can either of us put aside for the time being?” “If we don’t address this concern what could be the consequences?”

End Result: “MUSTs” are agreed upon

Step 4 determine solution and plan for success:  Develop a collaborative action plan (with built-in monitoring)

e.g., “How would you suggest we resolve this?”  “What significantly is impacting getting the job done?”

“Can we make a timeline for project completion?”  “If we don’t do something, what are the consequences?”

 

End Result: An agreement owned by all

Difficult conversations that are not managed well—either avoided or not resolved—result in unsatisfactory resolutions.  The SCAN process can help you ensure stakeholder input with defensible conclusions and solutions with clear rationale.  Proactive planning for the difficult conversations that lie ahead can give you and your constituents increased understanding and satisfaction with actions needed.

 

 

 

7.3 Miles – A Lesson in Leadership

Traffic on city Streets

Pix4free.org – link to – https://pix4free.org/

With the suitcases loaded in the rental car and the girls buckled in the backseat, we set off on our mini adventure into New York City. Our agenda was set and Central Park was loaded into Waze for directions. Although I had been to New York several times, I had never driven in the city. It can’t be that hard, right? I mean, I know how to parallel park a school bus. Surely, I handle driving in one of the busiest cities in the world.

I quickly realized that there was nothing I could have done to prepare for this 7.3 mile drive. With my grip tightening on the steering wheel at every turn, I did my best to adapt to the rules (unwritten and written) of driving in the city. As much as I wanted to slow down, or even pull over just to get my bearings, I knew I had to push through and keep going in order to keep up. Several traffic violations and almost accidents later (all self reported of course), we made it to Central Park. I was overwhelmed and exhausted.

As we begin yet another school year, I cannot help but think of all the parents, students, and educators who are navigating a new school year. Whether it is the same school as last year, the start of a new school year always brings a nervous and overwhelming excitement. Unfortunately, the past doesn’t always prepare us for the new – new teachers, new friends, new routines, new experiences.

The trip before all of us this school year is so much greater than the 7.3 miles that stood between me and getting my family to Central Park. Education leaders are tasked with the enormous challenge of leading their students, staff members, and school communities through another school year all while dealing with teacher shortages, increasing dissension regarding public education, gaps in student achievement, disproportionality in schools, chronic absenteeism, and the list goes on.

Thus, we have to resist the urge to grip down on the proverbial steering wheel just to get through. There is simply too much at stake. Our communities need to see our schools as examples of inclusivity where each and every child is valued and encouraged to reach their full potential.

Our destination is set. Will it be hard? Yes, but as the late Dr. Rita Pierson once said, “We can do this. We are educators. We were born to make a difference.”

____________________________

As a non-profit organization, TregoED would love to have the opportunity to lead with you on your journey this school year (and hopefully beyond). We specialize in building individual and district capacity in collaborative problem solving and decision making. At the core of who we are is an unyielding belief that investing in education leaders has the highest potential for benefiting the entire school community.

30 Years of Change in Education – What remains the same?

The problems that educators face today have changed over the last 3 years, never mind the last 30.  What has stayed the same?  A good approach still works every time!

We recently asked TregoED process users “What is the most critical issue on your plate right now?”:  academic recovery, finances, school safety, mental health, or staffing? These multiple-choice answers gave us a nice-looking graph, but speaking face to face to school leaders at a conference recently, I got a different picture.  They added the everyday perennial challenges of parents, student behavior, etc.  and made it clear, that it was not any one issue, but the onslaught of many issues that was plaguing them.

Ed Leaders: What is the most critical issue on your plate right now?

Chat Bot Chimes In

I then asked ChatGPT  what the biggest issues in education were 30 years ago in 1993 – and after a disclaimer that it did not exist in 1993 therefore had no personal experience- it listed these issues:

  1. Funding
  2. Standardized testing
  3. Diversity and inclusion (in curriculum as well as teaching staff and administration)
  4. Technology
  5. Dropout rates
  6. Violence in Schools

Sound familiar?

Everything is different.  Nothing’s changed. 

While we can’t control what the issues are, we can control our approach and increase the odds of a successful resolution.  Our approach to issues over the past 30 years has not changed – we use research based, proven TregoED processes to help district leaders deal with complex issues using a collaborative approach based on a series of proven questions that will lead leaders to the best possible solutions. Using stakeholder input has always been a key component of the process, with results that are both visible and defensible.

We deeply appreciate the dedication and passion that education leaders bring to the table every day to address the myriad of issues that impact the education of our children.  We feel fortunate and grateful to be able to help them make the tough decisions that ultimately serve the needs of the children in their care.  With the increase in complexity of problems, people, and data over the last 30 years, the need for a proven, transparent, data driven process to develop lasting and effective solutions is a must.

Top 5 Critical Issues in Education in 2023

Pix4free.org – link to – https://pix4free.org/

Critical: (crit·i·cal)

  1. having the potential to become disastrous, at a point of crisis
  2. having decisive or crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence of something.

Education leaders are facing serious issues in 2023 driven by a period of disruption – a worldwide pandemic, divisive politics, prevalent gun violence, and financial crisis.  Looking at a study of trends to watch in 2023 at least 5 of these trends have risen to the definition of critical in every sense of the word:

  1. Student safety– just when you think that you have heard the worst possible gun violence headlines, events that “could never happen in your district” have happened in districts that have said the same thing.  What will you do to pre-emptively ensure the physical and mental safety and security of the children in your school?
  2. Mental health – the mental health issues our children, staff members, family members, community members have all been exacerbated by the past years of polarizing politics, isolation, and fear. Besides the extreme results of poor mental health (see #1) student mental health issues are now considered the #1 learning obstacle.
  3. Teacher and staff shortages (see 1 & 2) – staffing shortages, especially in the area of special education, have forced districts to look for creative and innovative solutions. The difficulty of finding, hiring, and retaining staff has affected the daily operations of many school districts.
  4. Academic Recovery – a new study indicates that our students have lost up to 1/3 of a school years’ worth of knowledge and skills. What will student assessment look like and how will we address the inequitable legacy and economic disparity that have been compounded by the pandemic?
  5. School Finances – Significant changes to school finances due to the looming Covid spending deadlines, the implication of the May 11th end to the Covid public health emergency, shifting student populations, etc. will force decisions with wide implications and potential polarizing outcomes including school closings, staffing issues, etc.

On the heels of COVID, education leaders are facing an inordinate number of critical decisions and issues. Critical decisions require critical thinking – “exercising or involving careful judgement or judicious evaluation.” These issues call for collaborative work and creative solutions.  They call for transparent thinking processes – the ability to break down problems into manageable pieces – and the ability to “show your work.”  They call for deliberate and step by step approaches that guide the discussion, clarify your understanding, prioritize your criteria according to your district’s needs and wants, creatively develop options, weigh the risks and determine what needs to be done.

All district actions, big and small, are facing intense scrutiny …..from selecting a book to closing school buildings…and all deserve the benefits of critical thinking – a judicious evaluation – using solid processes like Situation Appraisal or Decision Analysis.  Critical thinking will enhance your efforts and elevate you solutions to ensure that you get the best possible results for your district with transparency and support.

 

Making Decisions Under Pressure Requires Patience

“Pressure!”(With apologies to Billy Joel)

Spending deadline’s coming up

Pressure!

You had better not screw this up

Pressure!

You have the money, now’s the time to spend

But here you are with your wants and your needs and your shortages and such

Your regulations and your tests and your parents and the rest

It’s all just

Pressure!

pressure

Superintendents, new and experienced alike, are faced with unprecedented funding and opportunities to remedy some of the effects and inequities caused by or brought to light by the Covid Pandemic.  With deadlines looming there is a lot of pressure to both spend the money and get it right!

Time is of the essence

Time seems to be a major source of that stress – time to assess what’s working, what needs are, and what can be done in the time allotted. Slow reimbursements, confusing requirements, materials delays, staffing shortages, and changing legislature have added to the pile. As the National Report Card just reported huge losses in math and reading, the urgency for investing in academic recovery, demonstrating positive results and planning for the future are now even more apparent.  Hardly seems like the time to slow down the decision making, does it?  But that is exactly what needs to be done to achieve the results that you are looking for.

With great spending comes great responsibility  

Take the time to get it right.

Take the time to:  Clarify your goals

Take the time to:  Define what you need in the results

Take the time to:  Consider your objectives and evaluate each alternative against your objectives or criteria

Take the time to:  Weigh the risks

Using a process (like Decision Analysis) that incorporates all the above considerations is the key to making the best possible decision for your American Rescue Plan spending as well as other crucial decisions involving investing in materials, building renovations, transportation, and personnel.  Shared decision making (not the “we made the decision and now we’re sharing it with you” type) is the key to collecting the best information to drive your decision making.  While it may take more time, having the right information and people involved saves you both time and money and the possibility of getting it wrong in the long run.

Make Your Meetings Matter

Looking forward to your next meeting?  In many cases, the answer to that question is “nope.”  Many meetings have been viewed as at worst – time-sucking obligations, mind-numbing information dumps, frustrating rehashes and/or contentious public forums of off-track topics, or at best dull and uninspiring.  Holding meetings in an online platform has only amplified those negative views. So, how do you make meetings matter?

How do you avoid the most common pitfalls of meetings? Let’s tackle each, one at a time.

Pitfall #1:  The Time Suck or “my time could have been spent better or this could have been done in an email.”

Solution:  Planning, planning and more planning. Determine what the purpose of the meeting is, who needs to attend it and what is the best format or process to use. Meetings that are efficient in design start with an agenda based on efficient and proven processes like Situation Appraisal, keep discussions focused on the business at hand and are driven by powerful questions that are designed to gather information and perspectives.

Pitfall #2: The unproductive meeting or “didn’t we talk about this last week? Month? Year?”

Solution:  Build accountability and tracking into your action plan.  When you record each issue and the action you need to take to address it, you also need to determine “by whom? And by when?”  Including a responsible name next to each action and a due date keeps people accountable and makes supervision or “checkups” or “report ins” both automatic and expected.

Pitfall #3 Conflict or “we’re going to need a bigger room”

Solution:  When you know you are stepping into a meeting where the issues being addressed are liable to be emotional, plan ahead to ensure that situation will be addressed in a transparent, collaborative manner.  Frame the discussion in a way that reflects an unbiased approach.  Listen and record input to build a shared understanding of the issues and keep the discussion from devolving by using a clearly delineated and understood process.  In Paul Axtell’s book Meeting Matters, he outlines the 4 C’s of effective meetings:  Clarity, Candor, Commitment, and Completion.  We might also add collaboration and conversation driven by a predetermined set of powerful questions.

 

Pitfall #4 Poor Communication or “did you hear what happened at the meeting last night?  I saw on Facebook that….”

Solution:

People have their own perceptions, hidden agendas, interpretations, self-image, values, priorities, experience which can determine both what they say and what they hear.  Make it part of your plan to clearly communicate about decisions that are made.  Determine who needs to know what, in what sequence and time frame.  Include clear rationale for why certain actions will be taken. Nothing erodes trust and confidence quicker than hearing about the new policy that directly affects you from the kids or reading it on social media.

Plan for success

The key to meetings that matter is planning every step from determining the purpose of the meeting to communicating the results using a clear and transparent process that allows you to get the best thinking from all involved.  Taking the time to think through the entire meeting process will help you gain the trust and understanding that you need to get the commitment for success.

 

3 Tips for Leading Difficult Conversations

Gun violence, Student safety, CRT…oh my!  Issues that bring out resistance, reactions, strong emotions, frustration can make for difficult decisions and daunting conversations. Using a well-thought-out approach can help you lead/facilitate those conversations resulting in collaborative solutions.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki explores the intriguing and well‐substantiated idea that the collective judgment of many people is almost always better than the opinions of just a few even the experts.  People have their own perceptions, interpretations, values, and experiences which can help us get a more well-rounded understanding of the problem at hand.  Collaboration improves quality, increases commitment, and sends powerful messages about value for others (Creating and Sustaining Decision-Making Excellence).  When anticipating difficult conversations, plan your approach with these 3 steps in mind:

  1. Listen and learn. “Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.” (Krista Tippett on Listening) The need to be heard is one of the most powerful motive forces in human nature…” (Why Listening is So Important).   Listening gives you the opportunity to learn perspectives, goals, content, intentions, and plans.  Acknowledging other perspectives without judgement gives rise to respect and appreciation.  That respect and appreciation go a long way in helping improve staff and community relationships essential to successful implementation of action plans.

 

  1. Gain clarity. Asking the right questions, for example, from the Situation Appraisal Process, can help you develop a comprehensive, shared understanding of the issues at hand. Probing questions like:  What seems to be important? What threats and opportunities do we face? What do you mean by? What else is of concern to you?  What is the seriousness?  What is the urgency?  What is the potential growth?  can help you delve deeper into understanding the issue or problem at hand.

 

  1. Stay focused and centered. When you have a clear road map or process to follow up front, you can steer the conversation back to the main objectives to avoid getting stuck or lose focus to those who are trying to drive the conversation elsewhere.  Keeping the conversation focused on the issues at hand helps you continue to move forward efficiently, removing high emotions from the table.

The benefits of different perspectives and experiences can bring greater understanding of the issues at hand and more successful actions taken.  The risks inherent in divisive topic discussions – wasted time, outburst of emotion, and conflict- can be avoided by being prepared for difficult discussions with a pre-determined process.