Teaching Opinion

Learning Through My Own Mental Models and Organizational Frames

By Starr Sackstein — August 05, 2018 7 min read
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Throughout my leadership coursework, I’ve been asked to reflect on a number of different things.

In one class that I really enjoyed, we had excellent reading materials that often encouraged me to dig deep into my new experiences, watching closely what I was feeling and thinking to tackle new experiences while also charged with leading a team.

Some of my thoughts below are taken from throughout my first few months in the position and looking back now really ring true.

More recently, I’ve started reading and listening to Leadership on the Line and many of the experiences you’ll read about below can be worked through considering the view from the balcony as well as owning my part in it all.

I share the thoughts below, as I reflect on them and hope to help folks see inside my challenges and perhaps some of their own by proxy...

As a new school leader, I struggled with switching my thinking from teacher to leader and then more saliently with the culture of the school that I’ve become a part of.

In existence, before my arrival was a structure, culture, and expectation in each of the departments I now lead. So in addition to the challenge of becoming a new leader, I’ve also had to learn what the expectations of individual sub-groups were, especially after I’d be informed that I didn’t need to worry about them because they were “independent” or “self-sufficient”.

Both of these words at the start seemed entrenched in deeply held dogma and expectations that did anything but invite me in willingly.

Since I’ve started the position in September, I’ve noticed a lot of things that Senge, Bolman, and Deal have stated in their books. The most glaring parts of that resonate for me for are those about mental models, the structural frame and challenges with politics as they apply to the individual departments as sub-groups and the teachers’ union.

As an educator and school leader, I’ve always been dedicated to my own personal mastery and then committed to the development of those around me, at the time, my students. Since my current team has not been expected to change much in a long time for a variety of different reasons that are outside of their control, they have become apathetic and annoyed that change is on the way. This, of course, isn’t everyone, but it is enough of the team that it sometimes feels like I’m fighting an upstream battle. Those who are interested in personal development and enhancing the team are often ostracized which doesn’t create a culture where the Fifth Discipline can exist.

It seems that my own personal mental models, as well as those of the collective group, are currently standing in our way. Structurally, these groups have never functioned as one, but six separate departments with varying levels of expectations. Teacher “leaders” have emerged because of this older structure and they have been helpful in helping me understand the old structures and expectations. Having this information has helped me see things differently when approaching change with the group.

Something that resonated for me as I read Senge “new insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting” (Senge 163). This works for both sides of the equation, me because of my own expectations aren’t aligned with the group’s psyche and them because of what they are expecting of me that may or may not be the truth. That in itself is an assumption and as a group, Senge suggests we examine these assumptions to be able to see the ultimate issues and plan better for them. By working together and reflecting on these ideas, we can possibly chart a new course that could bring us closer to the fifth discipline.

Desperate to not make the agenda mine, but ours, I’m eager to present ideas in a way that is both palatable and democratic to the staff, so that they feel respected and heard using the human resources frame. As an educator, this has always been a strength of mine as this is how I ran my classroom too.

Voice matters and ownership of the learning and decisions must be authentic for buy-in. I recognize that. Working with adult learners, however, has presented many expected and unexpected challenges that students rarely presented. One area that this is particularly true is with the articulating of what is not being said in conversations. When change has to happen for the betterment of the team and our student community, the conversations must be had and they must be done appropriately.

Because of the way structural hierarchies work, the frame of me being the boss because of the organizational structure, it pits me against the teachers instead of aligned with them. I have insisted that I am a humble member of the team, looking to get to know folks and build relationships so that we can make a better, more cohesive and connected learning environment for all students and hopefully make a place that each member of the team enjoys coming to work in each day. But many of my team have ignored or left to their own wills and they haven’t been interested in my feedback. I reflect on this a lot. Where can I make inroads and how can I do it in a way the is authentic and meaningful. As I’ve been reading through Reframing Organizations and thinking back on Fullan’s article about the wrong driver’s in education, I’ve been seeing more dynamic ways of working with our team.

What was surprising to me, was the political frame and how this really about competing interests. In my case, it is the interest of individual departments unwilling to think of themselves as a part of something bigger because they are tied to each other based on the content they teach.

I have spent the vast majority of my time focusing on building real relationships with my team, allowing them to get to know me and trying to humble myself to learn about what they are doing. Visiting classes, providing feedback, noticing positives and focusing on them is one way I have sought to engender trust so that we can push deeper along. I know I can’t change everything at once, but I have certainly made note of the many gaps I’ve recognized as an outsider and the current plan is to help the group identify them on their own, particularly in terms of the assumptions about our department. Because some change will be implemented next year, I’ve worked to get key teachers involved in sidebar conversations to provide insight about the whole group. Listening attentively, I work to see between their less direct statements and make mental notes to reflect on. As we begin to set the agenda for next year, I have begun collecting resources and consider learning experiences that can inspire the group to work together as a whole. Using my human resources frame, I can sometimes work around the structural frame to put things into perspective.

In my other life, before I was a school leader, I existed as both a classroom teacher and a thought leader in the field of education. Frequently speaking to audiences around the world about the books I’ve written in terms of changing pedagogy and enhancing student learning. I was truly a champion for my students and my colleagues. My team doesn’t know me this way and I don’t want them to, (okay, maybe I’d like them to see me this way a little; at least to trust that I am an expert in the field), but I want them to see that I can offer them real feedback and advice to improve their practice without too much additional work; in fact, if they worked smarter, not harder, they’d be inclined to really be more efficient.

Since being in both of these classes about leadership and theory, I’ve become acutely aware of my role in the challenges and have reflected on it in great length and will continue to. Recognizing the need to see things through different frames and not allow assumptions to cloud the conversation, I hope to make a more cohesive team for the department and for our students. Learning and navigating personal relationships is challenging, so as I prepare to hire three new members of our team, I have many thoughts in my head. Aside from more progressive teaching, I need folks who are hungry and can bring an outside perspective. They need to be knowledgeable and personable and ready to see themselves as a part of a larger team that isn’t just their content area.

Overall, the reading we have done has given me a lot to think about and every time I read more, I feel like more makes sense. I’m certain that I will use these readings as reference material moving forward and am eager to try out what I have learned. The future will tell if my own personal mastery, reflective practice, systems thinking can help to build a shared vision with my team.

Cited Sources:

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership(3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The Fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization(2nd ed.). New York: Currency and Doubleday.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.