Leading Your Student Tribe: Excellence v. Greatness

In a recent Tribal Leadership Coaching Challenge course, participants were asked to distinguish between excellence and greatness. I began to think about that in light of the educational experience.

One of the things that emerged among the twitter conversation on the subject (#tlcc) was that excellence is a competitive, individual aspiration while greatness is something that groups of people achieve as they work together toward a common, noble goal.

In the classroom, I have seen see this happen. Some days some of my students, perhaps even many of them depending on the day, perform excellently. They aspire to do so. Those with that aspiration engage the topic, answer questions, etc. I like it when students do that. What I’ve become sensitive to, though, is that it is a very dyadic interaction, me (the prof) and one student, then another student, then another student in the presence of a class full of students. At the end of those days, I sometimes believe that I did a competent job, but I am tired from working hard managing the class, which includes trying to engage the disengaged and be encouraging, but controlling the over-engaged.

I also know that there are days when I have walked out of a class saying, “Man, that was a great class today.” I feel on top of the world and so do the students. Reflecting on those in light of Tribal Leadership perspectives has led me to realize that those were days when I disappeared from the class, that is my role as classroom manager disappeared. On those days, We engaged learning together, triadic conversations developed. On those days, the synergy left me and my students energized, not drained.

I’ve seen it happen and now I see my task is to develop strategies to shift the classroom culture from stage 3 to stage 4 quickly so that we can experience great days together, not merely witness excellent individual performances.

I can see now why John King, one of the co-authors of Tribal Leadership is so excited and hopeful when he talks to members of orchestral and dance groups. In those settings, individual performances may be excellent, but unless everyone is working together toward a great overall performance, it’s hard to listen to or watch them. The same is true, though less obvious in the classroom.


Tribal Leadership in Education

Faculty members make up a tribe.  Students make up a tribe.  It may be that the students and faculty in a course make up a tribe.  If you want to know how to make a tribe really work, then it is imperative that you read David Logan, John King, and Hallee Fischer-Wright’s Tribal Leadership.  In brief, the authors say this:

There are five types of tribes that identify themselves by the way they talk about their place in the world, which in turn indicates the way they interact with their world. According to Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright, these tribes are in fact people who live in a worldview that can be upgraded one step at a time toward the goal of a self-actualized community.  They categorize the tribal stages as follows:

  1. Stage 1 tribes believe and say things like “Life sucks.”  People in such tribes are often raging individuals who don’t think resorting to violence to get what they want is a problem.
  2. Stage 2 tribes believe that the world is made up of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  Members of stage 2 tribes believe that they are among the have-nots and that their life “sucks” but they see all sorts of people around them whose lives don’t.  If you ask them why their life sucks, they claim to be victims of the oppression impressed upon them by the “haves.”
  3. Stage 3 tribes believe and say things like “I’m Great! (and you’re not).”  Members of stage 3 tribes are individuals on the make.  They are working hard to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are competent, in fact they want to be the most competent person in their line of work.  It seems amazing that such folks can live in proximity to one another, but stage 3 tribal members are willing to get along with other stage 3 folks as long as the other has a different (even if subtle) area of expertise.
  4. Stage 4 tribes are made of people who build teams that claim “We are Great! (and they are not).”  Stage 4 tribal members have networks of communication that rely on groups of 3 (triads).  Groups that work in this state are about 30% more productive than Stage 3 tribes.
  5. Stage 5 tribes, the rare few, live in a magical world in which members claim that “Life is Great!” and don’t see others groups as competitors.  They are out to change the world as we know it for the better.

How does this apply to education.  First, listen to your students.  What do they say?  I taught a group of students who had failed their college orientation class (go figure!).  I was stunned by the way they talked about themselves in context of the academic universe.  For the most part they existed in a Stage 2 tribe.  They weren’t succeeding, but it wasn’t their fault…that prof, that staff member, that….  A few of them were willing to make the cultural shift to Stage 3, but most were not…they were on their way out the door.  The only thing holding them to the university was their connection to the athletic program.  Maybe they were a Stage 3 athelete…I don’t know.

Many of my students are at Stage 3.  They are competent students.  They know how to learn, at least learn enough to get the grade they want without too much stress.  Set the bar, show it to them, and they’ll figure out how to jump over it.  Some of them are even highly competitive.  They get their self-esteem from being able to say, “I’m great,” and, while looking around the room, muttering under their breath, “(and your not).”  Faculty, and I’ve been one of them, figure out that some students can be highly motivated by messing with their “I’m great” self-image.  Grade them down a little and they get stressed and work harder.  Notice here the subtle claim by the faculty member…”I’m great, dear student, and, well, your not.”  According the Logan, King and Fischer-Wright, Stage 3 tribal members exist in a symbiotic relationship with Stage 2 tribal members.  In traditional education, the Sage-on-Stage needs those adoring and over-awed students who fawn after him or her…and the teacher’s pet needs the dumb kids.

According to the authors of Tribal Leadership, a few pockets in academia are conducive to Stage 4 tribal development, particularly scientific research groups.  For them, the problems are too big for any one person to solve them, so a team of three or more is necessary to get the job done.  This becomes the basis for the potential development of Stage 4 tribes.  Of course, low on the totem pole grad students in a research group answer to Stage 3 senior grad students, who are themselves caught in between 3 and 4 as they relate to the god-like PI.

Stage 5…Life is Great. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a thing in education…maybe Jesus on the cross…maybe Paul’s “to live is Christ to die is gain”… I don’t know.  But those aren’t really examples from education, are they?

The goal of 21st century skills proponents, though they might not know it, is to help students achieve Stage 4 tribal status.  According to Tribal Leadership, that’s not going to be possible until those students not only pass through, but own and discover the inadequacy of stages 2 and 3 tribes. Finding ways to get students from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is imperative to getting them to Stage 4. Is that a too linear way of thinking?  I don’t know.

I think it might be interesting to explore how upgrading tribal cultures among both faculty and students might be the real goal of 21st century education.

More on this later….

Upgrading Educational Culture: Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training – washingtonpost.com

Michelle Rhee highlights a good practice for achieving educational excellence: train teachers to teach.  She’s proposing to do this by 1) providing new teachers with a competent mentor whose task is to help the new teacher become competent, 2) only retaining teachers who demonstrate that in fact they can teach effectively, 3) making decisions based on evidence of results, and 4) supporting teachers with further training that helps them use best practices based on good research to guide teaching practice.

Here are some excerpts from the story in the Washington Post.

“[District of Columbia Education Chancelor Michelle] Rhee plans to move the District away from the regimen of courses and workshops that have defined continuing education for teachers. Borrowing from best practices in surrounding suburban districts, she is building a system of school-based mentors and coaches to help instructors raise the quality of their work. She also wants to import a nationally prominent Massachusetts consulting firm with a reputation for improving teachers’ skills.

“But budget uncertainties, labor tensions and the timetable for the program’s rollout have sparked questions from teachers’ advocates about its effectiveness. At the same time, Rhee has dropped the school system’s direct support for instructors seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a rigorous one- to three-year teacher development program, citing a lack of evidence that the training improves student achievement.

“Rhee’s five-year plan flatly stated: “There is no comprehensive professional development program for teachers.”

“George Parker, president of the teachers union, said this is especially true for first-year teachers, who sometimes struggle. “Great teachers don’t come into the system pretty much as great teachers,” he said. “They are developed. It’s going to take a teacher around three years to hit a stride.”

“Under Montgomery [County]’s program, operated jointly by the school system and the teachers union, novice instructors are paired with master teachers who visit them in the classroom regularly and monitor their progress. Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.

“Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.

via Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training – washingtonpost.com.

It looks like the Montgomery County school system, and under Rhee maybe D.C.,  is upgrading its tribal culture, as per the model articulated by David Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright in Tribal Leadership (henceforth TL).  whether they know it or not.   To become successful, new teachers, who in their gut feel overwhelmed and incompetent, need to develop the skills necessary to be a competent classroom teacher in a hurry. They learned about some of those habits and practices in college, but they didn’t really learn them, because the were taught them in a largely de-contextualized environment.  Pairing the new teacher with a master teacher helps upgrade them from stage 2 (my life sucks)  to stage 3 (I’m Great) on the TL scale.  The Master Teachers, if they are forming teams to promote system-wide best practices that get results, then these competent teachers are upgrading to TL stage 4 (We Are Great).

I wonder if upgrading the culture of the teachers translates into upgrading the culture of students.  The last sentence about Jon Saphier seems to suggest that maybe it does.  That goes to the expectation of nation-wide education reform…except in unique situations, only competent teachers can help make competent students.

With the emphasis on 21st century skills (teamwork, critical thinking, communication, etc), it will take this kind of teamwork to model for teachers what they want their students to be doing in class.

Novice teachers trained under new program outperform veterans in some subjects

Learning any good practice occurs best done with awareness of why it is immediately relevant and when one gets feedback immediately.  I suspect those things account for why the Teach For America alternative certification program works best.

Teach For America is a national program that places high-performing college graduates in low-income rural and urban schools for a minimum of two years. It has a particularly large presence in the New Orleans area, with about 350 members currently teaching.

In science, The New Teacher Project graduates performed about as well as the average experienced teacher, the study found. In social studies, experienced teachers outperformed the alternative program’s graduates.

Gains for the alternative program’s teachers were particularly large in math, while evidence they outperformed experienced teachers in language arts and reading was more modest.

via Novice teachers trained under new program outperform veterans in some subjects – Breaking News from New Orleans – Times-Picayune – NOLA.com.

A few things I noticed here are that these teachers are good at school (high-performing college graduates).  They are at Stage 3 on the Tribal Leadership scale.  That means that hey really want to succeed at what they do and know how to learn to be successful.

I suspect that they want to be excellent teachers and make a difference in the lives of their students.  They are passionate about school.  The social studies teachers aren’t saying “I want to be a xxxx coach and teach history” as too many social studies candidates are wont to say.