Manners Matter: The Blended Habits of Effective School Leaders

column | Professional Development

Manners Matter: The Blended Habits of Effective School Leaders

By Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist) and Reshan Richards (Columnist)     Feb 8, 2017

Manners Matter: The Blended Habits of Effective School Leaders

As an educator or school leader, when you walk into a room at school you generally know how to compose yourself and you innately know the purposes of the objects in the room.

You also know how to position people in the room to encourage certain behaviors or outcomes. Sometimes you put music on in order to relax participants; sometimes you put desks in rows or a circle; sometimes you point an image at a screen and ask people to look at it. You know how to read body language telling you to call it a day or keep pushing.

Some of these moves stem from a sense of manners—developed from the way we were raised, nurtured, mentored, and trained as human beings, educators, leaders, and citizens. And some of these moves stem from an innate knowledge of what Daniel Levitan, in his magisterial text “The Organized Mind,” calls “Gibsonian affordances.” The term, according to Levitan, “describes an object whose design features tell you something about how to use it.” Objects like doors and old-school telephones model the concept nicely: “As you reach for the handle of a door in your home, you can see whether the jamb will block you if you try to pull the door toward you...Similarly, the design of the telephone on your desk shows you which part you’re meant to pick up.”

Yet as learning environments increasingly move to digital spaces, educators and school leaders must pick up new manners and affordances, some of which may seem native to young generations of learners. It can be tricky and problematic, but the change presents new challenges and opportunities to engage with students and teachers in the educational experience.

Image Credit: Reshan Richards. See full image

In the physical world, you wouldn’t even consider putting a giant desk in a doorway and then forcing students or teachers to crawl over or under it to enter your classroom. Such a choice would exhibit terrible manners and an utter misunderstanding of the doorway’s and desk’s affordances. In the digital world, though, many of us routinely and inadvertently block off resources, spaces and opportunities for interactions. We routinely and inadvertently make it difficult for users (students and teachers) to find information that they need for homework assignments or meetings by forcing them to scroll endlessly to find what they need or dig through their email inboxes to cobble together instructions and documents. We “reply all” to group messages instead of segmenting email or text lists appropriately. We ask people to navigate websites with clunky pop-up windows or tiny buttons that require a dexterity that even a seasoned gamer has trouble mustering. Everyday, we either fail to acknowledge, or fail to take the time to address, the basic needs in digital space that would support or extend our lesson plans, curriculum, strategic plans and school missions.

To be fair, such negligence is rarely intentional. Often, the designers of digital spaces are not the users of those spaces. They are posting information on websites or learning management systems as quickly as they can, barely keeping up with the continuous churn of the school year. And as such, they rarely actually experience the friction caused by their decisions. They never experience the pain points, and resulting face-to-face feedback, that would occur naturally and overtly if they were designing physical learning experiences. The Gibsonian Affordances that occur so naturally in the real world, guiding our behavior and our decision-making, are not so easy to spot in the digital world.

Manners and awareness of affordances, good or bad, come to the forefront when teachers and leaders experience blended interactions, a category that encompasses an increasing amount of their work these days. We often bounce back and forth between face-to-face and digital interactions in a face-to-face setting, and the experience can be jarring. All teachers have lived through the unnerving moment when a student laughs out loud (because he or she is surreptitiously using an instant messaging app) during a serious lesson. And all leaders experience similarly jarring moments when they know a team member is blatantly reading and responding to email during a meeting. This is why some educators and leaders ban devices flat-out during certain tasks.

In the short term, moves like banning devices return a sense of control to the educator or leader. Long term, though, they start to cut off the arc of the possible. It’s a bitter irony: as teachers and learners, leaders and followers, we often do not blend our practices gracefully and respectfully; as a result, we end up throwing out the potential upside, the potential power, of having humans-working-with-networked-machines working with humans-working-with-networked-machines.

Okay, that sounds a little bit absurd, but let’s tease it out. When someone’s eyes dart to a screen during a face-to-face exchange, we shouldn’t automatically assume that they are being rude. Sometime they are—and sometimes they are searching for information outside the meeting that could help the meeting. But we don’t yet have an appropriate protocol for such beneficial attention-shifting, short of saying, “I’m going to look something up for a second.” On the flip side, when we ignore each other’s emails or invitations to collaborate asynchronously in a digital space, due to our own faulty systems, we force our leaders to call face-to-face meetings, which we then complain about having to attend.

And herein lies the opportunity, the invitation, to blend your practice well and gracefully, by seeking to understand both manners and affordances in digital space. Such subtleties are difficult to notice and act on, but there’s an advantage to the person who can and does. Grace notes in digital space require knowledge and intentionality, and over time, they are just as powerful online as they are offline.

Zooming In

Recently, we’ve found ourselves using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom to collaborate. These tools offer a terrific way to connect the online and offline world—and a terrific way to exhibit an awareness of the needs of others.

One of our favorite features is the well-designed and easily accessible option to mute various aspects of a video call. The following practices transfer across most video conferencing platforms: In a video chat, when you’re not speaking mute your own mic so that your own personal contextual background noise doesn’t disrupt the other participants. You can do the same with your video, muting it if you have to leave the room or if someone comes into the room that you’re in. Keeping both the audio and the visual pathways clear of noise and clutter is an important aspect of being polite in digital space.

Another useful feature in exhibiting awareness of others’ needs is the recording feature. You can record entire conversations and then share them with anyone who could not be present for the conversation. Though you wouldn’t want to do this constantly for a single participant, or without permission of the other actors, it’s an incredibly generous act to be able to say to someone dealing with an emergency or scheduling conflict, “Don’t worry, I’ll record the conversation and then send it to you.” This move is overtly inclusive, and it allows people to contribute in a variety of ways, times, paths, and places.

Flow Empathy

When you’re designing a digital resource, you can be equally aware of the needs of your users by utilizing what we call “flow-empathy.” The word flow describes a state in which a participant or user is fully immersed in a task—so much so that time seems to race by and the process itself leads to a feeling of joy and immersion. For a class or meeting, ask yourself, “What would the user of this resource need in order to stay in a flow state when engaging in the tasks I have set for him/her?” (That’s a deliberate use of the singular pronoun because, like writing, designing for one person can help ground the act in a personal attention to detail that can be beneficial for all users).

Designing a digital learning experience often means tending to the breadcrumb trail of learning, really keeping in mind how step one leads to step two leads to step three, and so on. This means paying attention to where and how you embed links, deciding if you want links to open in a new tab, weighing the reflective opportunities for users (Should we use Flipgrid or Padlet so others can immediately see others contributions? Should we use a Google Form and share the aggregate responses with context and synthesis? should the activity be embedded or a link?), breaking up your text with visuals, and taking all these choices seriously.

And there’s one more step you can take. By fully recognizing the the power in blending situations intentionally, you can generate the kinds of results that you can only get when mixing online and offline modes intentionally. For example, if you plan to give a talk or lecture, why not build in a mid-talk survey (using Google Forms or Survey Monkey) for the class or audience? Then, project the results and use them to guide the second half of your talk or to elicit questions or provoke discussion in the group.

When you’re Zooming or Skyping in to a team meeting, take advantage of the fact that you are not in the same physical room with the other meeting participants. You can drift off-task in ways that could be supportive to the meeting but would never be tolerated if you were sitting in the room. You can Google answers to questions, grab books off the shelf and start flipping through them, even call or text somebody else for input by muting your computer mic and video momentarily.

Presence Is a Present

Increasingly, the gadgets in our lives are more interlocked with our physical lives, offering opportunities to blend the online world and the offline world in brand new ways.

Let’s take the simple fact of presence. Most of us think that gadgets, devices and screens are disrupting our ability to be present, face-to-face, with one another. But for those who are willing to understand their purpose in meeting face-to-face and leverage the relevant aspects of technology to support that purpose, profound effects are possible.

On Mac Power Users Podcast #337 with David Sparks and Katie Floyd, Catholic priest Gabriel Mosher shared an example of such practice. Mosher is a big user of the Apple Watch, a gift he was given, and he uses it to fully meet the needs of his parishioners.

When you’re dealing with people all the time and you’re constantly looking at your phone or things are buzzing or dinging or ringing, it puts another barrier between you and the other of the greatest advantage I’ve found with the Apple Watch so far, has been being able to receive notifications of what’s going on through the haptic that little tap on my wrist says, “you have something coming up” or “someone’s trying to get ahold of you” or “something’s going on”… and then I can register that in my mind and not break the one-to-one relationship / conversation that I’m having with somebody. So that conversation hasn’t been broken, my attention to [the person in front of me] hasn’t been fully broken. I can just register this thing in my mind so that the next time I have a chance to attend to my calendar or my messages or whatever else I have going on, then I can go check it.

We suspect that Mosher speaks to people about the states of their lives in ways that few of us ever do. Permitting the appearance of distraction into such conversations could be rather disrespectful. And yet, priests like him are not immune to the urgent demands of running what amounts to a seriously complex non-profit business. He can’t spend an endless amount of time with everyone who needs him; were his church to crumble financially or literally, such one-on-one conversations would no longer be possible. His facility with technology helps him to connect in an even more humane way with the people in his parish, while keeping the long-term health of the institution in sight.

In the new Tim Ferris book “Tools of Titans,” Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg reveals a similarly long-term perspective when talking about hiring. Like most bosses, he wants to see candidates who demonstrate “attention to detail” and “drive beyond the thing they need to do.” When asked about how he spots such things, Mullenweg says: “[In the early stages] all I’m doing is looking at emails...It’s purely based on the care and effort [candidates] put into [their] email.” He relies on freeform emails, rather than forms, in fact, because email allows candidates to show Mullenweg a variety of approaches. He wants to see “what kinds of attachment [candidates] use . . . who their email client is . . . if you can tell they’ve copied and pasted things because of different text and different font sizes.”

Mullenweg is, in essence, looking for people who understand that, in the digital and distributed world, where his company lives exclusively, there are ways to show respect and attention to detail. There are ways to exhibit manners and respect for users. There are ways to be aware of affordances that will translate into great service. Finding, hiring, and retaining such attentive people, Mullenweg knows, will benefit his company in the long term because of the way they will interact with customers on daily basis.

Be careful if you think you can ignore these admittedly granular details or if you think they are merely relevant to companies like Mullenweg’s. Automattic powers upwards of 25 percent of websites, which increasingly power many aspects of our jobs. By articulating new, more efficient, more user friendly, more respectful ways of working, he’s encouraging those ways of working; by rewarding them, he’s developing them.

That’s what leaders do while the rest of us are busy doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as the assistant head, Upper School, and director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy

Dr. Reshan Richards (@reshanrichards) is an educator, researcher, and entrepreneur. An adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, Reshan is also the chief learning officer and cofounder of Explain Everything

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