The problem isn’t the iceberg

The icebergs don’t go away. Dealing with people’s personal conflicts becomes part of my job when those conflicts spill over into the work that people need to do. It is probably impossible not to have organizations of a certain size without having personality clashes. At the core of the two that I am thinking about right now, there seems to be a serious issue or interaction that happened, and a series of requests that followed. “Don’t let em work with that person!”, “make them do what any normal person would do?”, “How can I work like this?” The immediate conflict is usually so obvious and raw that it can’t not be addressed. The conflict turns out to be the tip of an iceberg. Recounting the events of the initial incident with only goes so far without the person pulling up other events from further in the past. These other stories and anecdotes serve to build the case that the person is flawed and needs to change in a deep fundamental way in order for their working relationship to continue. From what I surmise, at least one person involved also things that one person should be subjugated to some kind of punishment or something. As a leader I can’t go in and fix the iceberg, I need to make sure that the ice bergs don’t destroy all the ships that need to travel back and forth. Let’s set up for things to be safe, and then maybe the icebergs will melt on their own. Trying to solve the iceberg will likely get you over extended and feeling unsuccessful.

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Losing a crutch

My friend Darius once stopped from playing on a mutual friend’s crutches one day in high school. “You play with crutches, you end up needing crutches.” It made a lot of sense, one of his friends broke his ankle after they were playing around on a set of crutches. Crutches are weird things, they only end up serving their purpose if you decide to use them in that way. The use of the crutch requires you deciding that you need it.

Working with someone super-capable can lend you to use them as a crutch. The person who can do all the things that you are unsure of could be a learning opportunity or a backup. If you choose to make that person a crutch, meaning if you lean on them instead of standing on your own, then you are putting yourself in a situation where you might get hurt.

So much of each day is about just surviving long enough to not get emotionally damaged, it seems weird to try and not rely on something that can help you hobble through the day. Spotting your crutches, and ensuring that you can walk without them, or that one day you’ll be able to walk with out them, is difficult work. Without being aware of your crutches, you’re setting your self, and your team, up for disaster when they are pulled away.

Hard work day

I sat and looked at a computer screen from 4-7 and from 8:40-2:40. The occasion for this was registration, and there are a bunch of systems I have to make for that. Our school has an internal registration process where all the students sign up for classes like in college. So there is a system that allows teachers to keep track of who signs up for their classes, a chance for me to combine the results of everyone’s class lists for the purposes of enrolling them in the system. A way for teachers to see how many kids are in the other teachers’ classes, and a way for them to see what their students have signed up for. All of these tasks are done with a set of spreadsheets I call Rosterlink.

Rosterlink has a spreadsheet that has all the urls of all the teachers. Every 5 minutes, a script is launched that looks up each teachers’ sheet and adds their class or internship rosters to a tab in that same “master” spreadsheet. Also in this sheet is a tab full of information. Class names, codes and credits. students listed with two id codes and their advisors. Internships and all of their corresponding internship coordinators. This information is used to make the teacher’s rosters as informative and vaild as possible. Instead of typing a students name, the name appears in a drop down that is culled from the list which is maintained in the master spreadsheet. If new students had a name change, it is easy to add them to all the teacher’s lists.

In the past year Rosterlink has been improved to give feedback about the results to teachers. The class counts for all of the rosters are tabulated and pushed up to the front of the class list. I am in the plans to make a data dashboard for administrators to see how things are going.

The new thing today was making an additional set of functions so that intensives would work. It was pretty difficult and it meant that I had to do a lot of work all day. It was hard.

I’m going to sleep.

Support Systems or Cat Pictures

Catalog.cityas.org has a picture of cat. Before that it was a full-featured yelp clone site that was designed to help students search for the perfect internship. It took a few weeks of work, but it had 200+ internships listed by catalog, filterable by location, sorted by RC.  It was cool. It’s currently a cat because the website stopped being updated a month after it was created and sometime between then and now it became home to some kind of malware. I decided to shut it down, and park the domain, and when I did my hosting site put up the picture of the cat.

The online catalog was an excellent solution to a difficult problem. People have a hard time coming up with internship placements for students.finding the right place of a kid to go to is a constant source of frustration. The online platform solved a number of problems, and got a lot of students excited as when we rolled it one classroom after another.  There are lots of problems with excellent, elegant, beautiful hand-spun solutions in schools every day.

In the long run, the weeks of time I put into online catalog could have been equally spent posting cat pictures on the internet. Why? The moment the site went live, it went from being a theoretical solution to an entirely unique set of problems on it’s own. Who’s job was it to take pictures of the site? Can the RCs be expected to upload all the pictures and the content in to the site? Can I? What about internship availability? Would we be able to have it automatically update? The catalog site needed to have answers to all of these questions if it were to wind up more than just a cat picture equivalent.

The answers to all these new questions was a system. There needed to be a multi pronged, well-defined, system that would keep this thing updated in the days, months, and years that followed the roll out of the catalog site. The system that would have made this work would have had to made it easy for RCs to enter information, ideally the entry would be automated from the sprawling, tangled google drive swamp that is our course documentation system. Our course registration system would automatically sync with the site to inform students when an Internship is closed for enrollment. There would be more marketing so people used the site, and maybe an ongoing development process that could make sure everything is running.

So many new innovations get thought of in schools. Bulletin board designs, organizational systems, school award ceremonies, and more. As you think about what kinds of dream scenarios that could work in schools, begin thinking about the system that will support that scenario as well. Your school will only be as good as the things it can support well. If the planning for your initiative only goes as far as the day of the launch, it is  probably headed for a similar fate as this catalog. Perhaps broaden the planning, involve more stakeholders, and really fight for not just the event, but for the commitment to the subsequent years of sustained support before you begin working on the idea. Without the support conversation, you might as well have spent that time looking at cat pictures on the internet.

Front end vs Back end

I’m not the best web programmer, but I know the vernacular. I know enough to understand modern website typically have a front end, and a back end. The front end is what is actually loaded up into a browser for a client. The back end is the work that is done on the server(s) before hand. So if i’m going to a link on amazon, the back end will look up the request parameters in the link and be able to match that to information that they have in the database about the product linked. Some back ends just literally present you a page that matches the url, but Amazon’s back end is probably so smart and efficient, it will pull up images that you can click through, products that you can compare this against, other products that aren’t related to this, but you probably would want to know about them anyways. Compare this with a site like Jumprope, Jumprope loads all of the work into the front end, the site takes a long time to pull up a fully functioning app onto your browser screen. If your browser doesn’t have up-to-date flash, it doesn’t’ work. It also has a different relationship with the back end. If you click some links on amazon, you get routed to another page, and you get all of the information from the backend related to that link. For Jumprope, once you get in,  you start downloading additional information one at a time from the back end into the page you already have loaded. This dynamic uploading seems cool, but if there is a big update, the jumprope page could pull in contradictory information, because it is not refreshing everything from the back end, it is only pulling what it needs, which can change.

So what does this have to do with schools?

Well, it seems like schools in a lot of ways have a similar relationship. A school with a well-functioning backend has a support network that is going to be utilized whenever things are needed. Bear with me, as these connections may be a little dicey. Let’s say opening up a link on a web page is like doing any kind of transaction at a school. Let’s say you want to go to class. In a school with a well-functioning back end, when you go in your class, you are getting not just the class from this teacher, but connections to the other teachers in that same subject area, you are seeing connections to the previous grade, to the future grades. You’re seeing extra-curricular activities that could be related, and there is an opportunity to do some independent things that relate to only you. In a school with a heavy front-end support, you’ll go to class, and that class will be wholly the environment of that teacher. Thing will run differently in there than in the other classes, from the way that papers are handed in, to the actual paper (i.e. the teacher had to go make copies themselves or didn’t have those resources at all). The connections to things that are supposed to work are there, but they are inconsistent, and everyone knows not to trust them.

Does this make sense?

Sites that have a really good backend appear fast and responsive to the user, as with schools. Sites that have a really heavy front end drain a lot of resources from the front-end machine, and the users patience, as with schools.

A lot of front-end heavy computers look fancy, because fancy looking is the realm of the front end. It is easy for schools to look good, especially for a dog-and-pony show. A lot of back-end heavy sites look almost mechanical and unadorned. This makes sense, as their artistry is in how the little things coordinate.

 

I thought about this today as I thought about the teachers who work really hard quarter-backing school initiatives at schools like New Day and city-as, while the people in the offices sort of wait around to do basic work, or not much work at all. In that situation there is a lot of stuff going on, that could be crashed at any moment. The front end websites are trouble because they can crash at any moment and you’ll lose your work. They could be stuck having to start from scratch. There isn’t any machine learning processes with front end heavy sites. These schools that have this front-end heaviness end up stressing out teachers who are forced to act like saviors while the support staff disappears behind the scenes carrying out tasks that are necessary, but not dynamic.

For a school to be backend heavy, there would need to be systems that push into the front-end reliably and automatically. The schools would have support staff that can be called into the room to quickly deal with things that they are supposed to deal with and can do so with speed and efficiency because that is what they are specializing in. They can not only take tasks on, but they can take feedback and ideas from what is happening on the front end and bring it in to the back-end or in to the system as a whole. If someone has an idea and they tell someone, that person takes that idea into account and directs towards the appropriate system for addressing it.  Just as how my clicking on a keyboard ad tells amazon to address my possible need for keyboard with the right ads on the ensuing pages.

How do we make a school like this?

System centipede part 1

So much drama with scheduling. Let’s picture one student. This student signs up for one internship and 3 classes. The one internship requires an entry in our internship table. Then the students details gets entered on the teachers own records, on the sign in sheet, which then gets entered by another staff member into DBASE. Then the teacher also had to put the internship into another system, the drop down, which they can later refer to in another system, the output. Then the rest of the classes get put into another system. Both of those systems get entered into STARS, and now this year we have yet more systems. Once into STARS, we need to enter virtual codes into one system, and then enter the credit amounts for those codes into yet another system. Let’s go back to that student.

That Student figured out their schedule with the 3 classes and 1 internship in one day, but for that information to get accurately reflect in STARS it requires 8 different nodes of adult entry Sign-in sheet–DBASE–Drop Down–Output–Rosterlink–STARS–Interdisciplinary Codes–Credit entry.

This can be reduced rather quickly. We can excise DBASE, but then we’d need a system to keep track of internship hours, and we could similarly combine the drop down, Rosterlink and Output into one system, which could make things easier, with no added system needed. I would just need to write some JavaScript and have time to train people on it. I could also get rid of the final step to do the Interdisciplinary codes. These steps are new this year, and are supposed to make a few things easier: assigning multiple teachers to classes, and keeping track of whether kids have taken the same code before.

21. Being wrong.

I’m wrong often and when I’m wrong I usually give myself a little negative reinforcement. “Jesus Carl, what the duck!” Something like that. It is a bad habit that probably stems from a deeper sense of self loathing our poor parenting or something that a Neuro scientist may be able to analyze. Given that I won’t actually make it to that doctor’s office, I have to deal the consequences of this reactionary approach to failure.

Where this is bad is how this affects the way I take feedback. I’m constantly responding with an aggressive tone that may or may not involve expletives, even if I agree with it. If somebody is like “Carl, this is wrong” I’m going to respond like “… Of shit, I screwed up..” which doesn’t inspire confidence. Worse, if I’m only 50 percent sure I screwed up, and I take that toner into the conversation with the person giving feedback, they will certainly take it as I’m angry at them, when I’m really angry at the failure, my part in it, and that I’m losing my yet more of my self esteem, or whatever the brain doctor’s would say.

Taking bad news, critical feedback, and my own mistakes in a different way is something that I need to get better about. It is far too easy for people to see my response in those situations and assume that is the real me. What is the me that I want to emerge in those situations?

  • Calm and steady? This may come off as ineffectual.
  • Happy? Then I look like a blissful idiot at best, or flagrantly unconcerned with the news and the person who’s bringing it.
  • Roll up your sleeves? This freaks some people out, especially when they are “just bringing it to your attention.”

There probably isn’t a good solution here, but instead a situation that involves a lot of tact. Certainly the first step is to use more love and care with my inner monologue to remove the aggression from my first response