The National AfterSchool Association is the leading voice of the afterschool profession dedicated to development, education, and care of children and youth during their out of school hours.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Giving Feedback

Paul G. Young, Ph. D.
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association
Mention the words “performance review”, and they often conjure up anxious memories of uncomfortable conversations with our bosses.  For many of us, those painful experiences ranked close to going to the dentist for a root canal. We’d do anything to avoid them. The documentation and feedback processes that were used often had little meaning.  Little good ever came from the experience.

The reality is, unfortunately, that many of us don’t conduct performance reviews with our staffs any better than our bosses. Most of us have never been trained in how to give supportive feedback. It's not a performance task in our long list of work responsibilities that typically gets perfected. We stress and worry about how to deliver unpleasant messages and respond to recipients’ reactions. So we tend to ignore or procrastinate until, quite often, pressure points build. When that happens, change often becomes unattainable.

In contrast, we all respond favorably to positive feedback. It has many benefits. It helps us all focus our attention and behavior. Giving it shows that we care and notice what others do. Since one of our primary responsibilities is to increase and enhance the skills of our professional staffs, providing feedback (positive or negative) is one of the most powerful tools we have as leaders. We need to learn to do it well.

We can learn a lot about giving feedback by observing what the great athletic coaches do. They train and mentor their players to improve, overcome mistakes, become a cohesive team, and achieve success.  Great coaches let their players know they care whether their feedback is positive or critical. They share strong interpersonal relationships. Expectations are clear. Feedback and ideas are communicated and exchanged in highly personalized ways. All players are given proper attention and training with opportunities to grow.

Our coaching work with afterschool professionals, hopefully under a lot less stress of most high profile coaches, is just as important. We can learn by observing them in order to improve our processes for giving feedback to our staffs. No matter our level of experience, we all have room for improvement.

We must focus more on observable work behaviors, less on attitude or personality traits. We must provide feedback in the moment, everyday, not days after the fact. It should be delivered in a short, informal, and mostly positive manner. We must encourage our staff members to provide peer feedback to each other, and just as in sports, to teach peer support processes to their students.

Furthermore, I encourage you to give feedback to your afterschool staff in this way. “Motivate on Monday” and give “Feedback on Friday”.  When your staff reports on Mondays, spend a few minutes outlining major goals and expectations for the week.  Allow time for questions. Provide encouragement. Highlight successes. Individualize as needed for each person. Be motivational. Set the tone for the week. Then, before everyone leaves on Friday, provide summary feedback that you haven’t otherwise shared throughout the week. Show people you care and how you will support them going forward.

Relationships are the key. Communication must be effective. Giving feedback, as challenging as it sometimes may be, is essential to grow and develop our staffs. Get involved with NAA where you will have many opportunities to listen and learn and further develop your leadership skills as an afterschool professional.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Flashbacks to Marching Band

Recently, a graduate from my high school posted an open question on Facebook, "You know you went to Fairfield Union High School if...". When curiosity finally got the best of me, I began reading the comments, many of which were from classmates I haven't seen or heard from in years. And since I was one of several graduates who returned to my high school after college to begin my teaching career (in my case as the band director), I became intrigued by what my former students were writing about me and my teaching colleagues from the 70s and early 80s. My former students now range in age from 45- 56.

I have to admit, what I've read has been fascinating. I feel like an evaluation of my work has been occurring all over again. Here's a sampling of what they recall:
·         I was tough and demanded the highest form of discipline.
·         I worked my students hard.
·         Students knew they were expected to perform and excel at a high level.
·         We held marching band practices in rain, snow, excessive heat, and bitter cold.
·         We were a family.

My former students remember incidences that I've long forgotten. But they remember the way I handled them as well as the people involved who became part of the school’s folklore. I remember some of the complaints and occasionally worried that perhaps my teaching style and rehearsal methods were too extreme. But time shapes our memories, in this case very fondly. Despite the love of music that they learned under my tutelage, it was the sense of discipline, work ethic, and pride that they valued even more. Many have described ways that those characteristics have carried them to success in their varied careers.

I wasn't their only teacher, of course. Facebook fans are also reflecting on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of many other teachers and the pranks they pulled as part of high school. They remember how their teachers walked, talked, dressed, smelled - and cared. The smallest things made lasting impressions. It doesn't take much reading to discover the teachers that the students liked and who they didn't.

The point of my writing about things such as this in this blog is to remind afterschool professionals that you, too, will someday be fair game for an informal evaluation by your students when they become reflective about their time with you. You probably won't discover their feedback about you via Facebook, but rather, some kind of communication media we can't even imagine today. After all, for my former students who are reflecting about me, the slide rule was high tech for them when we shared those special high school years.

Never waver from your values. Set high expectations. Kids will rise up and meet them. Communication is essential. Listen. Smile. Dress professionally. Show that you care. Have fun.

Kids are always watching. The realization that my former students  now respect (for the most part) what we collectively did to become a successful marching band creates a sense of pride within me that is worth more than any amount of money.

Paul G. Young, Ph. D.
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Encore Careers

Dr. Paul G. Young
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association

As a music major in college, I was taught what needed to be done before and during concerts so that my audiences would ask for more. It’s every musician’s aspiration to finish a performance and hear shouts of bravo! and encore!

As an educator, I’ve approached my professional work as I was trained to do by my musical mentors.  My high school marching bands, 4th and 5th grade classrooms, and schools where I served as principal were my ‘concert venues’ where my students, staff,  and I worked to meet the highest expectations and plaudits from our supporters. Our success bred success. The more we did together, the more we realized we could do.

Then in 2004, after many years and many ‘performances’ came the age for retirement. Once I did it, I discovered retirement to be very challenging. I would dress, but have no place to go. I had no audiences to perform for. There was a big void in my life.

But rather quickly, I was presented opportunities in afterschool. And during that time, the term encore career was made popular.[1] I soon discovered more audiences, performance venues, and reasons to work hard. Life was good again.

But we were also taught another lesson in music school. Don’t let an encore become another concert! After one, or perhaps two short, delightful encores, there is an appropriate time to stop. To extend beyond that point is to risk leaving audiences privately wishing your performance would end so they could get on with other business, no matter how good you might think you are.

That time has come for me. My encore is finished. I choose to leave before I begin hearing boos instead of bravo. There may be smaller gigs that I can play from time to time, but no more long concert programs. There are younger professionals that must be given those opportunities.

It is no wonder so many Babyboomers are writing their own second acts or performing encores. The rewards—at least in terms of personal satisfaction—can be tremendous. We are retiring and finding ourselves in good health with a desire to do more, and give back.  We are fortunate to find jobs that combine personal meaning, provide continued income, and have potential for social impact. But we can’t let an encore career become another career!

What we can do is mentor, consult, and teach. In those ways, we can maintain our performance skills and realize continued value from our experience. But we also have to get out of the way and allow those younger to enjoy the limelight of the stage.

[1] work in the second half of life that combines continued income, greater meaning and social impact. These are paid positions often in public interest fields such as education, the environment, health, government sector, social services and other nonprofits.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Value in Complete Sentences

Dr. Paul G. Young
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association
 In addition to my other professional work, I've enjoyed teaching music theory classes for 30 years as an adjunct professor at a regional campus of Ohio University. Many of my students would best be described as nontraditional college undergraduates - and definitely non-music majors.  For some, perhaps because they've already experienced some of life's tough knocks and limitations in the workforce, they've enrolled in college with aspirations of positioning themselves for better opportunities. Many of them know all too well the hardships of poverty. Most are recent high school graduates, and for numerous reasons (most always poverty-related issues) have chosen the regional campus college experience. In general, most of our community's more advanced and privileged high school graduates attend college elsewhere. Yet, what I find in my classes are hard working students, but they've probably never been considered to be stellar students by their former teachers. 

Read more as to why I think they've come to be perceived that way.

As they present themselves, it’s apparent to me why their peers outshined them. Many do not know how to effectively communicate. They have weak verbal skills. They lack command of sentence structure. More often than not, informal social skills and cues necessary for success in the middle class are lacking. And most can't put a sentence together without using the word “like” and other forms of verbal graffiti. Added to those gaffes, they often fail to make good eye contact. And when they shake hands, they expose their lack of self-confidence. I hate wet noodles.

Besides providing them with an introduction to music theory, I also teach ‘Communication 101’ to help address these issues and provide them an advantage. Some get it, others don't. Those that don't work to improve will be perpetually held back and continue to fall to the bottom of the class or any other professional setting. They will fail to reap the rewards of their college training, not because they can't master the basic content, but because they can't express themselves during important high stakes, middle class conversations, such as a job interview.

One of the most important gifts we can give our afterschool program participants is an awareness of the importance and mastery ability to speak in complete sentences – in English. Teaching and modeling proper verbal communication skills should take place every minute of every day in every afterschool program. It won’t cost anything extra. It simply requires a staff with a clear vision and commitment of purpose to equip kids with one of the most important and essential life skills. But achieving the desired outcome requires focused teaching, modeling, and relating language and communication experiences to the real world. It demands persistence over time. Kids can learn how to properly shake hands. They can make eye contact. They can speak with proper inflections, nuances, and grammatically correct usage of nouns, verbs, and adjectives if they are continually encouraged and reinforced by caring and nurturing adults.

I'm convinced that many of my college students will eventually become fantastic workers. But they'll pay a huge price and wait a long time to see a return on the investment of their training if they don't learn how to speak. I recognize that many possess a warm personality and intelligence. But without self-confidence (which comes from teaching and practice), their verbal skills will hold them back.

Please provide your kids with that time to practice and gain confidence speaking in complete sentences. In the end, that may be more of an important edge for them than mastery of content knowledge or a high test score.

Don't let kids leave your programs until they can confidently talk their way out of it.