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What do you need?

3 steps to keep in mind when considering: How can we best serve others?

5 min read




The title of this piece is a question that we hear a lot, and depending on its sincerity, can be one of the most useful questions we ever ask.

As leaders and learners, we have to constantly be thinking about the meeting of needs, both being introspective and considering our own, and just as importantly focusing on relationship-building, by inquiring about how we can best serve others.

In my role, I am constantly considering how to help districts put together learning opportunities for their staff. In fact, working with my supervisor, Marla Gardner, we’ve worked hard to develop a needs-assessment structure that seems to work well for the schools and districts we serve. While there are multiple steps and characteristics to our methodology.

  • Meet on their turf. We’ve learned that there can be a tremendous difference in how a conversation proceeds based on where it takes place. And when we think about it, it makes sense, right? The more comfortable we are with a place, the more likely we are to be open and blunt in our sharing, and the more likely we are to be creative and innovative in our requests for assistance and our problem-solving capacity. Whether this means having a conversation with a student in a space they are comfortable with in the school, providing a teacher with feedback on an observation in his classroom, or meeting with a central office staff member to discuss district needs in the district office, trust and relationships are built by spending time in the spaces of others, rather than just the spaces we normally occupy.
  • If you ask, utilize. Collecting needs data is important, and the first step is actually asking a group to share feedback. But, we can’t stop there. Many times, we ask for feedback to be shared, and then for any number of reasons, we don’t utilize that data to make decisions. Like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, we can desensitize others to the power of information if we don’t actually take the feedback to heart and make adjustments to our practice. This isn’t always easy, because many times the feedback is something that we don’t want to hear, or might complicate the status quo. And, in many cases, we end up with contradicting feedback, so we clearly can’t use it all at the same time. That said, we must make sure that we always build some of it into the decisions we make. We should even let constituents know that while we can’t use all feedback at any given time, if we ask for it, at least some of it will be incorporated into the steps we take. In our agency, we exist to serve our schools and districts. No large initiatives are undertaken without enough initial support for them to happen, and only after we’ve taken the feedback of our districts into account when structuring a program or project. We are only as good as our word and actions. So if we ask for feedback, we need to make sure we are going to use it.
  • Make it collaborative. Collaborative decision-making, when truly collaborative, is revolutionary. Ideas are almost always better when multiple voices shape them, and when a group has a developed culture and trust, then you can move away from the groupthink that can sometimes prevent decisions from really being influenced by all involved. We have found that when exploring large projects or initiatives, a process of seeking out overarching support, convening a small group or subcommittee, and then designing plans to share back with a larger audience, is an incredibly productive way to collect data and make change. For example, in structuring a recent regional conference, we conducted some large group data collection on having a conference, in general. With a positive response, we invited members of our group to join a subcommittee to dig in and help plan. This subcommittee made the decisions for the conference, with us playing a facilitative role, and tying the structure of the event to what our subcommittee really felt was important. We then checked our thinking with the larger group, to make sure we were on the right track, and that this good idea, would in fact, meet everyone’s needs. Sometimes, in our work, we end up with great ideas, but they aren’t yet a fit; we need to be comfortable letting those go, and remembering that we serve people, not ideas. Collaboratively building solutions and services is a great way to make sure that the people and the process rule, and the product is simply a result.

Assessing needs and collecting data is something that we all need to do regularly. And, whether we work with adult learners, or the youngest members of our communities, we should remember that meeting people where they literally are, using the data we ask for, and analyzing data collaboratively are key steps to making sure that needs are met, and relationships continue to be built.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:


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