Lead For the Job You Want

In Alberta, we have a document for leaders titled, “The Principal Quality Practice Guideline“, which is meant to share guidelines for effective leadership.  The categories are as follows:

  1. Fostering Effective Relationship
  2. Embodying Visionary Leadership
  3. Leading a Learning Community
  4. Providing Instructional Leadership
  5. Developing and Facilitating Leadership
  6. Managing School Operations and Resources
  7. Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context

If you look at most provinces, states, or even countries, they will have a document with similar characteristics or wording.

For someone who is wanting to go into traditional leadership positions, my question would not be, “How would you meet these guidelines?”, it would be, “How are you meeting these guidelines?”  Many of these characteristics could be met in everyday practice as a teacher already.

Example…A teacher that wants to go into leadership yet doesn’t necessarily spend time with staff or students that they do not need to connect with, would be something of a concern going into a leadership position.  If you do not see yourself as part of the larger picture of school already, or don’t even make the effort, you are missing a great opportunity to show the ability to lead from any position.

The idea of, “dress for the job you want”, is applicable.  You are not one day given an administrator position, and then all of these things just start to happen; you make them happen long before the role. If I was to place a bet on someone in leadership position, I am more comfortable with the person that did it with out the “formal” title.

How are you leading today?

Did we do that?

Talking to a group of students (probably around high school level), they shared that they believed “grades” in education were important.  Some of their thoughts were that it was an accurate assessment of where they were (and in some ways better than comments) and that it showed how they compared to others.

To be honest, these comments surprised me, so I asked them to dig deeper.  One student chose to share her voice, and courageously shared a story of how when she was younger, she struggled a great deal with literacy and numeracy, and that it bothered her.  Visibly upset, she continued by telling how seeing the grades that others had, motivated her to improve in those areas herself.  Her bravery and honesty were so commendable, that many thanked her for sharing her story.

After that moment, I could not stop thinking about her story. In some way, it made me feel that in some way because she wasn’t able to do the same thing as others at the same time, it might not have only motivated her, but could have also demoralized her.  Sometimes competition is something that drives people (I definitely have that side in myself), but at an early age, do we teach kids that if they are not good at the same things in school, they are less than others?  I have refrained from saying “our smartest students”, and have chosen to say, “our most academically successful students”, because there is a difference.  There are many of my peers that went to school that I may have done better than in school, but it doesn’t mean that I was smarter than them.

Student Erica Goldson shared this same thinking in her 2010 valedictorian speech:

I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning.

There are times when you are a kid, that you just wish you were an adult, and then you become an adult, and miss the days of being a kid.  What is scary is that the pressures of being a kid now, seem to be a lot different from when I grew up.  I hope that as educators, we can learn to communicate and convey to our students that although they might not have the same strengths or abilities as someone else, it doesn’t make them less.

Curation as Portfolio Activity

I have really been focusing on the notion of “digital portfolios” and how they can be utilized in a different way than your standard portfolio.  I have also had a constant focus on the NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies, which are the following:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

The one focus that I am going to discuss (explicitly) in terms of a digital portfolio is “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts.”  

For example, I want a student to find a video or source that they believe is a good resource for learning. They then may embed a YouTube video into their blog and decide and list the criteria on why the video is powerful, and how it has helped them from learning.  It is not necessarily “original” material from the student, but it is showing their learning process and why it is valuable.

The added bonus of having this done in a digital portfolio, not only is the ability to show the process of learning, but it is also the curation of resources that a student could actually have access to at a later date. Since this blog is a portfolio of my own learning, if I want to look up anything that I have written on “educational leadership”, I can simply find this through the search tool of my blog, or even by google searching “George Couros Educational Leadership“, to find my own information (while also building my own digital footprint).  Imagine a student finding a video that they found valuable on “probability” and being able to find within their own resources, easily, the same video years later.  If we have students doing this in a “scrapbook” or notebook, years later those resources will be lost or inaccessible.

When we look at portfolios, it should not be simply sharing our own work, but curating, critiquing, and analyzing the information that others share as well.

Data-Driven or Deficit-Focused?

The term “data-driven” tends to be a loaded one, and it is something that has been on my mind.  Schools should have ideas of how they are performing, but when we use data to focus only on how to improve our deficiencies, we are more “deficit-focused”.  The constant game of “whack-a-mole” that we tend to play in schools, does not necessarily help culture or overall learning.

If we are truly data-driven, we should also figure out where we excel and why we excel in certain areas.  What strengths do we have, that could lead to success in other areas.  If our teaching in literacy is high, what factors in the way we teach it, could be conducive to how we teach numeracy?

Data-driven cannot be a disguise for “deficit-focused”. If we want to get better, we need to know and tap into our strengths, as well as focusing on where we need to grow.

The Options We Never Had

I have been hearing a lot of the same argument about social media lately and it has been stuck in my head.  There is an idea that young people do not know how to interact because they are always on their phones. This is not about one or the other, but about teaching skills and understanding of conversation and communication in multiple ways.  Many glorify a student intently focused on reading a book, yet when it is on a device, many refer to it as “checking out”.  They are not necessarily the same thing, but our bias often comes from what we are comfortable with, as opposed to what is new.

Often when this question is posed, my response is, “How much do you use social media yourself?”  The usual answer is “not very much.”

My belief is not that students should not have face-to-face interactions.  I have always said that face-to-face is better, but not always possible.  But what is also true, is that the ability to communicate both online and offline are important; we cannot simply it is one or the other.  There are some powerful opportunities when we can have a conversation in person, but there is also some amazing opportunities through connecting through social media.


One thing that is important to note, when I went to school, there were students that were not comfortable having face-to-face conversations. This has nothing to do with devices (there were none at the time), but just who they were at people.  Some of those same kids, now have opportunities to feel they have a voice for the first time, and schools need to provide options, not an either/or narrative.

Cheating or Resourceful?

As I was watching students build a “cotton ball sling-shot” with items that they had, I was sitting there looking at what was in front of them and all I wanted to do was Google how to make something.  I actually tweeted the following out:

I struggled with this concept as there is a balance of trying to figure stuff out on your own, and the ability to connect with others (or information) to find the answer. I then tweeted the following out:

What is interesting is that the responses both helped to shape my thinking, while challenging me. This is something that is quite powerful and although we talk about “collaboration” and “connected learning”, some people see them as the opposite, where I see them as quite similar.

Here is a few things that I am struggling with:

  • If you were hiring someone, would you go with someone who would take a long time to figure something out (but eventually will), or the person who connects with others and can find out instantly?
  • Are we developing kids that have both the skills listed above?
  • Do kids think to Google things outside of school, but when we do activities like this, they don’t even think about it?


One School’s Impossible, Is Another School’s Norm

“Our teachers aren’t asking for this.”

This is a sentiment that I have heard from administrators often when talking about initiatives/technology in school in why they may not have certain things in the classroom.  Whether this is YouTube opened up for student use, revamping professional learning, or even something as simple as having a projector in the classroom, not asking for something doesn’t mean that it is not needed.

The problem with this logic is that many teachers don’t know a different way because a) they never knew it was a possibility in the first place, or b) they have done fine without those things in the past.  

As leaders, we need to not only take care of those we serve currently, but look to the future as well.  Developing things like innovation teams, that explore the possibilities of what is possible, and become like a research and development team for the school, are crucial to success in a constantly changing world.  These should not be one-off initiatives, but organizational norms in schools which are to embody “learning organizations”.  If we are stuck in the same place we were years ago, we are not modelling at a system level what we expect from individuals.


Administrators need to always listen to educators, but they also have to put themselves in the forefront as well.  What seems impossible to one school, is already commonplace in another.  There is something wrong with this picture, and if we don’t actively seek and deploy ways to becoming innovative, we will perpetually be stuck in the past.

Paying Attention in a Digital Age

I have been having a conversation that has been repeated in different places over and over again and it is about the need to pay attention to others while devices are all around us.  What is interesting is that I have noticed that the goal of what we are trying to do and what we perceive are not always the same.

Here’s an example…many educators that I have connected shared some similar characteristics in what it means to pay attention (eye contact, no devices being used), yet does this mean that learners are really focusing on what you are sharing? In some cultures, eye contact can be viewed as either disrespectful or trying to assert dominance.  The other aspect of this is that because someone is looking at you does not mean they are paying attention.  Sometimes when I am looking straight at a person, I am not paying attention, but my mind is wandering off.  Just yesterday, as I was listening to someone speak while sitting at their table, I noticed that I took their lanyard (neither of us noticed) and started folding and refolding it.  Often when I am processing, I need to manipulate things in my hands. Sometimes it’s an object, and sometimes it’s keys on a keyboard.

Now this doesn’t mean that I think if you are out for dinner, you should be on your devices the entire time.  I am not saying that at all.  What I am saying is that it is important that we recognize the difference between when we have a goal in mind in education or are we trying to control others.  Would you rather have a student look directly at you and not listen to anything you are saying, or have them on a device processing everything?  As an educator, it is important that we do not try to help students understand social situations and what is appropriate, but we also try to help them (and ourselves) understand what makes them successful in different situations.

In an interview I had a couple of years ago, when I walked into the room, I asked them if they would mind that I would be on my computer while they spoke as I would be looking up information or resources so I could show examples of my work.  They were fine with this, but I also understand that not asking them might have been rude.  Another educator shared with me in a similar situation, she asked if she could write down their question because she was a visual learner and they refused, saying it would be unfair.  She was especially mad when the next question was “how do you differentiate learning to accommodate your students?”


As some people would see the influx of devices in our world as a challenge, I see them as an opportunity to create more opportunities for more people.  What we have to realize that what we used to believe is simply a matter of black and white, is often really shades of grey.  These conversation are important to have with our students but also to push our own thinking.  The focus as educators should not be on what works for us, but what works for our students.

Tapping into “Your Most Unhappy Customers”

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Bill Gates

I read the above quote and it really struck a nerve.  I know student voice is extremely important in schools, and many have made strides to make this more of a reality.  Where I struggle is when we bring students together, are we bringing the voices of students that are doing well, or are we bringing the struggling student who maybe hates the entire experience?

Many times, these student voice “events” (student voice should be much more than an event) often are for the students who have completed the work and that we know will catch up on any missed “work ” in school.  Are we sending kids with divergent ideas or the ones who are sometimes the most compliant?  Obviously, it should not be one or the other, but when we bring students together to listen to their voice, we have to ensure that the voices have diversity in many aspects.


Another idea that I heard from Andrea Gillespie from Ontario (#TLDSBLearns) was the notion of “Student Exit Surveys”.  She had shared with me via Twitter that when students dropout, they are given an exit survey to gather information, and what she had said to me was the number one reason students left school was that they felt they had no connection with an adult in the building.  Imagine being in place where no one seemed to care if you were there?  I wouldn’t want to be there either.  This process should be something we do for students that dropout and graduate.  It should also be something that is done for students while they are in schools (many organizations do this) to improve the experience for students while they are in school. 

Student voice is so crucial for the change process so many  schools are going through; in fact, it is the most important aspect.  If we aren’t changing it for them, why are we doing this work?  Let’s just make sure we give all students multiple opportunities to share their thoughts while discussing and acting upon this feedback.

(Please share any ways that you tap into student voice in your school or organization in the comments. Links welcomed and appreciated!)

Promoting Divergent Thinking

I still smile when I remember the first administrative position I ever had and the interview that got me the position.  Archie Lillico, a great friend, mentor, leader, and all around human being, was hiring for a new assistant principal and I surprisingly received an opportunity for an interview.  Not knowing Archie at the time, I remember going into the interview and it quickly turned into an argument, where he started challenging me and then I started challenging back.  It was nothing like I had ever experienced before and I chalked it up to a learning experience and really never thought twice about actually getting the job.

A few days later, in what I thought was a simple courtesy, Archie called me and offered me the job.  My jaw hit the floor at the surprise and I remember wondering if this would work.  We obviously had disagreed on things already, and that was only the interview!  I accepted the position, and I remember having one of my first conversations with Archie soon after.  What he had told me is that as the principal, he was not looking for someone to agree with him, but for someone to be able to challenge his thinking yet support him at the same time.  His focus was on helping kids, not solely on being right.  You could often hear us arguing in the office, and then walk out soon after with smiles on our face.  I understood what he expected from me, and he understood that I thought different.  In fact, that was probably one of the reasons that he hired me and I still am close with him to this day.

What he had taught me early on in my career is that hiring your clone might be good for your ego, but not necessarily for your organization.  Encouraging divergent thinking in your organization is not usually about going from one extreme to another, but mostly about finding a better middle.  This lesson was something that I carried on when I hired my own assistant principal later, knowing that she had different viewpoints than I did, while also being willing to challenge me.  This is commonplace in Parkland School Division and part of the reason I have grown so much in the district. If we are truly about being successful as individuals, we need people to both support and challenge us.  It is important to know that people are in your corner, but being in your corner doesn’t mean always agreeing with you.

If we want innovative organizations, we can’t just challenge the “status quo”, but we need to be able to challenge one another.