Leading Innovative Change Series – A New Staff Experience

I wanted to try my hand at writing a series of blog posts on “Leading Innovative Change.” As I am looking at writing a book on the same topic, I thought I would put some ideas out there and hopefully learn from others on these topics. I also want to give these ideas away for free. These posts are for anyone in education, but are mostly focused on school administrators. In all of these, the idea that administrators openly model their learning will only accelerate a culture of innovation and risk-taking.  You can read the previous post here. 

A New Staff Experience

“The only source of knowledge is experience.” — Albert Einstein

Staff meetings were something that I dreaded in my beginning years as a teacher.  We would often spend the majority of our time together discussing rules and policies, and would debate, on end, things that are seemingly significant.  Hours have been spent in schools talking about whether kids should wear hats or not in school.  Really?

I saw the following quote on a slide, and I have shared it many times in talks that I have given to leadership groups.  It seems to resonate with many:

“If I die, I hope it’s during a staff meeting because the transition to death would be so subtle.” Unknown

staff meetingTime is limited, but is this how we want it to be remembered?  How do we make better use of our time?


A few years back, as principal in a school, I had an interesting conversation with my brother (Alec Couros) and Will Richardson.  As we talked about something as simple as bookmarking, he asked why I didn’t use a social bookmarking service such as Diigo.  I simply replied that it was too much of a hassle.  Will simply said, “So you are not into sharing?”

That changed everything.

As I thought about myself as principal of a school who is supposed to be the “instructional leader” in the school,  I was not even sharing with my staff.  I was simply hoarding all of the information that was coming my way.  If you want to be innovative, you have to disrupt your routine.  It was time to do things differently.

I jumped into Twitter and was amazed by the learning that was happening and being shared in such an open network.  The ability to have professional learning at your fingertips every minute of the day, is something that has changed the way I viewed my own practice.  This ability to learn at any time, any place and at any pace is the reality of our world.  As educators, we need to jump in.  Will Richardson acknowledges this belief in how educators need to take advantage of the same opportunities for learning that our kids do every day.

“…And truth be told, teachers should be responsible for their own PD now.  Kids wouldn’t wait for a blogging workshop.  Adults shouldn’t either.”

It is imperative that we move staff to the place that they are able to take ownership of their own learning.

A New Look Staff Experience

We spend a lot of time in schools telling people about how teaching and learning should look.  Yet, how do we create opportunities for them to experience it?  I watch a lot of schools talking about things like blogging initiatives with students, yet their own staff have never blogged.  How do you teach something that you have never done?  More importantly, how do you have people embrace the unknown?  Well, my belief is that you make it known.

I felt it was imperative for our students to use blogging to create digital portfolios of their learning.  It was essential that staff blogged as well.  To create this, I did not simply say, “Thou shalt blog,” but I actually did it myself first.  I spent time doing something that I wanted to trickle down to staff and students.  It is easy to say, “Do this.”  It is more important to say, “Let’s do this together.”

Jumping into blogging and seeing the amazing opportunity that it had created to reflect, collaborate and make learning transparent, we started to give this opportunity to staff.  For example, on one staff Professional Development Day on a Monday, staff were asked to have a blog post written for Friday to share with others.  The catch was that if they did not feel comfortable doing it on their own, we would provide time at the beginning of our staff day for them to have support.  For the staff that were able to do this on their own, they had the opportunity to come in later.  If it is a priority, you will put time and resources into it.  If you do not put those two elements in place, it is not priority. That simple.

So if you want students using Google Apps for Education in the classroom, use it with staff.  If you want learning to be personalized for students, help personalize it for staff.  This experience helps you to not only embrace this change, but to experience what your students will feel in the classroom.

A question that I always ask teachers is, “Could you spend an entire day sitting in your own classroom as a student?”  

The question that I asked myself as a beginning administrator was, “Could I spend the whole day in my staff meeting?”  I tried to create an environment that I would want to be in as a teacher.

Differentiated Learning for Adults

Differentiated instruction is something that we talk about all of the time for students, but it also applies to educators.  We often see frustration from administrators when they feel staff are all over the place, but this is something that we need to embrace.  I am comfortable with staff learning at different paces.  Where I struggle is if they are not open to learning at all.   This does not mean agreeing with everything and not having critical conversations.  Sometimes we have to embrace the “naysayer” as a challenge that helps to make us all better.  It is, however, imperative that they have, as Carol Dweck states, “a growth mindset.”  We have adopted the idea that we need to move staff from their point “A” to their point “B.”

One of the most successful practices that I have partaken in is taking one-on-one time with staff where they have the opportunity to ask questions about things that they are trying to do in their classrooms.  We simply book time in a day, and we have time for them to ask questions to start learning from where they are, as opposed to where someone wants them to be.  The person who is asking the questions is also the one who is often doing the learning. Creating opportunities for individual staff to ask these questions and get personal attention, no matter who it comes from, can often accelerate growth a lot quicker for your entire organization.


Innovation often comes out of experience and we have to change the way we do and think about professional development.  I have sat and watched someone speak to a group of teachers and administrators, sitting in rows, for hours on end about “21st Century Learning,” showing bullet points on a presentation.  How much do you think will really change in the classroom if that is what our time together looks like?

Want innovation in the classroom?  Get people to focus on being open to new learning and create different experiences for them.  They are more likely to do the same for their students.

“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” — Paulo Coelho

15 thoughts on “Leading Innovative Change Series – A New Staff Experience

  1. Robert Schuetz

    Totally on board with this George! Terrific perspective and inspiring quotes.
    Personal (notice I didn’t say personalized / @WillRich45) learning needs to be experienced and embraced by educators in order to support students that are embarking on an individually responsible learning (IRL) journey. Chapter two looks like a slam dunk to me! Forge on!

  2. Neil

    The paradox of “21st Century” school boards. How do you implement change in the classroom without telling teachers exactly how to make that change? As soon as a Director, Superintendent, Resource Specialist, I.T. person, Principal, or Keynote Speaker begins telling teachers what they should be doing in the class, or what tools they should be using, it’s game over.

    Just as students must stop looking at the teacher for the “answers”, teachers need to stop thinking that their “answers” can be found anywhere but inside themselves. I don’t mean that teachers can’t use the “higher ups” as resources, but only in ways that make sense to the teacher. And for money.

    At the same time, unless someone is exposed to a new idea, such as 21st Century Classrooms, they may never realize they actually have anything new to learn. But, honestly, if there is a teacher out there that needs some authority figure to tell them to learn more about education, I doubt if that teacher will be able to make any meaningful change in their teaching practice, anyways.

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  6. lwelch616

    One thing I have been thinking about lately is 20% time and how we can use that in professional development. I think it is fascinating for students and the intrinsic motivation (as discussed by Daniel Pink) it encourages. I would hope that teachers would also feel that sense of intrinsic motivation to learn about something in relationship to their work that they were passionate about.

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  9. Catherine Smith

    I agree that adminstrators must model the behaviours with their staff that they want staff to use with their classes. Diversity in staff makes for a stronger staff – if we are prepared to learn from each other. Leaders in schools must show their willingness to learn but also be prepared to show their vulnerability and acknowldege that they can learn from staff.

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