Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

Finding the Genius

This was a fantastic story, shared and created by Michael Wesch:

What I loved about this was the idea that sometimes our perceptions of students, lead to their new reality.  If we think of a student as lazy, what things do we do that actually feed into that?  But if we look for their strengths and how to build upon them, that perception also becomes a reality.

This is one of my favourite images on that very topic, most likely inspired by the Einstein quote,

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid.”

climb a tree

If we hold a certain knowledge that others don’t hold, it doesn’t make us smarter than them.  It just means that we have different strengths.  In the mechanic that doesn’t have a high school degree, yet can fix my car, I see genius. Finding that genius is part of what great educators do.

Maybe Not Tomorrow, but When?

I just read a great post by Alice Keeler, titled “In the Real World“, where she discusses the irony of the idea that schools need to prepare students for the “real world”, yet many of the things that happen in our schools do not necessarily mirror the current realities of the world we  live in at the moment.  Here is a sample of some of what she listed as the world’s current realities:

In the real world, we look things up on Google.

In the real world, YouTube is one of the most popular tools for learning.

In the real world, collaborating is not cheating.

In the real world, finding information on the internet is a resource.

In the real world, my job does not ask me things I can Google. I need to use critical thinking.

In the real world, I use my phone for everything.

It is a great post meant to push thinking, and she even crowdsources more ideas, if you are so inclined to add your own.

This being said, I am not about absolutes.  In my own experience, I have seen more schools open up sites like YouTube, and encourage students to not only bring their mobile devices, but encourage them to use them in meaningful ways for learning.  There is a definite shift happening in education. Yet I am sometimes baffled how one organization can block things like YouTube stating that it is unsafe for students to have access, while other organizations in nearby areas have the same site open.  I always wonder why they don’t just talk to each other?

There are many schools that are starting to understand that they are closing powerful learning opportunities down for their students, and they want to get to the place where students are encouraged to bring their own devices, or free up access to social media and sites like YouTube to create powerful and collaborative learning opportunities.  My advice to them? Don’t do it tomorrow, but you need to set a date of when you want to create some of these opportunities.

What is important to understand that simply flicking a switch and unblocking opportunities from students does not mean anything will change about the teaching and learning in the organization.  It should not be teaching plus a mobile device, but it should significantly change the way learning looks like in the organization.  Why I am adamant that there is a time frame is that we do not ignore and constantly put tomorrow out of reach.

For example, I created the following “rubric” on whether your school’s digital citizenship practice is a “pass or fail”.

dc

In reality, this is not meant to be an evaluative tool as much as it is a conversation starter and guide.  One possible way you can use this is to have a discussion on where you want to be, how you are going to get there, and when you are going to be there by.  Obviously nothing is perfect, but having a date creates an accountability to not only yourselves, but your students.

As John C. Maxwell says, “change is inevitable, but growth is optional”. As we manage change, it is necessary to have the critical conversations to not necessarily get to where we need to be (because it is a constantly moving target in education as it is with all organizations) but to move forward.  Each community is unique, and differentiation is not just for students and teachers, but schools as well.  Creating a plan of how to move to the next step is paramount if we are to take advantage of the opportunities for innovative learning that lay in front of us.

Don’t Over Plan Day One

Leaders Today

Lately, I have been doing more and more workshops starting with nothing on my agenda.  I have a topic that I suggest we talk about and an idea of what we can work on, but what I have noticed is that we never stick to the agenda as a group, so why am I spending an inordinate amount of time putting something together that we are not doing.  My focus does not start with the learning, but with the learners.  Their questions and thoughts now lead the session, not only what I think they should learn.  Although, I don’t over plan my sessions, I believe that my understanding of the topic allows me to go in different directions.  That being said though, I will never know everything on any topic, whether I am deemed an expert or not, but because of this crazy invention called the “Internet”, and all of the people that are in the room, I know we can figure out whatever we need for that time.

As I thought about this process, I connected it to my first days of school as a teacher, when I first started my career in education. It was basically the exact opposite.  I would spend days preparing my classroom and decorating it, and even though, I would say it is “our classroom”, the items on the walls were my choice.  I would even have each child’s name written down as a welcome on a basketball, because I wanted them to feel welcome.  The problem is, the basketball was about what I loved, not what they loved.  If you hated playing sports, and you walked into a classroom that featured your name on a basketball, you might not feel very welcomed at all.

Then came the icebreaker activities.  If you are an introvert, day one is going to be extremely tough for you, because we are going to make you get up, walk around, ask and answer questions that totally make you feel uncomfortable, because the student being uncomfortable doing something they hate, is not as important as me feeling safe that the entire day is planned out with things to do.

Wrong.

What if you wanted to learn the student’s names, you asked them to create their own art to display it on which represents something they love?

Instead of decorating the room with what you think should be on the walls, ask the students what they would like the room to look like, and plan how you could shape and decorate it, over time.

Instead of planning the entire day, why not create opportunities to talk to them and learn about them, and get a feel for what your year, or even the day could look like?

If I really think about how the year started for me as a teacher, it was more about the students to get to know me, than it was about me getting to know them.  There actually should be a balance.  Trust and respect are reciprocal feelings; they are not earned only from one direction.

This is not to say don’t plan anything, but to really think about the tone you are setting at the beginning of the year with what you are doing.  Is this more about you, or the students?  Looking back at my own practices, the answer was definitive.  I am trying to get better.

The major shift here is from engagement to empowerment.  I wanted to make sure the students had enjoyed their day, but now I see the importance in not only saying that it is their room, but making it their room.  If we want to create the leaders of tomorrow, there is no better time to develop our students as leaders than today.

Greatness is often in the smallest of details.

The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff”, is one that has stuck with me for a long time and something that I have honestly worked on a lot as a leader and a person.  The “small stuff” can get to you, and sometimes you have to let it go.

On the other hand though, sometimes you need to sweat the small stuff.

I was talking with a former superintendent, who was also an athlete, and he was discussing the sport of swimming.  He said that swimming was an amazing sport because it is about who can do the movements perfect, fastest.  Every little detail in swimming is crucial to success.

So I started to think about how I present and the slides I create.  There is a consistency in the font.  I prefer using Keynote because it allows me to better manipulate videos on when they start, and how quiet or loud they are.  The design process of creating the keynote is almost as important as the delivery, and it is something that I put a lot of focus on. Does it really matter if one slide is in “Georgia” font and the other is in “Times New Roman”? To me it does.

I love this quote on design from Steve Jobs on the things you might not even see:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Sometimes the small stuff is the difference between “good” and “great”.

So what about the small stuff in the terms of leadership?  At one point, the small stuff could be the thing that keeps you up at night.  You will sometimes have people upset with a decision, but if it is based on the focus of “what is best for kids”, then you will have to let it go, or else those “small things” will get to you.

But the “small stuff”, such as making sure you learn student names, go visit teachers, taking time to get to know your community, might seem like little things, but they are the small things that lead to excellence.  In no educational leadership competencies does it tell you that you need to go out of your way to know the names of all the students of your school.  But that seemingly overlooked idea can be all of the difference in your school.

I truly believe that if you are an educator, whether an administrator or teacher, that every single student or teacher you pass in the hallway, you acknowledge in some way, whether you teach them or not.  Going out of your way to talk to a student, might seem “small” to you, but it could be a world of difference to a student that day.  The “small stuff”, sometimes is the most important stuff we do; we have to learn when focusing on the little things will make all of the difference.

Greatness is often in the smallest of details.

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Blogging for Staff Professional Learning

I have been really thinking about the idea of using social media to make local impact, not just global.  It is easy to get caught up in the opportunity to connect with classrooms around the world, that we sometimes forget about the teacher across the hall.

A little realization I had this morning when I received a comment on my blog post, “Does Brainstorming Lead to Innovation?“, was how often we are not asked to really think and dissect  something before we get together at a staff.  Often, people are asked to read articles or excerpts, but how often are we asked to share our thoughts prior in some sort of open reflection? This makes all of us smarter, not just the person reflecting.

From the original post, John Spencer shared his thoughts by writing, “Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming“. Comments on the post shared subtle pushback, or alternatives as well.  What was important was the time to dissect, and actually share something that would be seen by others, ultimately helping people think more critically about their responses.

Clive Thompson

So what if we were to do this?

The week before (maybe more, maybe less) a professional learning opportunity, we had a school/staff blog that had an idea that was going to be discussed with staff.  People would be encouraged to write, create, write a comment on the original, or do whatever they wanted to respond, as long as it was linked back to the original.  This way, you are not limited to one person’s point of view, but are open to learning from others.  Would this not make for a much richer discussion that dives deeper into learning when we would actually connect face-to-face with one another?

My view on brainstorming has changed simply because people were willing to take the time and share their thoughts and ideas.  If you read them, not one of them challenged me, but challenged the ideas that were shared.  That’s the power of a blog.  What is important is to not only give people the opportunity to share their thoughts, but also give them time to create and connect their own learning.  Obviously, the hope for any professional learning is that this trickles down into the classroom with our students, and I think this could be a powerful way to really dive in deep to our own thinking, as well as the thinking of others, in our buildings and organizations.

Do the best leaders really just leave people alone?

Once you stop learning, you start

I often ask educators what qualities they like most in their administrator, and the following statement really makes me cringe:

They just leave me alone and let me do what I want.

First of all, I understand the needs for both trust and autonomy and how it is essential to motivation, but there is also a larger purpose to what we do in schools.  If we truly believe that schools are greater as a group than simply individuals, simply “leaving people alone” is probably not the best approach.

I think about the best leaders that I have ever had, and how they have balanced this approach of trust and autonomy, while providing strong mentorship.  This is not necessarily in telling you things to do, but often by pushing your thinking and abilities through asking questions, and challenging perceptions, without micro-managing.  I have always craved mentorship in whatever role that I have taken, and find that I do much better when I have someone who is pushing me in my work.  I love the idea that “if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” (often attributed to Michael Dell).  We only get better when we find those that truly elevate us.  Leaders are meant to unleash talent, not control it.

If you think that you have outgrown leadership, what are you doing to continue that growth? Books and blogs are great to push your thinking, but in my opinion, they never beat the conversations you can have others.  Great leaders not only create spaces where they challenge your thinking, but they encourage you to do the same with themselves.  That is part of what makes them great leaders.

Early on in my career, I remember asking my mentor teacher what I needed to do to meet the highest standards of my internship.  She would give me space to make my own mistakes, but she was also always there to not only encourage me, but to ask questions, and push thinking as well.  It was such a great experience that I can’t imagine doing it another way.

I love the following quote:

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Albert Einstein

If we just want our leaders to “get out of the way”, it may suggest that we are either not really open to learning or perhaps, we might be in the wrong room. Neither situation is beneficial to our own development.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

My idea of a leader or an administrator when I was starting early on in my career, was that they were “all knowing”, like some type of “Wizard of Oz” figure.  What I realized was that not only was this not possible, but something is actually lost when we do not feel comfortable to say “I don’t know”.  I have noticed some administrators, when told of a new idea, feel the need to say, “I thought of that a long time ago”, are playing a game where they feel the need to always assert their status as “leader”, when in fact, it actually disconnects.

Think of the difference between saying, “I had already thought of that idea”, as opposed to, “I never thought of that…that is a really great idea”.  Essentially you are not only giving power over (which some are afraid of losing), but you are showing value in the ideas of others.

With a lot of things that I have found myself thinking about, I am not as much “black or white”, as I am somewhere in the middle of grey.  Lately, I have more questions than answers, but the point is that I am trying to understand new and complicated ideas. “Not knowing” is part of this journey.

This post was inspired by Dean Shareski’s latest blog posts on having conversations, where he keeps using the word “trust”, which is needed to really go deeper into our own learning.  This tweet nicely summarizes some of my thoughts on the topic:

Think of that student that is in your class, that tells you something, to which you respond, “I did not know that! Thanks for sharing that with me.” Once they realize they were able to teach something new to the person of “authority” in the room, it creates a much more powerful dynamic in the relationship.  Adults are no different, especially when they feel they can teach the “expert” something that they didn’t know.  To gain trust, we have to give up power.

Empathy is crucial in developing the innovator’s mindset, and that takes listening, and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint, while being able and open to learn from them as well.  It is not about who can shout the loudest, but often who can listen best. Being open to learning from others, is crucial to our own development.

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Being able to say, “I don’t know” and being willing to be able to go find out, is much more conducive to building relationships than “I already knew that”.  Great leaders often show vulnerability, which in turn, helps develop teams that feel their contributions are not only valued, but necessary. Learning organizations value learning together over learning from one. Saying “I don’t know”, is crucial to not only our own curiosity, but shows an authenticity that helps to build relationships with those that we serve.

 

Are you willing to take the hit?

I was recently listening to a Seth Godin podcasts regarding “Startups“, and it reminded me of something earlier in my life. Having grown up playing any sport I could try at a young age, I at one time played baseball. It was not my favorite sport nor was I particularly any good, but it was something to do in the summer. Like most young kids, it started with TeeBall, and then a coach throwing, followed by kids allowing to pitch.

As I got older, I remember one pitcher who threw so fast, yet so wild. Nights before the game against his team, I would stay up all night worried about getting hit hard by a pitch, like I saw so many others going through. I remember thinking, “I really don’t like this sport that much to get hit in the head”, and at the end of the season, I quit.

Godin used the analogy about his own childhood in Buffalo playing hockey, and he described three ideas that stick out to him if you are going to be successful.

It helps if you know what to do.
Are you able to do it?
Do you care enough to get hit?

To be successful, we know that it takes hard work and to develop skill in any area, but we rarely mention and focus on the “hits” that we could take. Every time I write a blog post, I’m vulnerable to criticism and pushback, but I want to develop in what I do because I am passionate about my work.

I watch young Vine celebrities with millions of followers, get criticized often simply because they make videos. Brandon Bowen talked about some of the taunts he received about his weight, and he simply said “I just block out the haters”, and continued to do what he loves.  I am sure that it is something that sticks with him, but not to the point where he would quit.

Anything worth doing is going to be risky and open to criticism. Sometimes justified and sometimes simply because of  schadenfreude. But I love the following saying:

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That’s why I have never really focused on celebrating “failure”, but on grit and resiliency, as on any journey you will take a couple of hits, and fall a few times, but as the movie character Rocky famously said,

“But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits…”

Sometimes we have to realize that some of the hits we have taken are not worth it, not because we are weak, but maybe it’s just not something we love. Sometimes quitting shows more bravery than continuing to do something you don’t love. But if you truly are passionate about something, don’t let falling down keep you from getting back up to do what you love.

The “Sponge” Factor

I learned a lot from my days as a basketball referee.  Although the environment was quite collaborative, as great referees work as a team on the court, there was also a lot of competition in the field.  The best referees would get higher level games, based on their consistent performance in games.

One of the things that I found interesting was the half time feedback referees would receive from evaluators.  Having between 10-15 minutes during a break in the next half, there was no time to mince words.  Evaluators could often be blunt and sometimes brutal in their feedback.  They needed you to correct your work now, and they didn’t have time for you to embrace their feedback.  The feedback given was not to be mean or harsh, but to make you better.

The interesting thing about this is that you could have two refs in a game, with one perhaps being a better quality at the beginning than the other, but what the evaluators would look at was not how good you were at the beginning, but how teachable you were by the end.  If feedback was given in the first half, they expected you to implement in the second.  Sometimes it wouldn’t work for a referee, but what the evaluators looked for was the willingness to take feedback and give the learning a shot.  You may not have been perfect in your first try, but your willingness to learn would surely improve your performance as a referee.  The ability to be a “sponge” was crucial.

This “sponge” factor is crucial for educators.  I have often said that I am much more comfortable working with a teacher that is willing to learn and grow than one who thinks that they have “mastered” teaching.  Things will change in education and society, and one that is not willing to evolve in their practice, will eventually become irrelevant.  It may not be next year or the following year, but it will come eventually.  The person that is willing to continuously learn and evolve will always stay relevant.  Yet there are people in all fields, that will totally listen to feedback, nod their head in agreement, and go back to what they have always done.  There is a difference between “hearing” or being “open” to feedback.

As educators are currently interviewing for positions, one of the questions that I have asked in interviews before was, “Tell me an area where you received feedback, and what did you do to improve.”  This question promotes a vulnerability that is needed to be an educator that we are not  a “know-it-all” but that we are willing to learn.  This willingness to embrace turnaround learning is crucial to growth, which is not only being open to feedback, but doing something because of the feedback you have received.

Change will happen regardless of our own personal growth. Are we open to your own evolution?

Cloned Leadership

In my first interview for a position as an assistant principal, I remember talking to the principal and thinking that we couldn’t be any more different. We actually argued in the interview, and I walked away accepting of the fact that I wouldn’t be getting the job anytime soon.

A few days later I was hired by that same principal and it forever changed my thinking.

Were we more alike than I had initially thought? Yes and no. We both wanted what was best for kids, but our beliefs on how to get there had differed in many ways. That’s actually why I was hired in the first place. Our diversity and willingness to embrace the differences of one another ensured that we did not create an environment of “cloned leadership”; leaders hiring people that simply think and act like they do . Some people felt more comfortable talking to me as the assistant principal, and some felt more comfortable talking to him as well. We supported each other always, but our differences helped more people to connect with us in the building.

When I became a principal, my first action was to hire someone who I knew would disagree with me yet wanted to ensure we had the wellbeing of students driving their decision-making. My constant pursuit of the best answer, as opposed to my answer, made this hire crucial. When you hire someone who you know will challenge you, it can become extremely frustrating, yet it is crucial to growth. If someone doesn’t push our thinking and beliefs, how do we become better?

Yet I still observe many leaders that are looking for “yes” people; they simply agree with one another and challenges, although encouraged, don’t happen. Divergent thinking is crucial to innovation, yet too many leaders hire clones of themselves. When you have two (or more) administrators that aren’t willing to challenge one another, it often creates a culture where others don’t feel comfortable challenging ideas either, as there seems to be only one acceptable way forward.

I still believe that the best thing I ever did as a principal was to ensure that my first hire would be someone who challenged my thinking and would not always agree with me. It’s unfortunate that too many organizations take the opposite approach. Discomfort and challenge is crucial (and necessary) to achieve growth.