Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

3 Things That Have Slowed the Change Process Down in Education (And What We Can Do About It)

There has been a lot of talk on the idea that education as a whole takes a long time to change.  As an educator, this is a challenging notion, since we are seeing many people doing some amazing things that did not exist when I was a student.  Change is happening but sometimes it is hard to see when you are in the middle of the process.

Some things are out of the hands of schools. Budgets and government decisions can make creating new and better learning environments for students tough, but not impossible.  Educators are not powerless, and in some cases, more powerful that ever.  The story of education can not only be told from the perspective of educators, but also from the students that are currently in the system.  Although there is still a lot of work to do (as there always will be in organizations that focus on continuous learning and have an emphasis on becoming “innovative”), there are also opportunities in education, now more than ever, that we will need to take advantage of and create a different path.

Here are some of the challenges we have had in the past and how we can tackle them

1. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. 

Education has traditionally been an isolating profession where we get some time together, but not nearly enough.  Even if we wanted to change this significantly, in most cases, the current physical structures do not allow us to work with other educators.  Some administrators have been very innovative in their planning of teacher prep time and have embedded collaboration time into the regular school day, but it is not necessarily enough to make a significant impact.

How so many educators have shifted this “norm” is by using social media spaces to connect and learn from educators all over the world, and making a significant difference in their own classrooms, and creating much more engaging and empowering learning spaces.  Isolation is now a choice educators make. Where the shift really has to happen is using things like Twitter is for educators to connect and share learning that is happening with educators in their own school.  I challenged people to do the following (as shared in this visual from Meredith Johnson);

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We need to make this happen and create transparency in our own classrooms.

How does a song like “Gangnam Style” go so viral that most people around the world not only know the words but the dance moves?  Social media.  If a song can spread so quickly, so can great learning.

Make it go viral.

2. A continuous focus on what is wrong, as opposed to what is right.

Think about the traditional practice of what school has done with many of our students.  If they struggle with the subject of math, we often send the more math homework to do at home.  Does this really make sense?  If they are struggling at school, making them struggle at home with the same content is often counterintuitive.  It is not that we shouldn’t struggle, but it is important that we are very thoughtful of how we spend our energy.

The shift that has happened with not only our students, but also our schools, is focusing upon building upon strengths as opposed to focusing solely on weaknesses.  This is imperative as building upon strengths often helps us to not only build competence, but also confidence which leads us to the mindset that we are more open to tackle our other challenges along the way.

I love this quote from Forbes on putting people in the right positions to be successful:

Leadership is a privilege, not a right, and we need to treat it as such. Leadership means encouraging people to live up to their fullest potential and find the path they love. That, and only that, will create a strong culture and sustainable levels of innovation.

Many organizations outside of education are hiring not on need, but finding the best people and empowering them based upon their strengths.  Schools should try to do their best to follow suit and put people to be in the best situations to not only do well, but to lead.

3.  Experience is a very powerful teacher.

I remember sitting and listening to Bruce Dixon at a conference and something he said has always stuck out to me:

In no other profession in the world do you sit and watch someone else do your job for 16 years before you go and do it yourself.

Wow.  That is a powerful message and shows why so many new teachers aren’t coming into school with all of these “innovative ideas” and changing our school system like so many people predicted.  Many educators simply replicate their experience as a student. If you think about it, at least one-third of many teachers educational experience is as a student, not a teacher.  That is a tough thing to overcome, but not impossible.

Innovation has no age barrier, and if we can tweak the experience for educators in their professional learning, they are more likely to change the experience for their students.  Writing ideas about “21st century classrooms” on gigantic pieces of paper with a felt marker is not going to create cultural shifts; changing experiences will.

People are starting to look differently at professional learning, and create experiences that are much different from what I first experienced as a teacher.  I think a major reason for this shift (going back to point 1) is that educators are seeing the shift in practices in so many other organizations, and are trying to create a different practice where more educators are not really focused on teaching as much as they are about learning.  This empathy is crucial since to become a master teacher, you must become a master learner.  

Changing experiences to shift the focus on the learner from the teacher helps to disrupt routine.  If you would want to create an environment where students would want to be a part of your classroom, we have to experience what learning could look like for ourselves and start from a point of empathy.

One shift that was not mentioned was the mindset of looking at obstacles as opportunities. As mentioned earlier, not everything is in our control, but as educators know, they can make an impact every single day.  It is not always easy, and teaching can be a very daunting and tiring job, but I believe that every day we can make a difference if we choose.  Having that mindset is the only way that we will ever truly be able to make a powerful change for ourselves and our students.

Inquiry Based Professional Learning

What if we created professional learning opportunities that were not only engaging, but also empowered educators in the change process?

“Inquiry Based Learning” is something that I have been spending a lot of time looking into lately, not only from the perspective of how it could be done in the classroom, but for staff professional learning.  I found a great document from Alberta Education on the topic, and although I am not probably saying something new, I was thinking about how if we want schools to do this type of learning with their students, it is more likely to be successful if teachers had the opportunity to participate in this type of professional learning. (If you do “Inquiry Based Learning” in your professional learning, I would love for you to leave a link in the comments.)

Here is the quick introduction on “Inquiry Based Learning” from Alberta Education:

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply.”

Let’s modify it for the purpose of this blog post:

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students learners formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others to create real solutions to improve learning and the environment of the classroom(s) and school.  In classrooms a school where teachers administrators emphasize inquiry-based learning, students staff are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage and empower students staff deeply.”

As I thought about the potential for this process, it was not only to have teachers understand deeply the potential of inquiry based learning for students by immersing themselves in the process, but it was also to tap into their knowledge and wisdom to be a part of the change process of a school or system.

This tweet from Andrew Campbell reminded me of how often we don’t listen to the people that are in the system on ways that we can move it forward.

So what could this look like in the context of professional learning?

I was thinking about having an overlying question to guide other questions.  This question would be, “Why do we…?” For example, a question that could be created by a group of staff based on interests is, “Why do we have student awards?”, or “Why do we use report cards as our main assessment tool?”  Not all of the questions necessarily need to start with “why”, but it is mainly to challenge the assumptions that we have about the process of school.  They could also be along the lines of, “Does the process of school impede on deep learning?”  The importance of this process is that we start to look at ideas with fresh eyes, ask questions that we are passionate about, actively research new ideas and solutions, and have staff be crucial in the change process of school.  Change is more likely to happen when we are active contributors to the change process; it is not something that can be done to us. 

As my friend Jesse McLean would say, this goes beyond simply looking at best practice, but it is looking at creating innovative solutions and ideas for what school could look like.  Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant talk about the block that “best practice” can sometimes have on innovation:

“Innovation has an inherent distaste for best practices because it is about new solutions, not copying existing solutions.”

What is imperative in this process is to empower staff, not only by providing time to create this type of work (this could be an example of a 20% time initiative in your school/district), but also that if they are willing to go deep into the research and provide powerful new solutions, looking at how they can be implemented at the school or district level.  If their question that they start with is a “non-negotiable” and something that you will never be able to change, that needs to be communicated up front.  If the group or individual still wants to pursue their question, then at least they know the drawbacks at the beginning.

As I see, there are several benefits to this type of professional learning:

  • Experiencing a powerful learning opportunity as an adult to understand what it could look like in the classroom.  To be a master teacher, you must first be a master learner.
  • Unleashing the innovative potential of the adults in the building and creating an environment where risks are not only encouraged, but time is created to actively take them.
  • Focusing on the importance of research based on passions as an important element of learning.
  • Empowering staff in the creation of improved learning environments and giving them real opportunities to lead in the change process.

This is not meant to be an idea that is taken and implemented as is, but a starting point of something that you could do to transform professional learning and provide autonomy to staff, the research that is necessary for mastery and deep understanding,  while also tapping into the importance of purpose in developing the future of schools.  Three elements (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) that Dan Pink would state are crucial to motivation. This might be something that is risky as an administrator, but if we want to create an environment that staff take risks in their learning, we need to not only encourage it, but more importantly, model the process.

To think different, we need to create  opportunities that immerse ourselves in new experiences that make us act and feel different first.

Are you focused on the “stuff” or the person?

Here are two approaches to the same thing…

Let’s say you want educators in your school to start reflective and professional blogs.  One way that you could get them to do it, is by really pushing the value of blogging, show them the “why”, talk about the need for it, and put some real pressure on others to move ahead.  You could probably mandate it (which I have seen done with many initiatives that have failed) and have people do it for awhile, but as soon as they can get out of it, many will.  There are many initiatives out there that would be beneficial to our students, and focusing on how we are so behind, rarely ever puts us ahead.

Now a different approach, and one that I am still working on in my growth.  Let’s say you wanted educators to blog, but you didn’t start at that point.  Maybe you go into classrooms, observe things that are happening, and talk about their positive impact on student learning.  Sit down with the teacher, talk about their strengths, and then share the impact that they could have on the rest of the building on other educators, and perhaps sitting down and writing a blog together could be a way that we could share those strengths with others, and make great teaching and learning go viral.

In each scenario, you could have an educator write a blog, but in the first, we are starting from a deficit model (here are the things we can’t do), and the second, is starting from a place of abundance.

As an administrator, it is important that you know the strengths of each member of your team, before you know their weaknesses.  If you can’t find them, maybe you aren’t looking.  If you dig down deeper into each scenario, the first starts with a focus on the outcome (blogging), but the second starts with a focus on the person.  That is leadership.  Stephen Covey made the simple distinction between management and leadership; we manage “things”, we lead people.

Taking time to find the strengths of individuals is not an expenditure, but an investment, that can come in copious amounts of growth.  In most cases, when people know that they are valued, the distance they are willing to go is much further than when we constantly point out weaknesses.

Innovation has no age barrier.

Recently, I was blown away by this TedX Talk from Kate Simonds, talking about the importance of tapping into student voice.  Her talk was so simple yet so powerful, and as a speaker, I was so impressed by her talk.

Kate discussed not only celebrating the students that blow you away with incredible projects or inventions, but tapping into all students.  She goes beyond “hearing” their voice, but actually tapping into the wisdom of our students.  She implores the audience to tap into youth who may have a different way of looking into a problem.  She also challenges the audience to really think of what we want from students, and what our system promotes:

“As students we have no say in what we learn, or how we learn it, yet we are expected to absorb it all, take it all in, and be expected to run the world some day.  We are expected to raise our hands to use the restroom, then three months later, be ready to go to college, or have a full time job, support ourselves, and live on our own. It’s not logical.”

Powerful stuff.  Are we listening?  Even if we are, are we doing anything about it?

She also referenced a quote from her teacher that was quite sarcastic, but seemingly true:

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The problems that we currently have in education, were made by the same people now trying to solve them.  She has a very valid point.

Kate’s approach and belief of tapping into students is powerful, and I have seen areas tap into this.  Ontario currently has a “student trustee” on every board in the province, that has a voice in the organization, yet this is one province that I know of, with a minimal percentage of the board represented by a student.  This needs to be expanded.

Way too often, “leadership” taps into a very small amount of people to generate ideas.  The smaller group, the more limited we are in hearing different ideas. Once you decide the group that you listen to, you limit yourself to the ideas from those voices.  This is why it is so important to open up communication and garner those ideas from anywhere.  Innovation best flourishes in a flattened organization.

One of the things that happens in Parkland School Division is that we have a student committee that looks at what is happening in our schools, and encourages them to discuss and share ideas.  Recently, the students were encouraged to take a visual created based on my work to start a conversation with the teachers at their school (shared below).

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If this is their education, it is important that they have the opportunity to discuss it, but also help guide the direction and help come up with new ideas.  I would love to see more schools encourage students to sit on leadership teams, professional learning opportunities, and whatever other opportunities we have so that we can learn from each other.  We often forget to tap into the best resource we have in our schools; our students.

The conference I attended this past week (MACUL in Detroit, Michigan), had a student showcase right outside the main hall.  Students were not only discussing their learning, but were empowered to teach adults as well.  This should be the standard, not the exception.

I am proud to say that in my TedX Talk a couple of years ago, I wanted to tap into “our voice”, which was not limited to educators, but was really about also empowering the voice of our students.  Kate reminds me deeply why this is important.

Whether you are 5, 50, or 100, you can have a great ideas, and we need to recognize that we are lucky enough to have curious and creative minds in education at all ages.

Innovation has no age barrier.

(Please take time to watch the TedX Talk below from Kate Simonds. Share it, discuss it with your staff and watch it with your students.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others on this brilliant talk.)

What do you want leaders to do with technology? (Updated Visual)

I worked with Bill Ferriter, who created the visual  “What do you want kids to do with technology?” on this updated version of “What do you want leaders to do with technology?”, adapted from my previous post on this topic.

This morning, Bill sent me the updated graphic that he had created. Bill has a ton of great slides that he also shares with the world, so I was honoured that he would create this for myself and others. You can see his creation in the tweet below:

(You can all see Bill’s original post on Flickr.)

First of all, this is not about “administrators” but about leadership, which can come from any position.  Secondly, all of the items listed on the “better” side can be done without technology and are core elements of great leadership.  Technology though can both amplify and accelerate.

If we are thoughtful on why we use technology and the impact it can have on leadership, all of these things can happen a lot faster with technology than they could without.

A great leader will know when to get out of the way, or help you along the way.

You have a great idea.

It has been brewing around in your head for days and days, and although it is something you have never tried before, you see it as something that could be great for your students.

You decide to bring it to your boss to make sure it is okay to try.

You are crushed when they say, “I don’t think that is going to work.”

Not only did you just hear “no” now, but you probably won’t even ask in the future.

Sometimes “no” is not only a conversation killer, but it can be a relationship killer.  It makes people feel that they aren’t trusted or that they are doing something wrong.  When people make an effort to go above and beyond, and we stop them before their first step, it creates a reluctance to even try something different again.

Great leaders don’t necessarily always say “yes”, but they rarely say no.  The best leaders I have ever had have said things like “go for it”, or “I think you have a great starting point, but have you thought about this?”  They work out ideas with you, or they let you fly on your own, supporting you any way they can along the way to be successful.

A great leader will know when to get out of the way, or help you along the way. They alternate accordingly between both spaces.

In a culture that promotes “innovation”, new ideas are not only welcomed, but they are encouraged.  It’s the only way as educators we will ever create something different.

They Will Follow Your Lead

When I first started to teach, coaching basketball was everything to me. I played basketball since I was in grade 4, and to be able to still be a part of the game was an amazing opportunity. Watching years and years of the NBA, the rivalries between legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and some new guy named Michael Jordan, I would try to mimic their plays on their court, into my own style. I wasn’t even in close, but like every kid that played basketball at that time, I wanted to “be like Mike”.

Transitioning into coaching, I followed the same script. Imitate NBA players when you play; imitate NBA coaches when you coach. It seemed pretty easy. I would watch countless games in the pros, and try to draw up similar plays that I would see in games and we would call them “Bulls” or “Lakers”, so everyone knew what we were running. It wasn’t only the “x’s and o’s” of the game, but it was also the interactions these coaches had with referees. They yelled, I yelled. If you wanted to get the attention of the ref, best thing to do is start screaming across the court at them. That’s what I saw. That’s what I did.

One game, while in my first year of teaching and coaching, I remember constantly yelling at a ref who I felt had made a bad call, and my players totally agreed, so they joined in. I called a timeout, and the ref came over to talk to me, and what he said changed me forever.

“No matter if you are kind or a jerk, these kids will look up to you and follow your lead. What direction do you want to lead them in?”

That was the last time I ever yelled at a ref. Would I talk to them or challenge their calls? Absolutely. But it was always in a manner that was respectful.

This does not only translate to the coaching ranks, but the way we teach as well. If we model that we struggle with any type of change, or hate being flexible, what do we think our students will become? If we don’t try to push ourselves and think of innovative ways about our teaching and learning, why would students be any different?

I could not thank that referee enough for that moment. He could of yelled at me, thrown me out of the game, or ignored me, but he saw someone just starting off in their career, and made it into a teachable moment. Those words stick with me to this day.

Higher Expectations, Higher Responsibility

On the suggestion of Ariel Price, I decided to read the book, “The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools“, and it talks extensively about bringing the best out in people, as opposed to doing the opposite.  As leaders, it is essential that we focus on how we “unleash” talent, even though we have come from a place where “management” of people often means controlling them.  Let’s be clear; micromanaging people not only sucks the life out of them, but it is more work.  Control should never be the standard we are trying to achieve in leadership and this book really focuses on how to get more out of people, leading to better schools for our kids.

One of the ideas that was shared was the notion of “pressure” vs. “stress”. Shared beautifully through the story of William Tell and his son (I won’t tell you the whole story), when William, an expert archer, ran into trouble and had to shoot an apple off his son’s head or they would both face execution:

The father and son both simultaneously experience a flood of relief; however, they actually had very different experiences in the preceding moments. While he stood taking his aim, William Tell felt pressure. His son felt stress…We feel pressure when the stakes are high and when we must perform at our best. We feel stress when we have no control. (Multipliers)

Control is important here, but it is dependent upon who has it.  I know many teachers would feel a lot of stress because many of the decisions that make a significant impact on student learning are out of their control, as well as many decisions made at the school level.  If we expect more out of people, we are going to have to give them, as sportswriter Bill Simmons would say, “skin in the game“.

A powerful idea shared in the book was to “supersize” a person’s job, meaning to “…assess the person’s current capabilities and then give him or her a challenge that is a size too big.”  As a tech lead in my school several years ago, I remember my then principal pulling me into her office and asking me to decide on what technology would be purchased for the following school year.  In the past, I had know this to be an administrator decision, so I was a little thrown off by the request, but I was excited to have the opportunity to make the decision.  I asked her why she asked me in the first place, to which she stated, “If you are the lead in our school in technology, shouldn’t you have an impact on the decisions?”  It was exciting to have been trusted to make such a big decision that I knew would help others.

The more I thought about it though, the more pressure I felt because if people were going to complain about what we had in our schools, it would have been because of my decisions, not our administrators.  I put a lot of thought into it, and from my work with teachers, I had made several suggestions on how we could have moved forward.  The principal knew that since I worked with every teacher in the school in the area of technology, that I would have had tremendous input from others, but that I would work harder to make things successful in the school.  This not only lead me to feel more empowered by the process,  but want to create that same experience for others that I had worked with.  If you want people to feel empowered, you have to be willing to part with control.

This is one of my favourite quotes on the topic:

“Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.” ― Harriet Rubin

Pressure and stress are not only something that we can feel, but something that we can create for others.  Higher expectations need to come with higher responsibility if we are truly going to unleash the talent in others.

3 Questions To Shift the Focus to the Learner

The teacher evaluation process sometimes seems a little ridiculous.  For many boards, a principal will formally “visit” a teacher 2-3 times, and from those observations (and obviously some other observations throughout the school year), they will write an evaluation on that teacher.  As a new teacher, it is tough to feel comfortable with an administrator in the room so they often get “the show” which is not really reflective of what teaching and learning looks like in the classroom.  I did the same thing as a teacher. Those few observations didn’t really resemble what I did throughout the year, and it was often a reflection of what I thought my administrator wanted to see (kids quiet, sitting in rows, respectful of my dynamic up in the front teaching with my amazing lesson), not how I taught the majority of the year.  I don’t think my teaching was ever a “lie” during that time but often an exaggeration.  It is easy to get nervous during this process.

Although many boards still have to do the three observations, I think that the process needs to focus more on the learner.  For example, instead of telling someone how they taught based on those observations, I challenge administrators to ask the following questions:

What are you strong at?

Where do you need to improve?

What are some things that you are going to do to become a better educator?

The important part of this process is to really let the learner talk.  If the focus is on their teaching, then the learner should be the one sharing what they know.  If administrators started to do this, what would the “trickle-down effect” be in the classroom?  What if you asked the same questions of your students (modified for age level obviously)?  Would this not be the type of assessment that not only summarizes learning but actually an assessment to improve learning?

I would love to hear the practices for teacher evaluation that are happening in schools that go against the traditional model.  What do you got?

The School Won’t Fall Apart…

Working with a lot of principals at conferences, I have seen people mention about checking in on their phone because they might be worried about what is happening in their school.  Just like any part of education, people have to leave for professional and personal reasons, and they cannot physically there.  That being said, if you think as a principal, the school could fall apart without your presence, you might not be doing one of the most important parts of your job; developing leadership.

If you have created a culture that builds leadership, the majority (if not all) of emergencies that happen in school will be handled by the people in the building that you have entrusted with kids.  Great leaders build cultures that are not dependent upon any one person.

So if you are checking your phone over and over again, to make sure nothing is going wrong at the school, you have some work to do.  Supporting people is important and I know many leaders want to be available to their team, but developing people and trusting them is crucial to the success of any school.