Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

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.

Fitting Into the Same Standardized Hole

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

I was having a really interesting conversation with a parent about technology and the thought that it is leading to the decline of intelligence.  She shared with me her belief that many students struggled with reading and writing because of a dependence of use on things such as spell check, and that kids just didn’t seem as “smart” as we were in our youth.  Then she asked me about where she could learn more about this idea, and I simply said “Twitter”.  She responded that she had no idea how to use it, to which I asked her, “Do you think some kids could show you?”  Obviously she responded with the answer “yes”, to which I replied, “to some of those kids, they would think you are the dumb one.”

I didn’t say this to berate her in any manner, but to challenge her thinking that sometimes we base someone’s intelligence on the information we value, not necessarily on what they value and/or know.  To the person that can fix my car, I see them as a genius.  I honestly don’t know if they finished high school or what their grades were, but looking at them as someone who is expert in an area that I have no clue.  Because you know something that I don’t doesn’t make me less intelligent, and vice versa.  We all have different strengths and knowledge, but the question we should focus on is how do we tap into people, instead of trying to fit different shaped pegs into a single standardized hole?

That’s why I look to people like Chris Wejr, who not only focus on developing strengths into students, but also in staff.  Staff that are recognized and encouraged to develop their strengths, also treat their students with the same regard.  So instead of focusing on what people don’t know, schools would benefit from focusing on what they do know and helping them develop those strengths as long with their weaknesses.

It is easy to constantly focus on what is lacking, but it also loses people along the way who do not feel valued.  Knowing and tapping into someone’s strengths often leads to the confidence and competence to learn in other areas.  As learners, we are individuals, and should always be treated as such.

There Should Be More than One “Lead Learner”

(Note…based on the first few comments I wanted to update the post to reflect my VERY strong belief that principals/superintendents should model their learning.  It has been updated below and I appreciate the pushback that helped me to communicate my thoughts!)

The term “Lead Learner” has been one that has been thrown around a lot by superintendents, principals, and other people at the top of the traditional hierarchy, mostly in reference to themselves.  As a principal, I actually used the term referring to myself in a blog post I wrote in January 2011, and am not sure where I heard it, or just used it on a whim.  What I do know now though is that I am reluctant to using the term when talking about a principal or superintendent, and I rarely (if ever) have heard someone else call their principal or superintendent the “lead learner”.  Does that say something about the term?

I do however, understand why it is being used so often though.  Principals, superintendents, and other traditional “bosses” see their roles changing, and see this as part of flattening the organization, or at least that is how I saw it when I first used it.  I wanted to model that I was a learner just like everyone else in my school, and, as Chris Kennedy would say,  I wanted to be “elbows deep in learning” with them.  The reality though is that the term still refers to one person being in an authority position, and for me now, evokes the ideas that the principal is seen as the “holder of all knowledge”.  This was not how my school worked at all.  There were not only people who knew a lot more than me in many areas, but they were also more passionate about going deeper in the topic.  I was definitely not the “lead learner” in many areas, nor did I want to be.  If you think about it, in any school a “lead learner” could be in any area, and can be any person, and is often our own students.  In a culture where “everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner”, the term “lead learner” could and should be applied to many.

The role of principal is evolving, but I also know that some people need the principal to be the principal.  There is a point where people need to know that in tough situations, they can count on someone to back them up and be there for them.  I had many principals step in for me when I didn’t know what to do, or supported me in tough situations.  I didn’t need them to be the “lead learner”, I needed them to be the principal.  Great leaders don’t get consensus on all decisions, but sometimes have to make the tough ones on their own.  This comes as part of the role and sometimes it is important to know who to go to when there is a struggle.

The title does not necessarily make the role, only how you do it.  

Yet words mean something and if we are truly to create a culture where all people can step up and explore their passions and we believe that everyone has the potential to lead and bring out their best, the term “lead learner” should never be reserved for one person.

Should the principal/superintendent still openly share their learning?  Absolutely.  With technology now, that is easier than ever, but note I used the term “model” their learning.  Administrators have been learning forever but it was hard to communicate and share their learning on an ongoing basis.  That being said, there is a difference between a “leader that learns” and a “lead learner”, as one creates the notion that there is a “top learner”, where we should create an environment that in organizations, both inside and outside, learning by all is essential to success.

Drown or swim?

As always, it is an honour to work with schools and school boards to share my learning with them, and in return, learn from their ideas as well.  I always encourage push-back in my sessions because I want to create an atmosphere where we all get better, including myself.  The challenges are crucial to our development as learning organizations.

Recently, I worked with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and we talked about changing learning and learning environments. What was really special about this day was that there were several high school students in the room as part of the day.  During the first part of the morning, I went and talked to the students and asked them on their thoughts about different things (should teachers use twitter with them, ideas on snapchat, what their learning looks like) and the conversation was so amazingly rich.  As I talked to them, I shared some of the ideas that I was going to present on, but asked them to think critically about what I shared and challenge me after in front of the group.  If I am talking about opportunities for students in learning, it is imperative that I ask them about their opinions and pushback.

What was really inspiring to me was one of the students talked about how it wasn’t really a great idea to use Twitter with students before I talked.  By the end though, she was advocating it’s use to her teachers, because she had seen used in a different way.  I was almost in tears listening to her as she was open to learning and new ideas, and then advocated for herself for something new.

Another amazing moment was when a student advocated that we spend more time on “life” and less time on school (I almost cheered out loud!).  The analogy that he used for the idea of social media was pretty profound.  He said (paraphrased),

“Social media is like water because it is everywhere in our life.  We can ignore it and watch kids drown, or we can teach kids how to swim.  Which way are you going to go?”

Wow.

I was deeply moved by this experience and I thought to myself, why do we not do this more?  We are talking so much about “what is best for kids”, without any kids in the room.  Innovation has no age barrier, and it is important we not only bring them into the conversation, but tap into their brilliance.  How often are we asking kids to be a part of our workshops or “talks”, and not only telling them to be a part of the conversation, but openly telling them to challenge us?  This should be the norm, not the exception.

If any of those students are reading this post, I just want to thank you for your inspiration and ideas.  I hope you know how much your words were appreciated.

(P.S. Here is my #30SecondReflection on the day below.  I am wanting to do this more to push my own learning.)

The Biggest Barrier to Innovation

“Being realistic is the most commonly travelled road to mediocrity.” Will Smith

Maybe it’s because I have been listening to “motivational speeches” on 8Tracks, or maybe because I have been emotionally touched by so many tributes to all of the moms out there in the world, but I have been thinking a lot about our mindset towards innovation and the barriers that we need to overcome to create better learning opportunities in our schools.  This post is a tribute to my mom who is my hero for more reasons than I could ever count.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 7.47.18 PM

I saw the above picture a few months ago, and it is one that has resonated with me.  When we talk about “change”, it is often something we think about when talking about others, and rarely in connection with ourselves.  It is easy to want others to change, but it always starts with “us” and our attitudes to change.  Constantly looking at the life of my parents, I learned from them that change is an opportunity to do something amazing, and that when we embrace new opportunities, even when they seem like obstacles, we can create something much better than what currently exists.  Change is scary and we often stay with a “known bad” than take the chance on the possibility of a “great” new opportunity.  Fear can stop us or make us reluctant, but it doesn’t have to defeat us.

My mom has proven this to me over and over again throughout her life.  Having a grade six education in Greece, and nearly dying from meningitis as a young child, she decided one day to come over to Canada to create a better life.  If you think about the time that she came over, she probably had no idea whether she would see her family again.  Yet she worked hard, and with my dad, created a life for themselves and for my siblings that had more opportunities for us than what they had as children. I remember her taking lessons to read in her 50’s and 60’s because she knew that being able to read and write would create opportunities, even though learning it would be an obstacle. To this day, at almost 80 years old, she constantly sends me emails and it is amazing how she gets better with every single one.  I save each email that she sends to me in a folder, and it is like my mom’s own learning portfolio. I cherish each one.

In the last few years, I have watched her deal with so much adversity and come out strong, although not without her struggles.  My dad passed away two years ago, and her only brother passed away a few months ago.  The older we get, the more we seem to lose, yet my mom still goes out of her way to show me love and connect with me and give me advice.  With such a little amount of formal education, she is wise in so many areas that I need her to be.  This wisdom comes from her attitude to the world more than anything.  She sees light in not only situations, but people, when it would be really easy to see dark.  If I could be one-tenth the person my mom is, I would be happy.  Although I am all about embracing change, I don’t know if I could have done what she has done in her lifetime.

In relation to this attitude, I have been thinking about the challenges that we face with school.  Budget restrictions, policies that don’t make much sense, and curriculums that are way too static for a world that is constantly changing, we could just throw in the towel and be okay with the notion of school in the past.  But like my mom who wanted better for her kids than what she had, I am hoping we can create something better for our students than what we grew up with.  When we know better, we should do better.  People challenge others to think “outside of the box”, when really we need to think how do we become innovative inside of the box.  When Vine came out, many people asked “what in the world could you possibly do with six seconds?”, when others said, “I wonder what I could do with six seconds?”  While some looked at the constraints as a barrier, others looked at the constraints as an opportunity.  It is your perspective.  One of the questions above is not a question, but an excuse.  Are you asking questions to stay still or to move forward?

Often, the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking.

It is not the policies, it is not the curriculum, it is us. I hear things like, “Well we can’t possibly do that because of our (parents, students, teachers, principal, lack of resources, government, etc.)”, yet someone somewhere has done whatever you might be trying to do facing the same adversity you face.

In fact, the story is better because of the adversity.

Do you know why people love reading comics or watching movies about super heroes?  It is not only because they often go beyond our imagination, but more importantly, they do it while overcoming adversity.  The story becomes so much more compelling when it is not easy.  Have you seen those shirts that say, “I teach…what’s your superpower”?  Just being a teacher is not a superpower; the way we teach is. That can help change the world.  Just showing up each day is a start, but it’s not enough.

I thought of this when I recently heard the quote, “be the hero in your own story,”  I think of my mom who taught me to always look in the light when all you can see is dark, and who has overcome so much adversity to give everything she has to her kids, to create something better, while showing love and kindness to everyone she encountered.  She’s the hero in her story because she focused not on what she didn’t have, but on what she did have and what she could do with it.  This (her) mindset is crucial to the innovative educator.

If the adversity wasn’t there, would the story even be that interesting?  How will you become the hero in your own story?

I am thankful for my mom, who constantly teaches me to see the light in the dark, who treats every person with nothing but love, and through adversity, not only has created opportunity, but does it with a smile, laughter, and joy, when it would be easy to choose a different way.

Have a bad boss? Ask them for their advice.

I received an interesting question in a workshop the other day that I have heard before, but had never written down.  The question was based on working with an administrator that maybe isn’t the strongest, and how you work with them from a position lower on a traditional hierarchy.  I will have to admit that this isn’t the first time that I have heard this question, and I gave them the best advice I could.  Ask them for help.

So why would you want to ask someone who may be weak at their job or struggle for their advice?

For the same reason that many of us thrive under; the notion of being valued.  Asking someone for their advice in a situation or their help, suggests that you actually value what they have to say and are willing to take the time to listen to them.  This is something that is important and a way that most of us should feel, especially in a culture where we suggest that everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner.

Having spent time being a principal myself, I will openly admit that I had some really tough days on the job, and it is a lot harder to be in that position when you don’t feel valued.  But to me, the need of feeling valued is something that we should try to instil in people, no matter their position or authority.  One of the best things that I see in great leaders (from any position), is that when you see them talking to anyone, no matter if they are “above” or “below” them in the hierarchy of an organization, is that they treat everyone with respect and care.  Bosses need this as well, and when they frustrate us, it is easy to lose perspective.  Everyone wants to be acknowledged and seen for their strengths; that never changes no matter what position you may have.

There are a lot of bad bosses who know they are not doing the best job possible, and sometimes showing that value in them could be the push in the right direction that they need.  It may not always work, but I know that showing that you value someone is usually a safe bet.

 

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.