Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

Connecting Your Own Dots for Leadership

As I looked into moving into “leadership positions” within my own district, I believed that I did not have the experience to get into a role that I had wanted.  The tricky thing is that if you don’t have the experience, how do you get the job?

“Leadership” is not about title, but often influence and the ability to help others.  There are many administrators who aren’t necessarily leaders, and there are many teachers who exemplify the definition.  Yet for many, the idea of moving into “leadership” without the experience, seems insurmountable.  The reality is, the experience is already there within your current role, you sometimes have to just connect the dots for others, and more importantly, yourself.

So how do you do this?  As I applied for administrative positions within my school district one of the best pieces of advice that I received was to look at Alberta’s “Principal Quality Standard”, which is the evaluation tool for administrators within the province.  Most provinces or states will have something very similar.  After looking at the seven standards, I was given the task to look at what I was currently doing in my role as a teacher, and how I was already meeting the standards.

For example, the first “quality” for leadership was regarding “Fostering Effective Relationships”.  This standard is not exclusive to school administrators, and the best teachers do this in an abundance.  To be able to make this connection on a resume and a portfolio is a great reflection for yourself, while also being able to showcase this to others.

Another “quality” is on “providing instructional leadership”.  I have watched many teachers share ideas from their own classroom, and make an impact on not only other teachers, but students in the school (sometimes outside the school as well) that they do not teach. Again, this is not a quality that is exclusive to an administrator.  In fact, a great administrator will not only be an instructional leader, they will develop others with these qualities as well.

There is a saying to “dress to the job you want, not the job you have”, but if you look closely enough, you might realize that you have already been playing the part. You sometimes just need to connect the dots.

One Step At a Time

The push to totally change the way school looks, is coming from many that believe that education as it looks today is not sufficient for our kids.  Although I do believe that we have to change some major elements of school, I also believe that there are lots of positive elements that we can build on as educators.  When we say “everything has to change”, we also tell educators that “everything you are doing is wrong”.  We have to build upon our strengths, while also paying attention and developing on our weaknesses.  This does not happen overnight.

Barry Schwartz talks about the “paradox of choice”, and in his Ted Talk (one of my favourites), he talks about abundance of choice often making people miserable.  This would be no different with what is happening to many educators.  When we say “change everything”, people are often overwhelmed and change nothing.  Personally, I understand that although teachers need to question the system, they also need to work with inside of it to make change.

So if we are really going to make powerful long lasting change, we have to realize that this happens one step at a time.  Although we might have a vision of where we want to go long term, successful leaders will help break the BIG VISION into smaller, achievable steps.  With every single step, we move closer to our goals, while building confidence in a “new way of learning”.

My suggestion for people wanting to change what they do?  Focus on one thing at a time.  Look at something you currently do, and ask how you could do that better, and improve learning opportunities for kids.  Once you have seen success, move onto another thing.  I love this story from Will Smith about something he learned from his dad when he was young:

When Will was a 12-year-old kid, his dad gave him an impossible task: rebuild the brick wall in front of his business. It took Will and his little brother a year-and-a-half, but they built the wall.

How did a couple of little kids build a big brick wall? Will explains, “You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say: ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ And you do that every single day, and soon you’ll have a wall.”

Success breeds success, and if you focus on that one brick at a time, soon you will have something that is so much better than what you started.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-tzu

5 Ways To Influence Change

“At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called ‘leaders’ is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results.” Joseph Grenny

In a time where the only constant in education is change, people involved with education need to become “change agents” more now than ever. You can understand pedagogy inside out, but if you are unable to define “why” someone should do something different in their practice, all of that knowledge can be ultimately wasted.  People will take a “known good” over an “unknown better” in most cases; your role is to help make the unknown visible and show why it is better for kids.

Look at the debate over “new math” right now.  Many people, including educators, are pushing back over the new curriculum based on the idea that math was taught in a much better way when we were kids.  Simply explaining the process and the way we teach and learn math is not enough.  It has to go deeper.  Ultimately, you want people to feel that this is so much better than they were kids, and that their children are better off.  Innately, people want what is better for kids.  Tap into that, and people are more likely to move forward.

“To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources—not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end.” Daniel Pink

So how does this happen?  Below are some things that I have seen effective leaders to have not people only accept change, but embrace it as an opportunity to do something better for kids.

  1. Model the change that they want to see.  Although this might seem extremely “cliche”, it is the most imperative step for any leader in leading the “change effort”.  Many organizations talk about the idea that people need to be “risk-takers”, yet they are not willing to model it themselves.  Until that happens, people will not feel comfortable doing something different.  It is also the difference between talking from a “theoretical” to “practical” viewpoint.  Have you ever seen a PowerPoint on “21st Century Change” from an administrator who does not exhibit any of the learning that is being discussed in the presentation? Me too.  People will feel more comfortable taking a journey to an unknown place if they know that the first steps have been taken by someone else.  Although I believe in the idea of distributed leadership, the idea of “leaders” is that they are also ahead; they have done things that have not been done before.  Chris Kennedy has shared the idea that leaders need to be “elbow deep in learning” with others, not only to show they are willing to embrace the change that they speak about, but to also be able to talk from a place of experience.
  2. Show that you understand the value that already exists. The word “change” is terrifying to some because it makes them feel that everything that they are doing is totally irrelevant.  Rarely is that the case.  I have seen speakers talk to an audience for an hour and people walk out feeling like they were just scolded for 90 minutes on how everything that they are doing is wrong.  It is great to share new ideas, but you have to tap into what exists already that is powerful.  When you show people that you value them and their ideas (and not in a fake way which is pretty easy to read through), they are more likely to move mountains for you., and for themselves.  Strengths-based leadership is something that should be standard with administrators to teachers, as it should be standard with teachers to kids.
  3. Tell stories. Data should inform what we do and is an important part of the change process, but it does not move people.  If you look at major companies like Coke and Google, they use stories to elicit emotion from people.  Of course they have numbers that they use in their process, especially when it comes to stakeholders, but organizations know the importance of telling a story to make people “feel” something.   To inspire meaningful change, you must make a connection to the heart before you make a connection to the mind. Stories touch the heart. What is yours?
  4. Bring it back to the kids. What does a 80% to a 90% tell us about a kid? That they are now 10% better?  Most educators got into the profession because of a strong passion for helping kids, so when we reduce who a child is to simply a number, or teaching simply to a process, we lose out on why many of us became educators. To help kids.  If you ever get the change to see Jennie Magiera speak, watch how she shows kids in her presentations and it shows the impact of her work on them.  A 10% difference does not create the same emotion as watching a student talk about something they learned or have done.  I have shared a video of Tony Sinanis doing a “newsletter” with his students and I have watched educators all over the world engrossed by what they are seeing.  Think about it…it’s a school newsletter.  Imagine if I handed out a piece of paper to educators and asked them to read a newsletter from another school.  Do you think they would care as much as seeing the kids, their faces, and their emotions? Don’t let a grade tell a story; let the kids do it themselves.
  5. Get people excited and then get out of the way.  I have been to schools, watched administrators encourage their teachers to embrace something different in their practice, and they make that change impossible to do.  Giving the answer that “we need to change the policy before you can move forward” not only encourages the detractors, but it kills the enthusiasm in your champions.  When “yeah but” is the most commonly used phrase in your leadership repertoire, you might as well just learn to say “no”; it’s essentially the same thing.  The most successful people in the world rarely follow a script, but write a different one altogether.  Are teachers doing something better “because of you” or “in spite of you”.  If you want to inspire change, be prepared to “clear the path” and get out of the way so that change can happen.

“Increase your power by reducing it.” Daniel Pink

The change process is a tough one but simply being knowledgeable is not enough.  Some people that actually “know less” but “influence more” create more change than some of the smartest people you know.  Education is not about “stuff” but about “people”.  Tap into that and you are more likely to see the change that you are hoping to see.

4 Types of Leaders You Shouldn’t Be

First of all, I am going to challenge my own title in this writing as the qualities that I am about to list are not usually people with influence, but people with titles and authority.  Leadership and administration are sometimes not synonymous and if an administrator does not make those around them better, they are not leaders, they are bosses.

Working with many different organizations, I have heard either the frustration from educators within the organization that feel like they are running on the spot, while also working with administrators that are more focused on holding down the fort as opposed leading with vision.

Here are some styles you should avoid being or working for if you want to really move forward.

1.  The “Blame Everyone Else” Leader

Ever tried to do something that is new to an organization only to be stopped by an administrator saying that “others” are holding things back?  Often times, they will say things like, “if it were up to me, I would love for this to happen”, or even act as if they are a martyr and trying to save you from getting in trouble from others.  Whatever the case, if someone is blaming others in the organization for not “allowing” you to move forward, trust will be at a minimum.  Most administrators are part of a team and although they might not always agree with one another, they will never blame others for a lack of opportunities for educators.

If you think about if, if  they are going to throw someone else under the bus, including someone on their own administration team, what do you think that they do when you are not around?

2. The “Driven by Policy” Leader 

Policies are often put into place to ensure that students and teachers are safe, yet the process to create them is often long and arduous.  With education moving so quickly, some policies are simply outdated and they are not in the best interest of organizations, and more importantly, students.  Sometimes policy interferes with doing what is right, but sometimes, doing what is right is hard.  It is easy to hide behind policy in this case.

Sometimes obviously we have to stick with policies to ensure safety and I am not saying that we throw them all out the window, but when policy trumps common sense, there are issues.

3.  The “Dead-End” Leader

You come up with a great idea that is new to an organization that you are willing to put in the work and effort.  You approach your boss and share it with you and they tell you why it probably won’t work.  You wait for suggestions.



There is nothing that can kill enthusiasm for someone at work when they are simply told “no”.  Great leaders want people to take risks, and although they are trying to protect others, a simple “no” can have harsh repercussions on an individual and ultimately school culture.

This does not mean you need to say yes to everything.  But you should ask for further explanations and help people look for ideas, alternatives, or give them the opportunity to take risks.  A yes rarely needs an explanation, but in my opinion, “no” always does.  But even with the explanation, it is still important that we try to create opportunities to keep that creative flame burning in others and getting involved with an idea or project, or at least offering guidance, says much more than “no”.

4.  The “Lack of Knowledge is Power” Leader

With all of the changes in our world, society, and culture, schools need to change.  With many administrators, this change leads to not only differences in the classroom, but in their own practice.  If administrators do not continuously learn and grow, students lose out.

Yet learning and growth take time and effort, and for some, doing what is comfortable is an easy option.  Some of my best administrators were not people that believed they knew everything, but those that actually showed vulnerability and that they actually didn’t know.

Yet when we admit that we don’t know everything, that means we have to trust others and give our “power and authority” away.  This model of distributed leadership is very tough on some and they end up hiring great people only to micromanage them.  A person that pretends that they know something is much more dangerous than those who can fully admit that they don’t.

So instead of showing humility and a willingness to learn, they often pretend they have an understanding of things that they don’t, which often leads to poor decisions that impact many.  The interesting thing is that those that are willing to get into the trenches and admit that they don’t know always have more credibility than those that pretend they do.

Weakness is not knowing, it is not being able to admit it.

I am sure that everyone of us (including myself) that is in a position of authority has done this.  No one is perfect.  But when these things become the norm, any one of them can be highly detrimental to the culture of a school.  It may not impact students directly, but long term, they will lose out the most.


It’s About the Work

I sometimes struggle with the notion of publicly recognizing the work of teachers that publicly share their work on Twitter in our school district.  Although I do it anyway, I have always worried about the perception that some teachers might gauge others as “favourites”.

After bringing this notion up with Brian Woodland, Director of Communication for Peel School Board, he talked about the idea that it is not the teacher that you are necessarily sharing, but the work of the teacher.  As we went back and forth on this concept, we talked about the notion of making great learning viral and how this is really not much different than asking a teacher to share something at a staff meeting that has been done, it just has the potential to be spread to a much larger audience.

Chris Kennedy and I talked about this concept as well and his belief was that if someone was taking the time to share something great, one thing that he should try to do is acknowledge them on a wider basis.  When I asked him about teachers that might become jealous, he had told me that if any of them mentioned that if they thought it was unfair, to show him some great stuff that there were doing and he would gladly share it to a larger audience.

So what’s the difference between acknowledging a person through an email or through a social network and allowing the world to see.  Well if we focus that is not directly focusing on the teacher, but the impact that the teacher is making on the students that they work with, and that if it is shared to a larger audience, it will make a larger impact, then we are doing it for the right reasons.

When we get upset about this sharing, are we really focused on creating great learning opportunities for our students?

My suggestion if you are uneasy with this as an administrator?  Have a conversation with your staff and tell them that you are wanting to share great examples of learning as you see them by your staff as it makes us all better, and you will do your best to share the work of all those willing to post into a shared public space (for example Twitter, Google Plus, etc.).

If we want to make these great learning opportunities viral, we are going to have to share them.

The Value of Confidence

I recently shared this video on the importance of “confidence” for leadership and it is something that I have often thought about in our work as educators.

My experience as a referee taught me a lot about many aspects of leadership and teaching, but one of the things that it help to develop was my confidence. Often, I would be in a game where the majority of people in the stands could tell me how to do my job, yet the minority had ever done it. Most of your decisions were ones that 50% of people disagreed with, and you quickly develop a thick skin. If you don’t develop it, you cry or quit. You had to not only believe in your ability and understanding of the game, but you also had to be comfortable when you had make a mistake and owning it up to it. The best refs often a lot of confidence in their game, yet it was a dangerous line to flirt with. Arrogant refs who thought they knew more than others and were infallible often alienated themselves from coaches, players, and sometimes other referees.

Instead of googling the definitions of “confidence” and “arrogance”, I throw you my own simple thoughts. Confidence is when you believe in your own abilities yet still have humility. Arrogance is when you believe you are better than others.

This confidence I developed as a referee was something that I needed to carry over to when I became an administrator. Making tough decisions that would ultimately upset people every now and then was wearing, but if I could look back and say that I did what was best for kids, I could sleep at night. I would try my best to listen, value other people’s ideas, but sometimes I had to make the final call and it wasn’t something that all were okay with. That is part of the job.

On the other hand, this lack of confidence by educators can be detrimental to moving forward in our schools. Yong Zhao talks extensively about the correlation between “confidence” and “entrepreneurial spirit in his book “World Class Learners”:

There is no more important attribute of entrepreneurship than a sense of self-confidence, the belief in oneself and one’s own ideas. Entrepreneurs are agents of change, and change is usually resisted. Entrepreneurs will continually confront roadblocks and resistance from individuals who do not support or believe in their ideas…. To confront and overcome the resistance they will encounter, it is imperative that entrepreneurs have a sense of self-confidence. (Zhao)

So what happens when we lack confidence as educators?

Well often it impacts our relationships. Insecurity often leads to distrust and feelings of inadequacy. Similar to any relationship, these feelings often lead to negative actions that make an impact later. What I have tried to do is give trust before I am trusted, and I have been more often right than wrong in this practice. I also try to not take things personally when it comes to decisions within the school. I have often debated many people who disagree with some of my ideas, and previously, I would often be quite upset. Now, I (for the most part) realize that people can have different opinions and still have a negative relationship, as long as they have the ability to listen to each other.

A lack of confidence can lead to either being personally hurt, or a lack of listening. Neither of these outcomes, ultimately serve students. It is easy to label someone as “arrogant” when they don’t agree with our ideas, but sometimes this has to do more with ourselves, than it does in others. Is it their arrogance or our insecurity?

One of the things that I feel is so ironic about education is that we spend so much time talking to our kids, and telling them to be proud of who they are, share their voice, and to be confident, yet as adults we often call others that do the same as “arrogant”.  Is that more because of them or us?

I recently read a post from Krissy Venosdale and she referenced how tough it is when we attack each other’s passions:

In a truly collaborative atmosphere, everyone’s strengths are capitalized on, weaknesses embraced and supported, and passion? It’s accepted. It’s celebrated. It’s welcome. It’s what I expect of my students, always. It should be what we expect of ourselves as colleagues. But sometimes even colleagues let each other down.

When you pour you heart into something, it can truly break it when someone doesn’t “get” it. But we’re all different. The very best thing we can do for our students is to live out loud. Be ourselves. Let our passions shine through. Never shining so they will blind others, but so they will light up learning in our schools and for our kids.

We owe it to each and every child that crosses the doorway into our schools to be authentic and we owe it to each other as colleagues to support, build up, and celebrate each other’s chance to shine. Every single day.

As all people, I have my own insecurities, but I think growing as a person helps us to not only identify where we are weak, but sometimes even learn to accept and embrace those feelings. The thing I often wonder is that if we continuously question ourselves in a negative way and project our insecurities on others, what does this model for our students? Before we tackle the world, we often need to be able to tackle ourselves.

“We are all meant to shine, as children do… It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~ Marianne Williamson

To Those That Have Heard Everything

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Steven Shorrock

I was a little surprised to see a tweet from someone talking about how we shouldn’t be talking about “being connected” with people anymore because everyone should just be doing it.  I found it rather interesting as a great teacher would differentiate learning for students and understand that people are are different points in their journey, not simply say, “you should all get this by now”.  It should be no different with educators.  Differentiation is not just for kids, and if we treat people like that when we are in an administrative position, you will lose more people along the journey then you will gain.  I understand the “push” that many people make, and have been guilty of doing this myself, but the support has to be there.

My mentor would say to me when I was frustrated with what I sometimes felt was a slow pace by others was, “not everyone is you”.  Because something makes sense to me, it does not necessarily mean it is common practice for others.

Now I have been in keynotes where I have heard the same message over and over.  So what can I learn from this?  Well as someone who is in an administrator position, and especially someone who does keynotes myself, the “content” is only one part of what is happening in any presentation.  I am a huge basketball fan and decided years ago that I wanted to become a referee.  When that happened, the way I watched games changed.  I wasn’t watching the games as much as I was watching the referees.  My focus had shifted onto something different.

This was made abundantly apparent to me when I recently keynoted a conference in Vancouver and Chris Wejr, a good friend and colleague, noted that although he had seen me speak several times, he was more focused on what I did as opposed to what I said. There are great elements of teaching and leadership in many keynotes/talks/presentations, and if you think that you know all of the content being presented, you need to shift your focus.  You can learn from the great speakers as well as the bad ones.

For example, I remember seeing a keynote at a conference who started off with saying something that was totally lost on the audience and was a great way to show he was smart, but he made the audience feel dumb.  He lost them immediately.  Because of that, I really try to focus on taking something complex and making it simple so that is relatable to people, especially in larger settings.

Now for the great lessons that I have learned from others watching them speak.

My brother Alec, who helped me get into speaking, showed me the power of visuals and media to supplement ideas in a talk and was a great way to engage the audience

Dean Shareski taught me that is important to empower the audience to do something great, not for them to feel lesser in their work.

Jenny Magiera showed me that laughter and learning go hand-in-hand and it is way easier to connect people t with an idea when they are smiling.

Adam Bellow showed me to honour and value the people sitting in front of you and although you can share a similar message, it is important to show that you are focused on that audience.

Will Richardson continuously teaches me to ask tough questions, and to push people to think deeply about their work.

I honestly could not tell you much about their content, because in reality, I feel the people that I have listed talk about many similar things.  That being said, all of those lessons can apply to any position, whether you are a speaker, principal, or teacher, or a combination of any of those.  There is a lot to be learned even when sometimes we act like we have seen this all before.

What if…?


Here are some questions that I have been pondering lately in thinking about great organizations and administration.

What if we believed that everything that we had to make great schools was already within our organization and we just need to develop and share it?

What if schools always focused on the notion that we should all be “learners” as opposed to “students”?

What if we did not only promote “risk-taking” to our staff and students, but modelled it openly as administrators?

What if we hired people that did not look at teaching as a “career” but a “passion”?

What if we wanted everyone to pursue their dreams in our organization, not only our students?

What if we focused on connecting and learning both globally and locally?

What if people were always our first focus as opposed to “stuff”?

If these questions were a focus, what do you think schools would look like?

What are your “what if’s”?

Learning From Eric Sheninger

It has been almost one week since I spoke at #Edscape in New Jersey, and it was a tremendous honour to have that opportunity.  Not only because I was able to connect with amazing educators in the area, but because I was asked by my friend Eric Sheninger.  Eric speaks around the world, inspiring people all over, has written books, and is one of the most known educators in social media.  For him to ask me, was a great honour.

But what was fantastic about the experience for me was, as it is always, the opportunity to learn from so many other educators, and to be able to spend time with Eric.  There is so much that we learn from informal conversations, and to be able to have three days with Eric, both professionally and personally, I learned that he is the real deal.

Here are some of the things that I was most impressed with.

The first night I connected with Eric, he took me to a restaurant in the community near to the school and it was fantastic to see how close he was with people in his community.  The owner of the restaurant came over and talked about how Eric always brought them opportunities to the school, and in return, the restaurant put money back into the events that were happening.  It isn’t one taking from the other, but mutual support.  

The focus on community continued as Eric took me to his school’s football game late on a Friday night.  This had nothing to do with me being in the area.  In fact, Eric gave me one choice about what to do that night; go to the school’s football game.  This is vital to his work.

As you go into Eric’s school, you see a VERY old facility (I think he told me it opened in 1929), that has a lot of desks and looks nothing like some of the innovative spaces that I have seen in my time.  In fact, some of the spaces seem so old that it was criticized by someone on Twitter about the 20th century space.  The thing is, while so many administrators focus their funds and efforts on redesigning classrooms spaces and bringing in all of these other amazing elements in the classroom, Eric has put money and time into people.  

Unfortunately in education, we sometimes have to make some tough choices, but the best answer is always put time and money into people.  The other things we can get later, but if people do not understand why or how to use these things, it doesn’t matter.  We need to create such a deep understanding of the opportunities that technology and innovative school design create for students that we create a need for these things in the classroom.  This is what Eric focuses on.

What I loved about #Edscape was that it was exactly what the people there needed.  It was not necessarily the same types of conversations that happen at Educon (which is another amazing conference), but it is what the people are interested in that are at the conference.  Many people that attended are just jumping into using technology in their classroom and are shifting their thinking about what they are doing as teachers and learners, and the feedback from their experience was fantastic.  

The vision of the conference, created by Eric and his staff, was to start with where people are, but to push them to their next level.  The best leaders have a larger vision, but they break it down into smaller steps so people develop confidence and understanding along the way. That is what happened in the sessions at Edscape.

As all leaders, Eric focuses on relationships first, and builds from there.  Seeing the growth and development of his school, you see how vital this is to growth.  But what I also loved about Eric is that he knows there is still a lot of work to be done, and that the best organizations continuously grow and learn.  The best leaders celebrate their accomplishments, but build off of them.  As soon as you spend too much time patting yourself on the back, you find that you become Blockbuster.  Eric was proud of where his staff and students have come, but also has a vision of where they can still go.

I learned a lot from my time with Eric and I hope I have been able to share a few of those “nuggets” with others.

The big take-aways from spending time with Eric:

1. Focus on relationships and building community.
2.  Change can happen in “old” environments if you focus on changing mindsets and developing educators as learners first.
3. Start with people where they are at, but help them get to their next level, wherever that may be.

Thanks to Eric and his school community for putting on a great conference and leading by example!

Leading Innovative Change Series – Excellence Lies Within

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 first two posts in the series:

1. Learning First, Technology Second
2. A New Staff Experience

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Sander van Dijk

“It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity.” Peter Drucker

Years ago as a teacher, I wanted to start a blog as I had just recently heard about them and wanted to see how they would work in the classroom.  When I approached my principal about starting one, his response was that although he knew that I would be comfortable doing it, it would make others on staff feel uncomfortable if it was a success.  I asked him if he was joking, and he looked at me seriously to let me know he wasn’t.

Later in the year, when we had some new technology in the school that was used for a specific program, I had asked if I could use it with students to try out, promising that once I figured it out, I would teach other staff.  Again, I was told that the technology was too expensive and it had a specific purpose to the school.  Myself and my students were not a part of the plan.

At the end of the year, when I applied for a few leadership positions, I was told that I did not exhibit leadership within my current role.

Pretty tough when you are not allowed.

Unfortunately I am not the only educator that has this type of story.  Many educators are trying to create powerful learning opportunities for students with what they excel at, but often because of fear of the unknown, they are quickly thwarted and asked to draw within the lines.

New Beginning

As I obtained a new position as the “Educational Technology Coordinator” in another school district, I was asked to help integrate opportunities for technology in learning with other teachers in my new school.  As my principal at the time did not really know much about technology, she did understand that it was a crucial element of students being successful in our world so she decided to hire me to lead the process.

When I first received the schedule, I was scheduled for forty minute blocks with each class during the week.  I would sometimes get two in a row with a classroom, but my time was spread equally within the school amongst each teacher.  This was a new position for me, but something about the schedule did not seem right.  Being new to the school, I did not want to “rock the boat”, but in my conversations with the principal, I knew that she had always focused on “what is best for kids”.  I approached her and said that I thought the schedule was not going to really work as we should be able to go deeper into the learning that we could do with technology, as opposed to having shorts amounts of exposure.  I explained to her that it would be more beneficial if we focused on projects as opposed to “lessons”.  She looked at me and said, “I hired you as the expert in this area. You do whatever you think is best.”

You have two administrators with two very different approaches.  One saying, I am not comfortable with the unknown and the other saying, “go for it”.  Would you area do you think people are most likely to excel?

Culture of Risk Taking

What my one principal that trusted and believed in my ability exemplified was that she wanted a culture of risk taking. She wanted people to try new things with the vision of “doing what is best for kids” always out in the forefront, and if we could do something different that was better for our students, that we needed to explore that.  What she embodied though was that she was willing to take risks in own practice as well.  This is a crucial element of leadership.

People will not feel comfortable taking risks in an organization unless leaders do not share the things that we are trying to do to get better ourselves.  My principal modelled this by creating environments where she did not micromanage and pushed people to think outside of the box and never pushing for “perfection”, but for better ideas.  Learning is messy and we have to be comfortable with that.

Once people see  leaders take risks, they are more likely to try their own ideas and push what is happening in their own situations.  Giving people license to take risks, will more likely lead to some amazing things.

“if you want innovation, it’s critical that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid. The real value of “20%” is not the time, but rather the “license” it gives to work on things that “aren’t important.”
Jonathan Fields

Fit jobs to people, not the other way around

We are often looking for the best person to fit a position, yet what we should be looking for is the best person. That simple.  When you see one position in a district or school create amazing results, what you often see is that exact same position replicated over and over again in other organizations yet there is often a lack of results.  Why is this?  Well because the position does not create results, it is the culture and the person.  Simply having an “Chief Innovation Officer” does not create innovative learning environments.

The most effective approach is often finding the best person and perhaps giving them a position with duties that are “to be determined”.  This gives that person some leeway into what they are trying to do to make a better environment and helps to build upon their strengths, as opposed to something different.  It is hard to say to someone, “go be innovative, but within these parameters.”  We have to find out where people excel and build upon that.

Staff development led by staff

With many new administrators walking into schools with “guns a blazing” trying to implement new ideas, it is important that you work from a “strength-based” model, as opposed to focus on deficits.  Relationships are the most important element of school, and by starting a conversation with, “here is where we need to do work”, you quickly build a culture where people are wondering if they are valued.  My best advice is to sit back, wait a bit, and know where people are strong.  If you can’t identify a strength in someone, it is often the fault of the administrator, not the teacher.

Working with a new staff and understanding some initiatives that we had happening in our division, I proposed to my new staff that we could lead the professional development within our own school.  We did not need “outside experts” because we had the expertise within our own building.  I suggested three initiatives that we should undertake within a year (they actually gave me a fourth) and that each initiative will be led by a team created within the school.  The only thing that I asked was that each educator joined a team that was to lead in an area that they were strong at or had an interest in, as opposed to an area that they felt they needed a large amount of growth.  I wanted them to follow their passions, as opposed to something they had no interest in.  The other thing that I asked was that they, as the experts in the area, developed the goals for the school.  If they were the experts, they should understand what success looks like, and be able to set the goals for the school.  As the principal I oversaw the plan (I was also on one of the teams which is crucial), but I believed that there is more of an accountability when the measures of success were led by my staff, not defined by administration.

Giving time to my staff to explore their strengths, each group came up with many different ways to implement learning throughout the year and led our own PD.  The more interested they were in the topic, the better the learning would be for the entire staff, but they also started to see each other as “experts”, not only colleagues.  Having this focus on that we each have strengths that contribute to the vision of the school helps to move us from “pockets” of innovation to a “culture” of it.  Wouldn’t anyone want to be in a school where we recognized that everyone has value?


By focusing on strengths first, and building from that as opposed to a “deficit” model, we create an environment where people feel a purpose towards the entire school, as opposed to only their own classroom.  This is where the shift from “classroom” teacher to “school teacher” happens.  The freedom to take risks in the way that we do things is essential, and that freedom starts from administrators modelling that they are willing to take some risks as well.  It is really easy to say, “do this”, but it is more important to say, “let’s do this together”.

When we look at change, we have to realize everything we need is often already within our own organization.  We just have to figure out how to unleash this talent. Isn’t this the culture we want in our classrooms?  It has to be modelled from the top and the way that we view every individual part of our organization.

“Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” Tom Peters