Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

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.

 

Leadership Framework: Developing the Organization #ONTEdLeaders

This is part three in a series of looking deeper into the Ontario Leadership Framework.  Please feel free to look at the previous posts on this page on “Setting Directions” and “Building Relationships and Developing People“.

Developing the Organization to Support Desired Practices

Under this strand, three major themes seem to emerge.  Leadership development, communication with stakeholders, and management of resources.  The interesting part of this strand is the term “desired practices”.  Who is determining what is “desired” for any school or organization?  Often the school “tail” wags with the principal and this can be either a good or bad thing, depending upon their vision.  If they believe in something, they will move heaven and earth to make it happen, yet sometimes the practices they believe in could be outdated and not serving a student’s future, but more likely our past.  This is why it is imperative that school leaders look at the work of other schools and both local and global trends.  The notion of “management” comes under the following standards”

“School leaders…manage efficient budgetary processes…distribute resources in ways that are closely aligned with the school’s improvement priorities.”

Leaders should never make decisions solely upon their own knowledge; that is too limiting for the number of people they serve.  They need to tap into a collective knowledge of their school community as well as others and it is imperative that we create a culture that taps into the expertise of our whole community.

Chosen or unleashed talents?

Great leaders develop great leaders.  This is a given and within any school, it is important to develop a culture that relies on the expertise of many as opposed to a few.  Distributed leadership is highlighted in this document:

“School leaders…distribute leadership on selected tasks.”

One of the pieces that I feel is missing is that it doesn’t focus on building upon the strengths that already exist within the building.  A great leader doesn’t simply develop talent, but they help unleash it.  This may be outlined in the following strand:

“School leaders….provide staff with leadership opportunities and support them as they take on these opportunities.”

As we look more at these ideas, I think we need to encourage our staff to go beyond leading within our own schools or organizations, but outside them as well.  For example, when many leaders look at the ideas of “leadership opportunities” this might be going to conferences and participating in sessions, yet many organizations limit their own staff from presenting at these same conferences without a ton of red tape in the way.  Not only does this show that you value your own staff’s expertise be shared with others to help further learning of all schools, it is a great way to promote your own organization through these opportunities.

When I have seen staff have these opportunities to present and share their learning with others, it does not only benefit their own careers, but they often come back learning more from the process.  To sit in a session may bring back some knowledge, but to have to present or lead a session brings a whole level of expertise.  The best leaders promote these opportunities.

What is “expertise” and who has it?

One of the standards under this strand focuses on the notion of tapping into “expertise”:

“School leaders…develop and maintain connections with other expert school and district leaders, policy experts, outreach groups, organizations and members of the educational research community.”

I have struggled with the word “expertise” for the last little while because of who this word is associated with.  We often refer to speakers at conferences or researchers as the “experts” which often devalues the “expertise” we have in our own buildings.  For example, whom are you more likely to consider an “expert”?  A researcher that looks at the practice of teaching kindergarten or a teacher that you connected with on the #kinderchat hashtag that teaches kindergarten?  In my opinion, both can be experts in different ways and we have to treat them as such.  How great would a school be if we dropped the notion of “you can’t be a prophet in your own land”?  Would we do more together if we looked at each other in our schools of having expertise?

In the past as a school principal, we defined our priorities as a school, and then had our teachers separate into groups based on their strengths, to lead these initiatives.  Not only did they create and deliver professional learning opportunities for the school, they wrote the objectives as well.  We did not have to wait for the “experts” to come into the building because we focused on making sure that we created a culture where we saw our own teachers as the experts.  You could walk across the hall and get help, not wait for an outsider to show up.  There is definite value in learning from people outside of your school, but if we are truly looking at a model of “distributed leadership”, it is essential we develop a culture of expertise within our own buildings.

Parent engagement or parent empowerment?

As it should be, tapping into our parent community is expected under the framework:

“School leaders…create a school environment in which parents are welcomed, respected and valued as partners in their children’s learning.”

A welcoming environment is essential if we are really going to tap into our parents.  The best school leaders I have seen go out of their way to initiate connections with parents through simple things such as doing morning supervision, or even doing house visits to learn more about families.  A person is more likely to feel valued if you talk to them when you don’t need to.  Going out of your way to connect with the parent community is hugely important.

We often talk about how do we increase “parent engagement” in our schools, yet I think we are often focusing on the wrong term.  What if we focused on “parent empowerment”?  If they are a crucial factor in the success of our schools, is engagement enough?  I have seen great school leaders bring parents in not to just tell them about initiatives, but to actively immerse them into the type of experiences that their children are having in schools to give them a better understanding of what school looks like now.  This “education” for parents empowers them at home and in schools.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at a parent-led and planned conference with Halton District School Board.  The parents of the planning committee organized the whole event to support important (to them) learning initiatives in the board.  It was heavily attended and was a powerful way to see parents empowered to support success for all students, not only their own children.  I hope to see more opportunities for parents that follow this lead.

Concluding Thoughts

Leadership without management often creates a vision that never comes to fruition, and vice-versa.  But we have to remember that management is for “things” and leadership is for “people”.  Personally, I don’t like to feel “managed” and I am sure I am in the majority.  To really push our schools forward, expertise and empowerment has to be developed at all levels (including students) and “management” comes in to ensure that people have the resources needed to be successful.  Creating a vision is one thing, but making that vision a reality, school leaders will need to utilize all resources (including people) to their fullest potential.

 

 

Leadership Framework: Building Relationships and Developing People #ONTEdLeaders

 

Spending a lot of time in Ontario, I have been going through the Ontario Leadership Framework (this is updated from the last document) with a fine tooth comb (here is a cleaned up Google Document that I have been using to go over each leadership strand) and although there are some areas I would change (“building relationship and developing people” should have been the first leadership strand in my opinion, as everything starts with relationships and knowing your people), the overall document is really strong.  

As pointed out to me by Donna Fry, the document I was using previously was an older version, so I am going to move ahead and use the newest framework.  It is interesting to see the difference in language between the documents (for example, they use “school leaders” instead of “principal” on the latest version), and some of it feels like a step-back while some of it seems like a step forward.

To learn more about this framework, I wanted to really go through each “leadership strand”, pick out a few key points that really stuck out to me as “forward thinking”, and break it down deeper.  If we are going to be effective moving forward, we need to be reflective in our practice.

Over the next few blog posts, I will be going over each strand, and trying to take an in-depth look into some of the ideas that really stuck out to me.  I really encourage others that are either interested in going into leadership (no matter what area you are located), or are currently in leadership positions, try the same process.

The five strands that I will be looking at are the following:

  1. Setting Directions
  2. Building Relationships and Developing People
  3. Developing the Organization to Support Desired Practices
  4. Improving the Instructional Program
  5. Securing Accountability

Today, I will be focusing on “Building Relationships and Developing People”.  You will be able to see all posts eventually at this page.

Building Relationships and Developing People

Although someone pointed out to me that the framework is not set out in any particular order, I still think that the focus on relationships should be set out visually as the first priority in this framework.  Strong relationships are the foundation of great organizations and without laying down that foundation first, nothing great will happen, and if it does, it is in spite of leadership, not because of it.  I think great leaders go beyond simply caring for their community as part of a school, but they treat them like they would treat family.  This standard in the document resonated:

“demonstrate respect, care and personal regard for students, staff and parents.”

The “personal”, says something much more to me and is key to growth as an organization.

Visibility 

The framework notes that “visibility” is a crucial part of leadership:

School leaders…are highly visible in their schools

Great leaders know that visibility matters.  It is not that school leaders need to be at the school every day for it to run smoothly; if you have created a great culture, the school should be able to run without you being there 100% of the time.  But it is not just about showing up and being present within your office.  A truly flattened organization will see their school leaders as part of the team, not as above it, and that needs to be reflected in not only words, but actions.

For example, years ago as principal, I decided to remove all of the former principal pictures from the front entrance.  What this said (to me anyways) that the most important person in the school was the principal, when I believed that our school was about kids, not adults.  So what did we do?  We removed all of the principal pictures and replaced them with students that were currently in the building.  The entrance of our school signified that this is a place about kids.

People like Patrick Larkin shared practices of actually moving their office to their front entrance so that they were visible all of the time and you can see their learning.  I have seen him in action, and little things like this totally created strong relationships with his community because he was more than simply the “Wizard behind the curtain”.

You can also see leaders such as Amber Teamann and Tony Sinanis who also see the importance of visibility simply being in face-to-face spaces, but in a virtual space as well.  Amber regularly blogs and shares her thoughts with her school community, and I have loved seeing Tony share his video newsletters working with kids.  For these three leaders, is it not only about being “visible” but also being “present”, and they show it in different ways.

Critical Conversations

Once we start to build relationships and show people that they are valued, it is important that we are open to having critical conversations.  People are less likely to challenge and feel comfortable being challenged if they don’t feel valued.  This is highlighted a couple of places in the document:

School leaders will…demonstrate respect for staff, students and parents by listening to their ideas, being open to those ideas, and genuinely considering their value.

School leaders will…establish norms in the school that demonstrate appreciation for constructive debate about best practices.

What is important in these statements is that leaders are not simply open to conversations, but create something based on those conversations.  We have to be able to say more than, “I hear you”, but be able to show that based on those conversations, we have done something differently.

It is also imperative that we create a community where we constantly don’t talk about “changing others”; in those cultures, blame is shifted back and forth.  You can hear in the same buildings, “people don’t want to change” and “leadership is holding us back”.  The amount of time we spend pointing fingers, is time that we could be using to move forward.  Conversations are important, but actions based on those conversations are essential.

Reflection and Modelling

Reflection is so crucial to move forward.  Without looking back, we are unable to move forward. Modeling reflection is also imperative.  This is highlighted in the framework

School leaders…encourage staff to reflect on what they are trying to achieve with students.

School leaders…demonstrate the importance of continuous learning through visible engagement in their own professional learning.

A word that I think is missing in the reflection piece is “open”.  When we openly reflect (and there are several ways that this can be done), we not only develop ourselves, but we develop others as well.  Technology allows us to do this in a myriad of ways like things such as podcasts, videos, blogs, and any other alternative that people can come up with.  When teachers and leaders are willing to do this in an open forum, we create a visibility in our practice that promotes conversations not only within our school communities, but globally as well.

In my own practice, instead of sending a weekly memo to staff through email, it was simple enough to do the same thing and share it through a blog.  I would often share things that were going on in school, but also articles that I thought were great discussion starters and example of theory in practice.  Why would we hide this from our parents and community?  The conversations that it facilitated not only in the blog, but in the hallways and staff room was paramount to growth of our organization.

What’s missing?

All of these points are important to building a great culture, yet the document seemed to lack a real focus on developing great leadership.  This is not just about developing “future principals”, but developing leadership within the building.  Although it is cliche, great leaders develop great leaders, not more followers and a building should not be focused on having a sole leader.   You could argue that it is implied throughout the document, but I think that organizations have to make it explicit that we want to develop our people as leaders in different areas. What is explicit is often what gets done.

Relationships are the most important thing in schools.  It is not only our kids that need to feel safe, but our staff as well.  Knowing that we have created an environment where people know they are valued, cared for, and that we focus on their continuous development, great things are more likely to happen.

 

8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader (Document)

I wanted to create a “rubrics” (for lack of a better term), that discusses some of the questions and ideas based on my post “The 8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader“.  Since I believe innovation often starts with “questions” that guides practice, this document starts from there, but gives a few suggestions as well.  So instead of doing a traditional rubrics, I left a column open so people could write their own ideas on how they are meeting the characteristics.  If it was truly innovative, then the idea might be sparked from this, but should not be limited to what is shared here.  It is more of a starting point than an endpoint.

Please feel free to use as you see fit.  The writing is small so I uploaded it to Scribd so it could be downloaded or expanded for a better visual.

The Innovative Leader Rubrics

Blog Posts on Leadership Development

I have really focused on “innovative leadership development” in my work, and have written about it extensively in my work.  Because of this, I wanted to collect all of my posts that have really focused on leadership in a time where leadership really needs to change.  Please feel free to use the posts in any way to help you with your own development, or challenge any of the ideas that I have shared.

The posts are organized into two areas: Developing LeadershipandEmbodying Visionary Leadership“.  It is meant to help develop a vision and understanding, and then to talk about what it actually looks like. (For a static page of these posts, you can check out the “Leadership Deveolpment” page on my blog.)

Developing Leadership

Educational Leadership Philosophy – This is the post that leads to all of other things.  I think it is a great practice to be able to write your own leadership philosophy so people understand why you do what you do.  It is also something that I will revisit and tailor since a leadership philosophy should not stay the same for the rest of our lives.  It should change on based on who we serve, and what we learn.  It should constantly be pushing you to move forward. 

8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader – As we continue to look at teachers, students, and learning becoming more “innovative”, it is important that leadership changes.  As administrators often set the tone for their district or their building, if they are saying the same, it is not likely that things are going to change in the classroom.  Leadership needs to not only “think” different, but they need to “act” different.  This post talks about some of those characteristics.

5 Questions You Should Ask Your Principal – To develop a powerful vision, it rarely starts with answers, but more often with questions. This post focuses on questions in five crucial areas: Fostering Effective Relationships, Instructional Leadership, Embodying Visionary Leadership, Developing Leadership Capacity, and Creating Sustainable Change.  How do you lead in these areas?

3 Questions To Guide Your Vision – One of the things that I feel is important in a leadership position is that you build capacity and create an environment that eventually will not need you. To create a vision, you have to think about your long term impact, and how you will develop people to create a culture that is not dependent upon a person, but on the community.

Want someone to see your viewpoint? Ask them their thoughts first. – When I believe in something,  I used to spend all of my time trying to “sell” that idea to others and trying to get them to embrace what I saw.  If people didn’t agree with me, or my viewpoint, I would often got extremely frustrated and get nowhere closer than where I was before.  I hear this same approach from so many other people who tell me about the countless hours they try to get people to “embrace change”, and what I have learned is to spend less time defending your position, and spend more time asking questions.

Embodying Innovative Leadership

4 Attributes of a Great Assistant Principal – Being an Assistant (or Vice) Principal, was one of my favourite jobs.  As a principal, my AP’s were amazing and they helped to make me a better leader. They were always open to learn and develop; not only from what I would share to them, but from the experiences that they had with staff, students, and parents.  I expect great Assistant Principals to focus on building relationships with the entire school community, are approachable, are change agents, and ALWAYS have the idea of “what is best for kids” driving their decision-making.

The Need for Courageous Leadership – This is a great example of a leader that models risks for their faculty, and leads through actions, not simply words.  Does your school have the courage to let a student tweet on the behalf of your school account? If not, why?

4 Types of Leaders You Shouldn’t Be – 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.  These are some qualities that you or I could be doing, without even thinking about.  It is so important to take a strong look in the mirror and think about the things that we would hate as an educator in our building.

21st Century Schools or 21st Century Learning? – The mass purchase of devices for schools is happening way too much without the crucial conversations about what learning should look like in the classroom.  This is actually frustrating many teachers that I have spoken with; it just becomes another thing that has been dumped on educators, not something that is going to make learning better.  There is definitely some value in playing with a device and figuring out some of the amazing things it can do, but should we really be doing that by buying devices en masse? Shouldn’t we try to figure out what the learning look like and then discuss the device? 

3 Things We Should Stop Doing in Professional Development – There are a lot of things that we have just accepted as “norm” in our professional development, but we should always deeply look at how we spend our time with staff.  Time is the most valuable currency we have in schools so it is important that we get the most out of every interaction we have together.  In this post, I look at three things that we should not accept as simply the norm.

5 Characteristics of a Change Agent – As a leader, it is not just teaching “stuff”, but it is helping people to see the importance of embracing change in our work in schools today.  We often lament at how people are terrible at accepting change, but in reality, many leaders are just poor at delivering why change is important or crucial. All people want to do something better, but what are the characteristics of leaders that successfully move people along?

Hopefully there are some things that you can take away from these posts, or share with others.

Innovation Doesn’t Happen Behind Closed Doors

Whether you are starting off as a new administrator, or you have been in the role for awhile, it is important that you “make your mark” and bring your own style to a position.  Just like your teachers want to make an impact with their students, you want to make an impact with your school community.  Doing something “awesome” is important as administrators should feel that they are contributing to the growth of the school, not simply the management of it.

In my own experience, it is easy to lock yourself in a room, work on some great ideas, and come out with something (you believe to be) new and amazing.  Yet closing yourself off and focusing on being “innovative” often leaves you with great ideas that will get nowhere, because you have not created the relationships needed for people to feel safe trying something new.  If you don’t spend time in the classroom and see what the inner-workings are of what learning looks like every day, your ideas can become great in theory, but unattainable in practice.  It is important to recognize that innovation is a human endeavour, and if you are going to put too much time into something, it should always be people, not stuff.

So what is a great step to help move this forward?  Move your office into a classroom.

Administrators have a lot of managerial duties that they have to get through in a day.  It can honestly be overwhelming.  That being said, it is rare that we don’t have access to an untethered device that we can go sit in a classroom and be a “fly on the wall”.  This helps not only with visibility of students, but will give you a great perspective of what teaching and learning looks like, and what hurdles teachers have to jump through in a day to be successful.  Is the technology working?  Does the classroom have seating that is conducive to different types of learning styles?  Does Wifi work?

Many teachers accept their classroom “as is” and do the best with what they have and they don’t say anything.  This does not make those boundaries acceptable.  By simply spending an hour catching up on emails from a classroom, you will learn a lot more about your school than you would spending an hour in your office.  You don’t have to do this all of the time, but you should do it often.

This isn’t “no office day”.  Although I love the intent behind that initiative, I find the idea of having a solitary day to go spend time in classrooms is not enough.  This should be a weekly process, if not more.  The time you spend just sitting in a classroom builds a comfort and trust level with staff who eventually don’t even know you are there.  That’s kind of the point.  If you don’t have time to go into a classroom, your priorities might be out of order.

Through this process, you might not get as much done, but you will build relationships with teachers in this process that will lead them going over-and-above for you, which in the long run, will not only save you time, but creating better opportunities for your entire school community.

Believe me, the investment is worth it.

8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader

“Why are we okay that management hasn’t seen innovation in a 100 or 50 years, but we demand innovation in every other aspect of our lives?” Jamie Notter

As we continue to look at teachers, students, and learning becoming more “innovative”, it is important that leadership changes.  As administrators often set the tone for their district or their building, if they are saying the same, it is not likely that things are going to change in the classroom.  Leadership needs to not only “think” different, but they need to “act” different.

For leaders to be effective in changing a school or an organization, they need to change themselves first.  It is way too easy to go a leadership conference and get ideas of things that you are going to do with your staff.  What is important is changing your own practice first.  So along the lines of what is happening within “pockets” of classrooms around the world, leaders must embody the characteristics that they seek.  As my good friend Jimmy Casas says, “what we model is what we get.”

So with that being said, here are some of the characteristics that I have seen in some of the most innovative leaders that I have encountered.

  1. Visionary – When I listen to some superintendents, the vision they share is inspiring and you can tell they see a new vision of school.  Yet what is important about these visionary leaders is that they can take this “powerful vision” and break it down to what it looks like in the classroom.  To create a culture of “innovation”, it takes small steps forward towards a greater vision, not a gigantic leap to the top of the summit.  Innovative leaders help people continuously grow with small steps that build both confidence and competence, so they are more willing to become more innovative themselves.
  2. Empathetic – Along the lines of design thinking, new ideas start with understanding the people they are created for.  When I first became a principal, I did not try to mirror the ideas of the principals before me, but I thought, “If I was a teacher in this school, what would I expect of my principal?”  That trickled down to trying to empathize with being a student in the school, and a parent in the community.  For example, as a teacher, I hated meetings that seemed to go nowhere and went too long.  So to respect the time of others, meetings became shorter and we spent more time learning, than we did on things that could have been simply emailed.  Is having a shorter meeting innovative? No.  But trying to put yourself in the place of those that you serve is where innovation begins.
  3. Models Learning – One of the superintendents that I have the great respect for is Chris Kennedy of West Vancouver.  He has shared his ideas that leaders need to be “elbows deep in learning with their schools”, and I think that is imperative to creating new and better ideas.  It is simple to fall into the trap of doing things that have always been done, or simply going with what you know.  This limits everyone.  If we want to do better things for students, we have to become the “guinea pigs” ourselves and immerse ourselves into new learning opportunities.  We rarely create something different until we experience something different.
  4. Open Risk Taker – This building upon the previous point.  The term “risk-taker” has become quite cliche in our work, as leaders often promote it, but rarely model it.  People are less likely to take risks in doing something different unless they see those above them in the hierarchical structure do the same thing.  If leaders want people to try new things, they have to openly show, that they are willing to do the same.
  5. Networked – Networks are imperative to growth and innovation.  It is easy to think you are doing something amazing when you are not looking beyond the walls of your school.  Great leaders have always created networks, but now this is not limited to face-to-face interactions.  It is also not as limited for those who live in rural areas.  Anyone willing to connect is now able to connect. It is simply a choice.  We can no longer be limited to the ideas in our own school. We need to connect with others outside and choose what works for our organization and remix it to be applicable.
  6. Observant – Great ideas often spark other great ideas.  Things like “Genius Hour” and “Innovation Week”, that have become synonymous with school, were probably sparked by seeing things outside of schools and modifying them to meet the needs of kids.  The power of the Internet is that we have access to so much information, not only from schools, but from outside organizations.  Although a business solution might not necessarily work “as is” for a school, if we learn to connect ideas and reshape them, it could become something pretty amazing.  What I am hoping to see one day is that although we can take great ideas from outside companies like Google, our practices in schools will become so innovative that people will look at borrowing from education.
  7. Team Builder – The least innovative organizations often seem to surround themselves with like-minded people.  Innovation often comes from conflict and disagreement, not in an adversarial way, but in a way that promotes divergent thinking. The idea is not to go with the idea of one person over another, but to actually create a better idea that is often in the middle of the two ideas shared.  If a leader is going to be innovative, surrounding yourself with people that mirror your personality is not the way to get there.
  8. Always Focused on Relationships – Innovation has become such a huge focus of schools, they we often forget that it is ultimately a human endeavour.  I don’t see a smartphone as something that is innovative, but it’s the thinking behind creating a smartphone where the innovation happens.  It is easy to lock yourself in an office, connect with people on Twitter, and appear from your room with some great idea or new thing.  The problem is that if you are want to become an “innovative leader” it is not only about you creating new and better ideas, but your staff.  If you have lost focus on the people in the building, new ideas might appear, but they might not be embraced.  Spending time with people and building solid relationships with them often leads to them going miles beyond what is expected and move away from “what has always been done”.  When people know they are valued and safe in trying new things, they are more likely to do something better.  This is at the core of an innovative school.

Ultimately, an innovative leader should try to create new ideas, but it is more important that they create a culture of innovation.  We often talk about empowering people and then getting out of their way, but what is often missed in the process is removing some of those barriers that they will encounter along the way.  This why it is so important to spend time in the classrooms, see what teaching and learning looks like, and then help to create a better tomorrow for our students and educators.  Again though, at the heart of innovation is people, not stuff.  If we always keep that at the forefront of our work, we are more likely to create an innovative culture.

4 Reasons People Don’t Blog and Ideas to Help Change Their Mind

A lot of work that I do is not only showing people how to do “stuff”, but more importantly, trying to help them embrace change. One of the most powerful ways to not only change the teaching profession as a whole, but also as individuals, is through the act of blogging.  One of my favourite articles on the topic of blogging is from Dean Shareski, which he shares how he believes blogging makes better teachers.

Thousands of other blogging educators could echo similar words. In fact, I’ve yet to hear anyone who has stuck with blogging suggest it’s been anything less than essential to their growth and improvement. I’ve no “data” to prove this but I’m willing to bet my golf clubs that teachers who blog are our best teachers. If you look at the promise ofProfessional Learning Communities that our schools have invested thousands, more likely millions to achieve, blogs accomplish much of the same things. The basic idea of the PLC is to have teachers share practice/data and work in teams to make improvements. A good blog does this and more. While the data may not be school specific, great bloggers know how to share data and experience that is both relevant and universal so any reader can contribute and create discussion.

Yet fear of the unknown is a powerful thing.  I have learned how hard it is to move people from a “known average” to an “unknown amazing” because of fear.  So for some of the arguments I have heard against the idea of blogging, I wanted to provide some of my counter-arguments on the topic.

 

1. Blogging is useless. – The thing with this argument is that I have rarely (if ever) heard this from someone who has consistently blogged on their teaching and learning for any amount of time.  As I was talking with a student the other day in a school who was about to start his own blog in class, he argued with me on the merits of the activity.  I asked him, “have you ever blogged?”, to which he replied “no”.  I challenged him to give it one month, and a legitimate try and then offer me his thoughts, to which he said, “I will.”  Even in Dean’s article, he uses the same argument:

So here’s my plan. Hire a teacher, give them a blog. Get them to subscribe to at least five other teachers in the district as well as five other great teachers from around the globe. Have their principal and a few central office people to subscribe to the blog and five other teachers as well. Require them to write at least once a week on their practice. Get conversations going right from the get go. Watch teachers get better.

Try that. If it doesn’t work after a year, you get my golf clubs.

PS. The only people allowed to criticize or challenge this idea are people who have blogged for at least one year and written at least 50 posts. The rest of you can ask questions but you can’t dismiss it.

It is easy to criticize something you have never done (all of us our guilty of this, including myself), but to me, a viewpoint is not truly valid unless you have experience.

2. I have no time. – We all have the same amount of time and it is not like those who blog have 26 hour days, compared to the rest of the population.  It is not about time, but more about priority.  If people see it as important, they will make time.

So one of the things that I try to focus on is the importance of blogging for not only reflection, but open reflection.  The art and practice of reflection can help make ourselves better educators and learners.  For us to truly help students, we need to be masters of learning before we can become master teachers.  Reflection helps in that process. But “open reflection” helps others and not only pushes our profession forward in a communications aspect, but also in making each other better.  Clive Thompson wrote a quote on how blogging makes us all smarter:

Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.

This “audience” helps us to really think about what we write and go deeper in our learning.

But that being said, it is hard to find time in your day to start the practice.  What I focus on is helping educators not focus on doing everything that they are already doing plus blogging, but looking at doing something different.  For examples, many teachers use what is called DEAR Time (Drop Everything And Read), where students take a certain amount of time to read. Many teachers model the importance of reading during this time and take part in the practice.  Could you not change the “R” to represent the word “Reflect”?  If we had “Drop Everything And Reflect” time embedded in our week, could you not find the time to model the importance of reflection for your students by sharing what you have learned?

There are things that you are already doing (writing emails to others, putting things in word documents) that can be easily thrown onto a blog instead. Again, it is not about more as much as it is about different. Find what you are already doing in your practice, and think about how you can add that into a blog.

3. I’m a private person. – Blogging does not mean giving up privacy.  There are things in my life that I keep totally private in my life and don’t share on my blog and I choose what I am comfortable with.  You do not have to share your most personal secrets just because you have started a blog. Your level of comfort with sharing will change over time, whether you share less or more.  Every person is unique in what they are comfortable with sharing.

But it always freaks me out when teachers close their doors and don’t want anyone to see what is happening in their classrooms.  This does not mean that bad things are happening in the classroom, but sometimes the perception because of this practice paints a different picture then what is actually happening.  When we are taking care of other people’s kid throughout the day, I think that we have to try and find some comfort level in what we share.  I understand that this is a tough one for so many people (and understandably so) because it is easy to be criticized and have our words morphed online, but that being said, working with a generation of students where public is the “default” mode of practice, should we not put some of ourselves online to understand the importance of developing our own digital footprint?  Many teachers think that not sharing anything online will ensure they never have a footprint, but the only thing that is a certain as that they will never have a footprint that they create.  These are some of the realities of our world that we do have to help kids navigate as educators, and we should try to find a way to put some of ourselves online.

4. No one cares what I have to say. - Out of all of the arguments listed, this one bothers me the most.  First of all, if I was to ask the same teacher who uses this argument to not blog an interview question along the lines of, “what learning can you share with the rest of our staff that will help us become better as a school?”, I highly doubt their response would be “nothing”, and if it was that, I would struggle to hire them.  Yet too many educators, sharing feels like bragging, and modesty often trumps their comfort level in posting their teaching and learning online.

I get it.

But if we are really here to help kids, does it matter if they are in our grade, our school, our class, our world, or anywhere?  Whatever we share can help someone else, maybe not everyone else, but someone.  They may not take what we share exactly the way it is written, but if they turn it into something to help their kids, is that not worth it.  Just remember, if you impact only one teacher, you often impact at least 20 kids, if not a whole lot more.

One of my favourite videos on this topic is, “Obvious to You, Amazing to Others”, which has a great message on the impact we can have on one another:

Our impact on one another as teachers should never be underestimated.

 

I am not in the camp that says, “Everyone should __________”, with any tool or platform. People have different lives and situations, and I have learned to honour that.  Blogging may not be for you.  But for some, they are right on the cusp, and giving them an alternate viewpoint to the one thing holding them back might just change their mind.  I have learned a ton not only from my own blog, but from benefitting from others that have been willing to share their teaching and learning with me, and because of that, as Dean Shareski stated, I am better off for the willingness of others to share.

Character, Credibility, and Social Media

Stephen Covey talks about the idea of “character and credibility” being essential to successful leadership.  Character is how people perceive you as a person, and credibility is how they perceive your ability as a leader.  Years ago, while many principals were against the use of social media due to hearing things about online safety, cyberbullying, and a myriad of other issues, you saw many administrators against the idea of using social media.  Yet, there were a many administrators that saw these new “tools” had the potential to not only build their own credibility as leaders, but also create a deeper connection into their own character.

The expectation for school leaders is that they are instructional leaders. Although long before social media existed, many administrators were actively learning and enhancing their craft, it was hard to exhibit the characteristics of “lifelong learners” that we promote so actively to our students.  Instead of simply going with sharing their learning at the sporadic staff meeting, administrators are now actively sharing their learning through Twitter, blogging, Google Plus, and a plethora of other tools.  They are showing not only their expertise, but their growth as learners in a much more open example of transparent leadership.

To be a leader in schools, you need to be a learner first.  Where are your examples?

But how do we show character?

Social media is not only about sharing our learning, but it gives a view into our outside interests as well.  Principals are not just principals.  They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, music lovers, pet advocates, and a whole host of other things, that they can now show their community.  In Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk, she states, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”.  This goes for adults as well.  The best teachers in the world connect with their students on some personal level; this is point that should not be lost on the connection leaders have with their schools.

5 Questions You Should Ask Your Principal

 

I was recently asked by a superintendent if I had some questions to ask his principals to start off the year.  The questions I gave him were based on the following areas:

  • Fostering Effective Relationships
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Embodying Visionary Leadership
  • Developing Leadership Capacity
  • Creating Sustainable Change

In my opinion, the principal is probably the most important job in an educational organization.  There are many studies that reiterate this, but I think it is that they have the most authority closest to kids.  It is not to say that teachers aren’t important; they are absolutely vital.  But a great principal will help to develop great teachers, and a weak principal will do the opposite. They also tend to push great teachers out of schools, although most of the time unintentionally.  Bad leaders tend to drive away great talent.  A great teacher can become even better with a great principal.  As the very wise Todd Whitaker says “when the principal sneezes, the whole school gets a cold.”

Even though the questions were developed for superintendents to ask principals, I think that they should be questions any educator, parent, and even student should be able to openly ask their principal.

1.  What are some ways that you connect with your school community? (Fostering Effective Relationships) – When asking a principal this question, it is important to look for answers that go beyond the basic answers like staff meetings, emails, etc.  I would look for answers that go above and beyond what is expected.  For example, one of the best principals that I knew spent every morning welcoming staff and students to the school at the main doorway.  He would ask questions about their family, talk to them about their lives, and get to know them in a much deeper way than what was expected.  Although this principal has been retired for a few years, many of his staff refer to him as legendary because of the way that he would go above and beyond connecting with kids and community, before and after school.

2. What are some areas of teaching and learning that you can lead in the school? (Instructional Leadership) Covey talks about two important areas for leaders; character and credibility.  Many principals are great with people, yet really do not understand the art and science of teaching, or have lost touch with what it is like to be in the classroom.  Although a leaders does not need to be the master of all, they should be able to still be able to walk into a classroom and teach kids.  They should also definitely be able to lead the staff in workshops that focus directly on teaching and learning.  If teachers understand that a principal understands teaching and learning, any initiatives are more likely to be seen as credible in their eyes.

3.  What are you hoping teaching and learning looks like in your school and how do you communicate that vision? (Embodying Visionary Leadership) – There are many leaders in schools that often communicate a BIG PICTURE of what schools should look like, but can’t clearly communicate what it looks like for teachers and students. It is important to be able to discuss elements of learning that you are looking for in the classroom.  Not only is important to hold this vision, but to help develop it with staff and be able to communicate it clearly.  Many new educators walk into schools thinking that “quiet and order” are the expectations for classrooms, so even though they are doing some powerful work in their classrooms that looks quite messy, they are worried that it does not fit in with the vision of their boss. Due to this, many will often try to tailor their work to look like what they think the principal wants because they really don’t know what is expected.  Having a vision is important but clearly communicating and developing that with staff is also essential.

4. How do you build leadership in your school? (Developing Leadership Capacity) - Many principals are great at developing followers, but fewer are great at developing more leaders.  There has been this notion for years that you do everything to keep your best talent at all costs, but in reality, it is important to figure out ways to develop people, even if that means they will eventually leave. Great schools have become “leadership” hubs that they are continually losing great people, but they often get a reputation of being places where leadership in all areas is developed, which actually tends to attract some great people.  Wouldn’t you want to work with someone who is going to try to get the best out of you? There is a great quote that I’ve shared before (paraphrased) on this exact topic.

Many leaders are scared about developing people and then having them leave.  They should be more worried about not developing people and having them stay.

Again, great leaders develop more leaders.  What is your plan to make this happen?

5. What will be your “fingerprints” on this building after you leave? (Creating Sustainable Change) This has been a question that was asked of me years ago by my former superintendent, and has been one that has always resonated.  What she had shared with me is that she should be able to walk into my school and see the impact that I have had as the leader of the building.  This is not to say we throw out what the former leader has done, in fact, quite the opposite.  Great leaders will not come into maintain the status quo, but will bring their unique abilities to a school that will help them get to the next level.  They will build upon what has been left, but they will work with a community to ensure that their impact on a school lasts long after their time serving the community.  This where all of the other questions above truly come together, but it takes time and dedication to make it happen.

The old notion is that teachers and students are accountable to a principal is one that is dying (thankfully).  Great principals know that to be truly successful, it is the principal that is accountable and serves the community.  They will help create a powerful vision but will also ensure that they do whatever work is needed to be done to help teachers and students become successful.  I encourage you to talk to your principal, no matter what your role, and ask her/him their thoughts on some of these questions provided.