At the beginning of a school year, I had a student named Michael (not his real name) who had some issues the previous year, so I decided to welcome him outside the school before he even walked in. Now I assumed that he might have had this “talk” before, but I wanted to change it up. Instead of giving him a reminder about his “behaviour” and being an example to others, I asked him to look out for a couple of younger students that were struggling at school. I told him about his ability to influence others would ensure that he could be my “go-to” to help those other kids. Showing not only that I valued him, but that he was going to be a part of making the school a better place, empowered him to have a very successful year.
We always talk about “managing” people or students, but you manage “stuff”, not humans. Instead of trying to “fix” a behaviour, it is important to tap in and try to unleash what people already have. Think of your own work situation? Do you not go over and above for a boss that not only values you, but taps into you for the well being of your organization? The principals that trusted me with leadership were the ones that I would go above and beyond for and would gladly do the things that I once hated.
Kids are no different.
Show that you value them and their strengths, tap into them, and get them to help you create a better environment for everyone. It won’t necessarily be perfect, but for me, I found it to be so much better.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit schools in Sydney, Australia and on one of these days, I was asked a few questions about where schools are going, and specifically, about getting parents more involved in school. I shared a wonderful idea that I first heard from the brilliant Tracey Kracht, on the idea of “Digital Parent Volunteers”. It is simple, but could be extremely powerful and hopefully I caught the essence of it in this short video.
A few years ago, I was astonished to see that Sweden turned over their country Twitter account to a different person that lived in the country for a week. Even though it was meant to be an “experiment” that lasted only two months, if you look at the account today (about three years later from when it started), they are still using the same process. What it showed to many people that the country is defined by its people, and not just geography. Although there have been times where the experiment went wrong, they still maintained the process.
I remember asking leaders in a room if they would be willing to do the same thing with their school Twitter account? So often we try to “control” the message about our school, but in reality, the branding of the school is not defined by what we say about ourselves, but what our students say about their experience. You can have the best results in the world on whatever measure you want to share with people, but when a child goes home and says they hate their experience, parents might find any numbers provided insignificant. Although many agreed that would be so “cool”, I did not see anyone jump in and take the risk.
Fast forward to 2014, and I recently saw Jason Markey, a good friend and principal, share that they have turned over their school account to one person a week within Leyden School in Illinois, similar to the Sweden Twitter account. If you have followed Leyden Schools at all, you will know that they are doing some amazing things and their #LeydenPride hashtag is a favourite for me to follow because they have really empowered the kids. I first saw the account when a student started sharing for a week (currently it is the AP for the school) as seen below:
Although Jason is a remarkable leader, he will be the first to tell you that this is the work of his community (and he truly means community which includes parents, teachers, and especially students) coming together and doing some pretty amazing things, but the reality of this account is that it starts and stops with Jason. If something goes awry, at the end of the day, he will be accountable as principal of the school. In many schools, it is written into policy that the principal is responsible for all communications of the organization, which doesn’t necessarily mean they are responsible for creating all avenues to communicate, but that they are accountable for what happens. Yet from knowing Jason, he not only exhibits courage, but the willingness to take risks to create better opportunities for kids, and more importantly, he trusts the community that he serves.
“But kids often defy expectations if you give them opportunity.”
I have seen schools actually tell their teachers to NOT connect their social media accounts to the school because they were so worried about what could happen, and then I watch a school like Leyden actually turn their account over to their community.
Brilliant and courageous work down by Jason and his team. Major kudos to them. I am looking forward to seeing where this goes.
To learn more about Jason and his school, take a look at his blog, the #LeydenPride hashtag, and the “LeydenLearn365″ blog. Also read this great post from one of the Leyden students on their perspective regarding social media.
I am so intrigued with the number of people that are jumping into principal positions as I think it is truly one of the best jobs in the world. It is also one of the toughest. Isolation within a school (even though that is a choice that we now make ourselves) has been kind of a norm in past years, so to have a shared focus as a school is foreign territory for many (including principals). Yet with a constant focus on “change”, many principals bring people together, but often for the wrong reasons. If you move to fast, that can often lead to strained relationships within a school and resentment towards the new “leader”. As much as principals want to make it “our school”, many admin really try to make it “their school”, or at least, that is the picture that they paint to their staff. Sometimes you need to move slow to go fast.
Here are some things that I have learned from my time in both success and failures.
1. Build strong relationships first. If you did a “Wordle” on my blog, I am guessing the term “relationships” would be the word that is in the top five for being most used. Although this may seem redundant, to emphasize the importance of this over and over again, is something that cannot be understated. The investment you make in your staff, students, and community will come back tenfold, but it takes time to build trust. I have watched administrators like Patrick Larkin, Kathy Melton, Jason Markey, Amber Teamann, and Jimmy Casas show and share the significance that they put into people. This is not just your teachers either.
Every single person on your staff is an important part of the team and should be treated in that same manner. Make sure that you connect with every person on that staff and know something that goes beyond the building.
One of my favourite things to do with the community was to wait for the busses and talk to kids and parents as they arrived to school. Talking to kids is huge and a great proactive way to avoid issues later, while also being visible to the community. It also builds credibility with staff. Relationships, relationships, relationships. Trust me, it is the most important part of the job and the foundation that all great schools are built upon.
2. Find the value of every staff member. I tweeted the following yesterday:
If you are a new principal to a school, do not spend a bunch of money on PD for people that you haven’t met. Get to know your team first.
— George Couros (@gcouros) July 28, 2014
Principals often want to make a splash with staff and bring in “gurus” to move them ahead, but I truly believe that most schools have everything they need within the building, we just have to find a way to bring it all together. It is not that you shouldn’t look for outside help ever, as a differing perspective helps sometimes, but you should also balance that with having your own staff deliver professional development as well. This builds capacity and relationships (see number one) within your building.
Every person in your organization has something to offer. What is it? This is fundamental to “strengths based leadership” and people that know they are valued will go above and beyond. There is a difference between “developing” and “unleashing” talent; a great principal does both.
Great leaders develop great leaders.
3. Show instructional leadership. There used to be a belief that “those who can’t teach, become principals”. This drives me crazy. The other idea is that the principal should be the best teacher in the school. That is also a fallacy. Some teachers are absolutely amazing and have no interest in becoming principals; there is nothing wrong with that. You do however, need to show credibility in your role as principal. This could be in delivering professional development to your staff or teaching a class, or even a combination of both. Teachers connect well with teachers, and when they see that their principal, no matter the position, is still a teacher, it shines a different light on them. When you teach, it also reminds you that the “change” that we try to implement is not as easy as it sounds with 25 kids in a classroom. It is possible, but it takes time and this perspective that you gain by staying current in your own teaching practices is important.
4. Don’t focus on “change” as much as you focus on “growth”. Change and growth are often synonymous but the words sometimes the words evoke different emotions. If you walk into a school and constantly talk about “change” or how you are going to create the “best school yet”, you are disrespecting the work that has been done prior by the same staff that you are now serving. I agree that there are lots of things that need to “change” about schools, but I also know there are lots of great things that have already happened in many organizations. Growth is different. We expect it from kids and we should expect it from ourselves. You may have seen the light and changed your teaching practice, but my guess is that you didn’t change every aspect of what you used to do. You probably got better. And when you ask for “growth”, make sure you model how you are growing as an administrator as well. Say when you screw up, admit mistakes, apologize, learn openly, and do things that show you want to get better in your role to model what you want from your staff. Modelling growth moves from saying, “do this”, to “let’s do this together”. Very different ideas with the latter being much more effective.
Everyone wants to make a big splash when they are starting a new job, and administrators are no different. Yet sustainable growth takes time and as Covey states, it is important as a leader to show “character and credibility”. Both of these things take time. You may have a vision of where you want school to go but the best leaders hold that vision and break it down in smaller steps so that people can gain confidence and competence in the process. If you want to create something great, it will take time and will only come from the people that are a part of your learning community. Honour and tap into them and you will move further than you could have ever imagined.
“Every single employee is someone’s son or someone’s daughter. Parents work to offer their children a good life and a good education and to teach them the lessons that will help them grow up to be happy, confident and able to use all the talents they were blessed with. Those parents then hand their children over to a company with the hope the leaders of that company will exercise the same love and care as they have.” Simon Sinek
With the focus on “collaboration” in many organizations being the forefront in what they do, we often forget that each team that exists within an organization is made up of individual people. People are often asked to sacrifice for the “good of the team”, but this does not happen unless a safe culture is created by its leaders.
If you are spending a third of your day working with others, we have to realize how important each person is and how much we need to care for these individuals. Simply saying, “we are a team”, does not make it so. In fact, that constant push for collaboration without caring for individuals often pulls teams apart and creates an “every person for themselves” mentality. The “greater good” does not happen without individuals and when people are asked to work long hours and sacrifice, they are more likely to do it when they know they are valued as people first, and employees second.
When I have worked for people that have taken the time to care for me personally, my loyalty to them is unwavering and sacrifice is simple. Those moments that we simply “check-in” with one another builds that trust daily, and often forges the team. This does not happen without great leadership constantly building trust with individuals to create a strong team.
One thing that I have seen from great leaders that has made a huge difference is how they are truly in the moment with you.
Every educator is busy; how many have you met that don’t know what to do with the abundance of time that they have left over? “Busy” is a given that we do not really need to share in every conversation. What I have seen some of the best leaders do when they talk to people is not share how they only have a “few moments” to talk when their colleagues come talk to them, but they make them feel welcome and are glad to have the conversation in the first place.
Yes, you are probably busy, but the time a leader takes to really talk to someone when they have the chance, often comes back in spades from people who will go above and beyond for someone who makes them feel valued, as opposed to simply watching a clock for those that seemingly do not care. Just like with our students, when we take time to build relationships with our colleagues there is an initial time investment that is made at the beginning that pays off greatly later on. That’s why it is called an “investment”.
Now that many people are going back to school, it is easy to talk about the bigger “we”, but remember that your team are made up of individuals. We need to cherish each person and their strengths AND weaknesses before we can do something great together.
“We need to build more organizations that prioritize the care of human beings. As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to protect our people and, in turn, our people will protect each other and advance the organization together.” Simon Sinek
P.S. This post was inspired from reading the new Simon Sinek book , “Leaders Eat Last”, that was suggested from my recent visit to Richland Two School District in South Carolina. It has been fantastic so far!
Last Friday night, I sent out the following tweet:
— George Couros (@gcouros) July 19, 2014
With many people sharing the tweet, and taking the time to comment on a Friday night (she received 21 comments…not bad for her second blog post!), it really reminded me how much teachers care for kids. And when I say “kids”, I am not talking about kids in their class, but kids anywhere. Naomi received comments from all over North America, and even Australia. Can you imagine what this does for her to help her keep writing and learning, even over the summer months? Every person that took the time to write, even if it was only for a few seconds, made a difference. (Side note…I have never shared a blog to #comments4kids hashtag that William Chamberlain hasn’t commented on. What a great guy for always taking the time to do that.)
Yet when I see how a lot of schools are set up, we seem to be in competition with other schools, districts, and sometimes people in the same building. Why is that? When you became a teacher, was it to help kids, or to only help the specific kids you in your class? I know that with the majority of teachers that I have connected with, any student that is placed in front of them is a kid that teacher will do everything for to help them become better. What happens when we look at all students as “our kids”? The imperative share becomes much greater.
So this is why sharing has become so important in our work today. Every little bit we share with one another, helps a kid somewhere. Whether it is taken in its exact form, or it is remixed to meet the needs of our class, that “share” does something for kids. Does it matter if they are across the hall or even across the globe? I became an educator to help kids. It doesn’t matter where they are from.
Paraphrasing Dean Shareski, it is our moral obligation to share with one another in the field of education. I believe that the more I go into classrooms and see what teachers do all of the time. I always think of the “obvious to you, amazing to others” video, and the humble nature of teachers who often think that what they do is not that significant. You never know the impact of what you share could have on a kid somewhere. If it makes an impact on one teacher or one kid, somewhere else, isn’t that enough?
We sometimes do not see the impact of our sharing on others, but that is not reason enough to not do it. I saw the following quote today and it really struck me:
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams
The “sharing” that we do often does all of the things listed above, and if it helps kids, no matter where they are, it is definitely worth it.
P.S. If you want to see a great video on the power of “sharing”, I loved the one below:
In about my sixth year of teaching, I remember sharing a story about my dogs with my grade 9 students. As I was on my own in a small town where I didn’t know many people, the dogs were a HUGE part of my life and this wasn’t the first or last time I would talk about them. They were and are like family to me. When I was really getting into the story, one of my students shouted out in the middle of the class and said, “We don’t want to hear another story about your stupid dog.”
Years prior, I probably would have asked her to leave, got frustrated at the comment, and would have shown anger before anything. This time I didn’t. Instead, I said to her, “Those dogs are a huge part of my life and when you say something like that it really hurts me.” Her facial expression and demeanour changed quickly, as did several of others in the class. I was no longer simply a “teacher”, but a person, with real feelings and emotions. After that moment, I felt a real change in how I was treated by students and, in all honesty, how I treated them. It changed a lot for me.
As a principal, it would have been easy to fake emotions and represent that nothing had bothered or stressed me out, but in reality, I was never like that. When Kobe (my first dog) had died, I struggled at school. I spent a lot of time in my office and would often cry to my staff when they shared their condolences. To many, this would be sign of a weakness, but in reality, I would say the exact opposite. To be able to show who you are and share emotion is strength. Denying it and pretending I was feeling something else would not be true to myself. We show our true strength when we accept that that we are vulnerable.
As a speaker, it is not easy to cry in front of people, but sometimes by showing emotion, I feel it is what makes me relatable. Although I talk a lot about education, it is often the stories of my dad passing away, moments with my family, and my dogs that I often hear resonated most with others. Every single person you have met has dealt with hardships in their life, and when they see someone being able to talk about similar experiences and share what they have learned from them, that is often what sticks with them.
This is not to say you need to share every part of your life, as I, like many educators, value my privacy as well. But there are parts of YOUR story that will make an impact, and showing that you are having a rough day is showing that you are a person. I spoke the following week after my dad died, and the day after I lost Shaq. I cried profusely in front of people as I shared those stories with them. The hugs that I received after both of those talks went WAY beyond people learning “stuff”, but went into deeper connections, for the audience and most definitely myself. Think about it…if you were going to be vulnerable in front of any profession in a world, wouldn’t the best group to do that in front of be a group of educators where being loving and caring is an unwritten part of their job?
Yet I have seen many people walk into new roles and put on a tough demeanour and move away from who they truly are. They implement the “don’t smile until December” rule and stick with it. They constantly put people at arm’s length as they act as if showing emotion would be a sign of weakness. Ironically with many, their emotion, their passion, and their story, which they have shared with me, is the exact reason that I have connected with them in the first place. I talked to one new principal this week and he said his main focus for the beginning of his time at a new school was not about implementing a bunch of different things, but connecting and learning about his new staff while they learn about him. That focus on “connecting” was perfect and why I know that he is going to be successful. Life is often a roller coaster ride with many ups and downs that we are all experiencing and asking for help is showing much more strength than simply giving up.
So as many people go into new roles next year, and try different things, my advice would be to show and be true to yourself. Emotional leadership, showing humility, and being genuine, are not only sharing pieces of who you are, but they also show confidence, which is vital to successful leadership. You and your colleagues will have ups and downs, as will your students. Getting back up only happens when we fall down in the first place; they are both important parts to the story.. When we are in a field that is focus on developing people, no matter what your role is, showing your “human side” is vital.
Telling stories is often the best way for people to move forward, but don’t forget to put YOU into that narrative. That is often the most important part.
As I wrote this on the plane, when I landed I read this post by Nicholas Provenzano, this one from Leah Whitford, and this one by Amber Teamann that are powerful examples of what I tried to articulate in this post.
The ability to connect on Twitter has become one of the biggest blessings in my life. I have connected with some of the best minds, but in reality, I have made my strongest relationships through the medium as well. It is not just about what I have learned, but it is often about the enjoyment I have in learning with others. If you look at my Twitter feed at any point, it can range from goofy conversations about Applebees, discussing opportunities in the classroom or leadership, sharing music, or sharing videos of dogs to make people smile. The balance for me is important.
When we plan for students, we too often focus solely on the “learning”? If a kid enjoys texting and connecting with friends, and actually becomes more literate, why can’t that be a powerful opportunity for kids?
Sometimes we get so focused on the “stuff” that we forget the “joy” (as Dean Shareski would say) that can happen during informal learning.
How much do you remember from your grade 2 science exam?
I promise you that if learning can be “fun” and have some choice, more people will love to do it. I love the learning that happens in social media but I know that I keep coming back for the connections and happiness it brings me.
Fun can be a great thing for learning. Let’s not forget that while we are trying to get through a curriculum at the end of the year. The “stuff” will fade from a kid’s memory, but that connection to their heart won’t.
The best teachers in the world connect with their students on some personal level.
I have always believed that. It does not mean that you share every element of your personal life, but it does mean that you do share parts. The teachers that impacted me, I remember knowingmore about them than simply what they taught, and it is the reason I became a teacher. I wanted to make that same impact.
So why do we believe something different when it comes to social media? Many people are worried about revealing too much about themselves and that will somehow be an invasion of privacy, yet it is always up to the individual on “what” and “how much” they share. My personal belief and guideline on social media is the following:
“Whatever you can say to a classroom of students is what you can say online.”
If you follow that, you should not only be fine but you can make some pretty powerful connections.
Which brings me to why I am writing this in the first place…
After a presentation that I had made for Peel District School Board in Ontario, I had an educator approach me and tell me that she wanted me to share a story. As she teared up, I worried about how I might have offended her or said something wrong. Actually the opposite.
In my tweets, I have shared music I like to the hashtag #georgetunes. I am a huge music fan, and although I share the occasional One Direction or Wham song (as a joke…maybe not), I am a huge fan of a lot of very mellow music such as William Fitzsimmons, Iron and Wine, and Keane, which has led people to sharing music from bands from The Avett Brothers. This is something that I would have shared with students so it is not something I was reluctant to share online.
So as this “stranger” shared her story with me, she told me about how someone suggested that she follow me on Twitter. Although she shared that she appreciated my educational tweets, she really enjoyed a lot of the music that I shared, as we had similar tastes.
And then her mother passed away.
She took a risk, reached out to a stranger (my email is listed on my blog), and shared that she connected with me on Twitter, loved the music I shared, and told me about how her mom had passed. She then asked me a suggestion for a song. Of course, I responded immediately, and gave her a suggestion to which she told me that played at her mom’s funeral. She thanked me for not only responding, but for being willing to share in the first place.
I have not stopped thinking about what she told me and her story.
People have made fun of me for sharing some stuff online (like #georgetunes), but I don’t see myself as an “educator first”, but a person with many sides and interests. Those connections are what I believed in as an educator, and carry over to what I do online. I also have been reminded once again that every little thing you share can make a big impact, no matter how insignificant it may seem, so try to focus on the positive. Who knows what it can do for someone else.