Category Archives: Leading a Learning Community

3 Assumptions We Shouldn’t Make About Educators

 

I haven’t had my own classroom of students for a few years, but I always try to remember what it was like to be a teacher, and always try to start from that viewpoint.  It bothers me when I see posts or videos talking about how so many teachers are not willing to do something better for their kids, when every single person that has “embraced change” was at some point doing things previously that they would question now.

I talk a lot about the importance of using technology to enhance learning and relationships, but I didn’t always believe it was important.  It took a lot of suggestions and support from others before I started doing things differently in my practice; it did not happen overnight.  That being said, just like so many other educators, I still have a lot of room to grow in so many areas.  There are so many aspects of education that are important to the development of our kids, and teachers are juggling so many things that they have to do, many of which have little to do with teaching in a classroom, but are admin tasks.  Instead of wondering “why aren’t people moving faster?”, we have to take a step back and get rid of some of the assumptions that people make about educators.  Below are a few that stick out in my mind.

1. Educators are not willing to embrace change.

I think for many educational leaders, this is an easy way out.  It puts the blame others instead of looking at something internal.  Simply telling someone that they should change their practice, and it reminds me of how sometimes people are just bad at selling change in the first place.  I have seen a lot of people talk about the importance of change, but by the end of listening to them, you feel terrible about what you haven’t done as opposed to inspired to do something better.

\Making people feel like crap is not the key to getting them to do something different and will not lead to sustainable change.  What is important is that people experience something different themselves, but also that they are valued for what they do.  If an educator knows that the change is something that will be better for kids, they are more likely to start doing something different.

There are so many things that an educator has to do, so I think it is actually good that many of them are critical about what they put their efforts into.  Have you ever had an initiative in your school that has come and gone and shown no impact on students?  Not all change is good, but I believe if an educator can see the value in it for their students, they are more likely to embrace it.

2. Educators don’t want what is best for kids.

Educators know that they are going into a very giving profession, where the pay is traditionally not that great.  The majority of them want to make a difference.  It is cool when some students get opportunities like Innovation Week, but sometimes kids show up with no food in their stomachs, and making it through their day is a huge accomplishment.  Doing the “innovative ideas” might not be possible for that kid.  There are so many variables to our day as educators, and teachers are rarely ever just teachers.  They take care of kids in so many different ways because of they didn’t, there is no way some kids would be successful in any aspect of their lives.  If every classroom and group of students looked exactly the same, teaching would be easy, although in my opinion, not very rewarding.  The diversity is what makes education so great.  That being said, most educators are doing what they believe is best for their kids.  No one wakes up in the morning wanting to be terrible at their job.  We need to always remember that.

3. That all educators do is teach.

It disheartened me to see an educator friend, who is brilliant and I would want teaching my own children, talk about how they had to get another job to make ends meet.  I have heard this from several people.  To think that a person who would have to work two jobs (one of them serving children all day) would not only have the time or the energy to learn new things, is pretty presumptuous.  Just being a teacher, takes a lot out of you.  We can’t assume that all of our efforts go simply into teaching.  There are so many other aspects of our lives.

It is not only the cases where teachers are juggling another job, but also other aspects of their life.  Many people have so many things going on in their lives, yet we assume that so many should put all of their time and energy into becoming the greatest teacher of all time.  Some people are lucky if they can make it through the day because of whatever is going on in their lives.  This is not only in education, but in all professions.  We want to be great friends, partners, parents, siblings, or whatever, and sometimes teaching needs to take a little bit of a backseat to the other things in life.  Does this mean a teacher doesn’t care about what they do? Not at all.  But I am firm believer that I would rather have a teacher that is focused on being a whole person, than simply focusing on being a teacher.  Personally, some days it is/was hard for me to get up and do my job because of other things going on in my life.  We always have to remember that there is more to a teacher than being a teacher.

Do some teachers not fall in line with what I have shared? Absolutely.  There are bad people in every profession.  I guess my point is that when we make generalized assumptions about others in our profession we are already starting in a deficit.  Trusting someone is doing the best they can before they prove it to you, is an important part of leadership. We have to give trust before we earn trust in many cases.  Assuming the worst of others will not get us to grow as a profession.

The “Want” and the “Way”

In my work with a school in Ontario, I met a teacher who had a story that really resonated with me.  As we were talking about the changes in school, she had shared with me and publicly with the group, how after three years on a maternity leave, she came back to a totally different place (school) from what she had remembered.  If you think about all of the times that we see “school isn’t changing”, in many places, three years might seem like 30.  It is a long time to be away.

The really powerful part of what she shared with everyone really took me back.

She told me that she was teaching “Mitosis” to her students with an overhead projector using transparencies, and Lisa told me, “It sucked so bad that I was bored”.  It bothered her.  You could see it in the way she told her story.  She wanted to do better, but she wasn’t sure how to get there.  I spent some time showing her and others some of the learning that can be done by connecting with  experts (other teachers) through social media, and I explicitly told her that I was the last person to give her tips on teaching science, but I could help her connect with other science educators.  She was amazed by everything that was out there.  You could see her wheels turning and her eyes becoming wide open.

The best part  of this story, is that this was only about three weeks ago.  Then last week, she sent me the following tweet:

 

How awesome is that? I showed her the “Twitter in 60 Seconds” video and in a very short time, she had her students create “Mitosis in 60 Seconds” videos.

In an extremely short time, she was shifting the focus from her teaching to their learning.  I was so proud of what I had saw that I teared up when I saw it.  Can you imagine when a teacher gets really excited about their learning, the difference that makes on their students?  Lisa, in short, is awesome.

This just was a reminder that with so many educators the “want” is there, but sometimes they just need help to find the “way”.  

Talking with Doug Peterson, he shared a story about how no educator gets up in the morning wanting to do a terrible job.  The vast majority of teachers want to do great stuff for their kids, and we need to help each other to show the opportunities that exist now for ourselves and our students to really embrace better learning opportunities.  I really believe that this single step for Lisa, is the first of many leading to some really great learning.  When we want to get to greater heights, every step leads to building confidence and competence, and for many, that first step is the toughest.  Watching Lisa, and feeling her enthusiasm for what she is doing, reminded me why I do what I do, and that change doesn’t need to take forever.  That excitement from her is contagious.

Sometimes, that first step is all you need to go on to do something great.

Questioning Forward

I had the honour of addressing the Trillium Lakes District School Board in Ontario recently, and I was amazed by the culture of learning they have created.  They were an enthusiastic group and seemed to just want to keep pushing themselves to get better and better.  These days are awesome for me as an educator because I feel I really grow through the process even though I am the one “delivering” the workshop.

I was inspired in listening to Andrea Gillespie, one of their superintendents, the night before, and the board’s vision of constantly moving forward and growing as a learning organization.  You could tell by her stories that this was not just something they said, but something they lived.  The feeling I got was that they were not a board that felt they had “arrived” because they know that great organizations never stagnate.  Education will always have a target just out of reach because of the consistency of of change, and instead of being frustrated by this notion, they build upon it.  It is not that they aren’t a great organization, if anything, quite the opposite.  Growth is continuous as is learning and this is something that they are aware of and embrace.  It was refreshing.

One of the ways they keep this momentum moving forward is by starting their professional learning opportunities by stating the following:

“We are a board questioning our way forward.”

EEK!  I love this!

This sets quite the tone and embraces the notion of the innovator’s mindset of constantly learning and creating better opportunities for students.  This phrase really struck me and is something that we need to embrace in our work.

When I thought about it deeply., there is a difference between saying, “we need to ask questions” and “questioning our way forward.”  Often, when I hear questions, they are more like statements about how this won’t work disguised as questions.  For example, I will hear things like this:

“This is great, but what about standardized tests?”

or…

“You showed me some really great stuff, but when we are going to find time for this?”

Both of the above are questions, but seemingly leading to a dead end.  What if we tweaked these questions to ask the same thing but to find solutions instead of looking for problems?

“How do we move forward with these initiatives while still ensuring that our students are doing well on standardized tests?”

or

“What are some suggestions you have to create time to make this happen?”

Again, both questions but they are not dwelling on problems but instead looking for solutions. Simple tweaks that make a world of difference.

Questions are so crucial to our growth, but I think we need to focus on phrasing them in a way to find ways to move forward, not to stand still.  In education, stagnation is the equivalent of moving backwards and in a world where change is the only constant, asking questions to move forward is something we need to not only teach our kids, but embrace ourselves.

 

“Visibility Creates Accountability”

Often when I am doing workshops on social media in education, I start off the day asking how many people are on Twitter in the room.  More and more hands are going up in education, and people are starting to see it.

Without any prompting or even teaching how to use Twitter, throughout the day, I ask if people signed up during the day and usually several hands go up.

So why is that?

I think a lot of it has to do with the beginning of the day and seeing how many other educators are using Twitter and raising their hands.  Those hands create both a pressure and curiosity in educators that they want to check it out for themselves.  As I discussed this yesterday in my workshop, one of the participants summarized it up in a single tweet:

I loved that thought. So simple yet so powerful.

The more we start showing what is happening in classrooms, and the more visible it becomes, the more I hope it sparks that feeling of both pressure and curiosity in educators to keep pushing themselves to embrace improving their practice.

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.

What Our Fear Actually Inhibits

 

Sitting with a principal whom I have the utmost respect for, we talked about how she embraced technology now, which was quite different about how she was in the past.  What she said to me, really stuck out to me.  She told me that it was not that she didn’t see the value of technology, but that she didn’t understand it that well, so it was easy to dismiss it.  I was so appreciative of her honesty, but what I know of her, is that not one person was held back in her tenure as principal because of her fear of the unknown.  She is the type of principal that empowers her people and gets out of their way.  This is not always the case though.

Often we look at our own fear of what we don’t know, and realize deep down that it is often holding us back.  It is easy to dismiss many aspects of learning, but it is also easy to say something is “stupid” when you have never used it.  I used to say that about Twitter, about blogging, about mobile phones, and so on.  I know better now.  How could I make an adequate judgment of something that I had never used or tried?

Working with a student recently, he was telling me how he didn’t see how blogging would be helpful to him and that he saw it as a useless task.  I asked him if he had ever blogged, to which he said he hadn’t.  I then told him that I could give him a million reasons why it was awesome, but I asked him to give it a legitimate try for a month and then he could tell me what he really thought.  But I emphasized that he really had to try and give it a valiant effort.  He happily accepted and I look forward to hearing what he thinks after he jumps in. Blogging is not for everyone and he might hate it, but he will know from experience, not from simply dismissing the unknown.  We can learn a lot from this kid.

Here’s the thing…when we dismiss something because of our fear of the unknown as educators, we don’t just lose out ourselves, but those that we serve lose out as well.  Teachers impact students, principals impact teachers and students, and superintendents can impact everyone.  When our fear holds us back, it often holds others back as well.  Fear often has the power to kill innovation.

One of my favourite quotes on this topic is from Michael Jordan who says, “limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.” What I love about this quote is that limits and fears are used synonymously. Our fears limit us to do less, but in education,we are not the only ones that lose out.

The Innovator’s Mindset

Carol Dweck’s famous book, “Mindset”, was one that was (is) hugely popular with educators, not only in helping shape their work and thoughts on students, but also pushing learning in educator with their peers.  There were two simple concepts shared that resonated with many readers; the “fixed” mindset and the “growth” mindset.

Here is how the two differ according to Dweck:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

The great thing about Dweck’s work is that she found that you can move from one to the other.  You may have a fixed mindset, but it is not necessarily a permanent thing.  The other aspect is that you do not necessarily have a “fixed” or “growth” mindset and fall into one of those two categories in all elements.  I have a growth mindset on (most things) education, but have a fixed mindset on fixing things around my house.

So what I have been thinking about lately is the notion of the “innovator’s mindset”.  This would actually go one step past the notion of a growth mindset and is looking at what you are creating with your learning.  SImply it would go look this:

Fixed Mindset –>  Growth Mindset  –>  Innovator Mindset

The “Innovator Mindset” looks at all of their learning (in any given area), and they look at what ideas can come out of this.  It is not simply about being open to growth, but focusing on what new knowledge you can create with that growth.  If I think about how this “Innovator’s Mindset”  would work with students, it would always start with the question, “what is best for this student?”  Because of your willingness to learn and have a growth mindset, you would be able to take that knowledge and implement or create something for that student.  You would try different ideas and create different things to help that child to be successful.  No matter the area, the innovator’s mindset would always start with a question, and then from what you know, creating either a singular or myriad of solutions.

I am not sure if this is something that has already been said or shared, but I think it is important to look at how many educators have adopted that “growth” mindset and have learned so much from it.  What we have to develop next is what people do with all of this new knowledge to help their students.

Update
(Here is a picture I put remixed with the idea of the “Innovator’s Mindset”)

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 6.09.51 PM

Trickle Down Professional Learning

I had an incredible experience working with Waterloo Regional District School Board (WRDSB) at #CATCCamp14 this past summer.  I was with them for two days, and when I asked them what they wanted me to do, they asked me to open with a keynote and told me the rest would be determined when I arrived.  Obviously I didn’t want to be unprepared, so I was a little uncomfortable with the format at first as I had no idea what they would need from me.  When I arrived though and participated, I absolutely loved the model.

Here is how it went (from my view)…

Groups were created in advance based on things that teachers were interested in and basically there would be time given to explore and build things for the few days that people were there.  With that being said, if you wanted to try something else, you could switch groups easily, similar to the EdCamp notion of “voting with your feet”.  Each group would have facilitators that wouldn’t necessarily teach you, but would often learn alongside of you.  Although the learning was pretty informal, teachers were staying in rooms working on things until long past 9pm because they appreciated the importance of just having time.

The other aspect of the camp that I absolutely loved was that they would have meetings after every meal and they would just get feedback and thoughts from participants on what their needs were and what they were interested in learning about.  WIth the release of Google Classroom, they had an impromptu group that explored the platform. Or they had time to explore how to create newsletters with video. Or explore social media.  None of those sessions were planned, but just happened in this basic “just-in-time” learning model. It was an incredible learning experience.

In my keynote, I talked to people about the model and challenged not to only take the stuff they learned from their time there, but to also explore how they could do similar models to the “camp” with their students.  There are many engaging and new (to some) models of professional learning such as “TeachMeet” and “EdCamp”, or even Ted Talks, and I am wondering not only about the learning that happens at these events and how it makes an impact on students, but also the models themselves.  There are things such as “Genius Hour” and “Innovation Day” that are starting to trickle into classrooms, but we need to provide some of these alternative options for our students, much more often.

I have started to see some teachers role out “EdCamp” for their students” and I would love to hear more about those experiences.  I would also love to see more opportunities for students to be the “teachers” in these events, and think it would be extremely powerful if teachers took part to learn in student delivered sessions.  Can you imagine the community that type of activity could build?

We still have to teach a curriculum and work within a system that politically could take a long time to change.  But within the system, we need to find innovative ways that we can implement these models into learning for our students.  If it works for us, why wouldn’t it work for them?

PowerPoint Doesn’t Suck; 10 Ideas To Make it Great

I have often heard of people saying, “we shouldn’t just keep teaching our kids PowerPoint anymore”‘ as if it is some terrible technology.  Presentation software (PowerPoint, HaikuDeck, Keynote, Prezi, etc.) is actually pretty simple once you get the hang of it, but as with many things surrounding the technology, we need to go way past how to create something, and focus on how we use it.

For example, if you create a PowerPoint with tons of text that is hard to read, and you simply copy and paste mass amounts of information into slide after slide, with no compelling visuals, the use of the technology is weal, not the technology itself.  It has done its job.  Now if we teach our students to use limited amount of characters, with great accompanying images, videos, and then work with them to have the ability to tell a story from those visuals, you would probably have much deeper learning from not only the student that created it, but also the students that have been able to hear the presentation as well.

If I wanted to read an essay, I wouldn’t necessarily want to read it from a PowerPoint.

Here are some of the quick tips that I would suggest in teaching these presentation skills:

  1. I like to use a simple font throughout that is easy to read and consistent throughout.  That is a personal preference.
  2. Try to stay away from text on a page longer than a tweet. There will be times where you will have to go beyond, but quick quotes can add a lot to a presentation.
  3. I try to make “one point” per slide.  This is following the “less is more” idea where it is better to go deeper than to share a ton of ideas that no one will remember.  We want ideas to resonate.
  4. Visuals with text are helpful if they help tell the story. I use Creative Commons to find images, rather than going to Google Images since it is important that we teach our students to use “copyleft” materials and provide attribution.
  5. A visual on it’s own should be a mental cue for a point being made.  It should be something that resonates with yourself making it more likely it will resonate with the audience.
  6. When using visuals, try to use an image that will take up the entire page.  A picture in the middle of a black or white background is not as powerful as a whole image.
  7. If you are using videos, they should illustrate your point.  Try to keep them under one minute if possible, but two minutes as a max.  If I want to watch a five minute video, I can do that on my own time.
  8. The only time I like to go over 140 characters is a “quick summary” slide that reminds people of the discussion points.  I like a way of bringing everything together.
  9. Most importantly, find your own style.  Your personality should shine through in your presentation, not someone else’s.
  10. Finish strong.  I like to use a video or image that is powerful to end a presentation, but I never let a video have the “last word”. Try to think of something that will resonate with your audience. “Last impressions” are sometimes as important as your first impression.
  11. BONUS: Think of your audience…if they can see themselves in the presentation and it is relatable to them, it is much more powerful.

If we can teach our students and ourselves how to make high impact presentations, you will find that PowerPoint isn’t so bad (although Keynote is way better!).  It is our teaching and learning that makes the impact here, not the tool.

(Please feel free to add any suggestions you have for making presentations in the comments.  I would love your feedback!)