Tag Archives: Educational Leadership

Connecting Your Own Dots for Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

New to admin? Here is the best way to connect with your staff.

With many people jumping into administrator roles that will be starting in the 2014-2015 school year, I am often asked, “What is the best way to connect with staff?”

My answer to this?  Connect with kids.

Many administrators that are new want to implement changes or try some bold ideas, and with a lack of experience, it can often come off to their staff as arrogant.  Even with a ton of experience, it can replicate that same feeling.  A lack of experience, or even a lack of experience in a school community, can sometimes be seen as a fault.

But what most teachers care about universally is the students.  That is why they do what they do.  So if they know that you, as the new “leader” of the school care about the kids just as much as they do, and show it openly, it will not only buy you a lot of time as you are learning your new role, it will also help you build credibility.

So go out at recess with the kids, spend time in the hallway with them, and go visit their classrooms to not observe the teacher, but to connect with the students.

If your staff see these interactions (and they will), they are likely to see that you are there for the same reasons they are.  To do what is best for kids.

And if you can’t show that, maybe you are in the wrong place.

4 Types of Leaders You Shouldn’t Be

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

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

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

1.  The “Blame Everyone Else” Leader

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

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

2. The “Driven by Policy” Leader 

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

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

3.  The “Dead-End” Leader

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

Waiting…waiting…waiting…

Nothing.

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

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

4.  The “Lack of Knowledge is Power” Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 Things That Should Never Change in Schools

Although I often speak about the things that we need to do to develop and further the way we teach and learn in schools, I would still consider myself a little “old school”.  Brought up by very traditional parents and being a part of a community that I loved, there are things that I believe should never change in the school environment and will be vital to educational institutions in the future, although they are rooted in the past.

1. The Focus on Relationships 

My best teachers during my time in school, are people that I still hold dear to my heart to this very day.  Was it because they inspired me by a test that I had to write in the classroom? Never.  What I appreciated was how they made me feel valued as a person, and not simply a student.

I had a science teacher when I was young, and since I struggled with the subject, I was quite a handful in the class.  The next year when we had a different teacher lead the course, the connection that I had with the teacher was different and I put much more effort into the course and my work.  I still never did truly well in the subject, but I cared a lot more, because I was cared for as a person.

As the old adage goes, students will never care to know, until they know you care.

In 100, 200, 300 years, relationships will always be the foundation of a good school.  Without that focus, schools would surely become irrelevant.

2. Opportunities Outside of the Classroom 

As schools continue to cut budgets, often programming outside of the classrooms tend to be one of the first things to go (unfortunately, mostly in the fine arts).  This is not a good thing for our students.

In my own experience, the opportunity to play sports in school led me to develop leadership skills, as well as understanding the importance of being on a team and working together.  The opportunity to take part in the drama program, gave me the confidence to speak in front of others.  Both of these programs have had more impact in what I do today than anything else than I have ever done in school.

It is great to see districts like Chris Kennedy’s in West Vancouver not only promote these opportunities, but give kids different opportunities that are new to school.  If schools are to develop well rounded individuals, there is a huge importance in offering different programs to our students outside of the classroom.

(By the way…many teachers around the world provide these opportunities on a volunteer basis!)

3. Learning in a Respectful Environment 

I have to admit that I have walked into schools and have cringed at some of the words that I have read on clothing.  Surprisingly, it was not only by students but sometimes even staff.  It is important that as an educator or student you feel comfortable, not only physically but mentally as well.  I believe in the importance of relationships (as outlined in this post), but also of being able to work in an environment where people’s differences are respected and free from derogatory remarks.

Schools should be a “safe” place, and safety also deals with the notion of being comfortable to share ideas and be respected by one another, no matter who you are.

The idea that we need to continuously prepare kids for their future is something that always sits in the back of my mind.  Pedagogy often needs to change as we continue to see different ways of learning and understand how the brain works.  That being said, there are some fundamentals they should never go away and will make schools a place that students want to be.

Some ideas will never get old.

Taking Ownership

During the Super Bowl, this tweet from JC Penney went viral:

 

Which opened up some really hilarious responses, like this one from Kia Motors:

 

So what did JC Penney do? They didn’t quickly delete the tweet as there was nothing inappropriate about it, but instead offered a reason why the message had so many errors.

 

The ironic thing is why would JC Penney even delete the initial tweet? With over 23,000 Retweets and 10,000 Favourites, it probably was one of their most viral tweets they had ever shared from their account. It definitely brought attention to the company and made a “business” seem human (since a person runs an account) in the way that they admitted their mistake and poked fun at themselves.

The thing that I quickly related to in this post is the number of educators that ask the question, “What if I make a mistake and then it goes viral?”

Well what happens when you make a mistake in your school?  Do you do everything to hide it or do you take ownership and move forward?  There is a difference between making a mistake and being inappropriate and if it is a mistake, similar to the one that was made by JC Penney, taking ownership sometimes gives an educator more credibility than not making a mistake in the first place.  Showing the humility that we can all screw up and learn from it, says a lot.  Trying to cover up a mistake says something as well.

Forced Learning?

I shared an article that I wrote about things that we should do in professional development, and many educators either loved or hated the idea of having reflection built into the day.  My belief is that if you believe it is important as an administrator, you make time for it.

One comment was one that I found interesting in the discussion:

So if we ask kids to reflect in class, does it not fit into the “restricted time frame” category?  Many would suggest that kids should “reflect” at home, but we make some very strong assumptions about their lives when we leave things for them to do after or before school.

I thought about these questions:

Do we “force” kids to learn like this all of the time? If it isn’t effective for us, why is it effective for them?  

So do all teachers take the time to reflect about their learning? I had one educator outright say in a workshop, “I know that reflection is valuable for learning but who has time for it?”  If we are to model the idea of being “lifelong learners”, should reflection (and I am not simply talking about writing, but any type of open reflection) be a part of the work that we do?  This does not have to be about what we learn in a PD day, but it could also be about any learning that an educator has done.

If the teachers feel “forced” to reflect and learn things that they might now want to do in restricted time frames, I wonder how the kids feel.  Are we hoping they just don’t know any better?  I hope not.

Above and Beyond

While I was working on a presentation on the plane, and was extremely tired, a flight attendant came up to me and she said, “I saw your screen is really dirty so I went and found this screen cleaner for you.  We don’t want you to hurt your eyes.”  I watched her do these types of things not only for me, but for as many people as she could.  It wasn’t that she just gave me the screen cleaner, but the way she delivered it as it wasn’t her job, she was doing something extra for another person because she could.

So I hugged her when I got off the plane and told her she was awesome.  Anyone that makes you feel special, deserves a hug, right?

I thought about this in the context of schools and how as educators, we are often bombarded with so many requests, and sometimes those things that don’t really matter in the long term and can really suck the life out of a person.  Yet there are so many teachers that still go above and beyond.  They don’t only see things as supervision as part of their job, but as an opportunity to connect with kids.  I remember watching some teachers in my school just go and play basketball with kids, not because it was their “supervision” day, but because they loved it and they knew the kids loved it as well.  That extra 10 minutes that the teacher spent with those students, made a ton of difference long term.  Doing that little extra for each student for some people isn’t part of their job, but just who they are.

Often I hear people trying to break down what teachers get paid an hour, based on all of the “extras” they do (marking, coaching, supervision, etc.), but you can never distinguish a monetary value on the impact that those teachers that go above and beyond make on their students.  It is invaluable.

I have always said that if you only teach the curriculum to a child, you will have failed them.  There is so much more to teaching than “stuff”. The best teachers know this and go above and beyond each day, not because it is their job, but because they know that these little things can make a big difference today and tomorrow.

3 Things We Should Stop Doing in Professional Development

Spending the last week in Oslo, Norway, with the visionary Ann Michaelsen and other school leaders here, I have really thought about the way that we deliver professional development, and to be honest, some of the practices that either don’t make sense anymore, or we have to rethink.  Although this is focused mainly on what we do as adults in our time together, many of these lessons have applications to the classroom.

1.  Creating a detailed agenda – As much as I understand that people want to have an idea of where a day is going, too often we focus too much on when we are having lunch, as opposed to getting to know participants and understanding where they are at in their learning.  If we are truly to honour the learners in front of us, how can I know where they are going to be at 1pm if I haven’t even met them yet?  Listing objectives for the day is one thing, but saying when they will be achieved throughout the day is another.  If we are going to differentiate our workshops, let’s quit focusing on a time, and focus more on a person.

2.  Scheduling back-to-back-to-back-to-back learning – How many times have you been really interested in two sessions at a conference and found yourself running across a large convention hall to make it from one session to another?  With so many people connecting through social media now, the hallway is becoming as valuable a learning space as any large room; some would say more so.  The opportunity to connect and talk face-to-face is invaluable, and I believe that this has to be embedded into our days.  I was shocked a few years ago when I delivered a workshop to a group of Australians and they wanted a full 30 minutes for a break, as we were used to usually having a quick coffee and jumping right back into the learning.  They had it right, and if anything, that time could be a little longer.  A conversation with a colleague about the information presented helps to bring any knowledge shared into context within an organization.  Let’s make sure we build time in for that.

3. Thinking that “collaboration” with others is the only way we learn – It is great when we are in a room with so many colleagues that bring a lot of learning to the table.  Often the drill seems to go, someone shares information, talk with others, rinse, and repeat.  Why do we not create a time for people to sit and reflect.  Not necessarily create something, but actually write a reflection.  I have been doing this in workshops for awhile, and to be honest, a lot of educators seem to feel uncomfortable with that process, yet feel fine writing notes of everything a presenter says.  How much do we learn when we “copy and paste” our learning like that.  My belief is that until we get a chance to process and make connections, we don’t really learn that much. In one ear and out the other.  If we start building reflection time into our professional development, don’t you think that we would start doing this in our classrooms.  We have to move away from the “mass dump” process in our learning.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey

We constantly talk about changing practices in the classroom, but until we rethink and redo the way that we learn, nothing will change in the classrooms.

What would you do different?

P.S. If you want to talk to someone who is, in my estimation, an expert on the topic of professional learning, connect with Cale Birk.  He knows this area inside-out.

The Fear Behind Opening Pandora’s Box

As I work with schools and talk about the power of connecting and learning with educators around the world, I give a warning to leadership that they are about to open “Pandora’s Box”. Although I do not mean that it will unleash all the “evils of the world”, I do believe that it does open up teachers to practices, teaching, learning, and leadership from around the world.  Once educators (and more and more students everyday) see what is happening in other schools, the expectation gets higher for their own organization.

To many leaders, this is exciting.  To others, it is terrifying.  When you know that your school and your practices can be openly compared to the world, it can be daunting, but many will see it as an opportunity to do something great.  Those leaders that see it this way, are the ones that usually have little to worry about.  They don’t want their teachers to be better solely because of them; they just want their teachers to be better.

What I have seen with many people that have started to connect is a struggle with what they see, and what they have.  Oftentimes, what they see is not as great as they may perceive, as schools rarely, if ever, post the things that they struggle with (many times because of professional and confidentiality reasons), and there is a “grass is always greener” mindset.  That being said, when educators see others have an openness in learning and promote innovative teaching and learning, many educators are wondering why they are often stifled in their own career.  Sometimes it is perception, but sometimes it is reality.

Many people that are already striving to be better are sponges and crave mentorship, but this is something that you should always be able to get within.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case  (Kristen Swanson writes a nice piece on finding someone to push you to be better), and people start to tap into “virtual mentors”, whether the “mentor” knows it or not.

Should schools be afraid of this?  Probably as much as a hotel should be scared of Trip Advisor. Everyone can say they are great but when you are held to the standard of others, it is not as easy to get away with if it is not true.  I see the accountability to one another, which creates an inherent need to be better for students, as a positive. I continue to struggle why others wouldn’t see it the same way.

The Pain of Silence

I saw this tweet from Chris Wejr yesterday:

As I read the article, I thought about my own experiences being in situations that I felt uncomfortable.  I don’t use the term “bully” often, but I do remember situations that were tough to deal with as a teacher.  I wish I could say that I have never done anything wrong, but I have tried my best to treat others with respect and kindness, so I just want to bring awareness of things that could be tough on teachers.

You see, in my first year as a teacher, I moved to a new place away from my home, and struggled with the isolation.  Luckily, I came to a warm and welcoming place and was treated amazing. People knew that I was on my own, so they went out of their way to make home cooked meals, bring me fresh bread, and introduce me to a ton of people.  To be honest, I was treated pretty amazing.

One night though, I went out with some of the people on staff, and they started poking fun at me.  Not in a mean-spirited way, but in jest.  I was okay with it.  As I walked out of the door, continuously being poked, I made a comment back that was taken a lot more serious then I had meant it.  I won’t go into details, but I had unknowingly offended people and it was due to something that I did not know about the people I was spending time with. I walked home that night thinking nothing of my comment.

After weeks and months of being treated amazing, I came to the school on Monday and when I walked into the staff room it was like a ghost town.  Seemingly no one wanted to be within a foot of me, and even though only a few staff members were there, word had spread on how I screwed up, and it was held against to me.  Not everyone was mad at me (although it did feel that way) because they knew the comment was made in jest and a way to be accepted, but a strong contingent of staff would not even acknowledge my existence.

So as a first year teacher, what did I do?  I spent a ton of time in my classroom always seemingly having to work on things, and spent most of my breaks playing basketball with kids because I felt I had no option.  The silent treatment was extremely hurtful and I would spend a ton of my time at home extremely upset, wondering if I had made the right choice to move to this new town.  After about a year of this, it finally seemed to simmer down but I had already decided that it was not the place that I wanted to be.  Through it, several teachers ensured that they took me in, and one in particular made me feel like I was a part of her family.  I am still friends with her today.

Fast forward to a few years later, I had an issue with a coaching schedule and I complained about the other teacher in the process.  He had found out, came up to me, and told me, “If you have a problem with me, you come talk to me.  Do not say things behind my back.”  Although he was upset at that moment, he said his peace, and it was never brought up again.  That was it.  I am still close friends with him today, and I learned a lot from that situation.

You see, sometimes the worst thing to say to someone is nothing at all.  I had no idea that I had screwed up until a lot later because no one would talk to me and I had no clue.  Silence, when made explicit, can be a killer.  Words are not the only things that can hurt someone, and though I learned a lot from that situation years ago, that silence in my memory is still deafening.