Tag Archives: Educational Leadership

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.

Relationships plus technology equals…?

Here comes a ramble with no direction…just writing as a way to figure things out.  I would love your thoughts.

I saw a conversation online that I have either heard or been a part of several times.  The question that started the conversation was (and it is a relevant one), “Can you be a great teacher in our world today and not use technology?”

The reality of this question is that there is no simple “yes” or “no”.  There are teachers that are not great with technology that are amazing teachers, and there are teachers that are great with technology who are not the best teachers.  One of the important elements in this question that is missing is, “what is the purpose of school?”  If it is to prepare kids for the future, do we miss a lot when we are not even using the tools of the present?

Or on the other hand, if you are spending inordinate amounts of time with your students using Twitter, when we know eventually this will go to the “MySpace graveyard”, are we helping kids with their future by focusing so much time on tools that may not be used in the future?  Is this “just in case learning” (in case we need this in the future” or is it “just in time learning” (important to what we do today)?

After relationships, technology would not be my first trait, but more likely that a person is always willing to learn, and do something with that learning.  That is what I would call the “sponge factor”; willing to absorb new learning and then share it out with others.

What if a teacher that is not strong with technology sparks a child to constantly want to learn more that the child goes on and explores on their own?  To me, a teacher that teaches a student to learn is more important than one that focuses on content only.  A teacher should also be measured on what their student does after their time with them, not only on their time in a classroom.

There are so many nuances and important questions in this conversation but I think it is one that we need to ask our staff. This goes deeper than just using technology, but more to what we want to achieve now and in the future.

That being said, I had a great conversation with a teacher the other day and we talked about hiring new teachers and I told her that I am looking for ones that use technology and incorporate into meaningful ways into learning.  Hiring practices should change along with our focus in our schools and we can not ask the same interview questions we did ten years ago. (Take a look at some of the questions people would ask now compared to ten years ago that they shared on this tweet).  Her argument (which is a valid one) was that years ago, she did not have the same skills that she does today and what would I have lost out on if I had not hired her and worked on developing her as a teacher.  (From everything I have seen of her work, she is an amazing teacher.)  What I told her was that if I had to choose between someone who is great with relationships and terrible with technology, over someone who is terrible with relationships but great with technology, I would take the former over the latter every time.  But we are seeing now is we don’t have to pick one or the other, because so many educators have both.

There is much more to teaching than being good with technology and being good with relationships.  So much more.  But in a world where you can learn so much just by having the ability to not only comprehend how to use technology, but understand how to actually leverage it, do we lose out on teaching kids about the opportunities for learning beyond the walls of our schools which is so important in both the  present and future?  Teaching kids to learn, be flexible while also resilient, is so important in our world where technology surrounds us.   In a world that is increasingly more complicated, we need to help our students be able to navigate what is coming their way and embrace change and see it as an opportunity.  Teachers need to model this.

Help me unmuddy this in my head.  Thoughts?

 

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.

 

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.

 

Leadership Framework Series: Setting Directions #ONTEdLeaders

 

Spending a lot of time in Ontario, I have been going through the Ontario Leadership Framework 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.  

Most “frameworks” have some pretty generic standards could be met as a principal 30 years ago when things were different in terms of what we knew about learning and the access that we had to one another.  This document though, has statements that really stick out to me because it has some points that ensure a high quality leader in our world today.  You can not simply do the same thing that was done in 1985 and expect to be effective as a leader today.  

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
  4. Leading the Instructional Program
  5. Securing Accountability

Today I will be focusing on “Setting Directions”.

Setting Directions

Here is the summary of the standard:

“The principal builds a shared vision, fosters the acceptance of group goals and sets and communicates high performance expectations.”

Building and communicating a vision is crucial to leadership and important in the success of a school.  Communication is not simply through words, but also through actions taken in your work.  For example, if you want to create a culture that “takes risks”, as a leader, you need to model taking risks.  It is also important that any vision that is developed together with a staff has high expectations (as stated in the document), but it is important that those goals are broken down into smaller goals that are achievable to build confidence and competence towards getting toward a larger vision.  People do not start by jumping from the bottom of the mountain to the top; they have to get to different summits along the way that they are able to see as reachable and attainable.  Once you get to one summit, you become more confident in your ability to get to the next.

What I think is really important that in leadership today, that a vision is truly created together.  There are many leaders that develop a vision with their staff, but really know what they want to happen the minute they walk into the building.  If you go through the process of taking valuable time for people to help build a “collaborative vision”, it is important that the process is actually collaborative.  If there are things that you would like to achieve in the school and they are “non-negotiables” in your mind, be transparent about this.  All people may not like “top-down” initiatives, but personally, I hate “top down” initiatives where we pretend my input actually mattered in creating the direction.  People see right through that process.  Yet if you have initiatives that you see as vital, it is still important that you are open to suggestions and modifying plans based on feedback of the people you serve.  This goes to the idea that the “smartest person in the room, is the room”, and if you aren’t open to feedback as a leader, you are not a leader, you are a boss.

Creativity and Innovation

It is great to see a document where “creativity and innovation” are considered an important part of what we do as leaders.  It is outlined in this statement:

“ensures creativity, innovation and the use of appropriate technologies to achieve excellence”

My concern with this statement is that it is easy to read that “creativity and innovation” are synonymous with the word “technology”.  It isn’t, although technology can be a huge and important part in the process.  For example, it is important to realize that the iPhone isn’t the innovation, but the thinking that created it in the first place.  This innovation and creation of ideas can come in many areas such as health literacy, assessment, and technology.  Again, it is the thinking behind it that is important.

How technology does support these areas, is the openness to ideas and learning from others, that is accelerated through the use of technology.  Being able to connect with others sparks ideas that may not have come to a person from scratch.  Networks are crucial to innovation, and they can either spark the invention of a new idea, or the iteration of another.  How are you using technology to foster these connections amongst your staff, and helping them building relationships both in and out of your school community?  That, in my opinion, is where technology really fosters the innovation process.

Where does your vision come from?

One of my favourite parts of the first strand is having an understanding of what is happening in the world, and building a “vision” based on that understanding.  This outlined in the following knowledge descriptor:

The principal has knowledge and understanding of local, national and global trends.”

There is a word that is left out of this statement, and I appreciate that it is.  Often in a sentence like this, the word “education” would appear somewhere, which I think is limiting.  Educators need to look not only within education to develop and create a high quality programming, but look outside as well.  For example, if you look outside of education, you can see many organizations moving away from a “factory model” or work, and now creating more flexible learning environments.  This is not all organizations, but many of them, and we need to pay attention.  Again, to get this access, we need to be connected.

Can we have leaders in our schools that have no idea what a “Ted Talk” is?  Or know the big “researchers” in education but know nothing about any educators outside their own school?  What do we lose as a school when we have leaders that have no idea what is going on outside of them?  It is important that we start to understand the shifts not only in schools, but in the world, and from that learning, we bridge connections that are relevant to our community.  Schools can not be in a perpetual state of ‘catch up”, but with a visionary leader, they should be ahead of the curve.

Leader as change agent

In the world, the only constant is change. That’s it.  With that being said, visionary leaders understand that part of their job is to help people embrace change as outlined in the leadership framework:

“…leading change, creativity and innovation.”

The thing that we have to alway realize that when we are leading change, is that sharing “data” is not enough.  People have to experience something and create an emotional connection if you are truly going to embrace sustainable change.  Saying, “you need to change because of these results” is not enough and often takes away the autonomy of teachers on the ground.  Numbers tell a part of the story, but only a small part.  To change the story, it is essential that people become part of the story.  It is not enough to minimize kids as numbers and think that the people focused endeavour of education can simply related to numerical data.  To embrace change we need to create something more.  Innovation and education is and always will be a human endeavour.

Concluding Thoughts

People do not follow a leader that has no vision of where they are going.  “Setting direction” is imperative to our journey but there is no singular line that will get you to a point.  We have to be understanding that different people take different pathways to get to that vision, and we have to be comfortable with that.  The other key takeaway from this framework is the focus on helping move people from their point “A” to their point “B”.  We need to differentiate learning for adults as we do for our students, and when we value the people that we serve, they will move a lot faster, than if they do not feel valued at all.  Any organizational vision can only happen when people can come together and make that vision a reality.  Otherwise, it is only a flashy “vision statement” that is only words with no actions.

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.

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.

Do we let “school” get in the way of learning?

I had some great conversations today in Queensland, Australia about some of the ways we need to change our mindsets about teaching and learning.  A big one that I kept reiterating was how we hold our students to a different standard than we often hold ourselves.  When I brought up that some kids are simply bored with what they are doing in class, it was brought up that some of them should just have to stick with it and that this was teaching them “manners”.  Instead of arguing I asked this question to participants; “how many have you checked your email during the time I was presenting?”  About half the hands had raised.  I don’t think that it was because they were terribly bored with what they had heard, but at times they need to check out and take a break.  I do this with email. I do this with YouTube. But I used to do this with drawing.  I  also remember constantly being told to “stop daydreaming and pay attention”, when there is actually a belief that this is not a good thing to do to people.

As adults we believe that some things are urgent.  Principals sometimes think that they have to be connected to their schools at all times in case of an emergency, but in reality, if you are a great principal, the school will be in a position to survive a day or two without you.  Yes adults have developed a higher level of maturity than our kids, but the argument of “urgency” is often overused.  “Urgency” is often personal and a matter of what YOU deem important.  Things happening at work could be considered urgent by an adult, but as a kid, I remember getting a note from a girl I had a huge crush on in high school.  That seemed pretty urgent to me and you would have been pretty hard pressed to have convinced me otherwise.

The reality is that there is no clear cut answer on anything.  I am not saying, “if adults can do it, so can kids”, but I do think we need to think about what we ask of kids and what we model to them.  Have you ever been in a session where you felt the person acted as if they were better than you? Acting as if you are superior to someone else and that affords you certain privileges that others shouldn’t have bodes just as poorly with kids as it does adults.  I think that these conversations are crucial to have for promoting a more “balanced” look at how we use and promote the use of technology in our schools.

One of the conversations that I found fascinating was surrounding the idea of mobile devices as “distractions” from learning.  The one comment  (paraphrased) I heard today was that it is disheartening when we are trying to go really deep into something and the device takes away from some really powerful learning that can be happening with the student.  I had to think about it and I wondered aloud that sometimes when we ask a student to put away their device, it is something we do because we believe it will promote learning, but sometimes it is the exact opposite.  Sometimes a student might be so deep into something that they are interested in learning about on their device.  We have sometimes stopped them from learning about something they are passionate about, and replaced with something we might be passionate about, or even worse, some content we “just have to get through”.

Again, this is not a black and white scenario, but it contains a lot of grey.  There are times when we do have to get through something, but there are sometimes that we have actually stopped the important process of learning about something that really matters.  Scott McLeod recently shared a post titled, “Reader interest trumps passage readability?”, which he quotes Alfie Kohn stating,

“how interested the students were in the passage was thirty times more important than how ‘readable’ the passage was.”

A student who is interested in what they are learning, is honestly going to become a better learner than someone who doesn’t care about the content that we are trying to get through.  This stuff matters.

Sometimes what we see as a “start” to learning,  is actually an abrupt “stop”.  I am not here to give you solutions on this because every teacher that builds great relationships with students will be able to understand when we need to refocus their students, and sometimes let them continue on with something else.  But when we have a vast ocean of information at our fingertips, some people are going to want to explore

Are there kids who use their devices to play Angry Birds in class? Yup.  That is actually my “get away” when my brain is full as an adult. I need to zone out and slingshot some birds into pigs.

But there are also kids that are exploring things that are really important to them, that they’re passionate about, and sometimes we let “school” get in the way of learning. 

This can lead to the growth of a “hatred for school”, while distinguishing a “love of learning”.  That’s kind of the opposite of what we are trying to do, isn’t it?

What if I give you a good answer?

 

You probably have either seen it, been a part of it, or done it.

The time that someone asks the question with a negative connotation that basically is giving them the out of doing whatever it is that you are saying.

It will usually start off with something like, “I really like all of the stuff that you said there…but”

The “but” in many cases is the exact reason that they are going to cite why they are not going to try it later.

“But what about cyberbullying? But what about creepy people? But what about our kids not exercising enough? But what about time? But what about balance? But what about the tests that we have to teach?”

These are all logical questions for a lot of the stuff that I talk about, and like many people that I work with, I also see these as concerns.  In my mind they are not reasons to NOT do things, but they are reasons that we need to be proactive.  Ignoring a problem will not make it go away.

So when I am about to give my answer to the “ya but” questions that I will inevitably hear, I might have a question back before my answer.

“What if I have a good answer?  What will you do then? WIll you consider changing the way you do things or will you stay on the same path?”

I don’t think you should ask this in a condescending way, but in a way to open up and have someone think about what they are going to do if they are provided new information.

The idea of a “fixed” and “growth” mindset is fantastic, but I believe that you can actually have both.  Many people that you see that are really “open to change”, are the same people that will not go out and try new restaurants, new experiences, or are set in their ways in other parts of their life.  On the notion of schooling, I have a “growth mindset”; on the idea of bungee jumping, I would say that I am pretty set in my ways.  You do not have one or the other, but probably a combination of both.

But maybe sometimes, we should help people identify where they are at when they ask a question.  Do they really want to hear the answer or is their question just a way of digging their feet in without them even knowing it?

Can we promote a “growth mindset” in subtle ways in the people that we work with?  I hope so.