The talk of change in education is actually the one constant. There is no doubt that education could and should get better, yet the reality is that when we state this about the system we work in, we can either be a part of the problem or solution. Starting with what we do ourselves is the first step in improving schools.
Yet if we are to help move others, it is tough when work feels like “work”. If your goal is to simply get a paycheque, and not changing will still get you to that goal and you are in no threat of losing your job, why change? Many initiatives are thrown at us in education, yet there is no deeper reasoning “why” this is happening and people believe that simply waiting things out will mean that if you don’t change, you will eventually become relevant again.
In my last few years, I have really tried to help people bring an emotional connection to the work that they are doing so that it is moving from a job to “their passion”. I do my best to help people feel invigorated in their work as leaders have created that same feeling for myself. I am nowhere near successful as I would like to be, but everyday I continue to grow and learn. I work quite a bit but it rarely feels like a job; I love what I do. The work that I do is something that I want to do, not something I feel like I have to do, or even worse, feel like that it is something that is being done to me.
Focusing on helping people move forward as an administrator, I have done a lot to study “change” and what helps to move people. Here are some of the things that I have tried to focus on in my work.
1. Strengths Based Leadership - It is really to find a person’s deficiencies, but it is imperative that you find their strengths and build upon them. For example, let’s say I wanted to encourage blogging with staff. It would be very easy to say something similar to:
“We need to start using technology in similar ways to what the rest of the world is doing. It is important for our students that we start blogging.”
Or…I could say something like this:
“I was watching you with your students today and was so impressed in the work that you did in the lesson and how engaged the students were. I wish other people in our school , along with the rest of the world, could see the work that you are doing because it would really help improve their own practice. Would you be open to sitting down with me and writing a blog post to share what you did today? I think so many people would benefit from what you have to offer.”
Interestingly enough, the end result is the same, but the focus on getting there is much different. Showing people they are valued will go a lot further than simply pointing out their weaknesses.
2. Helping to define the “why” - I would honestly say that the Simon Sinek’s talk on how great leaders inspire action has been one of the most influential videos that I have ever watched and I refer to it often. When any initiatives are implemented in schools, the first question I had as a teacher is “why do we have to do this?”. If you are unable to articulate why you are doing what you are doing, is it worth doing?
If you want people to be inspired to move forward, creating a connection on why this will be better for students is imperative.
“…our behavior is affected by our assumptions or our perceived truths. We make decisions based on what we think we know.” Simon Sinek
3. Autonomy and Purpose - Another hugely influential Ted Talk on my career was Dan Pink’s talk on motivation. He talks a great deal in his books on the notion of autonomy in our work place:
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”
Often though his focus on “purpose” is often ignored. Purpose is hugely important in moving people forward. In my own work, I want to know that I am doing something bigger than myself and I am contributing to a greater good. As leader, it is imperative that we help people understand their roles in making our vision come alive, not by them fitting into a space, but that their skills are what will take our organization to the next level. I have talked before regarding the notion of “school teacher” versus “classroom teacher”, and I believe when we act as if these are all of our kids, schools will be a much better place, and educators will focus a lot more on improving what they do.
“One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Change for the sake of change is not a good idea, nor will it be sustainable. We have to be able to help people build upon what they already do great, understand the “why” of change, and help them become a part of something bigger. We also have to be comfortable with them moving from their point A to their point B, not expecting everyone to be at the same point at the same time. Continuous learning and growth is what we should expect and embody.
There are a lot of “qualities” of effective leadership that are discussed, yet important elements are left out that leave these qualities lacking. When I think of what I want to see in leaders, and what I do my best to aspire towards, I try to think of certain qualities and the corresponding actions that make them whole. Here are a few below.
1. Words without action – This one is so plainly evident, yet it has to be stated. Leadership is not simply being a “thought leader”, but someone who gets things done. This quote sticks out to me:
“Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.” Nolan Bushnell
Have you followed through on your promises?
2. Being “heard” without follow-up – I will have to admit, I look for more than just being “heard” by someone when I have a concern or an issue. I want it to be a conversation. Being “heard” and “agreeing” are two different things, yet often times common ground can be found. It is essential to listen to all of those that we serve, but how do we follow up? Sometimes after these tough conversations, I wait, go home, think about it, and either respond in detail through an email or have a follow-up meeting to share what I heard, and talk about next steps. It is way easier to take a side in the heat of the moment, but if you are an effective leader, you will work to find the “best” idea, not “your” idea. Take time to share that thought process to ensure that you show others no they are an important part of your team.
3. Vision with no clarity – Every school or district has some mission statement, and after awhile, they seem pretty generic. If you want to see progress, start breaking these statements down and talk about what it looks like in the classroom. If you want to find out if a school leader has a clear vision, ask them what learning should look like in the classroom. If they can’t give you some ideas in the classroom, we have a problem. A moving target is pretty hard to hit, but not as tough as a target that doesn’t even exist.
4. Promoting “risk-taking”without taking risks – “Risk taking” is something that is often talked about and encouraged at the leadership level, but does it happen often? If an educator does not see their administrator taking risks in the work that they do, that teacher is not going to feel very comfortable doing it in their job, which will often relay down to the students being risk averse.
Here is an example.
I have visited many schools and seen a lot of staff meetings that look pretty similar. Administrator at the front, educators sitting down (either by themselves in groups or individually), information being dispersed, and group talk that is often at task. There is often a lot of complaining about the process, yet things don’t seem to change. What if the administrator decided to change things up, or tweak, or turn things upside down, and embody trying to do something different that is better? If it doesn’t work, we try again. Honestly, if staff meetings don’t change, you can forget about classroom learning changing. People are not likely to change when you tell them something; they are likely to change when they experience something.
When I think about the work of effective leaders, it shouldn’t be complex, but a lot of work. Great leadership takes time to build relationships through trust and actions. Being charismatic and effective communicator are not the qualities that many look for; they want credibility. Follow-through is essential and can take leadership to the level that we need to reach.
Warning…This post gets a little mushy…mushier than usual.
Trying to get back into the swing of things after my dad passed away, I have been thinking about what to write. Blogging has been something that has been important to my growth as not only an educator, but honestly, as a person. It has made me more reflective and thoughtful in many aspects of my life, and the time it has taken to just sit down and write has helped me catch my breath when I needed to most. Writing about dad was one of those times that I needed to use my blog for therapeutic means. I know it made me really think and appreciate his life, even in his passing.
Coming back after this type of event makes it hard to focus on “education” related topics but it really helped me to continue to think about learning. When I think of the word “learning”, I don’t think of simply the consumption and creation of knowledge, but I also think of the development of ourselves as people.
I started to reflect on the last week, which had many downs, but some very bright ups. I really learned a lot about people and how they react to tragedy, seeing both the good and bad. What I was most proud of in the last week was the strength of my family to come together and make sure everything was dealt with, while also taking care of one another. With my dad looking down on us right now, I know that he would be proud of how he strengthened our love and commitment to one another as a family. I try to focus on that good, while I push out some of the bad.
So as I continued to think about what I could possibly write today, one of the ideas that kept coming to me over and over again, was how my life is a lot better because of social media. Many people still do not see the value of this space, but looking back at the last week, I know that the people I have connected with through Twitter have helped to not only make me become a better educator, but more importantly a better person. I saw “strangers” connect and care for me from both near and far through social networks, many of them that I have never met in real life, or maybe once or twice. People from across the world that would check in on me and continuously ask, “what do you need me to do?” Thinking that this was a crazy question from people so far away, it was nice to know that people were willing to help however they could, wherever they were.
Years ago as a new and (what I thought at the time) young administrator, I felt extremely isolated in my position. Many people that were in a similar position had different interests and families while I was still single, on my own, and away from family. It was hard to connect with my peers in a personal sense although I always loved connecting with them on a professional one.
I honestly felt quite lonely at the time and felt that all I did was work and go home. Just a continuous cycle. I started learning with a lot of people that were a lot smarter than me, but I started to find my “tribe” and connected with many people and built friendships with many that at a time when friendships were lacking in my life.
Was that what I set out to do? Absolutely not.
In fact, if you would have told me I would have made friends with strangers through Twitter, I would have thought you were crazy. But now, some of my best friends in the world are literally from around the world. Many people use Twitter and don’t necessarily “get it”, but I think that it is easy to not see the value if you are not in the mindset to put yourself out there and connect with people. If I was just “reading” other people’s stuff, I don’t think I would keep coming back. The connection to the “tribe” has really been the difference in my personal and professional life.
This is not a “you should join Twitter” post. I don’t want people to think that at all. What this is (for me), is the reminder that many people from around the world have been there for me when I have struggled at different points in my life and it has made all of the difference in the (my) world. In the context of schools, wouldn’t all kids learn better if they always knew they were cared for? There is a correlation to my own growth and the feeling I get from so many caring people.
What this post is meant to be is a “thank you” to so many “strangers” who reached out, wrote, called, DM’d me, texted me, and cared for me and my family when we needed it most. Just like a learner needs food in their stomach to be able to concentrate, love and caring is needed for them to excel.
Thank you to so many for giving me just that.
I asked a group of teachers, “When you need information, what do you do?”
Think about the question yourself…what do you do? Do you ask colleagues? Look at encyclopedia? Throw in your “Encyclopedia Britannica” CD Rom into your computer?
What they ALL said (all of them) was that they “google it”.
The ability to google something is important, but assessing that information is imperative. Many have advocated that students should have the ability to have a device during exams. Wouldn’t that create a better test? Finding the information is important, but what you do with the information is where the rubber really hits the road. If I can google the answer to the test, is the assessment any good?
If you think about it, how many adults go to a textbook to find information? Honestly, why do we even teach with textbooks anymore? Because they are engaging and mirror what we see in the real world or because they are the easiest way to deliver a packaged curriculum? Nowhere outside of schools is “science” that packaged.
Now, when I think about how I look for information, “googling” something is not on the top of my list. Often I ask the question on Twitter and get fewer results which are always better, because they are researched and used by teachers that I have connected with. Can anyone do that at this moment? Probably not, but I have taken the time to develop a network of educators that has actually saved me time in the long run. The time spent following and learning from other educators has been invaluable to my work and is actually a “21st Century Literacy“:
Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought.
I also have learned where to get information on specific things such as hotels. Searching google might lead me to the hotel’s website and let me know what the people who own the place think of it but Trip Advisor tells me what people who have stayed at the establishment think of the place. How many hotel websites say that their establishment is just “ok”. Sites like Trip Advisor keep many organizations “honest” and actually forces them to produce a better product. Having a “name” as a hotel is no longer enough; you have to back it with quality. If you aren’t using sites like this already, what information are you losing out on?
I have thought a lot about this topic when I saw the following quote:
“When we teach a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become obsolete.” Seth Godin
The technology will always change, but the skill to find information, make sense of it, and then do something meaningful with what we have learned, is essential.
Joe Bower is a good friend of mine and someone that I really look up to in the field of education. Although we don’t always agree with each other, I know that we both respect each other’s point of views. I am an avid reader of his blog (you should be too) and was particularly interested in his latest post titled, “Who should control teachers’ professional learning?”
Although there is somewhat of a political nature that is involved in his post, two statements that Joe made really stick out to me:
- I summarize my worse learning experiences as top-down, externally mandated, out-of-context, irrelevant to me and little to no purpose events that I am expected to play a passive role. I own my learning. Who owns yours?
- Who owns a teacher’s professional development? And under what circumstances would the answer to the above question ever be someone other than the teacher? To avoid cultures of compliance, teachers need autonomy.
So do I disagree with Joe on what he has said and questioned here? Yes AND no.
As a teacher, I would agree with the statement made about some of his worst learning experiences being top down. As an administrator, I also see the need of having a vision and purpose that a team works together. My job is to work with my staff to develop some school objectives, not simply dictate them to staff. I also believe that teachers should be able to further their own learning in many different areas.
Although we are often isolated in our classrooms as educators, teachers should not work in isolation. They should be a part of a team that works together to build the best environments for students, and looks at kids as part of a school, not simply part of a classroom. Many people refer to Dan Pink’s work in “Drive” regarding motivation, on the notion of autonomy, yet they often leave out the element he writes about purpose.
Sorry for using a sports analogy, but Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA yet won no championships until Phil Jackson took over the team (6 championships with the Bulls, and 5 with the Lakers; the guy is pretty good). As the coach, he had the team work towards a common goal, while each defining their role in serving the larger purpose. Autonomy and purpose. That is how individuals work together to serve a higher purpose. Does his quote below have any relation to the work that we do in schools?
“Basketball is a sport that involves the subtle interweaving of players at full speed to the point where they are thinking and moving as one.” Phil Jackson
We talk about change a lot, and it starts with one person, yet there needs to be a team working together to make it sustainable. Often a great teacher in a weak school either becomes a weak teacher or leaves. The opposite is often true. What are we aiming for? A few great individual teachers in schools, or great schools with a culture of great teaching?
Now I am not saying that teachers do not need autonomy over their learning; they absolutely do (kids too right?). I am just saying that it is not an “either/or” proposition. We tend to watch the pendulum swing from one side to the other, often missing the ideal middle with a lot of our initiatives.
Group work serves some, where others excel working in isolation.
Lecture isn’t bad; lecture all of the time is bad. Reflection time is essential.
Skills do not develop if you do not have the knowledge to build upon.
I won’t take away your pencil, if you don’t take away my computer. Both work for the person that has chosen to use them.
I guess my point is that shifting from extremes on either end is rarely beneficial. I believe, as Sir Ken Robinson says, that education needs transformation more than reformation, but does that mean we throw out everything that we have done? If education is to be truly personalized, we need to find out what works for different people while also working together to find what our current strengths are and build upon them as well.
If we always stand on opposite sides, will we ever truly move forward?
I have had some great conversations with some really smart educators over the past few days, and one in particular has stood out.
Frustrated by the slow pace of change in her building, an administrator asked me for some advice on how she can help move her staff forward on any issue and how they could adopt a more positive culture in the building. I asked her to explain her vision to me, and she had some really great ideas for what her school could look like, and I followed it up by asking her if she has shared this vision with her staff. I then asked her what were the questions that she asked of them about this topic, and honestly, she hadn’t really asked much.
The problem with that is as administrators, no matter how smart we are, we shouldn’t have or give all of the answers. If you think about this, as a teacher, you are most likely the smartest person in a room full of students, but we need kids to figure out the answers, not listen to them. What do we as administrators embody to our staff that we want modeled in their classroom?
For example, I brought up the conversation about teachers standing outside of their classroom to welcome their students. There are so many benefits of doing this to improve the school culture and climate, yet if we simply say this as administrators to our staff, it may not be embraced by our staff. Instead, why not ask a question similar to the following:
“If we stood outside of the classrooms in the morning and greeted our students, what do you think that would do for the culture of our school?”
Instead of always being on the defensive and trying to justify answers, why not listen to staff and have them say why or why this wouldn’t work? Too many administrators spend a lot of time defending their great ideas, but we need others to take ownership for these ideas and share their thoughts, both positive and negative.
After this conversation, there is an important follow up question:
If we feel this would improve the culture of our school, what do you need from me to ensure that you are successful?
I hear the term “servant leadership” used by many, but modeled by few. When you want any initiative to work in your school, you must be able to share what you will do to ensure that your staff that YOU serve will
I have said this before, that great leadership should model the same things that great teachers do. If you are the leader or teacher with all of the answers, what happens when you leave? What have you built within your school or classroom? Even if your school moves forward because of the wisdom of one person, that is a culture of one, and that culture will die when you leave. We have to figure out better ways for our staff and students to own the culture and learning, and follow up by doing what we can to empower them to be successful.
Our work is about making others better, not displaying our own intelligence .
“We have to stop thinking of an education as something that is delivered to us and instead see it as something we create for ourselves.” Stephen Downes
Traveling around and speaking at conferences, I have peeked my head into several sessions and try to figure out which ones have the highest attendance. One of the things that I have noticed is that if a session gives you something that you can use on Monday to do with the kids, they are most likely packed. I remember as a teacher going to conferences, I wanted the exact same thing.
I don’t have time to learn how to fish… just give me the fish!
Unfortunately, I am unable to give those sessions anymore. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I gave a session that focused on “teaching” as much as it did “learning”. Helping educators connect and learn in a way that will help them long term has been my goal, especially since one of the things that I have focused on in leadership has been building capacity. When I think of the term “leadership capacity”, I do not think of building the future principals of the world, but to help others become servant leaders. Helping them find ways to help others. For us to understand what our students go through, should we not try to understand how they learn?
One of the reasons that many people would much prefer going to the session that just gives them stuff “Monday ready” is due to the lack of time. Curriculum can become overwhelming and teachers do a lot more than simply teach their kids from 9-3:30. What I hope to see is that teachers, don’t look at what they have learned from one of my sessions and totally transform their work in one day; meaningful change takes time and your experience matters. If I can help teachers think about how they learn, and what makes them passionate about learning, over time, could that not change the way that their students learn? I am not going to give you “50 Apps for Your iPad” to use with students; those apps will become boring and then what are you left with? To transform our teaching, we will have to rethink how we and our students can learn in this world.
Doing sessions at convention and outright telling people that they will have to continue working on their learning after this session can be a daunting thing. If they do follow up and spend the time connecting with others and sharing their learning, the impact can become transformational, both personally and professionally. I have experienced this first hand as a learner when people took the time to guide me through Twitter and blogging and sat with me patiently, waiting for me to have my own lightbulb moment.
Every once in awhile though, I see tweets like this that know this focus on learning, can have a huge impact:
Thank you @gcouros for the intro to tweeting and blogging…the amount I have learned in the past few days=amazing!
— Shelley LaCroix (@Shelley_LaCroix) March 10, 2013
The quote that has always stuck out to me is this one from Will Richardson, and it will continue to drive the work that I do:
Meaningful change ain’t gonna happen for our kids if we’re not willing to invest in it for ourselves first. At the heart, it’s not about schools…it’s about us.
If we as educators continue to focus on our learning first, won’t we become better teachers?
It started with this tweet:
Alec where are you?
— George Couros (@gcouros) December 25, 2008
That was my first tweet ever, using a medium that I had heard about but never really understood. No Twitter handle, no hashtag, and actually thinking that my brother Alec would be the only “Alec” that I would possibly get an answer from.
Now that many (if not all) people are able to download and learn from their Twitter archive, I took the opportunity to look at some of my progression through Twitter, and to actually go back and revisit some of the things that I shared, and how I shared.
The first month that I looked at, was September 2010, the month that I lost my best friend Kobe. I saw people rallying around me, caring for me, and checking in. What was hardest to look back on was how I had the false hope that it might be just a routine visit to the vet that day:
@courosa he did not want to go in so that is a good sign. Just have to wait for the vet now.
— George Couros (@gcouros) September 8, 2010
With family so far away, I reached out to strangers a lot that month. 1,612 times to be exact. At a time when I wanted both to be close and far from people, Twitter and all of the people that I had connected to were seemingly comfort.
I also look at what I have learned, what never panned out (I got that invite to Google Wave, but I never understood how to use it), and some people I got to help (I actually made sure Jesse McLean changed his handle to something more user friendly).
A few things…
First of all, it is pretty amazing to have these little snapshots of my life saved in this archive. To be able to go through my tweets and look at how I was when I struggled, excelled, or was somewhere in the middle, is pretty remarkable. I actually found myself laughing and crying going through my own tweets, just in aww of how I have grown in the last few years.
Secondly, I am quickly reminded of how we all start somewhere. Over 52,000 tweets later, I am pretty comfortable with the medium and treat tweeting almost like I would texting. I don’t sit and contemplate what I am going to put out there anymore; tweeting has become second nature to me. But it isn’t for everyone and we have to recognize that if we really want people to see value in this medium, you have to get them to care about it in the first place, and then work with them to help them to understand how they can use this it.
Finally, I learned that I not only have a voice, but that I have a voice that can matter. I often talk about how we all live in a world where we all have a voice, but I do believe that we also live in a world where everyone’s voice can make a difference and Twitter is one of those places where our voice can be heard. Maybe by 10 people, and maybe by a 1000, but it can be heard. Through my tweets, I saw my confidence and learning grow, while also learning to connect with some amazing minds. That experience made my voice grow stronger, when I once believed that nothing I said in that space would ever really matter.
As educators, we have to learn and understand that our voice does matter, not only for ourselves, but so that we can properly relay that notion to our students. If we can teach them how their voice matters from our experiences, can you imagine how powerful their voices might be?
Recently reading the Seth Godin book titled, “Stop Stealing Dreams”, one of his stories really stuck out to me. He talked about the low number of people that can actually find Greece on the map and how this would be a growing concern for many. What he talked about was not necessarily a lack of knowledge, but a lack of something else:
“…the problem isn’t that we haven’t spent enough hours memorizing the map. The problem is we don’t want to.”
I think about my own work and I have actually really focused on moving away from teaching anything without focusing on why it is important first. I never just start showing people how to use Twitter, but actually show them why they should care to learn it in the first place. My whole focus has been on why we should do something before I even start to do it.
Do we do this enough schools? Does the curriculum that we have to get through give us enough time? Do we do this enough in our staff meetings? I have seen far too many meetings start with simply doing a learning activity without any discussion on why it is important in the first place.
Think about anything that you have learned in a deep manner; did you care about it? What made you care in the first place? Even thinking about my best teachers, not only did I know they cared for me, but they also made me care for the subject matter in a deeper sense that I wanted to learn about it, not that I felt I had to. Even the stuff that I memorized and aced as a kid (100% on my “Parts of a Microscope” test!), I probably could tell you nothing about now, unless I cared about them.
How do you get your students to care about what you are teaching, and maybe, more importantly, what if they never do? Will they ever really learn if they don’t ever really care? Not care about learning, but care about what we are teaching. The notion of having people care is not only about how we teach, but how we lead.