Tag Archives: innovative leadership

Change Agent vs. Change Advocate

Change Agent (1)

In 2013, I wrote an article about the “5 Characteristics of a Change Agent”, with the characteristics and descriptions below:

1.  Clear Vision – A “change agent” does not have to be the person in authority, but they do however have to have a clear vision and be able to communicate that clearly with others.  Where people can be frustrated is if they feel that someone is all over the place on what they see as important and tend to change their vision often.  This will scare away others as they are not sure when they are on a sinking ship and start to looking for ways out.  It is essential to note that a clear vision does not mean that there is one way to do things; in fact, it is essential to tap into the strengths of the people you work with and help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common purpose.

2. Patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight and most people know that.  To have sustainable change that is meaningful to people, it is something that they will have to embrace and see importance.  Most people need to experience something before they really understand that, and that is especially true in schools.  With that being said, many can get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they tend to push people further away from the vision, then closer.  The persistence comes in that you will take opportunities to help people get a step closer often when they are ready, not just giving up on them after the first try.  I have said continuously that schools have to move people from their point ‘A’ to their point ‘B’not have everyone move at the same pace. Every step forward is a step closer to a goal; change agents just help to make sure that people are moving ahead.

3. Asks tough questions – It would be easy for someone to come in and tell you how things should be, but again that is someone else’s solution.  When that solution is someone else’s, there is no accountability to see it through.  It is when people feel an emotional connection to something is when they will truly move ahead.  Asking questions focusing on, “What is best for kids?”, and helping people come to their own conclusions based on their experience is when you will see people have ownership in what they are doing.  Keep asking questions to help people think, don’t alleviate that by telling them what to do.

4.  Knowledgeable and leads by example – Stephen Covey talked about the notion that leaders have “character and credibility”; they are not just seen as good people but that they are also knowledgeable in what they are speaking about.  Too many times, educators feel like their administrators have “lost touch” with what is happening in the classroom, and many times they are right.  Someone who stays active in not necessarily teaching, but active in learning and working with learners and can show by example what learning can look like now will have much more credibility with others.  If you want to create “change”, you have to not only be able to articulate what that looks like, but show it to others. I have sat frustrated often listening to many talk about “how kids learn today” but upon closer look, the same speakers do not put themselves in the situation where they are actually immersing themselves in that type of learning.  How can you really know how “kids learn” or if something works if you have never experienced it?

5. Strong relationships built on trust – All of the above, means nothing if you do not have solid relationships with the people that you serve.  People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person that is pushing the change.  The change agents I have seen are extremely approachable and reliable.  You should never be afraid to approach that individual based on their “authority” and usually  they will go out of their way to connect with you.

What is most important about all of these characteristics, is the last point on relationships.  There is a difference between a “change agent” and a “change advocate”.  If you hold the first four qualities on this list only, you are someone advocating for change, but not necessarily making it happen.  All the vision and knowledge in the world means nothing if we are not able to connect with others; it is the equivalent of shouting into the wind.  Having the fifth quality focused on relationships, is what makes someone a “change agent”.  The only way to help people move forward is by building relationships and understanding where their journey begins, not focusing solely on where you want them to be.

Sometimes We Just Need To Ask

What’s your dream job? Have you ever been asked?

As a principal and vice principal, nearing the end of every year, when when our leadership team would look at staffing, we would send out an email to all staff and ask them, “As we are currently undergoing staffing, we were wondering if you could describe your dream position next year, what would it be?”  Obviously, there was only so much we could do if you said astronaut or reality tv personality, but in the context of the school, we wondered what opportunities could we create.

What was important in asking this question, was simply, asking the question.  We could not guarantee that we could create the job that you wanted, but if we encouraged people to share what they had dreamed of doing, maybe we could?  As an elementary principal, I remember one teacher saying that although they loved working with grade five students, they would really like to work with kindergarten or grade one students.  The crazy thing was we had a grade one teacher, that wanted to work with our older students.  A simple swap was made, and both did amazing at their jobs, and unbelievably grateful for the opportunity.

Another teacher shared how much he loved teaching one subject and wasn’t too passionate about the other.  They loved working with students but really wanted to be passionate about the subjects they taught.  A couple of adjustments and it was done!

I also remember our grade two teacher at the time saying, “My dream job is teaching grade two and I get to live it every single day, but I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you asking in the first place.”

Giving people the opportunities to try something new or pursue something they love is not something we should only value for our students, but also our staff.  Sometimes people are afraid to share what they want because they didn’t even know it was a possibility in the first place. The way we saw it, was that if we can move people into positions where they feel most passionate about what they are doing, they are more likely to be successful as individuals, elevating the organization as a whole.  What was surprising was how many times we could actually accommodate the requests.

I wouldn’t have known that in the first place, and that is why we asked.

Learning and Leadership

In the day of any conference, the conversations are fast and furious, and I can sometimes get overwhelmed by so much flying at me at once.  I do my best to spend time connecting with people, but sometimes the conversations that are had don’t stick with me at first, but resonate with me after I have had some time to decompress.

One of the things that has stuck with me from one event, was a person in an administrative position, approaching me and saying, “after I listened to you and thought about what you were saying, I realized, I am the barrier that is holding us back.”  I am not sure what her position was, but I was amazed by the honesty of her reflection.  She also shared that she did not want to be that person anymore, and was going to try and create different opportunities for those that she served.  It was a humbling conversation that has really been stuck in my brain.  I honestly can’t stop thinking about it because of the courage that she had in sharing that or even being able to say it out loud.

Something I have been saying lately in some conversations I have been having is the following:

“There are people in this room, no matter how compelling of evidence or ideas that I have shared, or the experiences that I have tried to create, will do nothing different tomorrow.  Are you that person?”

It is a comment meant to challenge and push people out of their comfort zone, while also imploring them to reflect on their learning.  I have learned that ideas and my own thinking changes over time, and by being open to challenge and growth in my learning, is how I model what I hope to see in others.  I am never expecting someone to do exactly what I have shared or even not challenge my thoughts, but I am hoping they take action and ownership on how they can move forward.

But with that being said, I am hoping that people not only think about what they have learned, but also how their learning impacts others.  Every single person involved in education is in some type of leadership position in the way that we serve the needs of others, whether it is students or adults, and our willingness or lack thereof to grow, impacts not only ourselves, but others.  This one administrator reminded me of that in her brave way she shared her self-realization.  The willingness to be able to reflect and to identify how your actions and growth are affecting others, is a powerful trait of a leader who wants to make a difference.

“In education, our learning not only impacts our own growth, but the growth of others that we serve.”

 

Understanding and Removing Barriers

Grant Wiggins, a visionary education reformer who has made a tremendous impact now and will continue to do so even after his recent passing, and was one of the developers of “Understanding by Design” (with Jay McTighe), shared a powerful “guest” blog post of a learning coach mirroring two students for a day each in her school (it was later acknowledged to be written by Alexis Wiggins).  Here was the initial plan for the process from Alexis:

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

The post was telling as it shared how much Alexis struggled through the process of “being a student”, and it led her to the following three key takeaways:

    1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
    2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
    3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Now the point of sharing this is not to challenge the ideas that she shared (as this is from the perspective of her school at the time), but to think about the process.  This is not the norm for many students in schools around the world, but as leaders, how do we know this?  Do we often make assumptions in what is happening in our school, or do we actually experience something different?  One of the toughest groups to teach in the world is other teachers, and to go from that viewpoint, some of the expectations we have on our students, is not something we could handle for an hour, let alone, a full day.  The one quote from the blog post that really resonated for me, was when the student was asked about her perspective in class:

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, and how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.

Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?  That part shook me.

The power of this post was not only in what was written by the author, but also the comments (there were 285 as of the time that I referenced this article and probably they will continue to receive more), that came from a variety of people, including students and educators.  The comments had a range of stories shared from personal experiences as a student, and struggles to accommodate something different as a teacher.  The reality of the learning environments that happen in our classrooms, are that they are not only created by the teacher, but the entire school.  If this is what school looks like for our students, what are we doing as leaders to help support to create something new?

The Impact of Our Decisions

One of my own thoughts as a central office administrator, was to be in our schools as much as often, to support our educators.  If you really love education, this can never happen enough, but I saw this as crucial to the work I was doing.  If my decisions had an impact on classrooms, then I better experience and see the impact of those decisions.

What I would often do is take my laptop and sit in a classroom in a school for anywhere between three to six hours, where I would get to the point that the teachers and students did not even notice I was there.  That way I could really see what their experiences looked like.  What I struggle with in our mobile world, is how reluctant we are to take our computers as leaders and do some of the administrative work in our classrooms?  I could answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom.

What needs to be clear in this process is that I was not there to evaluate the teachers.  In fact, it was more to evaluate the environment that was created by the school district.  What I had noticed is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do, to make things work.  Whether it was going through an arduous logon process with students, or constant issues with WiFi, they looked less like teachers, and more like magicians.  From an IT department perspective, Internet is often “fast” and the logon process is quick, but times that by 20-30 students in a classroom (if you are lucky), and you have many frustrated educators that go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to happen in our schools, we have to be willing to sit in the environments where it is going to happen, and be able to not only discuss teaching and learning, but also do everything in our power to remove barriers from those that we serve.  One of the things that I have noticed in education is that we do not need “managers”, but we need “leaders”.

The truth is we need both.

We need leaders to have a vision of where we can go in our schools, but the “management” part is about making sure we have what we need to get there.  Stephen Covey (paraphrased) said that we manage things, but we lead people.  The educators that we serve, need the “things” to work if we truly want to create a “culture of innovation”, and support in creating an environment that we would truly want to be in as a learner ourselves.

Resilience and Innovation in Education

“The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it.” Chinese Proverb

Oh if it were that easy!

The reality of the work of someone with the “innovator’s mindset” is that the work is going to be questioned because it is something new and can often make those around them uncomfortable. Comments like “let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater” are often disguises of a fear of moving forward. If you really think about change, many people are comfortable with a known average, than the possibility of an unknown great.  With that in mind, to be innovative, we will have to focus on moving forward even when there is risk of failure and being criticized involved.

Trying something new is always going to be up for a challenge, and I have watched so many struggle when that challenge becomes public.  It is not about ignoring the naysayer (sometimes you should really listen to them), but about having the conviction to push forward and do something that you believe will make a difference.  As I listened to the first episode of the podcast “Startup”, one of the things they talked about is the importance of passion and conviction to become successful.

If you don’t believe in your idea, why would anyone else?

One thing that I have learned from my experience as an educator is to always focus on the question “what is best for kids” when thinking about creating new ideas to further your work in schools.  If you are trying something new in the context of learning, and this question is at the forefront of how you make your decisions, you are doing the right thing.

The other pushback you may face from trying something different is actually from the students.  As stated earlier, many of our students are so used to “school” that something outside the lines of what they know terrifies them just as much as any adult.  If school has become a “checklist” for our students (through doing rubrics, graduation requirements, etc.), learning that focuses on creation and powerful connections to learning, not only take more effort, but more time, which sometimes frustrates many students.  Yet if we do not challenge our students in the learning they do in school, what are we preparing them for? What mindset will we actually create in our students?  It is important, if not crucial, to really listen and act upon student voice, but it is also just as important to help our students become resilient and face adversity in the school environment.

Being a huge basketball fan, I remember watching Phil Jackson coach the Lakers, and when the other team had some success against them and most coaches would have called a timeout, Phil Jackson made them struggle to learn to work their way out of it; they could not be dependent upon someone coming in to save them (Phil Jackson has the most championships of any coach in NBA history). Do we create spaces for our own students that pushes them out of their comfort zone and they have to work themselves out of it, or do we provide the solutions for them?  It is important to understand when to help a student back up, but it is also important to help them sometimes figure it out on their own.

Resilience is not only needed to be developed as an “innovator”, but just as a human. Life is full of ups and downs, but how you recover and move forward is not just important to how we learn, but how we live.

IN TO THE

Do the best leaders really just leave people alone?

Once you stop learning, you start

I often ask educators what qualities they like most in their administrator, and the following statement really makes me cringe:

They just leave me alone and let me do what I want.

First of all, I understand the needs for both trust and autonomy and how it is essential to motivation, but there is also a larger purpose to what we do in schools.  If we truly believe that schools are greater as a group than simply individuals, simply “leaving people alone” is probably not the best approach.

I think about the best leaders that I have ever had, and how they have balanced this approach of trust and autonomy, while providing strong mentorship.  This is not necessarily in telling you things to do, but often by pushing your thinking and abilities through asking questions, and challenging perceptions, without micro-managing.  I have always craved mentorship in whatever role that I have taken, and find that I do much better when I have someone who is pushing me in my work.  I love the idea that “if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” (often attributed to Michael Dell).  We only get better when we find those that truly elevate us.  Leaders are meant to unleash talent, not control it.

If you think that you have outgrown leadership, what are you doing to continue that growth? Books and blogs are great to push your thinking, but in my opinion, they never beat the conversations you can have others.  Great leaders not only create spaces where they challenge your thinking, but they encourage you to do the same with themselves.  That is part of what makes them great leaders.

Early on in my career, I remember asking my mentor teacher what I needed to do to meet the highest standards of my internship.  She would give me space to make my own mistakes, but she was also always there to not only encourage me, but to ask questions, and push thinking as well.  It was such a great experience that I can’t imagine doing it another way.

I love the following quote:

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Albert Einstein

If we just want our leaders to “get out of the way”, it may suggest that we are either not really open to learning or perhaps, we might be in the wrong room. Neither situation is beneficial to our own development.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

My idea of a leader or an administrator when I was starting early on in my career, was that they were “all knowing”, like some type of “Wizard of Oz” figure.  What I realized was that not only was this not possible, but something is actually lost when we do not feel comfortable to say “I don’t know”.  I have noticed some administrators, when told of a new idea, feel the need to say, “I thought of that a long time ago”, are playing a game where they feel the need to always assert their status as “leader”, when in fact, it actually disconnects.

Think of the difference between saying, “I had already thought of that idea”, as opposed to, “I never thought of that…that is a really great idea”.  Essentially you are not only giving power over (which some are afraid of losing), but you are showing value in the ideas of others.

With a lot of things that I have found myself thinking about, I am not as much “black or white”, as I am somewhere in the middle of grey.  Lately, I have more questions than answers, but the point is that I am trying to understand new and complicated ideas. “Not knowing” is part of this journey.

This post was inspired by Dean Shareski’s latest blog posts on having conversations, where he keeps using the word “trust”, which is needed to really go deeper into our own learning.  This tweet nicely summarizes some of my thoughts on the topic:

Think of that student that is in your class, that tells you something, to which you respond, “I did not know that! Thanks for sharing that with me.” Once they realize they were able to teach something new to the person of “authority” in the room, it creates a much more powerful dynamic in the relationship.  Adults are no different, especially when they feel they can teach the “expert” something that they didn’t know.  To gain trust, we have to give up power.

Empathy is crucial in developing the innovator’s mindset, and that takes listening, and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint, while being able and open to learn from them as well.  It is not about who can shout the loudest, but often who can listen best. Being open to learning from others, is crucial to our own development.

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Being able to say, “I don’t know” and being willing to be able to go find out, is much more conducive to building relationships than “I already knew that”.  Great leaders often show vulnerability, which in turn, helps develop teams that feel their contributions are not only valued, but necessary. Learning organizations value learning together over learning from one. Saying “I don’t know”, is crucial to not only our own curiosity, but shows an authenticity that helps to build relationships with those that we serve.

 

5 Questions To Drive Personal-Professional Learning

Image created by @GregPearsonEDU using Canva.

Image created by @GPearsonEDU using Canva.

In a world where more and more people realize their voice matters, simply engaging people is not enough.  People need to feel empowered in the process of work and learning.  The shift from compliance to empowerment is essential in organizations today.  With that in mind, how do we help people grow? The question is not, how do we motivate them, which is an entirely different idea.  Motivating others is possible,  but it is not long lasting.  We can only truly motivate ourselves for any sustainable amount of time, this is not something that can be done for us.  Leaders need to look at how we create environments that remove barriers, and support the development of the innovator’s mindset in individuals.  Leadership’s job is not to control people, but to unleash talent.  The environment and processes we create are important in helping people find their own way and strengths.

Yet we too often focus on external “motivators” to be the driver for change or even learning.  One of the biggest shifts in my own thinking in the past few years is how learning is such a personal endeavour, yet we try to package it up and decide the paths and passions for others.  Stephen Downes summarizes this sentiment nicely:

“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.”

With that being said, there is a lot of professional development that is working to “incentivize” learning with the use of external motivators.  Immediately doing this, in many ways says that it is not something that is important to learn without the incentive, or else we haven’t take the time to focus on the “why” of the learning.  If people don’t understand why we are learning something, it will not stick.  They need to make their own internal connection.  I understand though that in some areas, I don’t need to really explain “why”, before we move forward.  For example, if there is a safety plan in school, I would have the expectation that people knew how to do it and spend their time learning any procedures that we have in school.  That being said, I have seen states require “credit hours” for professional learning and have watched people show up so they can check off that they were there.  This is not going to create powerful and deep learning, but is simply a checklist in the “game of school“.  If there is no ownership over our own learning, how deep will we really go?

So what would I do differently?

Daniel Pink talks about the important of autonomy, mastery, purpose in motivation, and with that in mind, we should think about developing long term professional learning with that in mind.  Although growth plans are something that have been prevalent in schools for as long as I have been teaching, I think it is important to ask questions that focus on those three elements, while also helping leadership remove barriers to help learners achieve their goals.  As we develop our own professional growth plans for any period of time, here are some questions that I think are important to include.

1.  What would you like to learn? (Autonomy)

Although this question has driven my own professional learning for years, it is still necessary to set the stage for deep learning.  Ownership over the learning is crucial in this process.

2. What questions will be the driver for your learning? (Autonomy)

Inquiry-based professional learning is a powerful process, which helps you to view yourself not only as a problem solver, but also as a problem finder.  It also helps the learner articulate why this learning is important to them and gives them ownership over the process. Here is an example of how these questions can drive growth.

3.  Why is this important to your? How will it help the school? (Purpose)

This is a crucial element to not only a person’s learning, but also to help them use their strengths to improve learning, while helping leadership understand those strengths to tap into.  The best teams in the world build upon individual strengths to bring people together toward’s a common goal; they do not try to mould people to something that they are not.

4.  How will you know (measures) that you have achieved your goals at the end of this time? (Mastery and Autonomy)

Accountability is crucial in this process but helping the person define their own measures not only helps them to define what “mastery” could look like, but also have autonomy understanding their own point “a” to point “b”.

5.  What barriers will you need removed, or what support will you need to be successful? (Unleash Talent)

This question is crucial and necessary to leadership.  A lot of reasons things don’t happen in schools is because of dumb policies and guidelines that make “innovation” extremely hard and simply “hoop jumping”.  One thing that I used to say to my staff all of the time was, “I cannot solve problems that I don’t know about.” That is true, but perhaps I needed to ask them a lot more what the problems were that I could help with.

 

To have a “culture of innovation”, developing educators as leaners is crucial.  Helping them understand their own passions and interests, and giving them opportunities to use them to further the vision of the school is paramount.  But if we see learning as a truly “personal” endeavour, focusing on the ideas of “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in developing our professional learning plans is crucial into the development of both individuals as well as our organizations.

The “Sponge” Factor

I learned a lot from my days as a basketball referee.  Although the environment was quite collaborative, as great referees work as a team on the court, there was also a lot of competition in the field.  The best referees would get higher level games, based on their consistent performance in games.

One of the things that I found interesting was the half time feedback referees would receive from evaluators.  Having between 10-15 minutes during a break in the next half, there was no time to mince words.  Evaluators could often be blunt and sometimes brutal in their feedback.  They needed you to correct your work now, and they didn’t have time for you to embrace their feedback.  The feedback given was not to be mean or harsh, but to make you better.

The interesting thing about this is that you could have two refs in a game, with one perhaps being a better quality at the beginning than the other, but what the evaluators would look at was not how good you were at the beginning, but how teachable you were by the end.  If feedback was given in the first half, they expected you to implement in the second.  Sometimes it wouldn’t work for a referee, but what the evaluators looked for was the willingness to take feedback and give the learning a shot.  You may not have been perfect in your first try, but your willingness to learn would surely improve your performance as a referee.  The ability to be a “sponge” was crucial.

This “sponge” factor is crucial for educators.  I have often said that I am much more comfortable working with a teacher that is willing to learn and grow than one who thinks that they have “mastered” teaching.  Things will change in education and society, and one that is not willing to evolve in their practice, will eventually become irrelevant.  It may not be next year or the following year, but it will come eventually.  The person that is willing to continuously learn and evolve will always stay relevant.  Yet there are people in all fields, that will totally listen to feedback, nod their head in agreement, and go back to what they have always done.  There is a difference between “hearing” or being “open” to feedback.

As educators are currently interviewing for positions, one of the questions that I have asked in interviews before was, “Tell me an area where you received feedback, and what did you do to improve.”  This question promotes a vulnerability that is needed to be an educator that we are not  a “know-it-all” but that we are willing to learn.  This willingness to embrace turnaround learning is crucial to growth, which is not only being open to feedback, but doing something because of the feedback you have received.

Change will happen regardless of our own personal growth. Are we open to your own evolution?

Cloned Leadership

In my first interview for a position as an assistant principal, I remember talking to the principal and thinking that we couldn’t be any more different. We actually argued in the interview, and I walked away accepting of the fact that I wouldn’t be getting the job anytime soon.

A few days later I was hired by that same principal and it forever changed my thinking.

Were we more alike than I had initially thought? Yes and no. We both wanted what was best for kids, but our beliefs on how to get there had differed in many ways. That’s actually why I was hired in the first place. Our diversity and willingness to embrace the differences of one another ensured that we did not create an environment of “cloned leadership”; leaders hiring people that simply think and act like they do . Some people felt more comfortable talking to me as the assistant principal, and some felt more comfortable talking to him as well. We supported each other always, but our differences helped more people to connect with us in the building.

When I became a principal, my first action was to hire someone who I knew would disagree with me yet wanted to ensure we had the wellbeing of students driving their decision-making. My constant pursuit of the best answer, as opposed to my answer, made this hire crucial. When you hire someone who you know will challenge you, it can become extremely frustrating, yet it is crucial to growth. If someone doesn’t push our thinking and beliefs, how do we become better?

Yet I still observe many leaders that are looking for “yes” people; they simply agree with one another and challenges, although encouraged, don’t happen. Divergent thinking is crucial to innovation, yet too many leaders hire clones of themselves. When you have two (or more) administrators that aren’t willing to challenge one another, it often creates a culture where others don’t feel comfortable challenging ideas either, as there seems to be only one acceptable way forward.

I still believe that the best thing I ever did as a principal was to ensure that my first hire would be someone who challenged my thinking and would not always agree with me. It’s unfortunate that too many organizations take the opposite approach. Discomfort and challenge is crucial (and necessary) to achieve growth.