The First Follower
This is one of my favourite videos about leadership and being willing to take risks. Early in my career as a teacher, and then as an administrator, I often was so focused on my own agenda that I often missed out on helping others who were more talented that I was as particular things. As I learned through experience (which is only a good teacher if you take the time to be reflective and developmental about your experiences) being a good leader was about helping other people achieve goals, finding ways people can use their talents to grow and improve, searching for ways to allow creativity and innovation to be part of the school environment, allowing others the opportunity and space to be risk-takers and innovators, and building community where adapting and changing are core elements of learning and growing.
Challenge Others to Change
As a leader, creating an environment where ideas thrive is foundational to making changes that substantially change the learning environment of a school. High expectations are important – helping people reach them is the role of leader. Holding people accountable is important but providing them the opportunity to try new things, make mistakes and deeply reflect on the what they learn is essential to improvement. People who are afraid to try will stop if they perceive that the consequences for trying are negative or are not connecting to a vision of improvement in learning. To give people room to meet the challenges ahead, leaders need to provide the support for taking risks while also having the expectation that if something isn’t successful there will be reflection making adjustments and moving forward. Leaders create an atmosphere for growth when they use questions to challenge others to see where things might lead, to introduce different perspectives, and provide opportunity for there to be multiple solutions.
Re-Frame the Challenge
The current frame for education is something along the lines of “You need to go to school and do what you are told to do in order to be successful in your future.” or something along those lines. The point is not what the exact frame is but that it really isn’ about challenging or creating wonder or enthusiasm or fun or development or innovation. It’s about showing up and doing school. As an administrator, I often had parents of students who were struggling comment that the student needed to pass and get a grade 12 because without it they wouldn’t be successful in life. There was this “grin & endure” frame. Even successful students would often comment about the lack of connection between what they were doing in school and what they saw as opportunity once they were finished school. There seems to be a “we all survived it so that’s what students need to do.”
But what if school leaders and teachers began to explore the question of “Would students still come if school wasn’t mandatory?” What if the mindset was to open up the discourse around education and what it means to be “educated” in today’s changing world? What challenges are we missing with the current framing of education as “have to” and “endurance”?
What would change if leaders and teachers did a cntrl-alt-delete of the current framing of school?
Why would school be important?
Why would students want to come to school?
Why would teachers want to teach?
Simon Sinek, in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Action, discusses how leaders often start with the What or How of what they are leading instead of the Why. A great example he gives is how Apple, Inc., doesn’t start with the company selling computers or iphones or ipods but, instead, explains that Apple, Inc. begins with:
Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers.
Wanna buy one?
So, what would happen if instead of telling students “You have to go to school because you need to in order to be successful sometime in the future” school leaders and teachers reframed it to something like
“We believe that everyone can learn . We believe learning is a life-long skill. We challenge people to explore, question, collaborate and create and share with others as they are learning. And we happen to be a school. Wanna join us?
That’s just one idea for Re-framing that allows teachers and leaders to cntrl-alt-delete the current frame of school and re-image learning and the school in a different way.
That Can’t Be Done! – Can It?
Often, as a school leader, I didn’t share the responsibility of change, keeping it for myself, often telling myself that I was helping the teachers by being a filter for what came down to us from above. And maybe in a hierarchical system, there is something to this but what I learned was that I wasn’t really protecting as much as I was limiting what we could do as a school. I wasn’t looking at the abilities and talents around me. I wasn’t embracing a community of learning. I wasn’t challenging everyone with getting better or seeking new alternatives. I was protecting what we were doing, incrementally allowing change to take place. That Can’t Be Done! was infact true but only because the way I was leading limited the capacity of others and the school to change and improve.
It took my own public humiliation to recognize that I was no better as a leader than the person who did that to me. I’d like to say that it was a lightning strike and I saw the light but it didn’t happen that way. It took me time and some deep reflection to realize that I was a main reason the school and teachers weren’t progressing and being all they could be. Can It? I learned that, yes it can but it requires a leader confident in their abilities and, more importantly, confident in the abilities of those around them to meet BIG challenges, a leader willing to ask BIG questions and then give people time to go out and find ways to answer those questions.
I began to understand that a leaders role wasn’t always to be out front, that could in fact lead to being a Lone Nut. When a leader thinks small, limits input, tells but doesn’t ask questions and swoops in to save the day, they demonstrate a lack of trust and community, not great leadership. Being a First Follower can be crucial to the kind of change necessary for schools to hit cntrl-alt-del and embrace change.
Re-Framing as Leader
Re-framing the whole premise of school begins with taking a chance to reconceptualize what it means to be “educated”. It’s an opportunity to create something new. My experience is that it also means that leaders will come up against resistance, especially from those who are extremely comfortable with the status quo and the hierarchical structure of traditional schooling. However as David Penglase explains about Aspirational Leadership
You could, for example, choose to view and treat leadership as a position or role. Alternatively, you could step up and into your own value, accept and embrace the reality that your leadership role is a privilege and not just a position.
Aspirational leaders have three core principles: Relationships matter, Values and models integrity, and earns, builds and maintains trust.
The difference is how they see their role and the people around them. In re-framing schools, part of the process is re-framing the role that leaders have within schools as creative and innovate centres of discovery and learning.
Thing to Think About
- How do you see your role as a leader? If you were to ask others, how would they describe your role as a leader? Are you sure?
- Why do you lead? Why is it important to you?
- Would you be able to re-frame a new “Why” for your school? Could you work with staff and parents to develop a new re-frame?
- What would a new re-frame mean for you as a leader? The teachers? The students? The parents?
Summer is here and with it I now have some time to begin to go through a notebook full of links that I’ve sent myself through the year. (If you aren’t using Evernote, haven’t given it a shot, you need to, it’s AWESOME!)
There have been a few that struck me as I read through them. One of them, by Mr. Chris Wejr entitled It’s Easy http://mrwejr.edublogs.org/2011/07/06/its-easy/. Give it a read. It’s an interesting view of the options that, as educators, we sometimes have to make.
I agree we need to take that road less traveled but I’m not certain that it’s black and white as many of the “It’s easy….” suggest. Human dynamics are much too complicated. So, although I agree that we need to travel a road that is less traveled, one must make those decisions based on the situation since there are instances when it is harder to do what others see as the easy way out because of what you know. One must always be careful when labeling what others do.
How could anyone disagree with what is listed? As an administrator/educator/parent/husband, they are what one strives to do each day. But, as I’ve learned as a parent/husband/son/educator/friend I will never be able to do it all. Thankfully, life isn’t about single decisions, most of the time. It’s about the combination of decisions that you make and the relationships you have that begin to define one’s life. There are instances where a single decision can have an incredible impact but, most of the time, we face decisions that aren’t in that category. Having made some astronomically poor decisions in each of the above categories, it was because others’ believed in me at certain points that allowed me to continue on and not my own “revelation” that I had made a bad decision. So although I can agree with the many things that are listed, there is so much more.
When I was a teacher, I had certain thoughts and opinions about what administrators/central office should do. Having spent better than 10 years as an administrator, I now see that much of what I thought as a teacher was based on my uninformed opinion. As a parent of 8 children, the oldest being 19 the youngest 2, I live an experience that so few parents have – parent to an adult, teenager, youngster and toddler all at the same time. And although I have learned so much as a parent, I rarely comment to people about raising children because each day I am humbled by what my children are capable of doing and the incredible responsibility I have as a parent and because I have made those poor decisions. Each day, when I walk into my school, I have that same type of feeling – I am an administrator of a K – 12 school. I deal with 4 year olds and adults. I am humbled by the awesome responsibility. No list, however exhaustive, can capture that.
We are on a road but each decision is not it’s own, just part of the one road. As a parent and a husband, I have become better because I made mistakes, as an administrator, I am better for that same reason and as a person, it was seeing my reflection through others that has helped me grow and, hopefully, be a better person.
I believe that it’s about the road and not the individual decisions. If you are consistent, travel with humility and truly appreciate the awesomeness of which you are part, it isn’t any one decision on any list but your willingness to do what is best for others in a given situation that will reflect which road you are traveling and influence the decisions you make. But, no matter which road you are on, it’s not easy.
We just finished parent/student/teacher conferences and the school is now quiet. Everyone else has gone home to rest and get ready for more conferences tomorrow morning. We then have the afternoon “off” – I’ll be here getting ready for early dismissal on Monday and doing other things while the students are away. In the quiet solitude of the school, I have a few moments to do some real reflecting and thinking. It’s here where I do some of my best work as I don’t have my own children to break my concentration and I feel more “in tune” with how I”m thinking and feeling about what is going on around and what and where my focus and priorities need to be for the school.
So why am I still here?
Monday after school the teachers, myself included, gathered to discuss the morale of the building. It was a productive meeting and gave me much insight into what, why, where, when and how people are thinking about what is going on and my role in the whole thing. Now, my last post was a general discussion/question about school morale and thanks for the feedback. I appreciate all that was said and it gave me much food for thought. The one that really resonated with me was from Glenn. Now Glenn is a first year vice-principal and his comment:
Kelly – the responsibility sits right in the chair that I’m writing this from and if you’re at work the chair you’re reading this from. I’m failing miserably at it. Hope your rocking the house.
Why did this grab me? Because it is filled with the frustration and the angst of someone I know is working his butt off to do good things and, for whatever reason, is banging his head and feeling overwhelmed. I often read Glenn’s blog just to keep up with what he’s doing and how things are going. Every now and then, I catch a tweet from him and exchange a few words. Lately, that’s about all that I have time to do. I can almost see him sitting in his chair typing that post. Short, to the point but, to me, very powerful.
So exactly what does that have to do with the “tech edge” feeling? For me, it sums up how I’m beginning to see this whole educational technology thing. As Iwork towards finding some type of balance in what is going on around me, I’m feeling less compelled to say that technology is really important. Not that it doesn’t have it’s place and shouldn’t be something that is used within the classrooms as a tool but I’m not sure that the energy expended will bring the dividends that are forecast. As I work with the teachers in my building, looking for ways to involve students, I’m wondering if the time being put into technology wouldn’t be better used working WITH THE STUDENTS.
Never mind that the students are texting each other and that they like the technology. Even with all that, there is still a piece that is missing – the human contact. Someone who will listen to them, right next to them. Someone who is in the building that they know really cares whether they are successful or stumbling and helps to provide the means necessary for the them to pick themselves up. Yeah, I know all about embedding technology in the learning and capturing the students but it just seems to be missing something. Once the “Wow” factor is over, what do you have? Really, for the most part besides the minority of tech savvy teachers who are doing some pretty incredible projects, what do we have?
I’ve heard that we need to teach them how to leverage the technologies for their own learning. That they can use these technologies but we need to be helping them develop literacies so they are more internet savvy, can protect themselves and be prepared for what is going on in the world around them. Great goals, I agree. But as I delve into what these kids are feeling and wanting, it has nothing to do with reaching out to the world or getting to know students from all over or working with students in other places. It has to do with them and another caring human. Someone who will guide them and set limits for them and demonstrate that they are interested. It has less to do with “the tools” and more to do with the relationships.
And you know what? I can appreciate that so very much. Being an administrator in a small rural community with no other administrators around, I thought technology would be a way for me to be in touch with other administrator type people. I started a Ning, Ed Adminstrators2.0, as a place for people in this same position to gather and discuss and talk and share ideas. I worked to develop a network within twitter and pownce, looking to connect with others to share and talk. Now, don’t get me wrong, it has been an incredible learning experience but, and this is the kicker, the people I notice on twitter who have the greatest connection are those who have met f2f. Those who haven’t are so looking forward to a time when they will meet f2f at a conference or someplace else. It’s those meetings that really bring people together and then their conversations and interactions via things like twitter really take off. For me, I have some good contacts and like exchanging 140 character bites but the nuances that a f2f meeting give to a conversation are missing.
This year has seen many stress storms for people in our building which, ultimately, touches me as the administrator. Our meeting was the beginning of our rebuilding the joy and wonder and excitement that comes with learning. By acknowledging that, indeed, we need to work on this and grow it and nurture it, we’ve eliminated the elephant in the room. It was just a first step but what an incredible first step it was. We have much work to do and it won’t be easy. In fact, it may be difficult as there is a need to have some conversations that will be hard. Some will require people to rethink what and how they are doing things, some will require me to address concerns that my staff identified and some will require us, as a staff, to really focus and decide what standards we want and how we will achieve them.
So Glenn, I’m not rockin’ the house. More like I’ve been rocked but, I’ve learned a great deal about myself, staff and students. I come to see that, although technology is great and wonderful and allows us to do so much more and ….. the number one thing we do in schools is human relations, building students to become the best learners they can be, guiding them in making decisions and helping them to see things from a variety of perspectives and, yes, setting limits and boundaries and sticking to them. It isn’t how much curriculum we get through or what we cover or the tools we use. Yes, they have an impact, some more profound than others. It’s the human factor, the angst that I feel in what Glenn says, that isn’t part of the discussions I hear about technology.
In the technology discussions, I don’t hear about the students who are hungry or the students who are messed up because of substance abuse or those who live in terrible conditions. I don’t hear discussions about building relationships with the student who feels like no one cares or or or or……
Yes, I’m losing that “tech edge” feeling realizing that I need to be out with the students and staff, listening and cheering them on; drawing lines for them and helping them to overcome barriers. I cannot do that if I’m spending time working on the technology, finding new technology, learning how to use the technology. I know that technology has a place and will need to be addressed but it’s like all the other tools, just a tool. With the way things are changing and the manner in which the “tech junkies” jump from wagon to wagon trying out new tools, it’s impossible to really keep up because people in my face are filling my hours. I haven’t found that “place” in the net world that I was hoping I’d find. I’ve discoverd many great places like the Fireside Learning Ning and other such places but, like the people in our school, the f2f contact becomes so very important.
This doesn’t mean I’ll quit trying to bring technology into our school or help teachers with technology use or quit looking and trying out new technology. It will mean that much of what I blog about might just change as I reflect on what I’m reading, doing, learning and seeing going on around me. It will mean less time with twitter – it’s good to see what’s going on but it just hasn’t done for me what it does for those who can spend hours on it or who are conversing with others they’ve met f2f. In fact, my writing might just increase as I scrape away the “tools” and get back to what is really necessary, what really works and get rid of what is, like so many of these things, a passing fad that someone on top has happened to mention on their blog.
So Glenn, as I sit in this chair listening to whirr of the server fan, the flush of the automatic toilets and the sound of the empty hallway know that you are not alone. I, like many others, are with you and I, for one, am realizing that there is more that I must do and less of it has to do with technology. Keep strong, Glenn, keep strong!