I started my teaching career in the infancy of the Internet information age. At the time, information on how to improve one’s practice was scarce. I relied heavily on books, monthly magazines, face-to-face professional development opportunities and the advice and mentorship of colleagues. Over the first several years of my career a few individuals became key influencers. I am sure it is similar in other professions, but I would look to several educational leaders with great awe and admiration — they were the “rock stars” of education in my books. The list was quite short. There was Barrie Bennett (he is responsible for me using and overusing the place mat activity); Richard DuFour (Mr. Professional Learning Communities); Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton (when I stand away from the item I am talking about to separate myself from the data, they are responsible) and Dennis Sparks (his regular articles for the National Staff Development Council were a source of information and inspiration). If I were building a Mount Rushmore for my education gurus, they would definitely be the leading candidates.
I have had the chance to interact with each of them in recent years, and it was with nervous anticipation when I responded to a recent interview request from Dennis Sparks. In the Internet age, many education authors who have made their living off of books and presentations have struggled to figure out a new model. Why I love Dennis (and others like Bruce Wellman and Grant Wiggins) is they have embraced the blogosphere where they share information for free knowing that it will actually increase their credibility and ability to secure presentations, or sell books.
Dennis has a great blog here and he “gets” it; as on his blog and on Twitter he is fully engaged with his audience. I shared some of my thinking with Dennis, which he published in a recent post. You can read the full post here. Below, I have reprinted some of his questions and my answers:
What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?
I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process. It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.
Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school. In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.
I would also say that every little encounter matters. As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with. You build credibility with the little things.
What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?
Smile and listen. As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you. The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.
From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work?
They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity. They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.
What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?
I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control. This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced. Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.
There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?
Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.
I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who encouraged a culture of risk taking. As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.
It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.
A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?
I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students. I don’t know of any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.
I think we need to keep the focus on students. How will using technology in the classroom benefit students? How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms? How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn? We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.
From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?
School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves. They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school. Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.
It sounds obvious and simple, but we often become distracted. That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry. It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.
I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.
I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller. I have the amazing benefit of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents and the community.
Sometimes, teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger. As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy, we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.
My thanks to Dennis for inspiring me early on in my career and for continuing to be someone who pushes my thinking to this day. Having leaders like him engaged in professional learning in our digital world brings depth and credibility to it.