“Transformational leaders create the right environment and seek to critically understand the needs of the organization and motivate others to work together to collaboratively meet those needs.” – Time for Change: 4 Essential Skills for Transformational School and District Leaders by Anthony Muhammad & Luis F. Cruz
Change and innovation are two words that are an integral part of the Principals’ Institute. As a member of cohort 8, these two words were at the forefront of our learning experiences and at the core of my transformation target. I would like to share how these two words continue to guide me as a campus leader.
Change. As a campus, we spend a great deal of time reflecting on our current reality and where we want to be as a learning organization. We have open dialogue about what is working and what isn’t working to meet the needs of our learners and families. We strategically abandoned some practices, phased out some practices and replaced them with structures and processed that help us move toward our target. This included protected time during the school day for educators to collaboratively plan, dedicated time for intervention and enrichment, intentional professional learning, timely and targeted response to intervention, and vertical planning for core content areas. Leadership is a verb, and change can be difficult; so it is important to develop your why as a campus and constantly revisit your why and align it to your campus goals. We truly embrace learning by doing and collective responsibility for problem-solving. Effective leaders have a balance of assertiveness and the ability to build leadership capacity in others to led the change process.
Innovation. As public schools, we can sometimes feel bound by laws, policies, procedures, and standardized testing. However, the key is to generate collective responsibility for problem-solving and developing innovative solutions. We will often look at a practice and think about how to make it better. For example, we have identified the need to build capacity in our parents for social and emotional learning. I posed one question to my instructional leadership team: What do our parent need to know? I posed a similar question to parents: What do you need to know from your administrators and teachers? As a result of collectively problem-solving this one question, we have implemented a parent book study series and a parent academy. Our parent academy will be conference style; where parents attend sessions based on their interests and needs. We will offer sessions about core content, and well as social and emotional learning topics. Our parents had the opportunity to participate in two book studies: Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, and Fat Envelopes by Madeline Levine, and The Gift of Failure; How The Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey. We were asked to productize our parent book study initiative and present it to our district Strategic Design Advocacy Committee. This is just one example of how collective responsibility can translate in to new, innovative ideas. (I’ve curated resources here for any principal interested in our journey with parent book studies or looking to implement book studies on their campus.)
When I think about change and innovation; I think about problem-solving through multiple perspectives, building leadership capacity in others, creating a new path, and “leading within the box” (as Roz Keck describes). Our kids deserve it!
The thing about the word ‘change’ is that it sometimes gets a bad wrap. It may elicit feelings of discomfort or even distrust. Likewise, the idea of ‘innovation’ can perhaps feel unattainable within the established structures of our day-to-day in a public school. But the word that’s scariest of all is ‘complacency’ – and that’s exactly where we find ourselves if we fail to embrace the potential growth that results from change and innovation in our schools.
In maintaining growth as our priority, here’s what I’ve learned as a principal…
- Everything starts with relationships. It’s difficult to lead change, inspire innovation, or start a movement without transparent relationships in place. That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything; it’s actually pretty likely we may not see eye-to-eye every step of the way. But we have to operate in a space where it’s safe to question, to offer new viewpoints, and to take risks. None of these things can happen with the fidelity necessary for success if we aren’t working from a foundation of trusting relationships.
- We have to be able to articulate the why. I’m not a believer in change for the sake of change. I am, however, a believer in change and innovation for the sake of being better everyday – for myself, for my staff, and for our students. When we work with our staff to identify our individual and collective ‘why’, we find common purpose, and we can justify moving forward with an idea. Even if we’re not exactly sure where it’ll end up, when we know why we are doing the work, it’s easy to find the greater purpose in our daily efforts.
- There’s no moving forward without an open mind and willingness to accept feedback. When you’re trying to bring everyone along with you, every voice has to matter (even when it’s one you may prefer not to hear). We’ve all heard David Weinberger’s quote, “The smartest person in the room is the room,” and it’s so important to apply this principle when working toward meaningful, innovative change. Ask for feedback (and be prepared to hear it), and use protocols to help you discuss feedback with your leadership team or even the whole staff. Let ‘the room’ do the thinking, and enter these conversations with an open mind if you hope to make progress.
- The work we do is rarely easy; it’s emotional, and it matters every single day. When we agree to trust the process, we make a collective commitment to work through the obstacles that will come, to stay accountable to one another, and to keep our growth goal central – knowing that better is always better.
If our public schools are in the business of continuous learning, words like ‘change’ and ‘innovation’ must be part of our language and behaviors. Maybe at this moment there isn’t a glaring problem of practice you need to address on your campus; celebrate that! But surely there’s an area that has potential to be better than it’s been; whether it’s academic or social, collaborate with your team to pinpoint a starting place. Identify the why, bring along your people, and get going!
Each year I select a word to guide my year. Before choosing a word I first take time to reflect on the past year. I reflect on how I grew, what I learned from my experiences. I reflect and then turn my focus on to the future.
My word this year is CULTIVATE.
Webster defines cultivate
1) to prepare and use
2) to foster the growth of : to improve by labor, care, or study
apply oneself to improving or developing to foster friendship or favor
Synonyms: try to develop · work hard at · foster · nurture · encourage
Author Lara Casey said about her book, CULTIVATE, something that really resonated with me: “We can’t do it all, and do it well. But, we can choose to cultivate what matters. It’s in the imperfect—the mess of the dirt–that good things grow. Peonies grow through the dirt, and so do we.”
Growing up in Iowa, I saw the cultivating of the land that farmers did before planting crops. It took work. It took hard work and this work could not be skipped. There are no shortcuts to farming. They invested in the land to get their crops to succeed. I want to invest in the things that matter.
In leadership, there are no shortcuts. Developing your leadership takes time. It takes work. It takes going through both positive and negative experiences. As a leader in education there is a daily whirlwind of pressures you are asked to address. The role is bigger now than ever – mentor, coach, guide, instructional leader, relationship builder, budget manager, community liaison, crisis manager, cheerleader, entertainer, disciplinarian, quasi-parent……among others. 😊
Throughout all of this, one of the most important steps you must take is identifying your area of growth (growth goal) and doing the intentional work to grow. You cannot leave this for someone else to decide for you. Remember, it’s not what you are going to do, it’s who you are going to become through this process. When you are clear about what’s important to you it enables you to focus. If you’re not growing as a leader, then the problem may not the seed, it most likely is the soil.
I’m in a new place this year – literally. My husband and I have a new home, a new hometown, and I have new professional responsibilities. I have a lot of things to cultivate and I couldn’t be more excited. Cultivating myself, however, will be my most important task. To cultivate myself is to grow what I’ve been given, (developing, nurturing, encouraging) right where I am with what I have.
Cultivate what matters. You matter. What will you intentionally cultivate this year?
Our N2 Learning guest blog is from Dr. Jennifer Peirson, Principals’ Institute participant and principal of McKinney Boyd High School.
Two tough, but exciting words when you are a principal, innovation and change. I have been a high school building principal for the last 6 years and if I have learned anything in that short amount of time it is that great leaders will always be a work in progress and the only thing constant is change. For someone like me who is a perfectionist and maybe a little determined (hard headed), this was one of the biggest adjustments that I had to make as a brand new leader.
What exactly do the words innovation and change mean and why are they important words in education? Quite simply the only way we can do right by our students and our teachers is to be everchanging to meet their needs. Did you know that we are teaching students today for jobs that do not even exist right now? That is how fast our world is changing and it is our job as educators to help our students prepare for the future. Change is hard. I have learned that no matter how awesome or broken a system might be, there is always someone or some group of people who will hold on to something for dear life. It could be because it is easier. It could be because it makes sense to them. Or it could be because change is a risk and it is scary. Whatever the reasoning might be, we as leaders must work together to solve the puzzle and do what is right by our students.
I chose several years ago to embrace both innovation and change in our school. We know that we must have both to be successful. We know we must have both in order to best prepare our teachers to teach our students. There are three “rules of thumb” that I remember when helping lead our campus through change:
- Always make sure you honor the tradition, purpose and culture of the campus or the group. Everything that a campus has experienced positively or challenging is a part of the growth process. In order to create your future, you have to gain strength from your past. There are pockets of greatness in everything that we do and everywhere that we go. Our job as leaders is to find it and build on it.
- You are going to fail. It is inevitable especially if you are truly trying things that are difficult and maybe your campus is the trailblazer. As a leader the culture that you create that allows people to fail in a safe environment is of the utmost importance in implementing change. Allowing people to fail and learn from their mistakes ultimately will lead to high levels of success.
- As a leader you cannot delegate change. Great leaders who lead successful change are engaged in the whole process. Successful leaders dedicate the same time and energy to innovation and change that they are asking their teachers and students to dedicate. Amazing leaders are not only down in the trenches with their teachers, but they are helping to dig and to remove the roadblocks.
Change and innovation can be difficult, but there is nothing more rewarding than working hard and watching the magic happen. Well actually there is something more rewarding and that is watching teachers and students exceeding at all new levels and saying, “I cannot believe we ever did it any other way”. That is when the magic begins to happen!
“I’ve long said that in areas of skill, target strengths, and in areas of character, target weaknesses—because skills growth happens more naturally in areas where we’re not fighting it.” ~John Maxwell
Among the many leadership experts there are, for me, one stands far above the others when it comes to impact and longevity: John C. Maxwell. I listen to his podcasts weekly and I read his books and blogs.
One of the books that Maxwell wrote that I have used over and over in my life – as a mom, educator, and leader is, “Talent is Never Enough.” In this book, he shares that a leader’s effectiveness is determined by his leadership ability. He goes on to say that a leader, at any level in the organization should always be focusing on strengths, not weaknesses. His explanation goes like this — if one is weak in an area, say a 3 on a scale of 1-10; with a lot of work one might be able to rise to a 4 or 5 (still ineffective). On the other hand, if one is a 7, rising to an 8 or 9 is quite achievable, which is a great increase in effectiveness.
I have learned from experience that “natural talents” can only take you so far. When you are beginning your leadership journey, talents such as technical and analytical abilities are important, but as your journey progresses and you look to advance, you will find that you will need to transition your thinking from using not only your talents but also utilizing your strengths. These important strengths are connected to the highly regarded research found in MCREL’s 21 Leadership Responsibilities.
For example, when I took on a new role in my leadership journey, moving from a high achieving middle school to a large high school with some challenges, two of my skill strengths became especially crucial: being a change agent and remembering the importance of flexibility. This high school, like several schools, had challenges with student attendance, concerns about student behavior, and needed a boost in teacher morale. Being a change agent was critical to my leadership in shifting the learning culture of this 6A high school. Gradual adjustments needed to be implemented in order to make collaborative changes that sustained both student and faculty engagement while also resulting in incremental improvements in attendance and student behavior. Flexibility was key. The situation provided an opportunity for this leader to be okay with being uncomfortable, to grow in using my strengths and to ask questions about the way things had always been done.
A quick way to discover your strengths is to take one of the many “strength assessments” out there. Gallup has a Strength Finders Assessment that I took early in my career. The assessment ranks you on your top 5 plus 29 other strengths. Once you have your list of strengths, ask yourself the following questions:
In what areas of my life do I use these strengths?
How can I use more of my strengths at work so I am more fulfilled in what I do?
For me, learning both what my strengths were and what they were not, let me be the leader I knew I could always be. Let me be clear, however, it was not an opportunity to makes excuses for myself. Remember, as leaders we are frequently asked to do things that are not within our strengths “zone.” Getting out of our comfort zone is the only way to grow.
Do you agree or disagree with Maxwell that leaders should always be focusing on their strengths? Is there a time when we should work on our weaknesses?
I was recently asked what advice I would give someone considering applying for a principalship. I think the most important thing I can share – get ready. When the opportunity presents itself, it’s too late to prepare.
A first step to take is to ask yourself why you want this position. Do you want this position because “it’s just the next step”? Maybe you’re tired of your current position? Does someone else want you to have this position?
These are all answers to the question that I heard when I was a supervisor to college interns and other individuals considering a principalship. Those are not necessarily wrong answers; but I challenge you to think a little deeper.
In my own journey, I was blessed to participate in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People at the beginning of my career. It’s still probably one of the best trainings I’ve participated in for both personal and professional growth. We did a lot of work on our purpose and the legacy we wanted to leave – both personally and professionally. We began with the end in mind (Habit 2). Beginning with the end in mind means that when you make choices today you consistently take into consideration the values you stand for. You determine what you find important in life, what you stand for, what you want to accomplish. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to be known for? You then determine how can you start working towards that today.
Discovering one’s “purpose” basically means finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself and those around you. Those things that you are passionate about AND that you have a talent for. This gives you direction.
I chose to go into the principalship because, identifying my own purpose (to help people grow and add value to others), my impact would increase, and I could reach more individuals – both adults and students. Knowing my purpose was an important first step in figuring out the direction I wanted my career to take. When your purpose becomes clear, it enables you to find the courage to take risks, stay motivated when things get hard, and make a greater impact through your work.
When we ask superintendents to nominate a principal for the Principals’ Institute, we ask for innovative leaders who are out-of-the-box thinkers who are willing to take risks, and we talk about the importance of thinking outside the box during the institute. However, those of you who follow George Couros and his blog, know that he talks about the need to stop trying to get people to think outside the box and, instead, teaching them how to innovative inside the box.
The box represents routine ideas and practices – the management of school. And, there are times when those things are important. There are times when a principal needs to manage something about school; times when doing something away from the routine practices would not be a good thing. It would be scary to move away from the box in some situations. The box keeps us safe, keeps us legal, keeps us consistent, when consistency is important; however, routine does not allow us to transform and be innovative. If you never venture outside the box, you will not be creative or innovative or successful at transforming learning.
Thinking outside the box provides opportunities to take risks and learn from your failures; to study and reflect and ask questions; to network and collaborate with colleagues; to not be ok with the status-quo; to be willing to share and communicate with others and learn from each other; and to have the courage to lead. Thinking outside the box allows you to create a new vision and bring people together around that new vision, and that’s where schools transforming learning are. Each of you is on that journey somewhere. You are making exceptional strides on your journey to provide innovative learning opportunities for students, because you are thinking outside the box. But great schools know that they cannot move completely away from the box – it wouldn’t be safe, it wouldn’t be good.
We are very excited to have recognized our first annual Schools Transforming Learning at the 2017 Principals’ Institute Summer Conference with a Symbol of Transformation. Each of the schools we recognized understands that balance. They know where the balance is, they know when they can think innovatively, and when they can be risk-takers. Each of these schools thinks outside the box, but functions inside the box…when the time is right. That is why the plate in the Symbol of Transformation is connected to the box, but is situated in a way to be outside the box, as well.
The Symbol of Transformation says the routines of the box are important, but thinking outside the box – that’s where innovation, creativity, inspiration, and transformation happen. That is where we become risk-takers; that is where we see students owning their learning, and becoming leaders in the classroom. That is where students have voice and choice, where there is time for reflection, where their learning is connected, and relevant, and engaging. That is where students become innovators, and critical thinkers; and not just problem solvers, but problem finders. That is where we watch the joy of learning happen for students and teachers!
Here’s to all of you who are transforming learning in your schools. You are all on the journey, being innovative and reflective and risk-takers. Here’s to all of you who are willing to see things differently, who are not just following the routine path. Here’s to all of you who are creating a new vision and bringing people together around that new vision.
The Apple video is a tribute to all of you who are transforming learning in your schools. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJ1SDXbij8Y
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During the Principals’ Institute Summer Conference, as I listened to phenomenal professional educators share the innovative processes taking place at their campuses, it reminded me that I am a part of a great community of people who care about the future. I watched the faces of those in the crowd as they absorbed the information and began to make plans to apply it to their unquie school communities. Everyone in attendance is actively working to make changes in education so that our future will be populated with life-long learners who can solve problems and grow in their knowledge of critical global competencies.
I believe leaders in education should learn constantly. They need to know if they have all the bases covered. Because we care about those who we lead, we want them to be fully prepared to be successful. I know leaders must be patient for results, but when we have the future of the world in our schools, we feel anxious to make a difference. We must, however, remain optimistic that whatever pace we set for changes in our approach for innovative learning experiences, those under our care will benefit. Compassion for those who we lead, while having high expectations for the quality work is a leadership combination that will allow all to progress in our journey to improve the future for the citizens of our world.
My greatest fear is that leaders will become overwhelmed with all that must be accomplished and give up. My personal remedy for this concern is to start small; do the very best you can with the knowledge you have, while being considerate to all those involved. Grow all those around you and continue to nudge them into being better leaders than when they started. I believe, as educational trailblazers, if we constantly strengthen those around us, we can achieve the goal of an improved future for all children.