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?
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.
This blog post highlighting the importance of grit and determination was shared with me recently. I can relate to Rosa because I am currently training to run the BCS Half Marathon in December. When I was in the midst of my 9 mile training run last Saturday, I can assure you that the only reason I finished was due to persistence and determination. I kept hearing voices in my head saying things like, “You can do this.” “You only have three miles to go.” “A cinnamon roll awaits you if you can finish.” “Don’t give up.” I hope those same voices will be in my head in December at the race. I have no visions of finishing in 2nd place like Rosa, but I do have visions of finishing!
Here are a couple of questions for you to consider this week:
- How are you being intentional TODAY about helping your students, teachers and parents be determined and persistent?
- Within the context of the curriculum you teach or the work you do, how can you promote grit, determination and persistence as important life skills?
Developing students with strong hearts, skilled hands and robust minds is our work and helping students build their persistence and determination is huge part of what we should be doing everyday.
As leaders, our visibility is important, but our Active Presence is crucial. In an analysis of John P. Kotter’s book What Leaders Really Do, it’s noted that effective leaders spend most of their time (up to 90%) with other people, and much of that time is spent in an informal way. In other words, effective leaders aren’t sitting in formal meetings all day trying to solve the organizations issues. They are out and about talking with people, listening, asking questions and getting to know people. They are seeking to understand their organization from a ground floor level.
Effective leaders are Actively Present with those in the organization. They are authentic in their desire to understand the organization from those that are doing the day to day work. They are intentional about spending time with people in an informal setting. They are listening more than speaking, and they are connecting with people in order to understand at a deeper level how to make the organization better.
Active Presence allows for upward communication, listening, relationship building, authentic connections and understanding the challenges of the work that is to be done. Make no mistake, when you are actively present, you are leading.
Some questions to consider:
- When you visit classrooms, are you connecting with others or are you just out to be seen?
- What questions do you ask when you are visiting teachers, parents and students?
- Do your questions facilitate meaningful conversations about the school? Learning?
- Do you see your informal conversations as a key ingredient in your leadership?
When you ask people to reflect on their work or their learning, you get all kinds of excuses – “Who has the time?” “I’m too busy.” “This is a silly.” And then, probably, the real reason why people do not want to reflect – “This makes me uncomfortable.” When, in reality, we reflect naturally everyday. There’s no specific formula for reflecting on our thoughts and feelings about an activity, it just happens as we process our thoughts and feelings. Anytime you start a comment with, “Now that I think about it…” or “On second thought…” or “Looking back, now I think…” you are reflecting.
So, why does the process of reflecting on our work make us so uncomfortable? It requires us to think about what went well, and why. It makes us think about what did not go well, and we have to think about why. It requires us to understand what we believe and the reasons for those beliefs. And then we have to think about what is next.
If it makes us uncomfortable, why do it? A great answer comes from John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experiences.”
Profound learning, learning that lasts, happens when we reflect on our experiences.
Here are six benefits to reflection:
- Connecting Learning
Reflection provides opportunities for us to link new learning and experiences to previous learning. Most educators understand the need for scaffolding learning, and reflection provides opportunities for learners to think individually, or with a group, about those connections. Think of it like a chain – each link makes the chain stronger and more useful.
- Making Meaning
Reflection provides opportunities to construct meaning from new experiences. It is difficult to make meaning from an experience when you are caught up in the experience. Stepping back from the experience gives us an opportunity to make meaning from the experience.
- Higher Level Learning
Reflection provides opportunities for more complex learning. It requires us to think critically about the learning and to problem solve what will happen next – two beneficial skills for all learners.
- Review Your Work!
Reflection is simply a process of going back over the learning. We all learn more when we go back over the learning, and reflection requires us to think back on the learning, sometimes more than once, and process the experience.
- Do You Believe It?
Reflection allows us time to think about what we believe about the learning and what we are willing to admit about the experience. It is like looking in a mirror and seeing the learning or experience through different eyes and deciding how it fits with our beliefs.
One of my favorite reflection questions to ask when I am working with a group is, “What are you leaving here committed to do differently as a result of our work today?” A large circle, standing Shoulder to Shoulder, at the end of a day of learning, responding to that question, is the ideal way for learners to reflect and commit to what happens next.
We cannot allow our discomfort to prevent connected, meaningful learning that lasts. The ability to reflect is a skill that we develop by doing. How will you reflect on your own learning and experiences, and how will you make sure that students are given opportunities to reflect on their learning? How will you make learning last?
There are thousands of organizations across the globe that have mediocre/poor leadership, and many of them survive day to day, month to month and year to year. These organizations–from schools to software development firms to financial institutions and beyond–simply rely on people getting their work done. Whether an employee is engaged/active is of no real concern to the organization.
Some organizations, however, not only survive, they thrive. Why? These organizations believe that they have a responsibility for their employees quality of life, not just providing them a fair paycheck. Employees in these work environments are much more likely to be committed to and involved with their work than those organizations that simply trudge along from day to day.
The research Daniel Pink highlights and the research conducted by Gallup point to a few conclusions that should drive leaders in their work. In fact, it is very clear, yet not quickly or easily done, how to get employees engaged/active in their work.
First, employees must be emotionally connected to their work. And, here’s the thing, employees don’t get emotionally connected to their work simply because you tell them to do so. An emotional connection to work speaks to the fact that employees must understand and connect to WHY they are doing what they are doing. As Gallup puts it, “Great managers help employees understand how every role in the organization connects to the customer through the company’s mission and purpose.” Employees who don’t see or who aren’t given the opportunity to see a bigger purpose will, most likely, be those that trudge along day in and day out. A company full of “trudgers” is a place of “trudgery” to work.
I love this image! The person signing all the students’ yearbooks in this picture is not the principal or the PE coach. It’s the custodian of the school. Why? Because the custodian understands that his purpose is to make a contribution to the lives of the students, not just clean the school. An accounts payable clerk that simply believes his/her job is to pay the bills will not be engaged/active in their work; they will simply be doing their job. A leader has to connect the product being manufactured or the service provide to a purpose beyond the actual work of developing good or providing services.
Why does being engaged/active in work matter? Gallup estimates that billions of dollars are lost each year to employees that are not engaged/active in their work. And, besides, it just makes sense that organizations should be concerned about the quality of life of their people. An organization that doesn’t want their employees lives to be fulfilled is missing the whole point of life, I think. Life should be a fulfilling adventure both inside and outside work.