Over the past few weeks I’ve been transitioning from being a full time administrator to being a full time dad. This past spring, I did a great deal of reflection and re-evaluated what I was doing as an educator and leader. After much searching, done while driving across the three prairie provinces for interviews, I decided that it would be best if I stepped away from my current position. If I truly wanted to do what was “Best for Students” – I had to be honest and, given what was happening in my life, I couldn’t continue at the
Do What’s Best for Students
I don’t know if other leaders go through a period where they question their roles and what they are doing but this spring I did a great deal of reflection on what I was doing and why I was doing it. As an administrator, my role over the past 11 years has been as a change agent in schools. Basically, I was put in a position where I was asked to change the culture/practices of the school. Mostly, after being in the school for a period of time, one thing that usually became clear was there had been a loss of focus – to focus on students. Over the years, I have worked in 9 schools in an administrative capacity with over 300 different staff focusing on “Doing What’s Best for Students”. During this time I’ve learned a great deal about change and people – mostly from making mistakes. With each mistake, I’ve learned something which I have then been able to use later on. During this time, there are a few key things that I’ve learned about change in a school setting.
Trust is the key
Without trust, little change of consequence will take place. I learned this the hard way as a young administrator. Instead of building relationships and trust, I focused on identifying areas of strengths and weaknesses and then moved directly into assailing the weaknesses. When I met resistance, I then realized I need to have people on my side so I tried to get everyone to like me. BIG MISTAKE! Gaining trust is not the same as having people like you. Trust is built through meaningful interactions with people, active listening and through thoughtful actions. “You Matter” needs to be a foundation to what you are doing. Over the years, I’ve learned that building trust with people may take a bit more time but it creates an environment where people can interact openly and, eventually, things get done much more quickly. One of the best PD reading I’ve done is Stephen R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust. It should be required reading for all educators as it gets to the heart of human interactions.
Innovation is Hard but Worth the Work
As a teacher, one of my goals was to provide students to explore and learn. That’s why, as a grade 7 teacher, I shifted from desks to tables in about year 4. At that time, the only place you saw table was in the Art room, Science Lab and cafeteria. Desks and rows were the mainstay of the classroom. Making this change didn’t come without some problems and “feedback” from parents, my principal and other teachers. My room was louder, my students were noisy, there was no way to ensure students didn’t cheat on exams, etc. Now, this might not seem like innovation to many but 16 years ago, it was different – innovative. Collaborative work was a mainstay in the class. Other Innovations – assignment choice. Allow the students to decide how they would demonstrate their learning. A few groups actually created videos – which was not a small feat given there was no software to make the editing at the time. It had to be spliced and rerecorded. As an administrator, my approach didn’t change. I was always asking the IT department how we could do this or that – with a focus on learning. I’d gotten over the “Wow” factor somewhere in university. Tech is a tool – a powerful tool – like a book. It can change a person forever! However, innovation can have a cost – you tend to be “that teacher” and “that administrator”. I was once called a “loose cannon” because of this. However, seeing the changes that can transpire when as a leader you are willing to embrace innovation – powerful thing happen!
Parents are Our Friends/Allies
It’s sometimes difficult for teachers and parents to get along – especially with students who are “high fliers” – those who rack up seat points because of their frequent visits to the office. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve not always been able to overcome the walls that have been created between school and home especially when other factors remain equal – teachers don’t alter classroom expectations, there is little contact with home about positives, the parents have a “it’s your job to teach him/her – I can’t do anything with her/him at home” or there are other barriers that inhibit engagement. In some circumstances, this relationship will always be tenuous with administration but there is someone in your building that the parent will talk to and be willing to discuss. Be willing to share the leadership and build bridges. Unfortunately, as an administrator, you sometimes have to make decisions that people don’t always like which has implications for relationships.
Building a community is the job of all staff, students and parents. It’s not something that takes place only 4 or 5 nights a year at Learning Conferences, Open Houses, concerts or other special occasions. It needs to be part of the school’s strategic plan – building community, engaging parents and developing capacity. It’s inviting your Parent group to join you in discussing the school vision/mission, goals and Improvement Plan. It’s inviting parents to be part of the process for developing such things as the Code of Conduct and helping them to review policies in the Student Handbook. It’s inviting them to be part of PD days that deal with curriculum and new initiatives and having them work with the staff and students to develop plans for addressing key issues in the school.
My experience is that the parents who are really wanting to build the school community will join you as allies. But, again, trust is crucial. Developing it is essential.
Passion is Key but it’s Not Enough
I know, you hear it all the time. “Follow your passion!” “Be the Change you want to see”. They are great slogans – rallying cries to get people to focus their energy. But, in the long haul, they won’t sustain change without developing relationships, building trust and engaging all those involved because change isn’t a rally, it’s a life-style. If it was that easy, so many of our societal ills would be so easily changed with just the right slogan. But it requires much more – hard work, hard conversations, hard decisions. Gone are the days of the Solitary Leader, who’s sheer willpower will move things along. For any type of sustainable growth, you need more than one person – you need to build a community that will ensure the vision/mission will continue. Too often, I have watched people passionate about what they are doing try to single-handedly move things along only to quit in frustration because they did not enlist the power of the group. Yes, you need someone to be a catalyst – an administrator is sometimes that person but it can be a teacher, staff member, student, parent or community member. You need someone with passion but you also need a wind and some fuel to help fan and stoke the flames of passion. Yes, I know there are examples of people whose extra-ordinary passion is an example to the world but not everyone is a Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Terry Fox or Martin Luther King. That’s why they are inspirational – if everyone was like them – they wouldn’t be inspirational. But if you look around them, they had people who supported them and helped them along. For many of us, we need just a little bit more of that.
I’ve also seen this with teachers – passion for what they do – passion that is not supported. I will take a teacher with passion who is willing to work with others over a teacher with great plans but no passion. However, passion alone will not sustain for the long haul – it needs to be supported and it needs to be developed. Take a look at the number of teachers who have moved on or out of the classroom to do something else. Why? Not enough support. Isolation.
In the past, great artists and musicians relied on wealthy benefactors to assist them as they wrote and painted. Without these benefactors, many might not have been able to do the creative work they did. We need to support and honour this type of passion but we also need to be able to help it to develop and mature. To not only inspire others, but to ensure that the passion is sustainable.
By no means do I have near the answers. In fact, I’ve learned that answers differ by school and need to be the result of those at the school level working together to solve the problems. Much like teacher PD!