Listen to Podcast on Coach Approach & download first chapter here
Join my co-authors Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret and me with host Justin Baeder, talking about one of our favorite topics – using instructional coaching techniques as school leaders.
The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as part of growth. Brene Brown
When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. Seth Godin
For many years, I believed leadership was about vision, certainty, confidence, and solutions. With a wall full of degrees, a position high in my school’s organizational hierarchy, and a job description demanding action, I felt it was my obligation to make decisions that would propel our school forward; perceived it to be my responsibility to tell rather than to ask, and to know rather than to search. How painfully wrong my perspective proved to be.
The economic downturn of 2008 hit the school of which I was then a part quite hard and demand for tuition assistance sky-rocketed, leaving the school with a painful choice; say farewell to students whose families could no longer afford tuition or function with a large deficit. The decision was made by the Board of Trustees to run at a substantial deficit for one year, and to craft a more sustainable business plan moving forward. As lower school principal, I was called upon to drastically cut expenses, primarily by eliminating positions, while at the same time significantly raising the quality of the school to more effectively compete with the growing competition we faced. It was a perfect storm. I wish I could say I navigated through the turbulence with the courage, compassion, and connection that Brene Brown describes as the hallmarks of wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Being honest with myself, I was painfully unprepared. I floundered, made mistakes, and lacked the wisdom to know how to engage others in courageous, compassionate, connected discomfort. I did not yet know how to embrace vulnerability, to humbly engage in difficult conversations, to ask for help, and as Brene Brown so articulately advocates, “to lean into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, holding open an empathic space so people could find their own way”. Through the heart-wrenching pain of letting teachers know they would no longer have positions, demanding more of everybody, responding to increasing perhaps unrealistic expectations of me, and absorbing tremendous anger and distress, I faltered. Through many angst filled, sleepless nights and long, agonizing days, I found myself ill equipped for the many challenges facing me and recognized I needed to learn new ways of leading.
My transformation as an educational leader in some ways mirrors Brene Brown’s description of Lululemon’s CEO Chrstine Day’s leadership, moving from “controlling to engaging with vulnerability – taking risks and cultivating trust.” Day characterized the changes in her leadership as a shift from “having the best idea or problem solving to being the best leader of people”. Over the course of several years, I invented my leadership anew, learning to focus on supporting more than directing, coaching more than evaluating, wondering more than answering, and imagining collaboratively more than deciding individually. I accepted a new position as Head of School in another school community, crafting my approach to leadership with hard earned insights on vulnerability, risk taking, and trust building.
Echoing Brene Brown’s articulate words, “I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” I embraced leadership as serving to unleash the greatness in others. To that end, there are many techniques from the world of coaching that I have deliberately trained in and implemented, most significantly, giving feedback. Like Brene Brown, I have found receiving and giving feedback to be the key to normalizing discomfort, helping individuals to lean into discomfort with safety and support in order to stretch, to learn, to overcome challenges, to build on strengths, and to reach toward aspirations and potential. “At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable,” states Brene Brown, a sentiment that captures my intense emotion prior to the paradigm shift leading me from a leadership model focused on “knowing” and telling others what to do to an approach focused on “being”, deliberately nurturing trust and collaboratively striving toward shared, aspirational goals. In order to give feedback, I first had to be open to receive feedback. For that, I needed to embrace vulnerability – accepting that not only can mistakes and crises happen, but for any person or community that is striving to improve, mistakes and crises will occur. Acknowledging the inevitability of failures on the road to improvement enabled me to develop my resilience, patience, and fortitude in the face of challenge. I not only normalized discomfort for myself, but even became more comfortable with discomfort, welcoming the growingly familiar tension in my shoulders and flittering in stomach that arises when I have stretched myself beyond what I have done before, when I worry I have moved too quickly or made a wrong turn, when I face criticism that feels unfair or when I face criticism I feel I deserve. I have come to welcome the discomfort for it is through the stretching beyond the familiar that I grow and become more effective, more capable, more courageous, compassionate, and connected than I was before.
From seeking feedback for myself, I moved toward giving meaningful feedback to others – leading with a “coaching hat”; striving to focus more on support than evaluation. I revamped my approach to feedback; visiting classrooms as often as I could and sharing written feedback, including a compliment, and nonjudgmental reflections following four prompts: I noticed, I wonder, what if, and how might. I met with each teacher to set a professional learning goal, along with an action plan, supports we would put in place to help the teacher meet the goal, and ways we would measure progress toward the goal. I shared with each teacher that our end of year reflection, in lieu of formal evaluation, would not focus on whether the goal had been achieved, but rather on how much the teacher, and her or his students, had grown. I wanted teachers to adopt ambitious goals rather than playing it safe, and in order to do so I needed to create a culture in which striving was celebrated and protected. Teachers and I also filled out a rubric on professional practice as another means to reflect on practice, celebrate strengths, and identify areas more challenging. I made the commitment to teachers that the process would be focused on learning and that if I had a specific concern, I would be direct and share my concern with the teacher; enabling most conversations to be focused on professional growth and exploration of the possible, rather than being evaluative and judgmental. I reveled in teachers’ learning and growth; celebrating with teachers their forward progress.
Within the shifts in myself and our teachers, I caught glimpses of more dramatic forward movement for our school’s culture. “A daring culture,” says Brene Brown, “is a culture of honest, constructive, and engaged feedback.” Nurturing a daring culture requires, according to Brene Brown, a “daring strategy”. We must dance with time, paying attention to the distance between where we have been, where we are, and where we want to be. While goals and accomplishments are important in this process, they are insufficient because, as Brene Brown shares, “culture is less about what we want to achieve and more about who we are.”
As we embrace one another’s strengths, along with one another’s quirky imperfections, we engage in painful yet potentially transformative disruption, offering the promise of engagement, creativity, innovation, productivity, learning, and trust. The key to this transformation is a frightening, yet potentially liberating, embrace of vulnerability.
I welcome you to engage in courageous, compassionate, connected conversation on vulnerability and growth.
How have you cultivated the courage to be uncomfortable?
How have you helped people around you to accept discomfort as part of growth?
How has discomfort helped you to learn and to grow?
What if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on our strengths and capitalizing on our opportunities rather than fixing our weaknesses and responding to threats? What if we unlocked our potential to grow, thrive, and evolve? What if rather than sustainability and stability we focused on transformative possibility?
Members of Solomon Schechter School of Queens’ professional development team and Board of Trustees spent a day and a half with Charles Cohen and Ray Levi of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in imaginative exploration of the possible. Piloting a generative, creative planning process known as “asset optimization”, we began with a few “rules”:
* No silos allowed – multiple voices identify disparate assets, including human assets, to unleash new potential.
* Thinking must be interactive.
* Change and success must find common ground. We must not view change as an end unto itself, but rather as a vehicle for achieving success. Similarly, we must challenge the potential constraints of success, which can lead us to being stuck in what has worked even though our world is rapidly changing around us.
* The power of imagination must be embraced.
* In order to “connect the dots” in new, innovative ways we must identify dots we might not have even realized existed.
* The Head of School must accept not being the expert.
* The Board must support innovative thinking.
From there, we played. Using a model created by Shattuck-ST. Mary’s School’s President Nick Stoneman as a means of sharing the creative process that transformed his school over the span of a decade of innovation, we first engaged in two rounds of asset optimization using assets from schools other than our own. We worked with a very specific asset in each of six areas: Physical Plant, Faculty and Staff, Brand Recognition, External Relationships, Geography and Region, and Program Offered. Our task was to optimize potential by intertwining assets in these six disparate areas, finding opportunity previously unrecognized by connecting and combining asset categories in new and innovative ways in order to improve in seven specific areas: Faculty Engagement, Student Retention, Increased Enrollment, Facility Expansion, Endowment Growth, Additional Programs, and Alternative Revenue.
Charles Cohen and Ray Levi functioned as our coaches, activating our learning by observing, asking reflective questions to stretch our thinking, and offering feedback on what we might consider. They challenged us to be more specific and less “neat”, freeing us to resist the impulse to tie loose ends together quickly and instead to consider as many possibilities for building on strengths as we could. Working in two separate groups, we strove to optimize assets for two fictional schools, each with seemingly unconnected assets. Through the brainstorming, we crafted narratives of meaning, building on strengths to create schools that are world class – one emphasizing community and character; the other science and social policy. Inspiring us to live with the inherent messiness of creativity, at least for awhile, our facilitators sent us off on round two with two new schools and two new sets of assets to consider. To the delight of our facilitators, we emerged with “messier” packages of potential, and multiple potential directions for the schools presented to us – one a girls’ school emphasizing the arts and expanding into wellness programing and therapeutic arts for students and the broader community, and the other a struggling school in need of substantial intervention with a plethora of possibilities for improvement based on strengths, some of them initially hidden.
With the experience of imagining the possible in connection to fictional schools, with fictional assets, we were ready to identify real assets in our own school; dots we might not have yet even recognized in order to then connect those dots in new, innovative ways. Feedback from our coaches Charles Cohen and Ray Levi on our identification of our own assets was consistent with the feedback they offered in relation to our efforts at optimizing assets in the fictional schools which which we had practiced: be more specific. And so, we went back to work – identifying with much greater specificity faculty members, alumni, programs, and opportunities made possible by our physical plant. Those assets became the raw material with which we returned the next day to engage in multiple rounds of the asset optimization exercise using real assets of our own school.
Prompted by our coaches to think more expansively, more ambitiously, more creatively, more flexibly, and more specifically, we imagined a world class school. We envisioned signature programs and strategic partnerships enabling us to be ever more relevant to our students, preparing them in concrete, innovative ways for the rapidly changing world of work with emphasis in technology, science, and entrepreneurial ventures; infused with commitment to being socially responsible; deeply grounded in the enduring values and texts of our Jewish religious tradition. We described potential ways to build upon global connections stemming from our own multi-national, multi-lingual student and family population. Considering museums, universities, libraries, businesses, organizations, and individuals with whom to develop strategic partnerships, we recognized ways of cultivating connections to benefit our students. We imagined expansive potential for recruitment and facility expansion based on a virtuous cycle of optimizing assets.
Beyond the imaginative ideas, we experienced important shifting of mindset. Possibilities requiring effort, risk, and courage were shared aloud as possible, leading not to a sense of anxiety or outright dismissal, but instead to openness to further exploration. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” one participant playfully remarked, in reference to our rapidly changing world as well as the possibilities we together imagined.
Ready to leave the limitless world of potential and possibility and return to the more mundane day to day world of the operational and the tactical, we considered next steps that would enable us to build on positive momentum generated. Members of the professional leadership team considered concrete actions we could take to actualize some of the more manageable suggestions offered as well as to lay the groundwork for more ambitious innovation. Most significantly, we considered ways of bringing others who had not participated in the training into the process, primarily our Trustees and our faculty. Recognizing that at this time two days of learning combining theory and imaginative play with a purpose would not yet be achievable or even advisable for our very busy Trustees, or our very busy faculty members, we considered specific ways to infuse the language and thinking behind asset optimization into our work as we seek to shift our school’s mind set to a focus on identifying, cultivating, celebrating, and building on strength and opportunity. While much remains to be done, the conversation and learning has already had a potent impact. The toothpaste is out of the tube!
I notice. I wonder. What if? How might?
These four nonjudgemental prompts guide me as I share feedback with teachers. In the past, when I began my journey toward routinely and nonjudgmentally offering formative feedback to teachers in lieu of formal evaluations I avoided compliment as much as critique. What I like is, after all, as judgmental as what I don’t like. Yet, refraining from complimenting felt cold and detached. We all deserve appreciation.
The prompts (I notice. I wonder. What if? How might?) serve as a valuable lens, shifting the way in which I see teaching and learning during classroom visits, helping me to look with humility and openness. I have no “look fors” and no forms. I don’t carry my ipad with me or write feedback on the spot. Instead, I strive to engage in teaching and learning, being present with teachers and students in learning experiences. Later I write brief feedback for teachers: a compliment and four sentences (sometimes indulging in a bit more than four sentences, with potentially more than one sentence per prompt.) The sentences begin: I notice. I wonder. What if? How might? Teachers can embrace the feedback or question and refute it. They can engage in conversation about it with me, with colleagues, or with anyone they choose or they can elect not to speak about it with anyone. The feedback is not evaluative, and once given, belongs to the teacher as one of many venues through which to reflect, to learn, and to grow. It is a component of my efforts at supervision focused on professional learning rather than evaluation.
I consider myself lucky. As Head of an independent school, I have no state or district mandate on how I must evaluate teachers. That does not mean I have no one to whom I must answer. There is my school’s mission – the ultimate “boss” in mission driven independent schools, my Board of Trustees, parents who are electing to send their children to our school and are paying tuition, and ultimately to our students themselves. In addition, I must answer to our teachers. Although I am their supervisor, it is my responsibility to support them to succeed and to excel. The demands are high. To truly be effective, we need to remain open and honest about our impact; flexible and agile.
An example of feedback very recently offered; this one after visiting an upper elementary school math class is:
A compliment: You skillfully model for students the thought process required for estimation, or perhaps more accurately, mental math – an important skill. You carefully share with them the learning goal for the class and utilize language and visual cues in order to support student learning.
I noticed students participating in a lesson, guided by your careful prompts.
I wonder ways of assessing the range of understanding of students in the class. I wonder ways of determining potential areas of misunderstanding. I wonder ways of determining whether any students are ready to delve more deeply into the material.
What if students completed pre-assessments and worked in guided groups based on their performance?
How might the classroom be organized in order to allow for even more individualized attention and differentiated learning?
The teacher, a skilled veteran who is highly self-aware and attentive to the needs of her students, in this case did engage in further conversation with me about the lesson. She reached out to let me know the feedback helped her to think about her teaching and she continued to wonder with me about ways of reaching the individual needs of her students. We brainstormed together how the collaborative, guided lessons typical of language arts learning in her classroom might be extended to math; reflected on possible ways of organizing the physical environment in the classroom to promote more collaboration; and considered supports that could be utilized to assist with enhancing respectful interaction among students during more independent learning time. Such conversations do not follow each classroom visit, yet they happen frequently and are directed by teachers, serious about their own learning and about improving their own practice.
What approaches to feedback have been helpful to you? What are ways you believe we could transform teacher supervision from evaluation to opportunities for potent learning and professional growth?
What is an EdCamp? Why has it been among my first priorities as a new Head of School to host not one, but two?
To begin, for those not yet familiar with EdCamp style professional learning, as shared on the Edcamp Foundation wiki, Edcamps are:
Our first EdCamp of the year, organized as part of a year long series of Jedcamp (Jewish EdCamp) events throughout the New York/New Jersey area, balanced elements of Edcamp and elements of more traditional professional learning events. Described to potential participants as an Educational Technology and Social Media Conference, we sought to bring in educators not yet familiar with “unconferences”, for whom the thought of attending an event without knowing what sessions would be offered in advance still sounds foreign. On a chilly, Wednesday evening in Queens, close to one hundred educators from throughout the region came together to learn about ways educational technology and social media can enhance and even redefine learning and community for our students and their families. Sponsors covered the costs of dinner and snacks as well as door prizes and raffle prizes for participants. Attendance was free.
Session topics at our regional conference included: online and blended learning, project based learning and technology, educational technology for beginners, professional learning using social media, using educational technology to enhance the Judaic Studies classroom, using educational technology to enhance the Hebrew language classroom, eleven uncomfortable truths you need to hear about filtering the web, lessons learned from a 1:1 ipad rollout, using technology to more effectively differentiate instruction, smart use of smartboards in the Judaic Studies classroom, engaging parents through social media, collaborative learning with google docs, digital Judaic studies resources, blended learning in the Hebrew language classroom, and putting social media to work for school public relations.
The level of learning and engagement was extremely high and teachers from schools throughout the region gained knowledge, insight, and connections to continue their collaborative learning and exploration. Our own teachers who attended the event felt proud of our school as a place in which professional learning is taken seriously and asked for more, requesting that next year we have another conference and hold it, not on a week night but on a Sunday to allow more time for the learning and sharing. The talent of those presenting was impressive and the cost of such professional learning in traditional venues in which presenters are paid, would have been prohibitive. The open, respectful collaboration and commitment to engaging all participants was priceless.
Our second EdCamp of the year, planned on a professional learning day, was exclusively for our own teachers and ran as a pure “unconference”. We introduced the notion of participant driven professional learning and invited teachers to present and to learn. To our delight, session slots quickly filled with volunteers. While several adminstrators, including myself, stood ready to add our names to the sign up board to teach a session in the event teachers did not sign up to lead, we did not have to do so. Teachers stepped forward, excited about facilitating learning for colleagues. Topics included: classroom centers to support learning, bringing teacher passions into the classroom, making our teaching relevant to students’ life experiences, successes and challenges in implementing common core math, making modifications and accommodations for students with special needs, and helping students develop effective organizational skills to enable learning. Additionally, our educational technology coach, based on pre EdCamp teacher requests, led two sessions – creating online classroom spaces with Edmodo and educational technology tools to support reading comprehension.
“It wasn’t boring,” one teacher remarked, implicitly critiquing typical PD workshops well known to teachers in our school and in many schools. “No ‘expert’ read slides to us or spoke on and on without understanding our needs,” shared another. “I’m no longer afraid of technology,” excuded a third with a huge smile and a little dance, after attending both sessions taught by our ed tech coach. “We had fun,” said a fourth. “It was a fantastic day, and we all thought so,” asserted a fifth, confident she could speak on behalf of her colleagues.
Have you attended an EdCamp? Are there other opportunities for participant driven learning you have experienced? What ideas do you have to continue to make professional learning among teachers respectful, relevant, and impactful?
Recently my leadership coach presented me with a challenge: write about what you have learned in your years of experience as a school leader that you bring to the new position you have begun this year. The task sparked my imagination as I remembered the young educator I was thirteen years ago when I began my first principalship and sixteen years ago when I began my first school administrative position. What is it I believed then, I wondered, and what is it I believe now?
Once I believed initiatives and programs would transform. Now I believe it is through helping each person (students, teachers, administrators, staff, and volunteers) to be her or his best that our schools will be transformed.
Once I believed that setting the bar high would be sufficient. Now I believe that balancing ambitious expectations and robust supports for ourselves and others is necessary to make the progress we seek.
Once I believed timetables on progress could be imposed. Now I believe learning is not linear and sometimes detours on the path to improvement for students and teachers alike bring unanticipated gifts.
Once I believed we would thrive through learning from our mistakes. Now I believe that while mistakes inform, we will thrive when we can wholeheartedly learn from, celebrate, and build upon our successes.
Once I believed challenges were to be feared and overcome. Now I believe challenges are to be anticipated and embraced as a means of improving the quality of learning and community in our schools.
Once I believed success was the result of completing items on our “to do” lists. Now I believe success emerges from living up to the ideals of our “to be” lists; our core values, our positive energy, and our demonstrable delight in being present with our students and our teachers.
Once I believed my advanced degrees and years of training made me an expert. Now I believe expertise is found collaboratively and wisdom emerges through openness to ongoing learning and exploration.
Once I believed I could rely on my own knowledge base. Now I believe I must be wary of my “blind spots” and actively encourage honest feedback from many in order to gain insight on what I do not even know to ask.
Once I believed formal evaluations could be of true benefit to teachers. Now I believe that respectful, ongoing informal and nonjudgmental feedback from a multitude of sources on a combination of school-wide and individual professional goals is necessary for meaningful professional learning and growth.
Once I believed “telling” people our visions would inspire. Now I believe we must collaboratively craft visions and pace forward movement, celebrating even the small steps along the way.
Once I believed in communication to all constituents. Now I believe in conversation with all members of our community.
Once I believed that budgets and schedules were necessary. Now I believe that budgets are educational plans in numbers and schedules are educational plans in time; vital tools of learning leaders.
Once I believed it necessary to listen to the content and ignore the emotion in people’s words. Now I believe it is vital to listen to both content and emotion; choosing sensitively when to respond to the content of people’s words, when to respond to the emotion, and when to respond to both.
Once I believed we all needed to comply with the requirements of our supervisors and cooperate with the priorities of our peers. Now I believe we must all collaborate to achieve a shared mission and vision.
Once I believed that trust was assumed with our hard work and good intentions. Now I believe that trust, difficult to earn and easy to damage, stems from sincere appreciation for the capability and talents of others.
Once, when given the task to write about what I have learned in my years as a school leader, I would have composed a long essay ripe with academic citations. Now, given an optional assignment from my leadership coach to consider what I have learned in my years as a school leader, I have chosen to reflect on the essence of paradigm shifts on learning leadership I have experienced. Once I would have “handed in” the assignment requested. Now, I “publish” and share with my professional learning network, seeking insight, feedback, and ongoing learning.
What might you add? How have your leadership paradigms shifted throughout the years? What did you once believe and what do you now believe?
Parker Palmer, The Courage To Teach
Beginning my position as a new Head of School, I opened our first full staff professional learning session with the above quote from educator Parker Palmer. Determined to shift from my voice to our voices as quickly as possible, I moved almost immediately to a learning activity modified from one Palmer describes later in his book.
Imagine a moment when everything was going right for you as a teacher; when your teaching was so good you felt you were born to teach, and you knew you were making a difference for students.
The happy social buzz of first day greetings, which had begun shortly before our learning session as we arrived for a welcome breakfast, continued. The ebullient, celebratory mood of greeting friends and colleagues after a summer apart gently moved deeper, broaching seldom asked questions about qualities of teachers that lie at the heart of learning; transcending curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
After a short time, I invited teachers and staff who wanted to do so to share with the whole group; acknowledging teachers’ humility and reluctance to speak in a manner that might feel like boasting. The stories inspired. Some were about individual students’ triumphs in overcoming challenge or adversity; some about entire classes making remarkable progress; and others about a key attribute of a teacher that positively impacted students year after year. We applauded each and every speaker, beginning our year with appreciation.
We then moved just a bit deeper as Parker Palmer encourages us to do. I asked teachers to focus, not on their own celebratory stories, but on those of their colleagues, identifying the gifts, the personal strengths and qualities within their colleagues, that bring success. Colleagues talked about care, the ability to listen, patience, perseverance in the face of challenge, and grounding in enduring values. They spoke, meaningfully and thoughtfully, not about skills or specific knowledge, but rather about qualities that enable teachers to connect and build relationships with students. Intuitively, teachers reached beyond themselves, emphasizing the need to understand our students, equating greatness in teaching to connection with students; as individuals, as a class, and as a school-wide community of learners.
As we concluded the session, I shared with teachers my commitment to being present in classrooms regularly, not to judge, but to engage, learn, appreciate, and support. In time, I plan to offer ongoing non-judgemental feedback to prompt teacher reflection. Yet in the beginning, as teachers at my new school and I get to know each other and develop trusting relationships, I choose to refrain from offering feedback and instead to focus almost exclusively on presence and heartfelt appreciation. As the Head of School of an independent school, in which the format for teacher evaluation is not mandated by a district or the state, I have that freedom. I can take some time, engage with teachers, and collaboratively design a feedback framework emphasizing growth.
In the past I interpreted, or more likely misinterpreted, educational research as indicating that paradoxically praise is judgmental and disrespectful of teachers’ and students’ abilities to reflect on their own learning; successes and mistakes alike. Teachers opened my eyes; sharing the pain of giving heart and soul and only infrequently, if at all, receiving appreciation from supervisors. I have heard from teachers about how disconcerting it is to feel as if one is “on stage” as a supervisor, even a caring supervisor, observes. Trained to focus on learning from mistakes, teachers often, almost obsessively, analyze what went wrong in a lesson,while glossing over what went right. We frequently see ourselves through intensely critical lenses and imagine those observing us do as well. We too often neglect to celebrate our successes, inadvertently missing out on the potential to build from our strengths.
As Parker Palmer boldly asserts, it takes courage to teach. That courage deserves appreciation.
And so, I reach out to teachers in my own school, and to colleagues more broadly wondering about ways of structuring appreciative, reflective exploration of teaching practice. If you were able to structure a system of feedback for professionals to promote growth, in lieu of formal evaluation, what process would you use? What components would you include? What would be helpful for you?
“It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning and the relationships,” is a statement that has become almost a refrain within conferences and conversations about educational technology. And, that was the message at a session on educational technology to support school twinning programs I was privileged to present at recently as part of the International School Twinning Network Conference with my friends Amihai Bannett, Aaron Ross and Tzvi Pittensky.
We spoke of Skype, Edmodo, Facebook, twitter, google docs, google plus, student created videos and wikis. We spoke of the challenges inherent in connecting over different time zones, in different languages, with different facility and access to technology tools, while utilizing different curricula. We spoke of synchronous and asynchronous means of connecting students and of varying approaches to creating collaboratively. We spoke of a range of differentiated approaches effective with lower, middle, and high school students. But most of all, we spoke of nurturing understanding and friendship across distances and in the face of language and cultural divides. We spoke of understanding.
In some ways, educational technology is like cooking. There are talented professional chefs and skilled avocational “foodies” who relish experimenting with flavor. I am unabashedly not among them. While cooking is not one of my favorite hobbies, I can follow a recipe, and can even deviate playfully to an extent, so long as I don’t stray too far from the instructions. Similarly, I am by no means a “techie”. Indeed, I was humbled to present at a conference with colleagues far more knowledgable about educational technology than I am; educators who I met via twitter and would not have known had it not been for the ease of developing community and relationships via technology. While not an expert, I can follow instructions on how to use educational technology tools, even deviating playfully to figure out applications relevant to the goals of a particular project with which I am engaged. Just as I use a telephone to speak to family and friends, emphasizing the emotion, connection, and substance of the dialogue and not the telephone itself, I can use newer technologies as means to connect, collaborate, and create.
School twinning programs are not new. When I was in high school, I corresponded with a pen pal from Greece. Our handwritten letters to one another took days to arrive. Yet, we connected and even met each other when my pen pal had the opportunity to visit the United States. Today, technology enables us to strengthen global connections beyond what we could have envisioned in the days of handwritten, stamped letters sent via the postal service. We weren’t able to conduct an international holiday celebration with two classes via Skype, send instantaneous written communications via e-mail, speak to one another without travel via google plus hangouts, participate in shared learning experiences in an on-line classroom via Edmodo, nurture relationships in a fluid ongoing manner via Facebook or twitter, or create together via google docs or wikis. Our technology can positively impact our learning and our relationships. It is important; it’s just not the essence.
Ultimately, our session about educational technology was not about educational technology at all. The tools we shared are easy enough to use, either playfully figuring them out or by following user friendly instructions freely shared and posted in writing and in videos. Instead of those “how to’s”, we strove to remind those with whom we were learning of the “why”. Technology helps us connect in synchronous and asynchronous ways, nurture relationships over time, and create together. Which tool we use depends primarily on our purpose and our personal preferences among numerous good options. There is no one “right” way of using educational technology in connecting students globally. The technology itself is easy. It’s the learning and the relationships that need nurturing.
There are questions that resonate, holding our imaginations and keeping us wondering. There are questions that activate our learning, causing us to reflect and helping us to grow.
Recently Josh Stumpenhorst may have answered his own question with another post, this time an affirmation rather than a question: We Need Leaders #cpchat.
Once overcoming my initial defensiveness at the very thought that principals might not be needed, I began to ponder a number of related questions. Do we need principals? Do we need great principals? What makes a principal great? Do we need leaders? Do we need great leaders? What makes a leader great? As a principal and soon to be Head of School, I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, but instead to honestly assess how to design my role in order to make a meaningful impact.
In search of insight, I turned to the research of John Hattie, whose investigation of more than 900 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence based research into what actually works in schools. Citing a meta-analysis conducted in 2008 by Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe of 22 studies including 2,833 principals, Hattie defines three distinct types of school leadership: transformational leadership, instructional leadership, and learning leadership.
Transformational Leadership, according to Hattie is “inspiring teachers to new levels of energy and commitment towards a common mission, which develops the school’s capacity to work together to overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals, and then to ensure that teachers have time to conduct their teaching.” To me, this sounds quite good: inspiration, new levels of energy and commitment, a common mission, collaboration to reach ambitious goals, and respect for teaching time. And yet, Hattie reports that the impact of transformational leadership on student achievement is a mere 0.11, less than anticipated with no intervention at all.
Instructional Leadership, according to Hattie, occurs among school leaders who “attend to the quality and impact of all in the school on student learning, ensure that disruption to learning is minimized, have high expectations of teachers for their students, visit classrooms, and are concerned with interpreting evidence about the quality and nature of learning in the school.” To me, this also sounds quite good: a focus on student learning, high expectations, presence in classrooms, and attention to evidence about the quality of learning. And yet, Hattie found that the impact of instructional leadership was 0.42, barely above the 0.4 mark one could expect without any intervention.
Learning Leadership, according to Hattie, is leadership that emphasizes student and adult learning and occurs when leaders promote and participate in teacher learning through such approaches as providing coaching over an extended time, data teams, a focus on how students learn subject matter content, and enabling teachers to work collaboratively to plan and monitor lessons based on evidence about how students learn. (see Bausmith & Barry, 2011) In distinction to the minimal impact of transformational and instructional leadership, Hattie found the impact of learning leadership to be an impressive .84, placing learning leadership as among the most significant positive impacts on quality of student learning in schools. (Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Locations 3889-3892). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)
Interestingly, Hattie’s insights are not only for principals, our building leaders, but also for teachers, our classroom leaders. Just as John Hattie found a dramatic .84 impact when principals serve as learning leaders, he found the very same dramatic .84 impact when teachers serve as activators of student learning through offering feedback, accessing thinking, supporting challenging goals, and monitoring learning. Alternatively, he found a mere .17 effect size on student learning, less than anticipated with no intervention, when teachers act as facilitators of learning through problem based learning, simulations and gaming, and individualized instruction. (Michael Fullan, Presentation at the 2012 ISTE conference)
Perhaps the roles of principals and teachers, or at least the roles of great principals and great teachers, are not so different after all.
Trained as a transformational leader in the 1990’s, and serving in the mission-driven independent school world in which leaders are expected to inspire teachers toward a common mission, I have undergone a transformation myself in the past several years now striving to be a true learning leader. Hattie’s research, combined with my own experience, has led me to embrace two key ingredients necessary for greatness in principals, teachers, and students alike: coaching and collaboration.
Do we need principals? Of course we do. But, not the principals we may have imagined; not the disciplinarians and schedulers, not the visionaries, and not even the instructional leaders. We need principals who coach and are coached, who support teachers to look at student work together, and who humbly join mind and heart with teachers and students in the sacred task of learning.