Is leadership an innovative endeavour? – Response to George Couros

In January, George Couros asked this question and answered it with a definite “yes”.

I totally agree with his answer and his caveat that it should be an innovative endeavor.

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.

George Couros

As George Couros writes, the inability to think outside the conventional ‘box’ can lead torganizations like school boards to become irrelevant.

Almost as a response to this challenge, Larry Ferlazzo has written a good series on leadership –  Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

This three-part series offers a whole variety of ideas and suggestions from some of the top education leaders in the United Staes on how to support innovation in schools. One suggestion from Mark Estrada, principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas is very interesting.

School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

  • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset

  • Create space and time for new idea development

  • Build time for self-reflection

  • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’, and we want our students and teachers to embrace this idea. We don’t, however, insist that a growth mindset be adopted by school and district leadership. In my opinion, after working for years as an administrator in a large Ontario school board, a growth mindset amongst our leadership is sorely lacking.

I would argue that what we experience in many schools and certainly at the district level is a preservation mindset. Keep everything moving, nudge forward a little, pick up the newest fad in education, but basically keep things the way they are and celebrate compliance as the gold standard.

Those who do not accept this as the standard operating procedure are not welcome at the table.

So, while I applaud writers like George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, and Mark Estrada who work hard to extend the reach of new ideas on leadership, I have to ask – who is reading these articles, and who is simply paying mouth service to ideas about innovation, change, and bold leadership?

If our education leaders are not overly concerned with real innovation, do they risk becoming irrelevant?

The Principal as Activist

A few days ago, I was part of a presentation in front of the Ottawa Community Housing Foundation. We were talking about the work that we had done to raise money for a community organization called Rec Link by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. We talked about the importance of developing community assets to assist schools in high poverty areas. Rec-LINK was one of these important community assets that continue to be a great help at my last school.

One board member asked if it was normal for principals to develop strong links with community agencies that make the lives of families in the community richer. I had to say that, no this is not common. I do know some great principals who have linked their school to community agencies, but unfortunately, in my opinion, this is rare.

We are not trained to develop our community assets and this made me reflect on why I had taken this approach at my last school.

I think a great deal has to do with what I have learned from a visionary principal, Nelson Rutilio Cartagena Orellana who administers an elementary school in San Jose las Flores in El Salvador.

Nelson has been principal and a prominent member of the community of San Jose las Flores for many years. Nelson is everywhere in the community. He sits on local and regional anti-mining committees, he is always looking for ways enrich his school community through the development of projects that include an extensive garden and livestock growing project, a breakfast program for all students and a new computer lab for the school. He does much of this through the partnerships he has encouraged with schools and communities in Canada, Spain and I am sure many other countries.

Nelson was actually voted principal by the teachers of his school – can you imagine if we did the same thing here?

Nelson grew up in and around San Jose las Flores and was a young victim of the Sumpul River Massacre.  His brother died trying to cross the river and Nelson still wonders what he would be like if he was alive today.

A depiction of the Sumpul River Massacre. It is estimated that over 600 people, mainly women, and children were killed trying to cross the river from El Salvador to Honduras.

Nelson’s commitment to his school and community is very special. He knows that the children at the school have the potential to prosper in the future – one no longer clouded by war and oppression.

To be an educator in San Jose las Flores means that you are committed to bringing about social change for the children of the community and that you must use every asset you can find to make sure they have a bright future.

Children getting a mid-morning meal at the school – this program is funded by one of the many school partners.

While our challenges in Canada are nothing like those in El Salvador, there is an important message to be learned here. It is simply not enough to administer your own school and shut the community out. The problems that exist in disadvantaged communities in Canadian cities are too great to be managed by the school alone. Schools must develop stronger ties to local community agencies like Rec-LINK in order to provide the well-rounded education our children need to prosper.

This may be done at some schools, but if it does it is because of one or two inspired leaders like Nelson – it certainly is not common. The need for better integration between school and community seems to be poorly understood here and this needs to change.

A principal needs to be an activist. If they are not comfortable with that role, probably best to move on to a less challenging school.

The elementary school in San Jose las Flores

 

Big News – Growing gap in fundraising between affluent and needy schools

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Today the Globe and Mail’s great education reporter Caroline Alphonso put out an important article about the dreadful disparity that continues to exist between Ontario’s rich and poor schools.

Schools in affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising almost $50 for every dollar raised by a needier school, new data show, raising concerns about a growing inequity in public education.

If you don’t know this already, you should. Growing up in Kanata or Manotick is not the same as going to school in Caldwell, Russel Heights or Dalhousie. When you administer a school in the richer parts of Ottawa, you have access to thousands of dollars that you can spend almost any way that you want. As the article states, provincial regulations disallow you from building a new school addition, but after that obvious limitation, the sky is the limit.

When I worked in Manotick, the school council briefly debated, then purchased a new school mascot – big enough for a good-sized grade six student to inhabit for school rallies and events. This cost thousands of dollars. At my last school, we had a slightly oversized teddy-bear as our mascot. The Manotick school had three – count them – three good sized play structures, the last one costing over $80,000.00

When the topic came up at school council that as Catholics, we should share some of our cash surplus with poorer schools, the motion was quickly defeated – this money was for our kids.

So why don’t we share our revenue? No idea –  you would think that in a Catholic Board this would at least be debated.

Next question – why don’t we help the poorer schools? Oh, we do! The poor schools in Ottawa usually get a one-time grant of around $3000.00 to make up the difference. These special grants are not enough, they usually go to pay for food and clothing for our kids. As Alphonso writes:

The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the fundraising differences. It can’t compete, though, with the hundreds of dollars raised by schools in the city’s richest neighbourhoods.

The disparity problem doesn’t seem to be understood by school officials. Years ago, we were told that a special emphasis on the poor was going to be the mandate of the newest director of our board.

I wonder how that was to be acted out? Was it a matter of highlighting how certain students had made it out of poverty because of an excellent education? Is that really enough?  Is that more than simple charity?

If we truly want to redistribute income throughout the schools in Ottawa there is so much that we could be doing. It is simply unfair that some schools have more of everything than others, especially in one of the richest cities in North America.

Don’t be shocked by headlines that write about the growing gap – don’t look to poor countries in the South – look to schools in your own city.

 

Teaching as Resisting: Using Social Media in Difficult Times

“Schools should not, in other words, be responsive, welcoming, or servile in the face of change, but should be bulwarks against it. Schools should be the high point from which to watch the flood.”

Gary Chapman The Not School discussion of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

I read Neil Postman’s book Teaching as a Conserving Activity when I was in teacher’s college.  Something stuck with me, although I haven’t read it in over 31 years. To me, there was an important message in this book.  Education needs to stand in resistance to the dominant culture.

I have always seen the educator’s role as that of a subversive.  We need to resist the dominant culture and teach our children to be critical thinkers.

This is more important now than ever.

For most of us, we are living under a truly evil leader for the first time. This happens, it just hasn’t happened to us before.

Donald Trump is not something that we have seen before in an American President. Denying refugees safe haven and painting them all as dangerous subversives is simply wrong and we who teach need to stand in opposition to this type of thinking.

How do we resist?

I would suggest that this is the time to really embrace social media and teach our children how to use it responsibly.  I can no longer stomach those who say that social media is dangerous and has no place in the classroom.  Those who say our students use social media just to keep up with the Kardashians are really missing the point.  The Kardashians are simply the Flintstones of a new generation.

An older generation's version of the Kardashians
An older generation’s version of the Kardashians

Let’s move on.

Social media is the best way for all of us to resist the evil that now exists in our society.  Remember this, most of us have never lived under a Pinochet, a Franco, a Mussolini.  In the days of these and other dictators, there was no light that you could shine on their evil and have it viewed by others.

Our one hope is that the power of social media means we finally have a weapon to deal with ignorance and hate.

In 2007, a group of protesters in Suchitoto, El Salvador were abducted when they were protesting against water privatization. Their capture was caught on film and quickly uploaded to Youtube.  Ten years earlier, these protesters would have disappeared never to be seen again.

Because of social media, there was an international protest against the illegal capture and eventually, the Salvadoran Government was forced to release the protestors.

If you know anything about the slaughter of civilians during the civil war in El Salvador this was an incredible event.  International pressure fuelled by social media certainly saved the lives of these people.

Now, in 2017 we are faced with a government system that has all the earmarks of the oppressive Salvadoran regime of earlier days.  But we have the tools and as educators, we need to use them as a way to stand in opposition to racism and bigotry.

Look what is coming out daily through social media:

Ontario’s minister of health and long-term care says the province will offer to provide life-saving care to children whose surgeries have been cancelled in the United States as a result of recent travel restrictions.

“Given that this is a critical time for these ill children, our ministry and Ontario’s specialized children’s hospitals, which provide best-in-the-world care, feel the responsibility to act quickly,” Eric Hoskins said Friday.

Hoskins said it has come to the government’s attention that some critically ill children are being turned away at the U.S. border solely because of where they were born and that Canada has an obligation to respond.

CBC Ontario to provide life-saving health care to children affected by U.S. travel ban

Today, Uber also bowed to public pressure and distanced itself from the Trump government.

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So, resistance, peaceful and respectful works.  Let’s really be educators and teach our children that this is an important time.  Tell them to use social media in an intelligent way and resist.