4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation: A Response to George Couros

1. Are your professional learning opportunities mirroring what you want to see in the classroom?

2. Are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practices?

3. Is there transparency in your practice and learning? 

4. Is collaboration an ongoing norm or do individuals and teams work in silos?

George Couros 4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation

Wouldn’t it be great to be in a principal’s meeting where everyone, including the superintendents, were asked these four questions? What a rich conversation this would be!

School Boards love to be seen as being innovative. Mostly this is because while they truly value innovation, it is almost impossible to achieve.

In my last school board, we all had to have a school innovation plan. It used to be a school improvement plan, but innovation sounded so much better. Basically, we were all going to be innovative and we were going to make sure we were being innovative by June 1st at the latest.

It sounds silly and it certainly was. I think large organizations really value compliance over innovation any day because innovation is messy and is hard to regulate. Large school boards are not good at messy.

Compliance, however, means that there is alignment from the top to the bottom (school) of the organization. We are all moving in the same direction and that direction is very innovative.

George’s questions are great and we should be asking our school boards and school administrators these questions. They are really hard questions. Take the first one – does our professional development mirror what we want to see in the classroom? Maybe, but then principals would have to have autonomy over what professional learning is in the schools and that seldom happens. More often, the professional development plan is directed by the school board and the plan has to align with the greater goals of that board. Not a recipe for innovative practice.

One more question – are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practice? To examine this, we would need to look at a school board’s policies and procedures and see who they actually serve. Do they work to develop a more compliant culture or do they truly allow educators to innovate and take chances – another tough question.

I responded briefly to George’s post below. If you are an administrator, how would you do with these questions?

My response:

Really thoughtful post thanks for this. School boards love the idea of innovation, but it is really hard for them to practice this. By their very nature, they attempt to preserve what they have. This does not lead to innovative practices, but no school board will ever say they are not innovative. They may have ‘school innovation plans’ but they are hard-pressed to actually do very much that is innovative. I don’t think this is really the fault of the school board – how can a large organization or corporation really be innovative? This is a really big challenge

Response to George Couros: 4 Ways To Not Let Others Dim Your Light

One of the great things about walking all day is that you have lots of time to think. This latest post has been on my mind and I think after walking such a great distance, it is a good idea to put this out there.

Again, George Couros is an inspiration, but this is something that was on my mind throughout our West Highland Way trek. I would encourage you to read his entire post. He makes a great deal of sense and I just wish more people in senior administration would do more than just retweet his work and ponder what he is saying.

I hope that what George writes and what I am writing here will help people who are going through similar experiences. If this is you, read carefully what George writes and don’t let anyone ever dim your light!

The reality of our world is that people get threatened when other people shine their light on the world.  This bothers me even more so when it is educators doing it to educators, as our jobs are to empower those we serve, not try to bring them down.  If you are doing this to a colleague or peer, would you do it to a student? Would you do it to my daughter if she was in your classroom?  In education, this is unacceptable.

Here is my response to the post.

Thanks George, a very good post and excellent advice. There does come a time however when you need to consider leaving the system when those in positions of higher authority have made the decision to block you any way they can. I guess this come under #3 ‘move on and ignore’.

You are right to point out that it is strange that educators can treat other educators poorly, but my experience tells me that with a few notable exceptions, educators forget who they are (or were) the higher up the corporate eduladder they climb.

They can be very cruel and unforgiving to the point where on my case, they suspended me for three weeks without cause. While I was later vindicated and invited back into the professional fold, they never apologized which to me is inexcusable.

A year after my suspension, I retired from my board and I am much more at peace. I still have a great community of positive fellow educators that I work and correspond with, but I no longer have to suffer the negative soul destroying authoritarians who made my life so difficult.

Coming on to two years now after the suspension, it still rankles and this is something that could still be solved with a simple ‘sorry’.

How can we expect to make real progress in our education systems when the people at the top expect blind compliance. To forge a different path means that you could be punished with impunity.

That was the end of my comment today.

I don’t expect ever to hear from my former employers. It would be good if they took responsibility for their actions. It was shameful, but I have certainly moved on.

I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have had the privilege of assisting my partner through major surgery and I have trekked more than 100 km through the Western Highlands with my daughter.

I have left the past behind and I love the exciting challenges that the future presents.

Thanks George and the West Highland Way for getting this post written – finally! Now on to more great positive adventures in the future.

Fostering a ‘why not’ Mindset: Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin

Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin
WE Day Conference speaker, New York Wednesday, September 20

You often speak about adopting a “why not” mindset. Can you explain what that means?

The “why not” mindset is a mindset of possibilities for almost anything, for community partnerships, for the ability to do more than what we are expected to do. As a principal, I was tired of just getting things that we needed. I wanted to have things that our scholars – I refer to our students as scholars – wanted, and also that they deserved. In other words, why should not we deserve the best? That type of thinking changed our attitude of what we deserved. My perspective is for us not to just think big, but to think even bigger.

My partner Heather read this quote to me yesterday and it has stuck. I am always trying to figure out what really good leadership is all about and why it is such a rare commodity. Rare at least in my definition.

I think it has something to do with courageously adopting a ‘why not’ mindset. I have seen these type of leaders in the past, people like Carol Hunter a now-retired principal in the Ottawa Public Board and Lorne Howcroft, my first principal in the Dufferin-Peel Board. Both of these individuals were striking in the sense that they had a real vision of what was possible and neither felt confined by the narrow strictures of the district bureaucracy.

This type of leader is an inspiration. They have real courage and do not define themselves by the current mandarin mantra.

The important line in the quote is ‘why should not we deserve the best’. Getting the best for your students will mean working outside the confines that your school board wants to put around you. How many leaders are comfortable with doing that?

Most school leaders believe in alignment – the idea that the main ideas that govern the school are seamless with what the school board and by extension what the ministry believes in.

No really strong leader was ever praised for doing alignment really well. To do the best for your staff and students, especially in hard to serve areas you need to be an unconventional thinker and look outside your district for partners that share your vision. School board administrators want you to support their vision – I don’t think you can do both. To really serve your community you have to find a new way.

Most school leaders will not accept these ideas and I have had discussions with administrators who certainly not hold these views and who actually judge my thinking on non-alignment to be disloyal.

My question is, who are we supposed to be loyal to? Why were we hired to lead if not to think on our own and advocate always for our students? If we have the courage to do this we must accept the enmity of those who believe our actions must always align with those of our district.

The school leaders I have the most respect for all had difficult relationships with their district supervisors. To me, that is a sign they were on the right path. I am sure it has been the same for Dr  Sanderlin.

We don’t need to be proponents for the district mantra. We need to say ‘why not’ and act for our communities. If we don’t, who will?