Response to George Couros’ Post: We can’t ask teachers to be innovative in their practice while administrators do the same thing they have always done.

We can’t ask teachers to be innovative in their practice while administrators do the same thing they have always done.  I have noticed that the schools where teachers are doing incredible things have leadership that innovates inside the box. They do not just encourage different thinking and action, but they model it through their own process in supporting teachers within the constraints of the system.

I wrote this in response to a great post by George Couros today. Goerge does challenge and he asks questions that are difficult to answer. His post prompted me to respond on his blog. I have written an extended response below.

Hi George

Yes, your ideas make a great deal of sense. It seems to me that there is a creativity barrier in education. We want our teachers to be creative, we want them to empower students and we want an engaging learning environment.

However, when we pass over the Rubicon into administration, we mostly value compliance. You are now an ‘officer of the board’ whatever that means and what is most valued is your ability to do what the senior admin wants to be done, sometimes at the risk of suppressing the creativity of staff members.

Creativity can be a liability. In administrators, it is seldom valued and to remain creative is a risk that sometimes will lead to disapproval or even sanction.

This is a big problem in our education system, one that I don’t know how we will break out of.  How can a system that devalues innovation survive?

Every day I see creative work being done and shared by educators. But not from administrators. Their voice is more muted and their contributions often fall into the category of ‘cheerleading’. This is a shame because administrators can be innovative too.

Maybe they are at their best when as George Couros writes, they are supporting the innovative efforts of others. Is that the best that we can do?

There seems to be a great shift that that takes place when we become school administrators. We enter a world where compliance is the main value. To question and to innovate is not acceptable and is seen as risky.

Thanks to George Couros for writing this piece. It takes courage to question the status quo and I appreciate his efforts to do this. I really think we need more educators with the ability to call into question some of the failings of our public education system.

How can we ever have an honest public debate about the quality of public education if many of the main actors feel that they play no role in commenting and questioning how we are educating our children in 2018?

If not us, who are we leaving this to?

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Who Leads in our Schools?

I saw this quote this morning. It is not a new idea, but it is certainly worth a discussion. As I continue to look for topics to write about, I continue to come back to leadership issues.

There are lots of people writing about leadership – there always has been. Sometimes I wonder how much experience these writers actually have working in a school dealing with the day to day difficulties that come with running an education institution. These days to get good ideas I usually go to my PLN on Twitter. There is a great deal of collective wisdom out there.

I put out this prompt to my PLN this morning.

I would like this to become another rolling blog, written by the members of my PLN. It worked once, and I hope there is some interest in discussing leadership as it happens in our schools. Is it simply the ‘frightening conclusion’ reached above by Jennifer Gonzalez?

I hope not. For me the best leaders are those who are almost invisible, silently encouraging others to have a voice.

Is this a difficult topic to talk about? I don’t know that many active administrators on Twitter, so it is hard to get their perspective. One very active member of my PLN  writes:

The collective whole sets the mood, culture and tone of a school. There are many leaders within any school. When teachers start seeing themselves as leaders in education and admin empowers such leadership that’s when education will change

Great to see this contribution, it makes me feel more positive about things. I truly worry when I hear that a school is defined by its traditional leader. I could write more about this, but I would love to see if others will add to this comment.

The contribution above also speaks to the need for change. Maybe if we can move away from the top down system we have now we can see the sparks of innovation really begin to light a flame.

Later in the day, Derek Rhodenizer sent me a note about a podcast conversation he had with Debbie Donsky on education leadership. This is one of the great things about developing a PLN on Twitter. You ask questions and great people get back to you with interesting content.

This is a really interesting conversation and worth listening to. Debbie Donsky makes some good points about taking a more collaborative approach as a leader in the school. Change should be able to take place in a school as a collective experience that reflects the needs of a wider community. This is harder to do, but this is an important element of effective leadership.

This is one of the great things about podcasts. In 40 minutes Debbie and Derek covered so much about how to be a different leader, one who is not the leader on the hill. Their podcast would be great for teachers interested in becoming an administrator. I can think of many administrators who would also benefit from this conversation. There is no way I can do justification to it here, but it is a rich conversation and really worth listening to.

It is great to hear from my PLN as I work through some of these questions on leadership. I hope for more to come!

 

Response to George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

So what do you do if you feel you have outgrown your leadership to ensure that your own growth doesn’t stagnate?

George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

A terrific question and not an easy one to answer.

I find I get my best prompts from George Couros’ posts and this is a really good one. One pause first- it is really important when considering an answer to this question not to think that you are better than the leadership you need to get away from. I believe you have to do all three things that are mentioned in George’s post –  find mentorship outside your organization. (online and offline), disrupt your routine, and certainly, leave. I have done all three and have been very critical of my former employers since I have left working for a school board. While they have reacted poorly to my posts, I think it is important to understand their point of view.

It is extremely difficult, maybe impossible to be innovative when you represent a large district. Their role is to preserve and to protect – how can you be expected to be innovative and creative at the same time? Is this even possible? Maybe it isn’t and my criticism, therefore, has not been completely fair. So, maybe the best response is as George writes in this post – look elsewhere for your inspiration, disrupt the routine that is holding you down and most certainly leave and start over.

This can allow for an outpouring of creativity and I have found this to be the case. I believe I have continued to grow as an educator and especially as a blogger since I have left my district. I am no longer held down by institutional leadership and this has freed me up to question some of the practices we take for granted.

To allow yourself to become overly frustrated by a leadership structure that is no longer growing is not useful for anyone. The beauty of developing your own personal learning network is that you can free yourself up from institutional thinking and find inspiration from leaders and writers who are moving in a new direction.

Eventually, this may not be enough and you may leave a structure that is holding you down. This is not easy for educators to do, but it is important to consider if you are being stifled by leadership that is no longer growing.

You may also need to ask yourself – what will be the consequence for staying put?

 

 

The Importance of Team on Kilimanjaro

our group photo on the Stella Point summit

Every day new impressions come to me about the Dream Mountains Kilimanjaro experience. Today I am thinking about the importance of team in our success in making it up the mountain.

Team is something that Shawn Dawson and the other leaders emphasized throughout our seven-month training period. We did group hikes in the Gatineau, we climbed Mt. Marcy, we got to know each other through team socials and events throughout the fall and winter. The importance of ‘team’ was pounded into us.

We actually only really came together as a group once we were all together in Tanzania as our team came from locations across the country.

Through six days of hard climbing on the mountain things changed. We really became a solid unit. We were all that we had. On the mountain we added 93 porters and guides to our ever expanding team. We were becoming a unit moving towards the summit.

another day of trekking up Kilimanjaro – we always climbed as a group

This is where team becomes real. I remember one day near the Lava Tower. I was totally exhausted mainly due to the effects of altitude sickness. My group headed out and I just couldn’t keep up with them as we scrambled down steep scree. I should have stayed behind, but that was my group and I needed to be with them. After a few minutes of scrambling, dizzy and head aching, I saw just ahead of me a smiling Jason Colley, calming waiting for me. ‘We saw you on the scree, so I thought I would wait for you’.

Saved by the group! I formed up with the others and made it down the steep descent to our next camp. Jason, our group leader stayed behind me the rest of the way to make sure I made it down safely to camp.

On the summit night, I was part of a group of climbers who found ourselves together, alone on the mountain slope. The sun was just coming up, but we were chilled to the bone and exhausted. We sought shelter behind a big rock and tried to figure out what to do. Some of us – including me – suggested turning around. We really didn’t know where we were on where we were heading. We were immobilized as more climbers piled into our shelter equally exhausted. Then a super duo, Megan and Heather Benoit (twins no less), told us all to get our act together and get climbing. No one had a better idea so slowly we started following Heather and Megan up the slope.

On the slope close to our group’s ‘moment of truth’

This was the ultimate team moment. Shawn couldn’t do any more for us. He had trained us well, now it was up to us. We all turned toward the summit and every member of our group summited within the next two hours.

This was for me the most dramatic moment in the climb. We were a true group, formed through challenge and hardship, totally trusting in each other. We encouraged each other for the next two hours and then happily embraced when we finally made it to Stella Point.

Another moment. Much later in the day we descended from the peak to a rain forest camp. I had injured my leg on the initial descent and was very slow getting down. The other climbers, equally exhausted had gone ahead and I was alone on a steep and rocky trail.

A porter, carrying another mammoth load saw me and stayed with me all the way down to the camp. It got very dark on the trail and I didn’t want to stop to find my headlamp. No need, the porter lighted my way down all the way to camp. Once we finally arrived, he made sure I signed in and then passed me off to another porter who led me to my tent in the pitch darkness. I thankfully collapsed into our tent so grateful again for the wonderful team who shared the mountain with us.

Our wonderful team gathers for a photo on the last morning of our descent to the park gates

Do the best teams develop through adversity and challenge? I am not sure. I only know that I feel closer to these people than I have felt to any group for years. Obviously, I don’t include my family and the people I worked with at my last wonderful school, but apart from these people, I can’t think of another group of people that I feel a closer bond to.

What a wonderful privilege to have experienced this level of closeness with people who were complete strangers only a few months ago – what a true gift. Maybe this is the true meaning behind this experience, there is huge value in working closely with people in situations of true adversity – this is where you really can define what it means to be a member of a team.

If I decide to climb again, the group experience will certainly be one of the main reasons for going through all of this again!


a wonderful, joyous celebration with our porters and guides the morning of the final descent

Lessons learned while climbing Kilimanjaro

On Mt. Kilimanjaro, we climbed for 8 days, usually 6-8 hours a day, not including the 16-hour summit day.

That gives a climber lots of time to think.

Now that I am back in Canada, I am trying to put together some of the lessons I have learned while on the climb. There are several I am mulling over now, I am sure there will be more later.

First, take risks. Its a short life and it is very easy to get caught up in the comfortable routine of everyday life. I sincerely believe that you need to be looking for the risks out there that will make you a stronger person, that will help your school, that will enhance learning and that ultimately will stretch you out of the comfort zones we all enjoy too much.

For me, I needed to get out of the destructive cycle of work and I needed to challenge myself physically and spiritually. In some ways, I needed to find some way to cleanse myself from the corporate education world. Bitterness and cynicism were seeping in and I needed a totally new challenge to break a destructive cycle. Climbing the highest mountain in Africa seemed to be the ticket.

The Barranco Wall – looking down

If you are not taking risks, what are you doing? What are you waiting for? Why are you wasting your time waiting for something to happen – nothing will unless you make it happen.

Second, your body is your vehicle. I have taken part in some challenging physical ventures over the years. As a youth, I planted trees in the mountains of British Columbia. Later, I ran marathons and more recently, I took part in bike touring events stretching over two days and over 300 Km.

What I learned from these experiences and again on Kilimanjaro was that without a well-maintained body I was going nowhere. I trained hard for six months to build up my muscles and lung capacity, I was careful about what I ate, I drank up to 6 litres of water every day on the mountain. All of this because I wasn’t going to make it if my body shut down – it was the only way I was going to summit.

This is a great thing. We really don’t have to depend on our bodies very much. We may appreciate them more when we get sick, but generally, we live a pretty sedentary life and we make few demands on our bodies. It is liberating to turn your focus on your own body and see it as the only vehicle that will help you reach your goals. I appreciate my body more now and am committed to keeping it in good shape to be ready for the next challenge.

Tough morning of steep climbing on the way to Shira Camp

Third, what is your social mission? We are all connected and many of us in the Global North are very privileged. So when choosing a venture or a project, ask yourself what is the social good I am creating as part of this project. For us, this was easy, each of us was connected to a charity through the Dream Mountains Foundation.

If I ever do this again (I can’t believe I just wrote that), I will do it because the expedition will allow me to give back to the community – in my case the Sens Foundation.  Everything we do is social and everything we do should have some social good attached to it. When I worked at my last school, all our projects were designed around the idea of helping students and families that did not have the same opportunities as most of us enjoy. All of the Dream Mountains charities try to address this imbalance.

Finally, listen to people who know what they are talking about. As a principal, it was easy to disregard the advice I received from many people. Part of this was plain arrogance, part of this was based on the fact that I didn’t always receive very good advice that could help our students and our school – very few people at the district level had a good understanding of the roadblocks to progress that existed for our children.

So, it is important to discern. Who has valuable advice. Who is motivated to work with you to make you and others successful? This is a challenging process and you may be disappointed – many times over. Having said this, there are good, wise people out there who will work with you and will ensure that you are successful.

On Kilimanjaro, we had three people like this – Shawn Dawson, Kristi Johnston and Jason Colley – our Canadian guides. Each of these people consistently gave us all important advice that prepared us for this incredible climb and that protected us on the mountain. I can’t say I always liked their advice, but they were right, they were experienced and most importantly they knew how to lead people – a very rare commodity in my opinion.

I can say I listened to them, I took their advice and I have immense respect for all three of them. In your own ventures and work, try to seek out people like this, people you can really trust who will not let you down.

If you are a leader, try and do this yourself. Don’t disappoint the people who work with you. Strive to give them advice that will empower them and help them grow.

Make sure they make it to the top of their mountain.

Our Dream Mountains Team at the beginning of the climb