My daughter is thirteen. She’s is tall, blonde, and beautiful. More importantly, she is very intelligent, hilarious, kind, thoughtful, and so much fun to be around. She has made the transition to teenager pretty smoothly. She struggles, however, as most of us do with self-confidence. Yesterday at church, an older lady told me how gorgeous my daughter was. I went home and shared that with Sydney and her immediate response was, “Does she need glasses?” While I am proud that my daughter is modest and humble, I also want her to be strong and confident. My husband and I are the ones chiefly responsible for speaking life into her heart and truth into her mind. I want her to hear our voices when those seeds of doubt try to invade.
When I was an elementary teacher I often tried to speak into the lives of my students. I was fortunate to have my students all day long. It gave me ample time to learn about them and their home lives. Many of them didn’t have enough caring adults encouraging them each day. It was my job to discover the great things about them and to sing their praises to them and to others within their earshot.
As someone who now “teaches adults” through providing professional development, I find myself doing the same thing with them. I often hear, “I’m bad at technology,” or “I’m the slow learner in the group,” or “I’m not as good at this as they are.” When I hear these self-deprecating statements, I immediately go to cheerleader mode. I find a strength and convey it back to the learner. Everyone has strengths to build on. And everyone needs to hear them from someone else at times.
Who do you speak into? And who speaks into you?
I’ve worked with many school districts who have implemented a 1:1 initiative. They have experienced a variation in success. The success of an implementation isn’t based on the device, the grade levels, or the learning management system. It all centers on the leadership and the existing culture. Were all of the leaders part of the vision surrounding the implementation? Are all of the leaders good at communicating the expectations clearly and favorably to their teachers? Even if they disagree with certain components behind closed doors, they need to present a united front to their employees, parents, and students. Are they being provided good and ongoing professional development ahead of the teachers? If a principal walks into a classroom and sees a teacher using online flashcards and walks out thinking what an innovative teacher that is, then the professional learning is lacking for that leader.
The leaders need to set a culture of innovation. They need to model innovative thinking, learning, and practice in their everyday lives. They need to be effective communicators with their teachers, and a cheerleader for innovation. And they need to know what to look for when they walk into the classrooms in their schools.
- Successful change management begins and ends with the culture of the organization. Are the leaders relational? Do they seek insight from those they serve? The culture needs to be one of positivity, mutual respect, and an open door for learning through failing. The leaders need to make sure their employees feel comfortable trying new things without fear of repercussion if it fails the first time.
- If teachers and students are expected to be open to change and innovation, then the leaders should be modeling change and innovative mindsets through their own practices. Are some staff meetings held virtually? Are newsletters delivered digitally? Are leaders involved in ongoing professional development? For example, f students are to be utilizing Google Drive, then the teachers, principals, and district administrators should be using that suite of applications, as well.
- All change should be backed with a shared vision and specific goals. The expectations for meeting these goals and fulfilling the vision must come from the leaders. They should be clear, concise, and well-communicated. Every person in an organization should be able to tell you what the vision and goals are surrounding a change. If they can’t, then the leadership team is not communicating effectively. It is better to communicate expectations and responsibilities too often, than not enough. I’ve worked in districts where students were all given a digital device, teachers were expected to use them, but no clear expectations or outcomes were ever communicated.
It takes a constructivist culture, leaders who model expected practices and mindsets, and clear communication at every level to have a successful and sustainable change in any organization. These, along with high-quality and ongoing professional learning, determine the effectiveness of a technology integration.
In the past few years, there has been a growing belief (not among educators, by the way) that schools should be treated more like businesses. I want to counter that belief with one of my own. I think outside industries need more educators.
As a teacher, I had to plan months in advance, fine-tune my plans weeks ahead of teaching them, and then still alter them a few days prior to the lesson to make sure they best fit the needs of my students. And guess what, after all of that, we might have a snow day or a last-minute convo, and my planning would change yet again. Flexibility and adaptability are a necessary part of every school teacher.
As a teacher, I had to learn twenty-four different little personalities. I had to discover their best learning style and their preferred learning modes. I had to get to know their parents, home lives, and past academic experiences. Their needs were put before my own every single day. On top of that, I had to make my classroom fun…somewhere they would look forward to coming to each day. Somewhere they felt safe and encouraged to take risks.
As a curriculum director, I had to look at data for our entire school district. I analyzed testing information from various sources. I had to delve into the layers to determine gaps within our system, and how they compared with state and/or national trends. Once I found those areas, then I had to work with the different stakeholders involved, to better meet the needs of our students. I learned teaching styles and personalities of the all of the teachers in our district, and the leadership styles of the administrators. I provided articles, trainings, and one-on-one assistance to serve them best. Some pretty amazing initiatives were born from analyzing our district, what we provided, and what our students still needed. RtI, high ability programming, 1:1 implementation and a community-wide reading initiative were all born from data analysis, conversations and collaboration.
As an education consultant, I take all of these past experiences, and roll them together to plan trainings, tailor individualized coaching sessions or create online courses to further the professional learning and growth of the educators I work with. We are working from a shared vision, goals, and intended outcomes. The training I am a part of has to go much further than just the face to face time I have with the teachers/administrators. There are no “one-and-dones” as far as I’m concerned. I am an educator, and always will be. I care about what I’m teaching, and what is being learned.
This has led to some great discussions with people regarding the professional development provided in noneducational settings (aka businesses). One colleague, an HR specialist in a large school district and president of a professional HR group, shared with me an experience he had when mentoring people who were providing training in a business setting. He asked them what the intended learning outcome was for the training. The men were confused. They asked him what he meant by learning outcomes. He elaborated, “What do you want them to take away from today? How do you expect them to apply the learning to be more effective at their jobs?” They said something to this effect, “We don’t care. We just get up, talk through our powerpoints for a couple of hours and leave. Our job is done.”
This mentality makes zero sense to me. That is a huge waste of everyone’s time. Businesses need good trainers. They need people who will present relevant learning in an interactive method. They need people who share expectations, and leaders who will follow through with accountability measures after the training is over.
Businesses need people who constantly analyze the effectiveness of the organization (at all levels), look for gaps within the organization, and how it compares locally and globally. Then, they need to do something with that information. They need to have real conversations with a variety of stakeholders, working together toward a shared vision.
And lastly, businesses need leaders who care about their employees. People who learn about their personal lives, their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses. They need leaders who want to develop the people working with them to better the organization at an organic level.
So, while education can take some cues from the business world, I’d add that the business world could stand to learn some lessons from school systems and the educators who make them successful.
I had the privilege of spending the last two days in the schools of Pendergast Elementary in Phoenix, Arizona. The principals were welcoming, the teachers inviting, and the students’ enthusiasm was invigorating. The mornings of both days were spent doing site visits. We got such a feel for the climate and culture of each school from seeing what they hung on their walls, from watching the students learn, and talking to teachers about their excitement and trepidations surrounding the upcoming technology integration. My afternoons were spent talking and planning with a wonderful group of leaders at their central office. The key characteristics of good leaders I mention below are true in any field, but I titled it specifically to educational leadership in honor of those individuals I met this week.
Effective and innovative leaders all have the following characteristics.
- They are good communicators.
- They are willing to take risks and encourage others to do so, too.
- They focus on what’s best for the students.
- They keep their vision and goals in front of them.
- They are constantly learning new things.
This is a tough one. Some say that they don’t want to get to know their employees on a personal basis because they think it would hinder the respect they need as the leader. I’d argue that the respect will be deeper and more authentic if the employees know that their leader truly cares about them and what is happening in their lives. Think back to a time when you were a student in your favorite teacher’s classroom. What made him/her your favorite? I bet it wasn’t because of the awesome worksheets you got to do for homework each night. My favorite teachers are all people that I knew cared about me. I wasn’t just a job to them. Now think about your bosses. Do you have a favorite? I do. She was the second principal I taught under. She made sure her teachers knew that our families came first. She made sure that we knew that she had our backs to the public, the parents, and her own boss. She took time to encourage and support me professionally. It was on her office phone (because the others were all busy) that I found out that I was pregnant for the first time, and got to call and share that happy news with my husband. She was my friend and my boss, which made her a fantastic leader, and someone for which I enjoyed working.
I stand behind my statement that real (good) leaders work to build relationships, but I always welcome thoughts, questions, and comments.
- They love their students…even those who are most unlovable.
- They spend time getting to know their students on a daily basis. They know that relationships are the foundation for all real learning.
- They say “yes” more than they say “no”.
- They are willing to take risks and encourage their students to, as well.
- They are constantly learning new things. They don’t have to know how to do everything but are open to learning.
The first week of May is always a bit insane in my little town. For being so small, our town has a booming dance studio, and dance takes over this week as our kids, ages 3-18, get ready for the annual recital. I took my own daughter to dress rehearsal tonight. It’s hard to believe that it’s her tenth recital week. Here is one of my favorite parts…she takes lessons from the same teacher who taught me when I was growing up. She performs on the same stage I danced on for fourteen years. So now, I get to be one of those dance moms who saves new videos on how to put my daughter’s hair into a different kind of bun, carefully applies her stage make-up, and sits with a huge, adoring smile on her face as she watches her baby shine. As I sat there tonight, in this strange mix of nostalgia and motherly pride, my mind went to all of the great things I learned through my years taking dance lessons. And it only seems fitting to honor my dance teacher, who happens to be my daughter’s dance teacher, during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Let me interject here before I lose some of the anti-dance crowd – what I am going to write about pertains to all extracurricular activities. I believe in the benefits of sports, academic teams, choir/band, 4-H, and dance, to name a few…
I was terribly shy when I was young. I’m not sure if that’s why my mother enrolled me in dance when I was three (guess I could ask her, but it’s late, and I’m tired, so I’ll just write random run-on parenthesised thoughts, instead). Our teacher, Miss Terri, was a teenager when she opened her studio in our town. Her mother taught in a neighboring town, so dancing and teaching were part of her genes (obviously she also has heaps of patience, determination, and love, as well). We danced in a few different locations before she purchased the studio where she still teaches today. I can’t explain the bit of excitement that I get each year when it’s time to enroll my daughter in another season of lessons in that same studio. I love that Sydney and I have dance in common. One day, I hope she’ll look back on these years and think about all she learned from her time with Miss Terri and on the stage.
Here is what I remember:
- a patient dance instructor who loved what she taught, and taught us to love it, too
- a beautiful teacher who made me feel beautiful even through the awkward years
- friends to dance with – some of these girls went to different schools, even, but we danced together for years and laughed through more lessons than Miss Terri probably appreciated
- a teacher who pushed us to work harder, practice, and push ourselves to our potential
- a confidence that can only come from hard work, encouragement, and being in the spotlight proving yourself to your peers and community
- learning that smiling through mistakes really does make a huge difference in perception (both my own and for others)
- that I don’t have to be the star to be part of something pretty amazing
Today my stage is my living room and occasionally my kitchen. My audience consists of my husband and two kids. Dancing for them is all the dancing I need these days. But what I learned, and the characteristics I developed from my years in Miss Terri’s studio go with me in the way I interact with my family, the way I run my business and the way I live my life. Thank you, Terri, for continuing to give your heart to the kids of our community, and raising another generation of dancers.