Sunday, April 10, 2016

3 Challenges to Leading and How To Overcome Them

Before I made the jump to administration, I rarely led professional development. I'd like to think that I had a lot to offer my peers. So although opportunities to lead PD were scarce, why didn't I ever take
the lead?

Honestly, it comes down to one word: FEAR.

Fear of Criticism
As a leader, even if it's just temporary position, your shortcomings are often highlighted and your strengths are overlooked. Public criticism, or even worse, behind-the-back critiques can be the norm. As an administrator, criticism comes with the job, and I remember my first principal telling me, "Expect it. Take it. Get out ahead of it." It comes with the paycheck. Self-awareness is a must.

But for teachers, this burden is often too much. An excellent and innovative teacher, whom I've known for more than a decade, never lets fear hold her back. She pursued innovation and the opportunity to lead, but far too often cynical peers lambasted her for her efforts. We shared the same ideas and principles, but honestly, she was either stronger or more stubborn than I was because, as a teacher, I never had the courage to put myself out there.

While she was often a lone crusader, even when you work as part of a team, you face criticism. I worked closely with a voluntary group of about a dozen teachers who were responsible for the school improvement team and professional development. These highly dedicated, innovative and student-centered teachers faced a barrage of criticisms from their peers for their plan, leaving many to question their own efforts.

Fear of Failure
Faced with uncertainty of their efforts, these teachers feared that their efforts might fail. When all The team by no means failed and the professional development model and school improvement plan were great successes. 
eyes are on you, the pressure mounts and the fear of failure rises. For driven educators, failure is the worst thing in the world.

When we lead, failure is imminent. If we don't ever fail, are we actually leading? The best we can do is own up to our own mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments. 

Fear of Innovation and Responsibility
Many organizations, including schools, have deeply embedded cultures that fear change and innovation.  In such organizations, mistakes are seen as failures. All feedback is seen as criticism. Growth goals are minimized to ensure they are easily met. Sadly, I worked for ten years in one school and over that time I saw little innovation; the status quo always won out. If the leaders didn't seek change, why should I lead the charge?

Without the support of leaders, teachers will never feel comfortable expanding their comfort zones and growing. In a culture of learning, risk-taking and growth are encouraged. The expectation should be for teachers to explore and innovate with an understanding that mistakes will happen but only through the process will growth and excellence be met.

I'm proud to say that I've become more comfortable taking risks, leading the way and no longer am I crippled by fear. I'm not sure why this is the case? Perhaps, it was the change in schools? Perhaps it was becoming an administrator? Or maybe, it's just been my own personal growth and the support and encouragement of others. Honestly, I'm probably also selling old-self a little short. Regardless, I hope to foster a culture of risk-taking and innovation where nobody is fearful.

Related blogs 
Administrators Role in Encouraging Risk-Taking
Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom Environment

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

5 Barriers to Innovation

What is best for the student?

Dedicated educators are constantly asking themselves this question as we strive to create innovative learning experiences for our students. We need--our students need--new ideas and inventions that fly in the face of the status quo and transform our schools.

While our education systems has made great strides in recent memory, we need to do more. So why aren’t we making the necessary innovations?

5 Barriers to Innovation

Isolation Many teachers believe, “I’m doing fine. My students are doing fine,” they shut their classroom doors and go about their business. Even the most reflective teacher, who remains isolated, lacks the ability to share and learn from others.

For many years, I was an isolated teacher, one who was successful but whose growth was limited by my isolation. I was perfectly content to shut my classroom door and teach. In truth, it wasn’t until I became an administrator that my perspective widened as I began observing and communicating with peers.

Budgetary Constraints  Expansive collaboration--like shared collaborative planning time--requires time and money and many innovative ideas require increased funding.
For ten years, I was part of a high-functioning  freshman transition team. As part of our vision, we wanted to go to 1:1 technology. Our school administration was on board, we asked the higher ups for money, but alas no money was available. We wrote grant or two. Again a no go. We gave up. Back to traditional paper and pencil teaching.
Risk Intolerance: A child’s future is in the hands of his/her teachers. A failed standardized test can mean a student doesn’t graduate. Of course, many teachers are either formally or informally judged based on their students’ test scores. School communities, including the families they serve, are not risk tolerant.

After taking my class, students took a state-mandated standardized test; for many of my students this was their best chance to earn a required social studies credit. I’m proud to say that my students did extremely well on the test. But, knowing the “importance” of the test, I was always reluctant to take a risk, weighing the risks vs the consequences, far too often I stuck with the status quo.

Fads Filled with cynicism, many teachers see the next wave of innovation as a fad. I heard one teacher exclaim, “I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve seen it all. Portfolios, technology, project-based learning. It’s all the same. It’ll come and it’ll go. Just like everything else.”

Innovative ideas, whether a fad or not, often complicate teachers’ work leading to disheveled implementation, dumbed-down instruction and ineffective instruction. Finding the appropriate balance between improvement and innovation

Control Who controls the decision-making in your school? In one system where I taught we were prohibited from straying from the state curriculum. Observing administrators opened up the state framework and tallied instructional time into three categories (black: directly related to the prescribed curriculum, white: outside of what should be taught, and gray: information that falls somewhere between black and white). Needless to say, “effective” teachers spent most instructional time in the black. Teachers were rewarded for PowerPoints that essentially copied and pasted from the state curriculum.

In writing this blog, I came across the stark realization that schools were not designed to innovate and are inherently risk avoidant. Innovation is risky, causing many people to run away from it and it’s almost become reflexive for many educators to say, “We’ve never done this before,” or “That won’t work.”

Too often we fall back on what is easy, what’s known or what’s comfortable.

We despiritedly ask, "Why bother?"

Innovation means working towards our ultimate goal of improving lives. Our mission as educators is to ensure each student reaches their potential, and we must constantly explore ways to ensure this happens. We must do what's best for our students. 

What are some barriers to innovation that you've experienced? Or better yet, that you've overcome?

Related Blogs
Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom 
Administrators Role in Encouraging Risk-Taking