It’s Not Defined by a Century: Today’s Leadership Challenge

21st Century Learning enables students to thrive in these complex, diverse and fast-paced times by de-emphasizing what can now best be done by computers and focusing on what they require to make sense of and contribute to the world around them. Step one is to augment the traditional ‘hard skills’ like literacy and numeracy with the ‘soft skills’ required to use them wisely and well. Step two is to discover and amplify the unique strengths and personal passions of each student so that they learn to think deeply and find joy in learning.
Bruce Beairisto, posted comment at “21st Century “Elevator Answer” Challenge

It all seems so simple: use technology not as the driver but as the de-emphasizer if you will.  Let it serve as a “game changer” not only for what students learn but also in how teachers grow professionally.   In so doing augment their traditional delivery with the ability to focus upon and impart the soft skills which define the effective classroom learning coach.  But how do you do this?

Harpadoc #36A4402-71

How can I help my Vice Principal, Thomas Harapnuick (my Vulcan sidekick), move from the Harpadoc to Google calendars allowing him to see that although there is an obvious learning curve, in switching over he will find more time to focus on what he does exceptionally well: help both staff and students make sense of and contribute to the world around them.

The leadership challenge of facilitating new ways of learning and the obstacles of moving from the known to the unknown have always been at the heart of education.  The “nearly now”, Stephen Heppel’s term, could be inserted in Neil Postman’s, The End of Education, and not look out of place.  My point is this:  technology may be the product but change is the process, and it is within this process that the school administrator’s leadership challenge resides.  It is a challenge which, as it has at John Oliver Secondary, can create situations involving complex scenarios.

From a paperless environment to teacher blogs, from the initiation of a Digital Immersion Program to the present day collaboration around an iPad literacy cohort for struggling readers, from @lsleung podcasted lessons, moodle and class wikis to online staff forums and a school twitter account: How we do business at John Oliver has significantly changed in the past three years.  These initiatives were put into place after discussions with all stakeholders at our annual Parent and Student Forums, Pro-D, School Growth, Tech and Staff Committees and PAC. They were meant to engage students in their learning using the platform in which they are most familiar and in doing so, these initiatives would serve as an invitation to staff to develop professionally within a supportive school community.  The leadership challenge was twofold:

  1. Helping everyone to see that although we were moving forward, we were transforming our delivery, but not our core purpose of providing students with enriching experiences, enabling them to discover their own admirable purposes and

2.  Reassuring all staff that change was not a mandate but an invitation and                     that embedded within the school itself were all of the resources, technical and                     personnel, that would ensure that support was present when and if they were                       ready to engage.

Despite the transparency of the process, the situation became complex in that some felt that they were being unfairly pressured to change their teaching practices and that change was just happening “too fast”.

  • What I failed to do as a leader was help those around me understand that acceleration does not mean exacerbation.
  • I had failed to manage the change effectively thereby allowing my staff to suffer information overload.
  • I had failed to see that for many the overriding sentiments would be: “What’s wrong with the way I’m doing things?” and “Are you saying that what I’m doing isn’t good enough?”
  • I made the classic mistake of confusing passionate compliance with professional engagement.

I set out and did what Lisa Petrilli or a leadership twitter user would have probably counseled me to do: engage multiple perspectives to create understanding and deeper knowledge around a learning initiative.

I listened to my staff but most importantly, I felt and acknowledged the fear and disquiet that many were experiencing.    What I learned from these conversations was that while we discuss the how behind school improvement, we should never neglect the why or for what purpose we are reforming and the impact it has on all those around us:

  • I set about meeting formally with all departments and speaking informally with all staff; 
  • I reviewed our direction but started from an appreciative level of what we had already accomplished;
  • I turned to staff, and continue to do so, to discuss innovation and the ways we could co-construct change together; 
  • I validated their experiences so that together we could create a sense of understanding of the present situation, a sense of why a change needed to be made, and a sense of inquiry so that everyone could share in the issue and the action plan.

At the end of the day, with or without technology, either through the use of social media or face to face interactions, establishing relationships based on trust is the primary medium for the acceptance and the success of any initiative.  Quoting Shannon Smith, “these relationships ensure that even when stakeholders disagree with my decisions, they are able to trust that I am acting from a deep conviction to my moral purpose: namely to build capacity for continuous learning within a caring and inclusive community.

Today’s leadership challenge has less to do with the product of 21st century learning and more to do with the process of leading people judiciously through difficult change.  As we continue to navigate the tumultuous waters of educational change (an ever present reality in our profession), the challenge, one as old as time, is quite simply this: with nothing more to offer than a possibility, we need to help those around us notice in ways they might not have noticed.  If we do this and wrap it within the comforting blanket of relational trust, then we can ensure that a possibility becomes a realized promise of success . . . for all.

  1. Gino, you’ve done a great job of openly sharing your process and speaking to how you adjusted your approach. You make a great point with “confusing passionate compliance with professional engagement”. Wow have I made that mistake before or what. Taking time, like you have, to personalize your message and purpose with each person is super important. Takes longer but makes a difference. Speaks to the need to be patient, stay in touch with the people around you, be sensitive to and aware of your own pace relative to others, etc. Doing so inherently builds trust doesn’t it.

    BTW, I need to add, I really appreciate your articles – you’re such a great writer! Keep on sharing.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Brian.
      Sensitivity, patience, understanding – some times I think that this isn’t a job but instead a vocation! 🙂

  2. Gino, many things really resonated with me, especially the quote about confusing passionate compliance with professional engagement. How many times have I been compliant as a teacher because I really wanted to support our principal? As an administrator, this comment will be a great reminder for me when I am uberexcited about some new research that I think would be great about student learning. Thanks for promoting a great discussion on our learning team in Coquitlam this morning.

    • How many times, Lisa, have I ‘lost’ my staff or ‘scared’ them because of my over excitement.
      I always thank my staff when they speak their mind (particularly n my office).
      None of us wants to be the Emperor with the new clothes!

  3. Thank you for writing, Gino. This quote below resonated with me as we have had an influx of new technology in our school this year – and the tension in our building is evident. A timely reminder to continue to nurture relationships with staff, demonstrate my own learning, and for me to be seen attempting and exploring these techonologies with kids and teachers.

    “As we continue to navigate the tumultuous waters of educational change (an ever present reality in our profession), the challenge, one as old as time, is quite simply this: with nothing more to offer than a possibility, we need to help those around us notice in ways they might not have noticed. If we do this and wrap it within the comforting blanket of relational trust, then we can ensure that a possibility becomes a realized promise of success . . . for all.”

  4. Gino,
    I really liked how you acknowledged that listening to dissenters can play a vital role in implementing change. It is so easy to embrace the views of those who agree with what we are trying to do – and so much more effective to examine the feelings behind those who disagree.

    • The dissenting voice really does have to be respected. I find that dissent comes from two places: 1. that of bad process and 2. that of a bad idea. If it’s the first then the discussion is managerial in tone however if the second, then great possibilities exist to co-create and find new meaning around change.
      In examining feelings, what you do is enter the interpersonal realm and even if the dissenter still disagrees with the initiative, the time spent listening, respecting and validating his/her/their concerns will only serve to strengthen one’s leadership and sense of integrity with staff

  5. What if…
    …our leaders used these tools in meetings with us (admin) and expected us to use them in our daily lives and with our staffs so that we are preaching from the pulpit, so to speak, and so are OUR leaders?
    …we walked into a meeting where we were told, instead of “turn them off”, “turn them on” and have a look at this?
    …we modeled and were immersed in models from our leaders what we believe learning needs to look like as we move forward?
    …we crank up a notch our craft of teaching, filtered through formative assessment and with an eye to the future?

    • A great series of “what ifs’ Cindi
      Moving beliefs into action – some powerful ideas here.
      Leaders leading with passion – what a great concept! 🙂
      Thanks for sharing

  6. Thank you Gino. Insightful comments and opportunities to engage in this meaningful dialogue about the future of education, are the best chance we have in moving forward…. “with nothing more to offer than a possibility, we need to help those around us notice in ways they might not have noticed”.
    My question is, can we always wait for “those around us to notice”, or are we purposed with leading during this change. How explicit do we need to be to help those conditioned not to notice?
    I appreciate your comments on acceleration vs exacerbation. I recently spoke with a colleague who had the opportunity to experience an intense leadership learning scenario where he was tasked to lead a simulated exbidition to the summit of Everest. Each person involved was tasked with working together while maintaining their personal agendas, leader’s word was final. Upon completion of the simulation my colleague was given feedback that he did very well but may have pushed his group to hard when he could have rested. The team that won to the summit was the one who rested at base camp three instead of pushing onto four. An intersting perspective of a young leader who is moving culture and change at a pace that may be admirable and possibly not achievable for all.
    The point being that your comments about invitation vs mandate ring true in many situations. I will continue to look forward to the dialogue that will make this change achievable and most likley sustainable.

    • Great questions, Mark.
      Do we help those around us ‘notice’ or do we allow them to discover it on their own? In moving forward, do we push too hard and in so doing, lose the good will of those we are working with?
      Each of us will lead differently; however, if we do not engage in supportive relationships built on mutual respect and trust, nothing goes forward.

  7. Gino,

    Thank you for being transparent about your experiences leading your staff. I appreciate your emphasis on the process as opposed to the product of change. Leading has become and will continue to be more challenging, but you remind us to stay focused on the purpose and core values. Great job!


    • Thanks for the kind words, Dwight.
      Process that keeps us grounded in our purpose and values. Sounds so simple and yet it can become so complicated

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