Leading with an Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC

leading-with-an-innovators-mindset

One of my goals this year is to help create a culture of innovation and risk taking on the campus I serve. My last post highlights why that’s so valuable to me, so I won’t retread that conversation here.

Innovation, creativity, and change are not ushered in through announcements. Most of what is worthwhile in education just isn’t brought about that way. But that’s left me wondering this: In my role as an assistant principal, what do I need to do to make our campus a place where innovation and risk taking are embraced?

My first answer is that I need to practice what I preach (meaning I better be taking some risks myself if I want them to).

I wrote recently about how we often position ourselves in the safest positions in education. What do I mean by that? We find all the symbolism and then lead the discussion. We work all the problems and then share them with the class. We find all the pitfalls and then carefully avoid them as we lead instruction.

While it’s good to provide solid examples, I think it promotes an “I have it all together” attitude and persona that is really detrimental to a growth and innovator’s mindset.

So I think it’s worth our time to look at ourselves as learners in light of these eight characteristics that George Couros claims are essential to an Innovator’s Mindset. Here’s a great graphic from Sylvia Duckworth that outlines the eight characteristics.

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I’m a big believer in the idea that models accelerate learning. But although modeling well is crucial for our success and the success of others (especially as innovators), I think we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that being a model is enough to lead widespread innovative change on any significant scale.

For me, the problem is that I feel really comfortable reading a book like The Innovator’s Mindset, determining what I need to do to grow and innovate, and letting that be my method for bringing about change. In the long run, I think it will bring about some change, and it’s certainly better than letting the status quo roll forward for another year. But I think we can do better.

Realizing that modeling alone cannot be my answer, I kept coming back to this question, “What can leaders do to cultivate an Innovator’s Mindset in both themselves & among those they lead?”

Not surprisingly, that’s not a quick question to answer.

I tried to tackle it as a big question, but I just couldn’t. Innovation is so intricately layered and multi faceted in many ways that I couldn’t manage it as one big, huge question. So my answer to the question above is broken down into the 25 questions below. Each is tied to a particular element of Couros’ 8 Characteristics of an Innovator’s Mindset.

innovators mindsetWhat follows is really a reframing of chapter 3 in George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset. Where his recommendations (at least upon my reading) are for teachers setting up innovative learning spaces for students, I’ve tried to draw out what will challenge me to be a better leader on my campus. It’s not a linear list; don’t try to do all this in one PD day. But as you plan for your year and ask your teachers to be innovative, remember to hold yourself to the same standard.

25 Questions for Creating an Innovative Campus Culture

  1. Empathetic
    • What did I want from my leaders when I was in the classroom?
    • In what ways am I the leader who frustrated me?
    • Do I lead PD that I would want to attend?  Do I offer any PD that I could sell tickets for? (With special thanks to Dave Burgess for inspiration…)
  2. Problem finders
    • Where have I asked for a linear solution to a messy, complicated problem?
    • How can I provide structures that validate messy, non-linear professional learning?
    • Where am I providing too many answers and robbing teachers of the opportunity to become problem finders?
    • How will I develop a clear understanding of teacher needs?
  3. Risk-Takers
    • What are the best opportunities for growth you are doing for teachers on your campus? Compare what were you doing two years ago with what’s new this year. Consider opportunities for innovation.
    • Where are the areas in greatest need on innovative change on campus? (And don’t just ask yourself. Ask your teachers this, too.)
    • What are you doing as you lead professional learning that was happening 10 years ago? There’s probably an opportunity to innovate on your list. What will you change first?
  4. Networked
    • How are you learning about the awesome things that are happening in classrooms and on campuses across your campus? Your district? Your country?
    • How are you using connections to other educators online to improve professional development on your campus?
    • If collaboration is important to you, how are you creating time for it to happen during scheduled professional development?
  5. Observant
    • Dream big–What would it look like for your school to become a model of innovation for your community, even to those outside the education world?
    • Where do you get your inspiration from inside the education world? What about outside sources?
    • How are you giving teachers the necessary autonomy for innovation to occur on your campus? Is this the model you want teachers to follow for students?
  6. Creators
    • If “learning is creation, not consumption,” how do your PD sessions allow for teachers to create as they learn?
    • What could teachers create during PD to show their learning?
    • What have you flipped in your professional development? How might this be beneficial to professional learning?
  7. Resilient
    • Change is uncomfortable for many. What pushback should innovative leaders anticipate?
    • What barriers can you take down for teachers who want to be innovative on your campus?
    • As you move through the change process, how will you invite and provide space for teacher feedback?
  8. Reflective
    • How will you inspire others to be more reflective about their professional learning?
    • Reflection will draw out failures, and failure is scary. How will you recognize the role of failure and welcome it into the larger conversation about innovation?
    • Leading well is tough. How will you be innovative about your support system as you lead others toward innovative change?

I’ll be writing more about my own journey with innovation over the next few weeks as part of this MOOC (massive open online course) centered around George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset. I’ll also share throughout the year as I try to innovate and help others do the same. Check out the #IMMOOC hashtag to see some conversation about innovation in education.

Thriving as an Assistant Principal

Thriving as an Assistant Principal

There’s a difference in feeling capable at a job and feeling that you thrive in it. I sure prefer the latter, but that isn’t something you often stumble yourself into. It takes planning and intentionality. So before the year begins, I decided to think through those things that I can be about as an assistant principal that will help me help our campus.

Assistant principals who develop lasting, trusting relationships with their staff build on a foundation created by doing their job and doing it well. An AP needs a foundation of credibility before he can earn the relational capital that creates trust. Establishing your ethos on campus comes in a variety of ways (and happens differently in each unique situation). I’ll be the first to say that each path toward trust is unique, but it’s never bad to start by managing the referrals that come your way fairly and efficiently, committing to being a learner in your leadership role, and moving toward each new year looking for ways to serve students and teachers in new ways.

Though that trust must be earned, your work as an AP is far from over when you reach that point. Having the respect of the teachers is not the same as having a relationship with them. Cultivating those trusting relationships is vital if you’re interested in creating change (and who isn’t interested in creating positive change). To do that, you have to take the time to ask good questions and put your to-do list of important things on hold long enough to really listen to what’s urgent for the teachers you serve. More often than not, those questions fall into one of these four categories:

1. Ask about the family.

We spend an incredible amount of time asking teachers to give of themselves at school. We know our students deserve the attention of their teachers, but we don’t always know how much our teachers are juggling outside of school. Asking about a teacher’s family can help us get to know teachers as a whole just like we often ask them to do with their students.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

  • How’s your daughter’s basketball team playing? Is she enjoying college like she thought she would?
  • So you’re son will be a freshman here next year; what’s he excited about? Worried about? Are there any questions I can answer about our school for you as a parent?

2. Ask about professional interests.

We do a lot of talking to teachers when it comes to professional development. If we’re going to ask teachers to customize and individualize learning in the classroom, we need to be ready to do the same for our staff. Matching our practice with our message builds trust with teachers.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

  • How’s the year going? Where are you doing your best work? What would you try if money or time weren’t barriers?
  • What if you could pick your schedule next year; what would it look like ideally? What are you doing this year that’s different/new?
  • That thing you’re trying out this year–maybe it’s stand up desks or ditching homework/the textbook–how can I help encourage others to do it too? Also, how is it different than you expected it would be?

3. Ask for input before making decisions.

All leaders know the power of buy in, but it’s not always the quickest road to a solution. However, getting buy in on the front end of change can make a profound difference on the success of any attempt at change in a large organization like a school.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

  • If we went from 4 to 3 lunches, where could we best use the time in our day? What could you do with 25 minutes a day?
  • What do you want to learn about during faculty meetings? What are you tired of learning about in faculty meetings?
  • What do we need to spend more time looking at?

4. Ask for critical feedback.

We provide this for teachers routinely, but we rarely ask for it in return. Hearing critical feedback makes us better at providing the same for teachers, and knowing the concerns of those we serve allows us to keep a close watch on that which impacts those activities.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

  • What do you think of the new schedule? What problems did it solve? What is more complicated with the new schedule?
  • Talk to me about a particular student; what’s working, what’s not, and what is the best support I can offer to help him keep learning in your classroom?
  • What do you think we are missing as administrators that you see as a teacher?

Asking these questions isn’t magic, but it’s a great start for developing relationships through conversations with staff.

Finally, as an instructional leader, you have to walk the walk. Credibility has a short shelf life. We need to keep ourselves current, and we need to keep investing in our teachers. If your professional development sessions are lifeless and flat, you’re not going to earn yourself any points with teachers. Even though faculty meetings and PD days are important arenas in which we must excel, we can’t only show up then. A trusted AP will be looking for new ways to learn on his own and will be actively seeking opportunities to bring others into his learning. Invite people to a Twitter chat, help out with an EdCamp, create a Voxer group to highlight great things happening on campus. Do something to engage in a different way. Excellence in this area alone won’t create lasting relationships and trust, but it will steadily increase your credibility you’ve developed with the staff.

If you have any other ideas for ways to thrive in the role of assistant principal, please share! We’ll get better together!

Lead Like an MVP

Lead Like an MVP (1)

I have to admit it. I love watching Stephen Curry play basketball. With Curry on the court, the game is more exciting and more fun! He’s redefining the game for the better, and this year, Stephen Curry is this year’s undisputed NBA MVP. In a unanimous vote, he was chosen as the most valuable player. Take that in for a moment. The most valuable player in the entire NBA.

For me, that’s a lot to take in. One of the things I like about it the most is that the award is the most valuable player, not the best player. It may seem like a slight difference, but it’s substantial to me. The title “Most Valuable Player” begs the question–most valuable to whom? I tend to think it’s to his team. The organization. The teammates. The fans.

The most valuable player is more about his team than about himself.

The most valuable player represents the name on the front of his jersey–not his name on the back.

The most valuable player makes others better around him.

And it’s clear to everyone who is watching that Curry does just that. He makes success about the team. He represents the organization and team above all. He makes everyone else better around him.

Watching the comments from Curry’s press conference accepting the award, I couldn’t help but think that there is a lot we can learn from him as educators. These four ideas stuck out to me as great reminders for educators who want to want to be the most valuable member of their team–not for a trophy, but to serve others well and put the best opportunities in front of our students and teachers.

Be the Unexpected Leader

Early on, Curry’s head coach, Steve Kerr, commented that Curry’s “own mom didn’t even know if [he] would make it in the league.”

I love that.

How unlikely is it that someone who was passed over for scholarship after scholarship was even to have a chance at playing in the NBA, much less end up as MVP? But Curry doesn’t seem to be one who needs permission or a road map. And we would do well to follow his example. We should be more willing to take the lead, figure it out, and stop listening to the reasons why we shouldn’t do something. There are too many of them. We can’t afford to let them keep us still. Move forward, defy the odds, and lead from where you are.

Push Through Failure & Celebrate Success

Curry’s head coach, Steve Kerr, followed up with a comment on how much Curry struggled the night before. Curry, a prolific 3 point shooter to say the least, missed his first ten 3-point attempts. Not good. But, as Kerr describes, “he made the 11th and shimmied down the sideline.”

Our work is full of this. (Or if it’s just me who experiences this, someone find a gentle way to break the news to me.) Even when we’re operating in our strengths, there are times when the success feels pretty far away. As I watched Curry throughout this game, he never hung his head, never felt sorry for himself. He kept pushing forward, stepping into his role after missed shots, and putting up the next shot that made sense. An MVP keeps pressing forward into what’s right. Don’t let obstacles slow your progress.

Take Inspiration From the Team

Selfless leadership is really important to me. There are a lot of leaders who lead so that they are front and center, so that the attention is on them (along with the credit for a team’s hard work). I really respect Curry’s genuine comments to his teammates. For a guy who is the unanimous MVP to come out and say to his teammates, “You guys inspire me to keep getting better,” I’m impressed. I think it’s important to remember that leading from this sort of posture isn’t just a nice caveat or a feather in Curry’s cap; it’s a prerequisite for being a leader who is this effective.

Aspire to Excellence

Before Curry’s press conference concluded, he shared one final goal: “Let’s win a championship.”

I think that his perspective, one driven out of a pursuit of excellence, pursuit of being the best, is one we should emulate. “Good enough” teaching isn’t good enough. If we are content to sit on our laurels and rest easy as we determine how much to push those around us to be the best, we aren’t going to accomplish what our students deserve. We owe it to our students (and leaders–we owe it to our teachers) to give our all in pursuit of excellence.


One last note–I think there is a lot that we can learn from Stephen Curry’s response to his MVP award. But it’s important for me to remember that for all the attention he will (and should) receive after winning this award for a second season in a row, he never set out to to accomplish this as his goal. He’s aspiring to something far higher than individual gains here. He’s aiming for the greater good. He’s aiming for the best for his people. And he’s just being himself the whole time he’s doing all of that.

As you finish our the year, I hope we will, too. There are too many who will benefit along the way for us to give anything less than our best.