One of my absolute favorite quotes is by psychologist, professor, and educator John W. Gardner. He writes,
“We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.”
John Gardner’s book On Leadership is one that I continually refer to even as I think about what happens in the education space. His idea that leaders set the tone and inevitably determine the rise or fall of those in their charge is one that I have always embraced. When I turn this lens to the work we do daily in education, it rings true still. As administrators, we are responsible for modeling the behavior that we expect from our teachers, principals, students, and stakeholders. That can be a heavy lift, but I would argue, such is the life of a school or district leader. This means that as a leader in education you can’t just ask your teachers/principals to “incorporate more technology” if you have no idea of how to open your Gmail or design a Kahoot or use an iPad. You cannot ask teachers/principals to engage children meaningfully if you have spent no time teaching alongside them to understand the complexities of their classrooms. Yes. I said teaching alongside your teachers. There is nothing wrong with modeling best practices all the way down to taking over a lesson or at least co-planning and co-teaching one. Teachers benefit because they may learn something new and you benefit because you can keep your instructional skills sharp and your perspective spot on. I would also add to this that you cannot hold teachers/principals accountable for parent engagement when you have done little to reach out to your schools/districts parents and community. On behalf of your subordinates, if it is so easy to do the you do it first. You show me how this could be done and then I will feel safe enough to try it.
Teachers this applies to you as well. How many times have you assigned something to your students that you have not completed yourself? Think of the 50 problem homework assignment sheets, the 30 minutes of reading each evening, the speeches and presentations, the quizzes and exams that you have given to students. Do you test run every project by first designing it and then completing it yourself before assigning it to students? Consider the impact of that. Are you showing your students how to be a great student? Are you modeling the hard work and dedication that you expect from them? In the case of student driven projects, are you there working alongside your students as they try to problem solve and complete their work? If you want a classroom environment that feels safe and allows your students to thrive you have to model the kind of student that you want them to be. That means getting to work yourself. On behalf of your students, if it is so easy then you do it first. Make a model for me to follow and then I will feel safe enough to try what you are asking me to do.
A TED Talk (you knew it was coming right?) I really like on this subject is by Simon Sinek who also happens to be the author of a book I love titled Leaders Eat Last. In his TED Talk he says:
“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”
You can watch the full talk here:
If you would change out the business language to think of what we do on a regular basis in schools I think you would come to understand the importance of what Sinek is saying. As a leader, you have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable for the betterment of the organization. You have to create a feeling of safety by risking your own ability to hide behind your title. Be vulnerable and be a learner. Make mistakes and admit them. Show that you really are in this with your subordinates and your culture will change. Remember, to lead is to constantly learn and while others may not tell you the truth, I always will. Your students/teachers/principals need you to go first and model the positive attitude, growth mindset, and collaborative approach you ask of them if you are ever going to improve outcomes in your classrooms. – Dr. Kia