More Than Words: Keeping Your Best Invested in Your School and District
By Scott Fuller, Next Generation Learning Coordinator at Colorado Springs School District 11
"The realization that management no longer cared about winning slammed me harder than any linebacker had ever hit me in my entire career. That realization trivialized everything I did during the off-season to prepare myself. It trivialized everything I dreamed about from the time I was a kid in Wichita ..." - Barry Sanders, Hall of Fame running back for the Detroit Lions
I loved watching Barry Sanders play football for the Detroit Lions as a kid. For so many years, he was the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable organization. When he abruptly retired, most fans were angry, disappointed, and confused. Why would someone in the prime of his career who was praised and admired by all leave the game he was once so passionate about? Now I get it. You see, the Barry Sanders story is one that many innovative educators actually share.
Most educators I know aren't innovating just to say they did. They have a fundamental belief that they are working to design models of teaching, learning, and leading that will inform the direction of their school or district in the future. They get excited to share what they are doing (although they are the furthest thing from self-promoting). Without leaders actively supporting them through the investment of resources like time, professional learning, and coaching, our best educators are at risk of feeling as if their efforts are being trivialized. Once this happens, the thought of leaving begins to creep in.
Much like Barry Sanders, our best educators often leave the organization or profession because of a perceived lack of commitment from leadership. The tendency to give our most innovative people 'all of the room they need' to be creative and try new things often translates into isolation and frustration. The teachers and principals I get to work with report high levels of frustration when those who evaluate them passively, support their work from afar, or simply give them permission to try new things. They want to be engaged by leadership in their work, coaching, and most importantly, they want to know that their hard work and risk-taking is recognized as an essential part of moving the entire organization forward.
To ensure our best people are empowered rather than isolated, it was critical for me as a district facilitator to shift my own practice. Understanding that I needed to invest the bulk of my time in developing those who were most engaged in the work was essential. Although this is still a work in progress for me (and something for which I continue to receive executive coaching), here are a few tips I've picked up along the way:
- Invest in people, not programs: One of the most important responsibilities any leader has is to identify and develop the talent around them. Author Norm Kunc says that ability doesn't create opportunities, opportunities develop ability. Those I work with want more than dollars and dispensation, they want to be challenged and they want feedback. Providing opportunities that aren't tied to a scripted program or curriculum is essential to their development.
- What's hot, what's not: This is one that really shook up the way I work. To truly invest in the talent around me, I need to get to know people better. I do that through monthly one-on-one meetings with a simple agenda. These meetings are based around listening to the perspective of the educator across from me and being mindful about ways to share 'what's hot,' while shifting resources to support them with 'what's not.' That's it. Thirty minutes, no top-down information sharing, just empathy building at its best.
- Connect the dots: When I was introduced to networks of like-minded people who could push my practice and share the good, bad, and ugly of our work, my levels of happiness increased exponentially. Breaking down the 'walls' of a classroom, school, or department is more possible today than ever before, and it is the responsibility of a leader to facilitate that. Whether it be through peer coaching and observing opportunities (I love the #ObserveMe movement), social media sharing of promising practice, or empowering personalized professional learning sessions created for teachers by teachers, there is power in the sense of community that develops.
For a school or district to achieve sustainable success, we must shift our focus from remedial techniques that are designed to ensure everyone is working in the minimally proficient ways to one where we're making huge investments of time in our most innovative practitioners. It takes more than words; it takes a commitment to learning with and from our most innovative people in order to impact the larger organization.