Will the Real Disruptive Educators Please Stand Up?

Originally posted on LeadUpNow

As educators when we hear the word disruptive, our minds usually reflect on students in the past who have misbehaved in school. The word disruptive often has a negative connotation associated with its use. It is synonymous with words like troublemaking, disturbing, distracting, and unruly. 

However, the beauty of the English language is that we have multiple meanings for words. When I searched Google for the meaning of disruptive, the search engine returned two meanings:

1.) causing or tending to cause disruption

“disruptive and delinquent children”

2.) innovative or groundbreaking

“breaking a disruptive technology into the market is never easy”

To frame this post, I want to focus on the second meaning of the word as I define and illustrate the meaning of a disruptive educator.Disruptive Educators (1)

Disruptors Innovate

Disruptive educators are innovators. They are chasers of the breakthrough, and they are driven by groundbreaking discoveries. They don’t know when the breakthrough may come, but they continue to disrupt the status quo in an effort to innovate. Disruptive educators are committed to radically changing our profession by creating a new way of thinking about how we educate students, and how we grow professionally. They are the early innovators and early adopters who have the courage to explore something new. Simon Sinek references the Law of Diffusion of Innovation in his How Great Leaders Inspire Action TED talk. Disruptive educators fall into the 16% of the profession who are either the innovators or who are the early adopters of the innovations.

Disruptive educators have a drive, a different speed that is driven by a purpose, an attitude, and an unrelenting sense of determination to contribute to a greater good. Being a disruptive educator is a way of life. It is a thought-process and a state-of-being. Disruptive educators are not uncomfortable with others challenging their thinking. In fact, disruptive educators welcome the challenge from those who are not quite sold on their innovative ideas. They need the early and late majority who challenge and question their innovations. It is this questioning and challenging that helps them refine and improve their thinking. If the innovation is real, it will eventually reach the tipping point and become a new way of doing business.

Disruptors Find Their People

Disruptive educators are connected. They are not lone rangers. A lone disruptor may be viewed as a nuisance, a troublemaker, or a radical who others may not take seriously; but a connected disruptor is part of a movement others want to join. Disruptive educators are contributors and collaborators. They seek to disrupt, not for notoriety or fame, but because they see a need and want to make a difference. More often than not, disruptive educators are not self-proclaimed. Others have identified them as disruptors because of their openness and willingness to share. Disruptive educators are committed to making great things happen for students. They understand that BIG things don’t happen with small thinking.

Disruptors Move Beyond the Conversation

Disruptive educators choose to be bothered and challenged by what others believe to be impossible. They have bold dreams and the courage to not only pursue their dreams but to make their dreams a reality. Disruptive educators are writing a story and acting it out simultaneously. They are key players in the story they are writing, and they live in a state of constant revision. They don’t know how the story will end, but they write the story with such purpose and passion that the journey is worth more than the final destination. They try, they fail and they try again. They are persistent, courageous, and so necessary to our profession. Disruptors not only join the conversation, but they turn the conversation into action.

The status quo is not and will not ever be good enough for me. I challenge you to change the education narrative by moving beyond the conversation of what’s wrong in schools and focus on what’s right. Focus on your circle of influence and innovate in your current setting. Disrupt yourself! Our profession and our students deserve it. 

Building Professional Capital to Impact Student Learning

A fundamental core value that I hold as a leader is that it is people, not programs that improve schools. I consider it my primary responsibility to hire well and to build the professional capital of those who are working under my leadership. I understand that the success of my school is dependent on my ability to focus on areas that make the greatest difference. Being able to do the most important things well creates the conditions that are necessary to innovate, transform, and sustain change. As a leader, I have found the following activities to be purposeful and important in creating a collaborative culture among the educators in my building:

  • Identifying student learning needs
  • Developing a strong instructional core centered around best practices
  • Providing structure and support that allows teachers to learn from each other
  • Monitoring and evaluating progress

In collaboration with my instructional coaches, I lay out the instructional focus areas for our campus. It is this focus that centers our work and drives all professional learning decisions. Since our work has been focused and intentional, teachers have had the time to grow and develop their professional capital.

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In order to move our work to the next level, I made the decision to introduce the instructional rounds practice to my teachers. I have participated in the instructional rounds process with a team of principals for the past two years, and through this collaboration, I have gained a great deal of insight about instruction and the importance of reflection. Because of my experience with this process, I wanted to create a framework for teachers that would allow them to learn from each other. The goal of the rounds process is to create the opportunity for structured discourse and reflection about our instructional practice. Another goal of the rounds process is to professionalize the role of the educators in the building.

Prior to conducting the rounds, we identify the problem of practice in which to focus our attention before we enter classrooms. The purpose of the instructional round visit is not to be judgmental about one another’s practice, but to learn from colleagues, to gain insights, new understanding, and to identify strong instructional practices. By analyzing our instructional core as a group, we are utilizing the collective expertise and experience of the group to build professional group capital.

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As a team, we review our collective agreements for how we will engage with one another during the classroom visits and during the debriefing process of those visits. Setting the stage for the day is a critical activity and a huge factor in ensuring that the instructional

rounds visit is a time for focused learning. Participating in the instructional rounds process is voluntary. Most of the participants are looking to learn how to improve their practice. After the classroom visits, the team returns to debrief and share the data collected during the rounds process. Discussions about next steps for campus professional learning, as well as personal reflection time about how their own practice will be impacted as a result of participating in the rounds process, are key areas of focus during the debrief session. At the end of the every instructional rounds visit, the feedback from the group is shared with the staff, and the leadership team analyzes the reflection sheets to identify common themes.

The benefit of implementing this work on my campus has been amazing. The collaborative learning that occurred across grade levels strengthened and added value to the professional core of my campus. Teachers are now seeking guidance from their colleagues on how to address instructional issues, and they are engaging in dialogue about professional best practices. They also felt validated about their current progress, and they are highly engaged in their work as professionals. It is unlikely that the rich dialogue and reflection that takes place at the end of the instructional rounds process would have naturally occurred if teachers had not been given the opportunity to observe and learn from each other. Building the professional capital of the teachers on my campus by empowering them to learn and share with each other positively contributed to the collaborative culture of professional learning at my school.

Resources used to move the work forward include:

How have you built the professional capital within your school? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Real Leaders Practice Vulnerability

I have had the privilege and honor of serving as the principal of Cimarron Elementary for five years. What is remarkable about my journey is that my path was not a traditional path to the elementary principal seat. In fact, prior to becoming an elementary principal, the last time I was in an elementary school was as a 5th grade student. I was never an elementary school teacher, and outside of occasionally teaching Bible class at church, I did not interact much with children under the age of 11.

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As I reflect on my time at Cimarron, what humbles me is that I went in not knowing the inner workings of an elementary school; but as I exit, I wholeheartedly believe that I am a better educator and a person because of my time spent at the elementary level. There were a number of things I did not know or understand about the elementary experience or the day-to-day logistics, systems and structures that are so critical to the daily operations. However, what I did know was how to empower those around me to not only bring out the best in themselves but how to utilize their strengths to bring out the best in me. I needed the team to help me on this leadership journey. I knew I didn’t know how to do everything, but I was confident that I could learn how to do what mattered most, which was to create an environment where teachers and students felt safe to dream, dare and thrive.

Leadership does not know levels. As educators we often put ourselves into boxes of expertise based on the certifications we hold. Our certifications make us feel safe saying, “I am an elementary person,” or “I can’t handle older kids.” We all have our personal preference when it comes to age groups or content areas, but a leader who is a learner can work out of the box when he or she is called to do so. I want to be a learner of children, not a knower of a specified age group. If I had restricted myself to only secondary level leadership, I would have missed out on the best five years of my career.

Becoming an elementary principal was the biggest act of vulnerability that I have ever practiced. I started my new role by saying to my staff, “I don’t know how to do this, and I need your help.” I showed up, and I was ready to be brave. I have a strong desire to lead, but more importantly than that desire is my heart for kids. It is my heart for kids that compelled me to challenge myself to lead at the elementary level. I focused on my strengths and surrounded myself with a team of committed staff members who helped me figure out the rest. In the beginning, I am sure there were a number of critics in the cheap seats who took bets on how long this secondary person could last in the elementary arena. In fact, some days I questioned my decision to lead at that level. But by practicing vulnerability, I was able to get people out of the stands and into the arena with me, and that made all the difference.

Behind every successful principal is a staff lifting him or her up. A leader is only as successful as their followership, and there will be no followership in the absence of leadership. My success as a principal has nothing to do with my content expertise, my meticulous analysis of data, or how well I discipline children. My success is rooted in my ability to be authentic in the pursuit of excellence. My individual success is rooted and grounded in the support and followership of my staff, students and community.

Thank you to my amazing staff at Cimarron for believing in me, following me, encouraging me, and lifting me up as your leader. I am blessed to have worked with each of you, and I am a better leader because of our time spent together.