We Don’t Need Good Leaders…We Need Great Ones

My post asking Who Would Want to Be a Leader has received a great many responses both on my blog but also in conversations with leaders. It’s not hyperbole to say we are in a leadership crisis. The conversations on my podcast almost always explore succession challenges and the continued struggle to find good school leaders, particularly at the principal level.

I know many districts have and continue to have programs and initiatives designed to develop leaders internally. I also know many who are struggling to make these effective and produce the desired results of more great leaders. What I do know is that unless school districts are actively working to develop great leaders we are going to be facing a further acceleration of burnout and teacher shortages beyond what we’re currently witnessing. While there are multiple reasons and factors creating dissatisfaction, one that is referenced either directly or indirectly is the degree to which they feel supported and valued. More specifically, this is about leadership. Leaders who actively support, encourage, and work to reduce workload and stress are going to have a huge impact on teacher burnout and teacher retention.

My oldest daughter has a teaching degree and spent a few years as a classroom teacher. She had 2 early short-term contracts at high schools. The first one had a principal who was “okay” but when she was struggling with a few students, didn’t get the support she was hoping for. The second experience was with a principal who checked in on her daily and let her know regularly that she was doing a great job. After those contracts ended she began looking for another position. She was far less concerned about the role but very concerned about which school it was at and who the principal was.

When I look back at my 14 years as a classroom teacher I didn’t have a bad principal. I had mostly good principals. I didn’t really need much in the way of support. They were for the most part good administrators. I don’t think I needed a great principal, just a good one. Today, I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think the vast majority of school leaders are good. I think most teachers are good. I don’t know how many are great. The job has become more demanding and the need to have colleagues that have your back, can keep you encouraged, and provide you with the things you need to be successful is critical and perhaps the linchpin to recruitment and retention. Don’t get me wrong, we do have many great leaders it’s just that we need more and that good leaders just aren’t good enough anymore.

There’s no magic solution to addressing this challenge. There are those who are naturally gifted leaders and inherently do the things that make leaders great. But I’d argue that most of us have to learn what it means. As I mentioned in the aforementioned blog post, teachers play a role here as well. They need to be able to step up on occasion to support and encourage their leaders. The one piece of advice I would give that is certainly easier said than done, is that leaders need to act like their having fun. While the job is certainly not always fun, the view from the outside often suggests that it’s not only not fun but it’s drudgery. The message that is sent to teachers and students is “I don’t want their job”. For many, it may be drudgery but I also think that for many spend too much time talking about and focusing on the difficulty of the job and not nearly enough time on the good stuff. As my friend Joe says, “Start and end your day with joy” We have to begin with those already serving in leadership and help them be conscious that others are watching and wondering if they should pursue leadership. In the same way teachers model to their students that while their job is hard they love it. Again, I know not everyone feels this way and those are the ones struggling. But we do have principals and teachers who are choosing to stay in the profession because they think it’s worth it and they find joy and satisfaction in their work. Many of those aren’t actively modeling that disposition to others and my argument is they need to in order to encourage young people to consider education as a profession. Many will talk about managers vs leaders. That’s part of it for sure but I think it’s more than that. There are those who are leaders more than they are managers but they aren’t excellent leaders.

How are you working to find and create great leaders?

Unveiling the Magic: Exploring the Enchanting World of Generative AI

I wanted to get some of my initial thoughts on Generative AI out there mostly for myself and to preserve my own thinking. This space has served me well over the past 18 years as a repository of my own thinking. Ideas evolve, shifts occur and concepts get refined and at times dismissed. I could likely comb through the 1200 posts and find numerous examples of things I no longer believe or got wrong. Unlike a book that is permanent, this space is built around the opportunity to record streams of consciousness and other moments in time. Like my own learning, it’s never finished. All that to say, these thoughts are current as of August 30, 2023. If you’re reading this any time after that I could be wrong and might think very differently. If that happens, I hope to record another post that addresses those changes. For now, here’s where I’m at.

Technology, when it’s at its best is like magic. Arthur Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I prefer the science fiction writer Nick Harkaway’s version:

New technologies are often on the precipes of our senses and those who are less immersed in technology can sometimes be more enamored with that magic but I actually relish the times when technology amazes me.

Generative AI has that vibe at the moment. I’ve dabbled in a few tools but mainly use ChatGPT as well as Descript for my podcast. Being able to provide a good prompt or input and see instantly an improved output is quite satisfying.

SideNote:

For this post, I had originally titled it “My Current Status Around Ai” I noticed I have a Headline Analyzer built into WordPress. I gave me a score of 25/100 for that title. I broke down in more detail the reasons for the score. I then entered my post in ChatGPT asking for a more provocative title. It gave me 3 options. I tried each one and the title I’m using gave me a score of 85. There’s part of me that thinks that’s great and trusts it may increase clicks/readers but there’s part of me that finds it less than human. For now I’ll leave it but would love to know your thoughts on this specifically.

As fun and interesting as some of these tools present themselves it’s not difficult to look beyond the instant gratification of these tools to recognize the danger and potential for disruption in the worst ways. That said, I don’t feel confident to argue too much on either end of the spectrum. I’m simply trying my best to pay attention.

But I’ll tell you 3 sources that I think bear the street cred to pay attention to at least in the education context.

Chris Dede has spent a lifetime in this space. He is also willing to admit some hesitancy in knowing exactly how things will play out. He and fellow Harvard colleague Lydia Cao wrote a nice paper with advice for educators. They use a powerful analogy about how the brain and the mind are different and that AI is much like a brain without a mind. They also address the limitations of what AI can teach.

Important skills and dispositions such as higher-order thinking, leadership, creativity, resilience, and open-mindedness cannot be taught explicitly. When we try to teach them, we often reduce them to a recipe and procedure that do not reflect the complexity of the real-world (Dede, 2022). A Chinese idiom says “Words transmit, actions teach (言传身教),” acknowledging the importance of both explicit teaching through words and implicit teaching through modeling and action.

The paper ends with 4 things educators can do:

  • Demystify AI: Teach learners the nature of generative AI
  • Focus on the process of learning rather than just the product
  • Honor learner agency and orchestrate multiple sources of motivation
  • Cultivate skills that AI cannot perform

From that same generation, I also look to Gary Stager. Gary has been a long-time friend who has a proven track record with computing. If you’re looking for someone to dance around the issue and work to stay politically correct, Gary may not be your man but if you want someone to speak from experience and an unwavering commitment to children, Gary is your guy. Gary has been talking about AI and mostly working to demystify it as well as focusing on what children can and should be doing with computers. There are lots of interviews and videos of Gary addressing the issue and here’s one.

Finally, I’ve read the thought-provoking work of Dan Meyer. Dan has been a long-time part of my network and falls into the category of wicked smart. Dan has helped many math educators and educators writ large think differently about math education and writes to provoke and share insights many of us miss. His take on the way education tries to adopt the current AI technologies speaks to the lack of consistent belief and understanding many have about the purpose of learning.

If you are a technologist and do not have a concrete theory of learning, you are navigating the world of edtech without a compass and blaming the people you meet there for not appreciating the tools you brought with you.

If you are a teacher and do not have a concrete theory of learning, you will succumb too easily to a marketing campaign that is without precedent in my lifetime, a campaign designed to convince you that generative AI’s transformation of learning is inevitable, designed to convince you that these scraps falling from the table of commerce are, in fact, a multi-course meal. Your theory of learning will tell you whether or not they’re right. 

My theory of learning tells me: 

Don’t eat the scraps. Demand a meal.

So my journey is just beginning.

Our journey as a company is moving at a bit faster pace albeit with intention and care. My colleague Amos Fodchuk has written a little about our approach as a company. ALP is well positioned to engage communities interested in thoughtful consideration around generative AI that balances the need to embrace its potential with a focus on humanity. It’s been interesting talking with school leaders and hearing many different approaches. Understandably so. This is something that requires each of us to partner with trusted leaders and thinkers, folks who have been around the block and time or two and have demonstrated a commitment to educators, students, and education as a whole. Who are you looking to to help you navigate this?

Who is Thriving?

For the regular readers I have, you may have noticed an increase of late in my blogging. This is not a result of any resolution or real intention but likely a by-product of less time and engagement on social channels and a desire to better flesh out my thinking and ideas and seek out those interested in providing more thoughtful feedback and interaction.

It’s obvious to anyone that education right now is a tough place to be. I suppose that’s true for many industries and organizations but any data, report or story you hear says education is not a profession that is very appealing. We all can list a number of factors, many outside of our control, some are long-standing systemic challenges and others might be new due to societal unrest. I can tell you my colleagues and I at ALP are working to support communities with long-term solutions around workplace wellness and leadership specifically to work towards a better future.

But no matter the challenges and circumstances, there are always those who thrive. This is essentially the definition of a positive deviant. Positive deviants are folks who have the same resources as others and yet succeed and thrive while the majority of those around them do not. They typically use uncommon approaches but also are likely unaware of their approaches as they assume others are doing the same things they are. They’re the ones who, when you ask them about something that’s working well, often have difficulty identifying what it is they’re doing. I’ve been seeking these folks for decades.

So today I’m more curious than ever, about which educators are thriving. Which teachers, principals and leaders are excited about their work, feel energized and satisfied with the work they’re doing? Obviously, this doesn’t mean they are oblivious to the challenges that exist. They aren’t toxically positive but overall they love their work AND would encourage others to join them. This speaks to the fact that they don’t see themselves as special or different than their colleagues. They assume anyone can feel the same way they do about this work.

If you fall into that category, please share. If you don’t but know someone who does, either tell them to post something and share or maybe you can speculate on their behalf. I’m not simply curious about who is thriving but why. What is it about your circumstances and situation that is giving you hope? What have you done to get there? What are others doing around you to support you? And finally but of lesser importance, what uncontrollable events or circumstances have impacted you and your workplace?

Are We Ready to Learn Again?

We’ve seen a major focus on Social Emotional Learning in the past few years. Certainly, the pandemic made it a universal priority for schools. Overall, this has been a good thing and one I’ve advocated for a long time. Our mission is not simply to develop knowledge and skills but also citizens who have a sense of well-being and dare I say, happiness. That said, I’ve noticed a trend that is separating SEL and learning and making it appear at times that the two are mutually exclusive. While no one would ever voice that idea, I think that the ways in which the pandemic has affected people differently are revealing themselves in the lack of readiness for many to really engage in deep and meaningful learning.

It’s difficult to say which comes first: “deep learning” or “wellness”. If I’m forced to make this a binary decision, I’ll likely opt for wellness first, and deep learning second. But that’s just it. I don’t think it is a binary thing. In fact, I think in many cases deep and engaging learning leads to wellness and vice versa. They are complementary. I will say that early on in the pandemic it was clear that the general level of wellness in our schools and the world was so low that it was necessary to put our efforts into the health and well-being of our learners (students, teachers and leadership). We were indeed impoverished and the degree to which schools and leaders took on this challenge was quite spectacular and educators proved they could really do hard things.

But the wellness issue has not been solved and likely won’t ever be solved. And yet what I’ve noticed is a wide range of readiness for individuals and communities to re-engage in deep learning. I know many leaders are working to make this once again the focus of their culture while others remain in neutral because they may be lacking a critical mass of influencers to get back to their purpose. As I talk to various leaders and educators I get these mixed and competing messages regularly. But returning to my previous point that well-being and deep learning are complementary, I’m looking to bring these two ideas together to design professional learning and culture for all learners.

When I think back to my early days with technology, I recall some similarities to what I’m seeing with well-being. Many tended to see technology and deep learning as two different things. They had a difficult time seeing how technology could be embedded into their traditional classrooms. Technology was a class that required specialized teachers and a designated space to access it. It’s taken years for this mindset to shift and some are still working to resolve this resistance. But for the most part and in theory, we understand and believe how one fosters the other.

So when it comes to developing mentally and physically healthy learners we have to include their intellectual health. The concept of intellectual health is somewhat nebulous and academics is not typically considered a health issue but by thinking about it in terms of health, perhaps we’ll do better in aligning it with our overall purpose of young people prepared to live, thrive and become contributing adults.

My research is anecdotal at best but I would still love to hear your voice around this matter. Speaking either for yourself, your district or colleagues, what is the readiness level of staff to re-engage with personal and professional learning? What obstacles or barriers still remain? What steps or structures have you seen that have supported a return to innovative practices and a desire to grow as a learner?

Delight 25: Madeline’s Par

If you’re new here or new to this series, this is the origin story of my ongoing series on Delight. In essence, I’m working to be more mindful of those moments of delight that happen all the time but often get forgotten as quickly as they are experienced. This is my effort to document and savour these moments.

Madeline Black is a colleague and friend who shared with me her passion for golf. This week we had the opportunity to play together after our ALP retreat. She was clear that she is still relatively new to the game and had not played this year. I assured her we would have fun together. As someone who plays a lot of golf, it’s always a goal for me no matter who I play with we have fun. Golf can be a very intimating game and I’m conscious to address as many of the barriers as I can and make people feel comfortable. I suppose I take the same attitude into my work life.

Madeline is a natural athlete. She was hitting the ball quite solidly but like most golfers, especially new ones, struggled with consistency. When I play with new golfers or those who haven’t played for a while I often suggest to not bother keeping score but instead just see how many good shots they could hit. Madeline did say she wanted to make one par in the round. This was a reasonable goal but not guaranteed.

We came to the hole pictured above and she was committed to hitting the ball over the creek and trying to make a par. She hit a wonderful shot that landed on the front and rolled about 30 feet past the green. The way we both reacted was similar to someone getting a hole in one. We jumped up and down, and high-fived. Watching her and her excitement was infectious and delightful.  She’s been a joy to get to know and work with over the past year and this moment was very much in line with her personality with a touch more enthusiasm. Unfortunately, she 3-putted and missed out on her par. Slightly saddened but also satisfied by her great shot we moved on and she remained committed to making par.

When you don’t play a lot of golf, 18 holes can be tiring both physically and mentally. Keeping your focus for 4 hours is difficult even when you do play regularly which is one of the things I love about the game. We came to the 14th hole and Madeline had hit her 2nd shot on this par 4 to the right of the green in a little hollow. She putted it over a crest and it was about 20 feet from the hole. I took the pin out just as her next putt fell into the hole. A par and another moment of delight.

I play most of my golf with friends who golf all the time. While we all have the occasional birdie or great shot, we don’t celebrate like Madeline. That’s too bad. Madeline and I shared delight together that day.

There’s a lesson here. Hedonic Adaption is a curious thing that can be both helpful for us and also takes away our happiness. Being around my grandchildren is so helpful to see the world differently. The magic the see in everyday experiences is a gift that we all squander away as we age. Yet when we experience something new whether it’s a new food/recipe or we travel to someplace new we have the opportunity to activate our sense of delight and wonder. Thanks Madeline for sharing your moment(s) of delight with me.