5 ways to increase student learning through leadership

Step One

Understand all teachers and administrators are on a hero’s journey:

Maybe they’ve just received the call to adventure to change students’ lives for the better. Maybe they’re in a crisis. Maybe they’ve been transformed by the adventure but are now back in the status quo. It’s important to recognize we’re all in different places.

Step Two

Determine your “Why”. Why do you do what you do? Not “How” or “What”, but “Why”?

Many institutions start with the “What?” Others have a large number of “Why’s”, and this results in a lot of implementations. When there’s no coherence between “Why’s”, things tend to get out of hand. The drivers for decision making become out of whack, and it’s possible the wrong drivers surreptitiously sneak into even the best well-intentioned program implementations.

The “Why” should lack boilerplate jargon and cliches. A great “Why” I heard from a colleague recently was: I want to teach every student as if he or she is my own child.

What a wonderful “Why”! It says so much in so few words. People understand what you mean when you say a “Why” like that. It means every decision is for the benefit of the child. All things will be done (or not done) because it’s good for the kids.

Step Three

Once the “Why” has been established, it’s time to spread the word. You need to find someone to follow you.

Notice how important the first follower is. The first follower is the person who turns what the “lone nut” is doing into a movement. This person is responsible for getting the “Why” adopted. Leaders must tell themselves the following statements:

  • My position of power does not guarantee followers.
  • My first follower will become just as important as me.
  • My authority may diminish as others are empowered.
  • Everything in the above bullet points is fine with me.

Step 4

OK, you have a “Why” and a following (or at least a first follower). How does the message spread? If the message is spreading fine on its own, what can you do to help refine it and move to the next level?

Tell your story (Why) in a simple, direct, and supercharged way.

Communication is important and frequently overlooked. Oftentimes, leaders believe there’s good communication when in fact there isn’t. I recommend telling your story (Why) over and over in a way that’s simple, direct, and supercharged.

Step 5

When everyone has an approximate visualization of where he or she is on the hero’s journey… when the “Why” has been established… when the first follower is attracting others to the tribe… and when the story is being told in a simple, direct, and supercharged kind of way… then capacity can be built.

Here’s the equation I believe will help a school or district build capacity:

Common “Why” + shared skill = Capacity

“Shared skills” is where coherence is so key–all members must understand the common tools and programs being used to help students learn. The only way this is possible is to have a small number of programs, simple systems (lowercase “s”, by the way), and an established way of teaching teachers and administrators.

Steve Jobs once said the following:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

To be a leader, you must say no to a thousand programs, interventions, devices, apps, and philosophies before saying one “yes”. This sentiment, in conjunction with the five above steps, will create an outstanding leader in the field of education.

Be like Jon Stewart

As educational technology continues its evolution across the world, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Building people’s capacity is an important–maybe the most important–professional task.

For too long the field of education has been a lonely place in which to work. Classrooms have traditionally been islands, and districts rarely partner with neighboring districts. Fortunately, the tides have begun to turn regarding this traditional lack of communication and support. I’ve seen more teacher to teacher and district to district collaboration this year than I have in the last ten years. Part of this is because technology makes communication easier (ex: Google Hangouts, Skype, LMSs, etc.). A potentially bigger reason is that the only way to learn all the new technology being developed is to band together and use collective expertise to thrive.

This is why building the capacity of others is so important. We’ve always lived in a world where people develop certain skills, and those skills benefited the whole community. Farmer, blacksmith, merchant, cobbler, seamstress, doctor… individual skills have always been valuable for the good of the whole.

Today you need a lot of skills in order to bring value. A teacher needs to understand not just his or her subject area, instructional practices, and curriculum, but also must possess a myriad of tech skills. This also goes for administrators. That’s why it’s so important to focus on making others better at what they do. Too often we’re focused on how “I” can get better, and we forget about ensuring the advancement of those around us. An educational community in which everyone is helping others (not just students) will reap better results.

Enter Jon Stewart–current host of The Daily Show. Stewart is a talented individual when it comes to comedy, but he’s also been adept at nurturing the talent in others. Stephen Colbert. Steve Carell. Ed Helms. John Oliver. Noah Trevor. All of these people have honed their crafts at The Daily Show. When Stewart took a hiatus from the show to direct a film, he allowed John Oliver to take the helm, which eventually led to a gig for Oliver at HBO. Many stars wouldn’t have given Oliver this opportunity–or they would have done it begrudgingly. Stewart saw it as a win-win situation: Oliver gets some exposure, and I get to make my movie.

Stewart didn’t care that the audience would laugh at Oliver instead of him, or even–heaven forbid–like Oliver better. As Stewart did before for other comedians, he wanted to help build Oliver’s capacity so he could leave The Daily Show and continue a thriving career elsewhere.

We can learn so much from this mentality. Unfortunately, many people hold their cards close to the vest. They provide little information, keep communication vague, and compartmentalize others within job titles. This is bureaucracy, and unfortunately education sometimes fits this mold. In the cases where it doesn’t–where teachers and administrators actively pursue the advancement of others’ knowledge–the transformation is inspiring. Students deserve adults in their lives who have everyone’s best intentions at heart.

Be like Jon.