The following is the first of four excerpts from the eBook, How Do I Lead Project Based Learning?, which provides a concrete framework for leading the implementation of project based learning. Although this eBook was written through the lens of project based learning, everything can be applied to all professional learning and instructional shifts, no matter the content. Originally, the eBook’s content was the final chapter of the book, Project Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers.
The four drivers of instructional shifts serve as the basis for the eBook: establish relationships and trust, begin with the end in mind, model best practice, evaluate professional learning.
Establish Relationships and Trust
For curriculum nerds, such as myself, it could be tempting to approach instructional shifts and professional learning in isolation – solely tackling change through the lens of someone doing curriculum work. However, our curriculum work will be hindered and potentially carry negative connotations if we treat it as a hobby, interest, or obsession, while ignoring the fact that people (yes, real people) are impacted by what we do.
I send this message because at one point or another I have been guilty of prioritizing the work over the people. At the same time, I know what it feels like when others in our organization act like they’re the curriculum experts who are here to fix things (or us) because they somehow have the answers to all of our problems, which may or may not exist. Of course, when we take this approach, we disrespect the work that came before us while likely ignoring others’ strengths.
As curriculum nerds, when an instructional shift isn’t successful it’s easy to blame logistics: poor professional learning, not enough resources, lack of time, etc. While factors such as these could undoubtedly influence our results, we must also consider how our connections (or lack thereof) with people hurt our progress. Based on the relationships we establish (or don’t establish), the fate of many of our instructional shifts will be determined long before anyone knows what they are. If we only say and do the right things when we need others to get on board with our ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised when we’re the only ones who are excited about what we’re bringing to the table.
It’s easy to talk about relationships; more importantly, we must know how to actualize this work. Here are four explicit strategies we can use to establish relationships with others.
Approach Every Interaction with Intentionality
In many schools and districts we use gifts, food, and events in attempts to boost morale: spirit shirts for new teachers, coffee in the faculty room the morning after parent-teacher conferences, a staff volleyball game in lieu of a faculty meeting, etc. While these have a place in our schools, and they can be signs of healthy school culture, we’re on a slippery slope if we’re thinking all of this is just as important or more important than daily face-to-face interactions. As an administrator, one question I’m always asking myself is, “How might others feel as a result of interacting with me?” Overall, if the answer to this question is not favorable, all of the coffee in the world isn’t going to help my cause.
There is a definitive difference between showing up to impress and showing up to support. While our insecurities may tell us we need to constantly prove ourselves, we know true leaders are always encouraging others. As Joe Sanfelippo (Superintendent) tells us, “Every single time you connect with someone in your school community, you are building or killing culture.” Being intentional about each and every interaction is not easy, especially for administrators who seemingly live under microscopes, but it is a challenge we must accept before we can engage in any other work.
Seek to Understand
At one point or another, we’ve all probably been a part of a meeting in which we felt like the facilitator didn’t consider our input simply because it conflicted with his line of thinking or what he wanted to accomplish. As a result, our support for the facilitator may have diminished. When we have opportunities to lead, we can either do to others what has been done to us, or we can be strong and give everyone a voice. Bottom line: Our words and actions must communicate that the thoughts and ideas of others can make a difference. Otherwise we have no right to get upset when apathy becomes the norm.Our words and actions must communicate that the thoughts and ideas of others can make a difference. #RealPBL Click To Tweet
We can empower others by not just listening to them, but by what Stephen Covey calls “seeking to understand” their perspectives. Others have to feel they can respectfully share their input without repercussion, and, ideally, we should be able to disagree, argue, and debate (sometimes behind closed doors) to collaboratively problem solve in the absence of animosity. Finally, when appropriate, we need to be willing to get behind others’ ideas. Countless compliments and promises won’t mean anything if we’ve conditioned others to believe we habitually engage in lipservice.
While trust is a part of establishing relationships, it’s worth examining in isolation.
One way we can violate trust is through gossiping. For example, you may be working for someone who continuously badmouths people behind their backs. At first you might feel special because someone above you on the hierarchy is trusting you with information to which others aren’t privy. But, you may soon come to realize that this person has a reputation for being disingenuous and is badmouthing you as well.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (2004), Stephen Covey explains how maligning others can damage relationships: “Such duplicity…communicates your own lack of integrity. You may get the golden egg of temporary pleasure from putting someone down or sharing privileged information, but you’re strangling the goose, weakening the relationship that provides enduring pleasure in association” (p. 206). If someone regularly disparages others behind their backs, we can imagine what they say about us when our backs are turned.
As we lead instructional shifts, it’s worth thinking about the level of trust that exists in our space and how we can maybe shift our actions to strengthen the trust we have with those around us. This trust serves as the basis for our relationships; without relationships, meaningful change will not happen.
Be a Servant Leader
Approaching every action with intentionality, seeking to understand, and building trust all fall under the umbrella of servant leadership. Servant leadership is the mindset that it is our duty to do just that – serve others. We show up to work with the default mentality that we are there to first and foremost assist others in thriving, succeeding, and having an overall positive experience. Those we serve may include students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, guardians, community members, and more.
While we cannot paint servant leaders in terms of black and white – either you are one or you’re not – for administrators, possible pitfalls may include (1) always putting ourselves (not others) at the center of the work, (2) believing we know more than others simply because we’re an administrator, and (3) justifying our potentially wrongful actions with our job title. In contrast, administrators who are servant leaders habitually leverage their title to elevate others.
More specifically, here are three questions administrators can ask themselves on the way to becoming a servant leader:
- Do I care for others, professionally and personally?
- Do I truly believe and act as if those closest to the problems are typically the ones with the answers?
- When I disagree with others, do I instinctively judge or empathize?
Here are two questions from my experience as a central office administrator:
- When I visit a school, do I prioritize stopping by the main office to speak/meet with the administrative assistants and building-level administration?
- Do I communicate/meet with building-level administration on a routine basis and seek to understand their perspectives when I (help to) make decisions?
George Couros explains: “The higher up we go in the traditional hierarchy, the more people we serve; not the other way around.” The more we serve, the more likely our students will benefit from our instructional shifts.
- Project Based Learning: 3 Types of Direct Instruction #RealPBL - April 17, 2022
- Getting Started with Project Based Learning #RealPBL - April 11, 2022
- How Do I Lead Project Based Learning? – Evaluate Professional Learning #RealPBL (part 4 of 4) - April 3, 2022