Saturday, March 5, 2011


Each year in education, there is continued pressure on the system to adapt and to improve in order to meet the demands of the ever-changing landscape of the learner.  With these changes come new ideas; these are the result of us doing our unofficial (or official) action research on what works and what does not in each of our classrooms, schools, and districts.  The speed and volume of these initiatives coming at us has become almost blinding, as each of us is now finding multiple vehicles to report out on our successes and receive new ideas from our Personal Learning Networks.  But as I navigate my way through my tenth year in school based administration, I continue to work through what I feel is the of the most difficult issues in educational leadership: what is the right amount of tension, and how do we keep ourselves "educationally nimble" so we can keep up with the rapid pace of change?

Four years ago, in my then second year at my current school, the tension was so high it was almost unbearable.  I had taken a team away to a Professional Learning Communities conference in my first year, and having already found a mechanism to put collaborative time in the timetable for teachers at another school and seen positive results, we created enough of a groundswell amongst our staff to include collaborative time at my new school.  At the same time, we put in an academic intervention system that had bi-weekly callouts and opportunities for students to make up work with a subject-specific teacher.  And then we tackled the 'no late mark' issue.  This was all in the span of about 8 school months (even though summer holidays were sprinkled in there).  The changes were swift, and I will be very blunt--it was incredibly challenging for our staff, and to use "Survivor" terms,  I'm pretty sure that if I could have been "voted off the island", many people would have "doused my torch" pretty early in the game. 

I know, I know.  All of the veteran leaders out there are going "Wow, what an idiot.  Why would you do all those things in such a short period of time?".  In many ways, I would agree with the experts--it is best when things DO come from the grassroots, from our wonderful teachers that are working with students every day.  But my struggle was (and still is) with the pace at which change occurs in education: I just could not reconcile the "Knowing-Doing Gap" (previous post) in my own mind.  Creating time within the timetable for teachers to collaborate and improve the craft of teaching is best practice (and yes, I know the new term is 'promising practice', but I am sticking with best practice on this one), as is having an systematic set of interventions that ensure student success.  Assigning late marks IS a toxic grading practice (Douglas Reeves).  So if there are things in a school that are not commensurate with our vision for the school, or are just not right, do we wait for the groundswell from the masses?  I ask this rhetorically, because I struggle with this each day.  And I never want to profess to know the answer, because I don't.

If you have the answer to this question, and it includes things like...
- "you can't go too quickly with change"
- "change takes time"
- "the change cycle says..."
- "you need to get people on board"
- "develop your critical mass"

well, I know this.  I have studied the change cycle endlessly.  I have experimented with different methods.  I have waited to get people on board.  I have charged like a bull through a china shop.  I have been at all parts of the spectrum from what would be perceived as insane dictator (or as Jonathan Martin posted in the "19 Es of Excellence" "Enraged"--probably a general descriptor of my personality) right over to encouraging people to be completely autonomous, and all points in between.  They all have many pros and just as many cons.

But one thing I do know--change is CHANGING.  The pace at which the world is changing around us is exponentially increasing, and the choice to keep up is methodically being taken out of our hands as students and parents are much more free and capable of finding alternatives to what we may choose to offer.  And the hardest part is, we KNOW this.  And we have to do something about this. 

Where is the fine line between push and pull?  Encouragement and push?  Top down and grassroots.  Stepping on the gas, coasting, and or hitting the brakes.  Truthfully, I don't know, and I might not ever know.  But what I do know is that I continuously strive to become more adaptable.  I have to embrace change.  I have to be comfortable with the fact that there is a wave of ideas and knowledge that is crashing over top of me, and I need to develop the skills to pop up out of the surf and keep my head above water, knowing full-well that another wave is coming.  It is not to discredit what has been done in the past.  It is not to say that what we are doing "isn't any good", because it is.  But we need to continuously gauge which skills that our students need to be exposed to, and adapt our practices to make sure we are changing as fast as we need to so that we can keep up to the pace of change.

As I am now in my 5th year at my school, and I am very proud of the changes that have been made: the success of our students and our staff continues to be amazing.  I believe we have become much more adaptable as a group.  And with the movement towards creating an environment that emphasizes the skills of a 21st Century Learner (from my definition in response to Tom Schimmer's great post on the Elevator Answer of 21st Century Learning)

"helping students learn to use collaborative means to exponentially multiply their knowledge, to develop critical thinking abilities to evaluate information, and to foster communication skills that will allow them to contribute to the global and multicultural collective in a way that demonstrates their individual creativity"

I hope that we will continue to become more "educationally nimble" as we move forward in education.

So how do you keep "educationally nimble"?


  1. How do you keep educationally nimble? Good question. It is getting harder to develop a five year or even a three year plan as things change so quickly. We only have so many hours in the day to stay current on new initiatives. I think it may be most prudent to choose a few changes that you would like to implement and stick with them. I remember a principal I had a few years ago standing up in a staff meeting and saying he would stick with Collaboration and Academic Intervention for a number of years. As I surveyed the room I came to the realization that it was a powerful commitment and one the staff appreciated.

  2. Cale, as much as this may seem like a very simple response to a complex question, I believe that remaining 'nimble' means we have to ask ourselves and the colleagues around us good questions. Asking good questions is a skill all in itself, but when we do so it forces all of us to critically examine what we are doing, why we are doing something and how we're doing something. Anytime our responses to these questions don't contribute to student learning in a positive way, we should be concerned and more importantly examine alternative models that will improve student learning.

    Thanks for yet another great post!


  3. Change... it is something that is natural. Everything around us is always in some state of change. It's the changes we create and try to convince others of that can create friction and conflict. Something I've had to learn and accept is that each individual reacts to external change in different ways, degrees of acceptance, or all out rejection. It is complicated.

    But to the title of your post "nimble". I think the key is to recognize the relative willingness and ableness to accept and join a change regardless of why it comes our way. For people we are responsible for, we need to personalize the change in a way that makes it manageable for them. I find that it takes an enormous amout of patience to do this well and consistently, especially when I just want to get on with it.

    So, I think patience is the key to being a successful change agent and that you need to be a buffer, a filter, a motivator, a consoler, etc. depending on individual needs...


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