Wanted: 21st Century Leaders

Note: This is a post written for the members of Cohort 21 and will also be posted on their blog. I encourage CIS members to checkout this unique professional learning opportunity at cohort21.com.

I also dedicate this post to all budding and active teacher leaders around the world, some of whom I had the privilege to already work with and others that I look forward to collaborating with in the near future!

Read any education newsletter, blog or article and it is clear that how we learn and teach has come so far from what we have often experienced ourselves as students. Teachers all over the world have embraced new pedagogies, technology and how they view students as learners. In these times of change, nothing excites me more than to see the shifts in how the view of school leaders is moving beyond the typical notion of the leader at the top. More recognition and value is being placed on the formal and informal teacher leaders in school communities.

I absolutely believe whether you are in a school or district that recognizes this or not (but hopefully this is not the case), that there are teacher leaders all around you. In fact, if you are reading this, I believe you are one of our much needed school leaders. Perhaps you have already explored and harnessed your leadership talents in your school setting. Maybe you know you are capable, but are hesitant to take that next step. Perhaps you’re not quite sure what to make of all this 21st century learning stuff. Wherever you are in this range, I hope by the end of this that at the very least, you are able to embrace the idea that the revolution in learning needs your perspective and expertise.

So what are the qualities exhibited by 21st century leaders? This conversation can span many blog posts long, so I have narrowed it down to three qualities/skills. I will preface my thoughts by saying that you may notice one obvious quality missing from my list, which is the passion for and belief in kids. This is omitted simply because I see this as a prerequisite for every educator. From my own experiences both as a teacher, administrator and evolving connected educator, I share below what I have often observed in those teachers making change in our schools.

21st century leaders are relationship-based

21st century leaders are driven by the ability to create and sustain relationships both with and for others. They know the importance of relationships and value strong connections with others. They also often leverage technology to create new relationships. These leaders are able to make meaning for others they work with and are able to create connections between the various other individuals in their school and virtual communities.

21st century leaders are able to “create the conditions for learning” (shared by @rita_russo, OISE)

21st century leaders create learning environments for both themselves and others. They embrace a lifelong mindset of a learner. They understand that the rapid pace of our current society doesn’t require the ability to know everything, but rather a willingness to learn. They are able to self-assess their needs and seek opportunities to develop the areas they are not as strong in. These leaders are not only effective in embracing this mindset for themselves, but also in creating it in others. They help to foster environments where saying “I don’t know” is not considered a detriment, but a jumping off point for further learning.

21st century leaders are courageous

21st century leaders must exhibit courage because of the changing nature of schools and the complexity that change with bring. They need to work beyond the traditional parameters laid out to find creative solutions that work for their own school settings. These individuals also know that the path to change can be fraught with challenges, but do not let those things stop them. They are resilient. Setbacks are opportunities to take a breath, reset, and carry forth the intended goal. 21st century leaders are not people without fear or discomfort, but they do push beyond it to do what’s best for students.

Not sure where to find these leaders? Take a look in the mirror the best example is staring right at you!

Still hesitant to lead? Remember, a leader is never perfect, but does embrace being a “work in progress”.  All leaders are continuous learners, so if you are looking to stretch your thinking, take a look at some of the work and thoughts of these individuals:

So what are you waiting for? Wherever you are in your journey, we need you to take that next step to create change for our students and schools. Dip, step, or jump right in and embrace the leader you were meant to be.

Desks or No Desks?

This past weekend, I read Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom? The article also highlighted, An Obituary for Student Desks. Both articles are great reads. The first article briefly described two elementary classrooms that did away with the traditional desk. One opted for various configurations of larger tables (as you might experience in a coffee shop) and the other used only couches (with plastic drawer space for student storage). Both rooms were highly personalized and inviting spaces.

How the Times Have Changed!

This next part will date me, but I remember learning from professors in my teacher preparation program that the more inviting the classroom (i.e. decorated bulletin boards and displaying student work), the more student engagement one could expect. I was a faithful practitioner of these ideas. Do I think these alone helped to improve my students’ learning experience? No. Do I think it helped students to feel more welcomed and part of the learning community? Absolutely.

I later spent many years working in a school that explicitly noted that we would never have rows of desks, but rather that they would be placed either in groups or a horseshoe shaped configuration. The science lab was designed not in the traditional row of lab benches, rather, in various octagonal pods. The idea was this physical change would foster fluid discussions and collaboration efforts. What a world of difference from those bulletin board days!

So I was thrilled reading this article because with all the discussion on effective integration in technology, another equally important step is to look at how we can transform our spaces to reflect the 21st century outcomes we are seeking.

What do our students think?

Excited about the idea, I shared the idea of throwing out the traditional desk to a few high school students. Clearly, this alone is not an accurate indication of all student experiences or preferences, but I asked them about their current classroom setup in high school. They often experienced individual desks in rows or paired in rows, with the exception of a few elective classes. They did highlight different experiences in elementary and middle school. Most of their experiences were desks placed in group formation, though they did notice as they progressed through the grades that they encountered this setup less frequently. They noted that the difference in desk configurations often seemed aligned to different styles of teaching. Asked if they would prefer an environment with no desks, they wondered if the setting would be too casual and did note that they would like the option to have other configurations of space for more independent endeavors or work with a partner.

Given a class tomorrow, my desks would be gone to be replaced with other alternative setups. These students highlighted something I had not immediately thought of. That is, other spaces for those working on more individualized tasks or perhaps for our learners who simply engage in learning in different ways. (Note: In Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom? Erin Klein does note the importance of student voice when redesigning classrooms, as well as considers this concept of varied space.)

So how important are the spaces in which we learn?

What other classroom items have your schools or classes deemed obsolete?

Please share how you have transformed your classroom spaces. What are your students saying about these changes?

Starting Down the Connected Educator Path

With Connected Educator Month starting in October, I thought I would spend some time sharing how I started on the path of becoming more connected, what one gains from doing so, and some tips for those who are starting on their own connected educator transformation.

Developing as a connected educator started last summer when I joined Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall’s The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age book club. I knew this was an area I needed to further improve on and embrace, but I had no idea where to start given the many new apps, tools, and social media.

Deciding to join the book club was the best decision I made. It was just the push I needed to start my exploration into connected learning. My hope in joining the book club was to learn a new tool or two. What I received was so much more. I was able to challenge my mindset about how competent I was with technology and found new confidence in my capacity as a learner. The on-line and weekly discussions helped me to see that there were many others starting out just like me. It was also valuable to see the range of levels and experience with connected learning. Despite this range of experience, I never felt intimidated because of the positive and supportive culture fostered in the community.

I cannot remember when it all finally clicked, but I did have several light bulb moments. I learned being a connected educator is not just knowing and using technology in a meaningful and effective way. Connected educators fully embrace risk taking and continually stretch themselves as learners. As we become contributors, we foster trust and build a global community, one that is poised to work towards change. Connected education is not just for the students in our classrooms. Connected educators are able to prioritize learning through their global networks, modeling what it is like to be an authentic learner.

What does one gain from becoming a connected educator? How do I take the next step?

1.       Access to a Wealth of Knowledge:

You will often hear connected educators expressing gratitude for their personal learning network (PLN). This is because connected education allows you to learn what you want, when you want it, from individuals all over the world. Learning becomes personalized to your needs and tailored to your schedule.

Tip: It is often this wealth of information or the abundance of tools and resources that can be discouraging when you’re just starting out. Pick one tool to start with and get to know that one well before moving on.

If you are not sure what tool to jump into, try Twitter. Know it will be impossible to read everything your followers contribute (as much as you will want to). In the interim, select one hashtag to follow so it filters down posts about the topic you are most interested in learning at that time.

Click here for a great guide on how to get started on Twitter and here for a list of hashtags to suit your needs.

2.       Pushes Your Thinking and Promotes Reflection:

Traditionally, educators have often worked in silos. Being connected gives you exposure to diverse perspectives beyond what you would find in a single school or district. Reading and chatting with others about ideas has given me new lenses to  examine my beliefs, values, and practices as an educator. It has allowed me to refine my thinking and approach for the better when working with students and colleagues.

Tip: Take the time to participate in a Twitter chat. In one hour, you will be exposed to more ideas on a specific topic than any number of blogs or books you could read in that same time. You can start by simply observing a Twitter chat by following the hashtag at the designated time. Then I would encourage you to jump in and participate the following week. Or just jump right in from the beginning and start chatting away!

3.       Remembering What it is Like to Be a Student:

When I struggle with a new technology, I am reminded of the frustration of not understanding or the discomfort of working through mistakes. I am also reminded of how fun it can be to play and experiment, and the feeling of success when I master or implement the new tool. Putting ourselves in the shoes of our learners is not only very humbling, but sheds light into what our students experience every day. Embracing this learning process and sharing it with students is also great role modeling.

Tip: If you are struggling with a new tool or want further information on one, don’t be afraid to reach out to other connected colleagues or my personal favorite is to ask a student. I have found either always eager to help. It’s also a great way for students to shine and share their knowledge with the adults in their school.

Becoming a connected educator starts with just taking a simple step of wanting to learn one new idea. What will you learn today?

 Note: As of this writing, the Connected Educator Month Book Club is back! Next month there will be four book clubs, one of which will be The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age. For more details, check out: http://plpnetwork.com/2013/09/19/connected-educator-month-book-club/