Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a bit about leadership and what it takes to lead genuine change in education. This isn’t an uncommon thing for a teacher to be thinking about these days, especially with so many examples of schools challenging the status quo for the singular purpose of providing better learning experiences and life opportunities for the young people in their care. My current rumination on leadership was prompted by my colleague who asked me if I read a certain edu blog. I said I didn’t, because I don’t read any blogs. She was genuinely shocked (bordering on dismayed) by my admission. It took me a little bit of self-reflection (like, 30 seconds, because otherwise I would have looked kinda odd to my friend who was waiting for my response) to work out what my reasoning is. For the first ten seconds I was certain it was egotism – not wanting to read anyone else’s blog because I have my own – and then I thought it was just because I’m busy – this can’t be true as I manage to tweet and fb and instagram and blog far too much for that to hold up – finally, in the five seconds before she would tell me I’m weird, I worked it out. I’m scared to read about the cool things others are doing because it makes me lament my own inability to do those things. I despair when I read about other teachers doing things that I know are impossible for me as a teacher to do – because of a range of restraints that my current edu context presents. Things like using iPads, BYOD, dynamic and flexible learning spaces, whole-school PBL and maker spaces… sigh, just writing about them makes me sad.
The reason that I’m writing this post is because I think it takes a certain type of gutsy, risk-taking, fuck you attitude as a leader to create an environment where whole swathes of educators are rethinking their role in the classroom. I think it takes real leadership to make a large group of adult professionals scared as hell. Yeah, that’s what a visionary leader does. They are immersed in contemporary ideas about learning, design, business and culture and they are enviably connected – both in digital spaces and in the ‘real world’. Frequently they are confronted by a new endeavour, idea or tool and they challenge their colleagues to grab it with both hands and adapt it to their specific educational context. I mean, they hound you, as a teacher, with the new, until you almost weep and beg for mercy. They throw out a vision with the hope that others can see it, envision it, embrace it and morph into something practical and real. This is the type of leader with whom you could happily read all the books and blogs in the world and never despair at a cool idea because you know that you could try it and if it failed, your failure would be held up as an example of awesome learning. Sigh… I’ll stop describing fantasies now, and get to reality. Really, I will.
For the few years I have seen two people become these leaders. They have different paths but I see that they have the same destination. John Goh is known, not only for his bright suits, but for his radical approach to leadership and his desire to change the very notion of ‘school’. I have watched him grow as a leader, from someone working insanely hard behind the scenes to change the very structure of his school, to someone who is actively advocating for other principals to follow his lead – not to copy his decisions – and to put the needs of students above all else. Greg Miller is perhaps less well known in edu circles, but charging forward on his own transformative journey in quite a visible and public way. Like John, Greg shares his ideas and experiences as a principal on his blog. His posts reveal a work in progress, an individual eager to change and challenge the current paradigm of education and to surrender biases and traditions to a new vision of education today. Every time he tweets me his latest blog post, I think, ‘Another one? He’s still at it? He hasn’t given up yet?’ I’m impressed. These days it’s SO easy to make small changes – surface changes – that make a school look as though it is forward thinking. Just like John, Greg has focused on the pedagogical as much as the physical and structural. Like John, he is treating his school like an experiment… that sounds awful, but it isn’t. What would be awful would be a leader who assumes that change is simply a new coat of paint and some new chairs, or a leader who assumes that once change has happened it has happened. No, having a leader who sees experimenting and movement and fluidity as integral aspects of a learning environment – for the students, teachers, parents, admin etc – is essential. Essential. Education is not immutable. No, no, no. We need leaders like John and Greg in education if we are going to have schools that we want our own children to attend. There are too many people playing it nice and safe out there and the only losers are the students. They learn from a safe model of teaching and learning that the best approach in life is one that is nice and safe. This is NOT the type of citizen we should be shaping. No, no, no. Daring and bold edu leaders birth daring and bold lifelong learners!
To learn more about these guys:
NB: I know that I’ve chosen two men as my examples of transformative, inspirational edu leaders. I know that there are likely just as many, if not more, female leaders out there who are on the level of these guys. This post isn’t about gender, but then again, everything is often about gender when there is such an imbalance in most parts of society. So, if you know of female leaders kicking ass as much as these two guys – public, catholic, private school, I don’t care – let me know so I can follow their journeys as well. Perhaps they aren’t sharing as publicly, or they’re not as well connected? A cynical slice of me imagines that perhaps female leaders are more reticent to challenge the established culture of a school and make the needed changes… I hope you prove me wrong.