Support, Opportunities, and Engagement: 3 Claims that John Dewey Would Make About Learning During the Covid-19, 2020-2021 School Year

Support, Opportunities, and Engagement: 3 Claims that John Dewey Would Make About Learning During the Covid-19, 2020-2021 School Year

Looking at Learning through A John Dewey Lens 

Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situation of experience its own full and unique meaning. ~ John Dewey

When many educators hear the words: reformer, progressive, whole child, etc. their minds are immediately drawn to the profound work of John Dewey, Columbia University Philosophy Professor. A cofounder of pragmatism, a philosophy that embraced utility and action, Dewey’s thoughts on education centered on engagement and interaction for both the teacher and the student. This post focuses on what we believe Dewey would glean from this incredible school year to advance teaching and learning in a post-pandemic era. 

Our Favorite John Dewey Quote 

The quote above centers on the happiness that is found when we uncover “unique meaning” in what we experience, no matter how challenging. His claim is that if we are fully invested in what is occurring and we “wrest” from the changes and challenges, we will learn and grow. In fact, we will be happy. It is actually our struggle during times of change and the outcomes thereafter that lead to our contentment. The paradox is that many believe that happiness is a derivative of comfort, and the opposite is true. 

Can We Find Happiness Because of What We Learned During Covid19?

Over the past school year, two words that we have not often heard associated with one another are Covid and happiness. And, although we won’t follow Alice down the rabbit hole regarding the meaning and history of happiness, we do want to identify that happiness, in this context, is a state of being that occurs when someone experiences meaningfulness and worthy contribution. 

For more on the concept of happiness, visit the Greater Good Magazine for tons of information and resources.

Now that we are emerging from Covid19 in a post-vaccinated society, we wanted to reflect on the past school year through the lens of a renowned education reformer, John Dewey. Our hope is that we can find happiness and success from what we’ve learned. If we can, then we will make significant strides in education. 

Forced Change Due to a Crisis 

This year was challenging on many levels. Covid19 either disrupted your life, or worse yet, imposed devastating outcomes. As for the educational workforce, everyone within the system experienced significant challenges through forced change. At TheSchoolHouse302, we consider forced change to be beyond the realm of our control and something that we must respond to  accordingly using resilience and flexibility. 

Forced change is beyond the realm of our control; we must respond and adapt to it in order to continue to effectively teach and learn. ~ TheSchoolHouse302 @TSH302 Click To Tweet

Change happens all the time. It can be foreseeable or not, welcome or forced. Changes in education often come from the Federal Government or from an outside interest group. But a change due to a pandemic is something that no one expects or sees coming. The bottom line is that regardless of where the change comes from, schools and school personnel must change to the degree equivalent to the strength and potency of the change itself. The problem with Covid and the educational community is the degree of change that is required. The difficulty of this school year wasn’t due to another change initiative but to the dominance that Covid possessed. We aren’t talking about new standards or legislation on high quality early learning services, we were, and still are, dealing with a complete upheaval to how we traditionally operate schooling. 

Educators worked hard through the end of the 2019/2020 school year in the best possible way to educate students to the best of our ability given the unprecedented worldwide reaction to the virus. But, once teachers and leaders realized that there was a strong possibility of not returning to in-person learning in 2020/2021, mindsets had to shift to embrace the virtual learning reality.

As the primary place where students learn became off limits because of social distancing, whether completely, partially, or intermittently, school buildings were no longer the center of where learning needed to take place. This forced change had incredible ramifications, many of which were cause for absenteeism, increased rates of failure, and learning loss. However, amid the challenges of the forced change, there exists the triumph of a year whereby many of the educational values that John Dewey espoused were put into place and embraced faster than had we not experienced a crisis.  

Let’s be clear, we could all easily fall back into our traditional way of doing things if we are not intentional or if we fail to reflect on what we’ve learned during these trying times. We look to the educational vision of a man who was born in 1859, but that vision, albeit more than a century old, is often absent from today’s student experience. We are now able to ask ourselves: what are the claims that John Dewey would make about the post-pandemic educational system that we should embrace for the advancement of teaching and learning? 

3 Claims that John Dewey Would Likely Make About Teaching and Learning as the Result of Covid19

John Dewey Claim #1: 21st Century Schools are the Central Hubs of Our Community

One glaring truth that emerged from Covid19 is that schools are the centers of our communities. We could argue that churches and other organizations were once a central space to reach the community, but, throughout Covid19, schools were the community institutions that were used to reach, communicate, support, feed, and aid our students and families. 

This is primarily due to the simple ease of connection that schools have with every child. The incredible community centers and outreach programs throughout Covid often needed a place to reach the greater community, and one way to quickly get in touch with people was through school communication systems all the way down to teacher rosters and district pupil services.  

Dewey claimed that a critical responsibility of education is to provide a social service that will lead to social progress. During Covid, schools shifted quickly to include social and emotional learning, prioritized standards, mental health centers, medical resources, and more. Faster than ever, schools realized Dewey’s vision for re-imagining what a classroom looks like and provides for students. 

Next Steps From What we’ve Learned from Covid19: 

Similar to the efforts of 211, which combines and harnesses community resources, schools can also be a conduit of resources and services within the community. The stark reality is that many students are suffering both mentally and emotionally and have very specific needs that the school itself is not necessarily equipped to handle. Schools are fundamentally places of learning and any responsibilities beyond that need extensive support. This is not to say that schools cannot serve these students, actually it’s just the opposite. 

Schools can curate the potential services within the community and create a system to connect families to services as needed. With a synthesized list of community services, counselors and other support staff will know where to send families for the help they need. Anything from flu shots to food drives, schools that know the available resources become the hub that Dewey intended the school to be. 

John Dewey Claim #2: Meaningful Student Engagement and Learning Must Take on Many Forms and be Evaluated Routinely and Often 

The amount of problem solving and concerted effort to educate students throughout Covid was simply amazing. It’s important to note that these weren’t necessarily new efforts but that the intensity of the efforts were significantly elevated. This is also not to say that it was all a success but the level of experimentation and risk-taking taught us what to do and not do faster than ever before. The review of student performance data and other sources of information to evaluate what works, what doesn’t, and what to try next is an outcome of the pandemic that we hope educators will stick to for the future of schooling.

Whether it was making sure that students attended classes by reviewing work samples or trying new and dynamic virtual tools, educators increased the frequency and review of data to determine if students were learning and engaged. One key realization during Covid that Dewey would agree with is that schools cannot take for granted that a student’s “presence” equals engagement and learning. New products and features of in-person and virtual learning need to include evidence and subsequent data analysis.  

Next Steps from What We’ve Learned from Covid19: 

Student engagement was a central aspect of Dewey’s work. Students need to be meaningfully engaged in learning and the meaning of the lesson. The challenge is in separating the activity from the teacher–the practicality of instruction and the task of the student. At the end of the day, marking period, semester, and year, it really comes down to whether or not the students learned and progressed through a series of tasks to get there. 

Because Covid19 was so bizarre and the obstacles were so high, we witnessed teachers repeatedly trying new things until they settled into what made sense for students. Learning was the primary objective and teachers embraced this idea due to a setting that was so different. This effort to learn and take risks on the part of the teacher as well as the demonstration of grace as it pertains to grades are two key ingredients for success moving forward.  

John Dewey Claim #3: Teachers Deserve and Need Robust Support and Learning Opportunities

In a short amount of time, teachers’ knowledge and expertise regarding technology and various platforms skyrocketed. Pre-covid, many schools were doing great work in regard to providing technology to staff and students, capitalizing on various learning tools, and supporting the technology with a solid infrastructure. But schools were very patient with staff and willingly measured progress slowly with no real rush. Early adopters soared, while school administrators supported and approved our instructors who needed more time.

Covid eliminated the freedom of a casual timeline, and teachers were forced to learn the tools and do so fast. Granted, it was frustrating and unrelenting, but the growth was amazing. From tools like Seesaw for interactive learning to various Google platforms, teachers revolutionized their classroom in zero time flat. Much of what we saw was that our early adopters and subject matter experts pumped out learning opportunities to catch others up.  

Next Steps from What We’ve Learned from Covid19:

Differentiate professional learning (PL) is not a new concept but one that needs to take hold in every school and district. Teachers’ skill sets vary and PL needs to be offered in a variety of different formats and times. Every school should be equipped with one room dedicated to learning new technologies. Handing over tech to teachers and expecting transformational teaching in the classroom without support is an unacceptable practice. Teachers should have the opportunity to identify the challenges and struggles they are facing from classroom management to engaging instructional practices and receive PL in real time. We wrote about this concept, comparing a learning culture to a teaching culture, in Passionate Leadership. What we learned from Covid19 that Dewey would love to know is that we can speed up not only the learning of our students but that of our teachers. 

We herald John Dewey’s prgressive ideas and his thoughts on teaching and learning. The notion of learning as a process that requires active participation is not anything new as we type these words, but the question in front of us today is how well are we doing it across every system? Dewey professed that we can find happiness amid every situation, and we believe that we can transform education through the challenges overcome throughout Covid19. The spirit of reaching every child and transforming our practices to bend toward the needs of every student will guide us and serve us well for centuries to come. A forced change may be exactly what education needed and now we must move forward with what we’ve learned.  

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at theschoolhouse302.com to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 
This episode was brought to you by GhostBed, a family-owned business of sleep experts with 20+ years of experience. With 30K+ 5-star reviews, you can’t go wrong with GhostBed. Their mattresses are handcrafted, and they come with a 101-night-at-home-sleep trial. For a limited time, you can get 30% by using our code — SH302 — at checkout. And, even if you tell someone about GhostBed, you can earn a $100 referral reward. Go to Ghostbed.com today and use SH302 at checkout.

Read This and Embrace Practical Ideas To Lead With Appreciation: A Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. Book

Read This and Embrace Practical Ideas To Lead With Appreciation: A Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. Book

Don’t miss this vblog on YouTube or catch our Read This segment of our One Thing Series podcast–books you need to read to lead better and grow faster. 

Featured Authors: Amber Teamann & Melinda Miller

Featured Book: Lead with Appreciation: Fostering a Culture of Gratitude

Here’s Why Every School Principal Should Read This Book About Appreciation for in the Workplace

  • Lead with Appreciation is great because it’s written by practitioners. Principals and school leaders are looking for ideas that they can implement right away. Look no further on how to show appreciation than this fantastic book.
  • Not everyone accepts appreciation or desires to experience appreciation the same way. This book not only features some great tools like the enneagram, but it digs into our work-appreciation languages. P.S. You can find our interview with enneagram specialist, Kaley Klemp here
  • This book is littered with primary resources. The pictures are real, and they add an element of authenticity and reassurance. As a visual learner, this is awesome and takes away some of the mental wrestling that occurs when you are trying to understand what something would look like. 
  • Another great takeaway is that this book is written with most of the chapters focused on the months of the school year. It’s a power planning tip when we can pre-populate our calendar with action items months ahead of schedule. 

Buy Lead with Appreciation on Amazon

Visit Amber Teamann’s Website

Let us know what you’re reading by contacting us at contact@theschoolhouse302.com

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

PS — If you have a topic you want us to cover or need recommendations on books to read in a particular area of leadership, just send us a tweet or an email. 

This episode was brought to you by GhostBed, a family-owned business of sleep experts with 20+ years of experience. With 30K+ 5-star reviews, you can’t go wrong with GhostBed. Their mattresses are handcrafted, and they come with a 101-night-at-home-sleep trial. For a limited time, you can get 30% by using our code — SH302 — at checkout. And, even if you tell someone about GhostBed, you can earn a $100 referral reward. Go to Ghostbed.com today and use SH302 at checkout. 

Close the Book on this School Year in Style: The Definitive Four Strategies that Every Principal Must Master To Finish with Peak Performance

Close the Book on this School Year in Style: The Definitive Four Strategies that Every Principal Must Master To Finish with Peak Performance

Finish Strong: Make May Memorable

In schools, the month of May can be likened to grade-5 whitewater rafting conditions—large waves, volumes-upon-volumes of water, the possibility of large rocks and other hazards, and the nearing of a large drop off at any point. Each obstacle requires precise maneuvering. The only quality of May that is similar to other months in the school year is its length. That said, we can’t just ride the wave, hoping or expecting for it to be a great finale. School leaders need to explicitly and intentionally end the school year strong, and specific to a year of COVID, on a higher, brighter, and better note than the way we started.

One of Our Favorite Quotes About Finishing Strong Comes from Robin Sharma

One incredible quote that we appreciate comes from Robin Sharma, best selling author of The World-Changer’s Manifesto. Its simplicity sums up the goal of this post: “Starting strong is good. Finishing strong is epic.” The issue is that May will challenge the greatest of principals and will leave many of our most well-intentioned leaders with their heads hung low in defeat. We’re excited to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Executive Functioning Skills for School Principals

The month of May demands a highly effective principal leader with excellent executive functioning skills. Time management is crucial, maintaining momentum is essential, relentless communication is a must, and connecting with staff is imperative. Throughout the month, school administrators are planning and delivering a variety of year-end culminating events, completing both formative and summative observations, ensuring that we maintain high engagement and strong classroom instruction, and orchestrating the completion of multiple standardized assessments. There is simply not enough month compared to the work.

To complicate matters, let’s add what appeared at first to be one of those insurmountable grade-5 white water conditions–Covid19–which showed itself like a waterfall that has a turbulent plunge pool at the bottom ready to devour you. Now, with the year coming to a close, schools are considering any of the following this summer:

  • Grade level reading exposure
  • Empowering families to support summer learning
  • Summer learning opportunities from accelerated learning academies to tutoring
  • Social and emotional support
  • The implications of retention 
  • Filling gaps during 21/22

The unique challenge for school leaders within this hectic environment is that we must also finish the current school year strong, bringing everyone to their highest level of performance before students, and then teachers, take off for the summer. As you work through these final weeks and hours, consider Kahneman’s peak-end rule: “The way an experience ends determines the happiness we ascribe to it.” This has implications for all of our year-end events, activities, and meetings, and it sets the tone for the students and the faculty for next school year. Ending this year strong is the single greatest way to starting summer programs and beginning the upcoming school year right.

Four Strategies that Any Principal Can Employ for End-of-Year Peak Performance

Stay Connected to Know What’s Going On

Despite being an overall good practice, being visible to connect with the staff and students during the last month of school is critical. We promote three primary ways for administrators to move throughout the building with purpose:

  1. Teacher observations: Arguably the vast majority of observations should be done, but this is also a great time to have end of year conferences. Be sure to go to the teacher’s room to have the conference. This practice not only creates a comfortable environment for the teacher, but it creates an opportunity for you to get out of your office. 
  2. Walkthroughs: These short classroom visits–12 to 17 minutes each–should be done till the end of the school year. The end of the school year should be filled with a lot of fun activities, even during Covid, but these activities should not come at the expense of learning or classroom instruction. It’s critical to use time at the end of the school year wisely, and being in classrooms is always a good use of time. 
  3. Management by Walking Around: This is great practice to use so that you can touch base, connect, and see all of the operational functions of the school. The primary purpose of MBWA is for you to learn about and improve the systems in your school.  

Teachers and students should feel your presence in a positive and supportive way. Not only will you continue to keep your finger on the “pulse” of the climate, but it also sets the tone that instruction is still the priority. 

May poses many obstacles that can increase frustration, which can end the year with a negative vibe. That’s the opposite of what you want. Stay connected by keeping the routines of being in classrooms and halls (or virtually on Zoom or Teams), by participating in PLCs, and by generally being available. 

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

How will you structure your calendar to get you into classrooms, both in-person and remote? Remember, there are times of the day that best match productivity for certain tasks. Try to organize your day in a way that maximizes your effectiveness and still reaches your visibility goal. 

Reinforce Consistency to Ensure Quality Instruction

Despite all the May-hem, the primary focus should always be on teaching and learning. One way to ensure a smooth May is by following the routines that have been in place all year that reinforce quality instruction and student engagement. If learning remains the primary focus, and all of your faculty members embrace this mentality and work together to ensure a strong finish, the likelihood of success is much greater. 

This year presents another unique challenge because of the various modalities that are being used for learning. Schools are working to understand the impact of Covid19 and the potential learning loss. Don’t miss what Richard Elmore says about that. Whether it is a slide, a couple months of lost learning, or a slowdown, a couple weeks of lost learning, schools must finish the year strong and also find ways to understand and determine how much the students have and haven’t learned throughout the school year. 

Students can make significant gains this time of year, so using every second of the day is vital. School’s that understand this concept–end-of-year gains–see the month of May and early June as “time is running out.” This means that we’re in full engagement mode. Instead of hanging on for dear life as the rocks and waves pummel the boat, navigate with a clear focus on getting to the end with success in mind. We can’t slow down when the waters get rough, we need to increase our response rate for the sake of success or failure.

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

What assessments will you use to determine what students have learned this year? And, how will you use that data to inform summer programming and learning in the fall? These assessments can range from in-house assessments to standardized assessments. 

Over-Communicate to Inform the School Community

The key here is to provide ongoing and routine communication on all available platforms. That being said, staff should be informed through one primary tool. A weekly principal’s memo is a tried and true method that works amazingly well. The memo should be organized  in such a way that is informative, uplifting, and reinforcing of key practice and ideas.

It’s incredible to think about all of the information that schools communicate, but as the school year wraps up there are several pieces of information that also help end the year smoothly. Daily and weekly schedules with activities, events, and reminders that are purposeful and valuable should be sent each week, ahead of time. This information should complement the school’s online master calendar, and when applicable, should also identify key people associated with the event. This lets everyone know exactly what is going on so that folks aren’t left with any uncertainty, including staff, students, and families. 

Because Covid has created an enormous amount of uncertainty, over-communication will also reassure people in terms of what to expect and when. Especially if you are offering various programs throughout the summer to support learning, communicating ahead of time is a key way to put people at ease about what’s happening and where they fit into the work. Clear communication should be the goal throughout the year, but in May, with so much happening, it needs to be abundantly clear. 

Lastly, this communication effort needs to come in many forms—morning announcements, website notifications, memos, emails, etc. The school itself and the main office need to be the lighthouse in the storm, directing the way to calmer waters.

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

What is your system for collecting all of the pertinent information from key people in your school so that you can put together a single message (put out in multiple places)? Pro Tip: Always keep your main office secretary in the loop about everything–even the stuff you don’t think they need to know. They are a primary connection to the community and can create a very receptive environment for staff and families. 

Celebrate Often to Sincerely Offer Praise

This is the most important suggestion for finishing May on a high—celebrate. Find appropriate times to celebrate and recognize staff and students in meaningful and purposeful ways. Teacher appreciation week is a great way to launch May and to maintain a month of recognition, positive reinforcement, and the desire to highlight the “bright spots.” 

Make May into an all encompassing Staff Appreciation Month. May is the month to make your school come alive through recognition and the positive story that you have to tell. Strive to create an energetic and warm environment. Again, this is a strategy that can be used year-round, but May needs to be the icing on the cake. Covid definitely places some limitations on what can be done to celebrate, however, there are still ample opportunities to lift the work that you school is proud to share. It’s also a reminder that your school has a brand, and May can make or break how people feel about it. 

Teachers have been working tireless hours doing what they can for their students and celebrating is a great way to demonstrate that you recognize those efforts. People need to leave for the summer thinking that they have a great place to return to in August. It is very easy to end the school year abruptly with confusion and dismay because of a disorganized hectic month so make May special as a positive reflection of all of the good that has happened this year. If you’re not intentional, we warn, people will remember the worst parts, not the best.

Key Take-away for School Leaders: 

What opportunities do you have to offer sincere praise and recognition for your staff–individually and publicly? Be strategic with celebrations as often and as authentic as possible. Make May memorable by making it fun and commemorative.

Leaders need to be mindful of the peak-end rule. May is both the peak and the end of the school year, which will be what people remember as they head into the summer and beyond. The month of May has implications for students learning, teacher satisfaction, the way you start next year, and even the overall brand of your school. Don’t miss this important period of time to reinforce all of the great work and positive reasons to be an educator . 

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at theschoolhouse302.com to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 

Read This Incredible Book to Become A More Innovative Principal — Courageous Edventures: Navigating Obstacles to Discover Classroom Innovation — Get Your Copy Today

Read This Incredible Book to Become A More Innovative Principal — Courageous Edventures: Navigating Obstacles to Discover Classroom Innovation — Get Your Copy Today

Courageous Edventures, by Jennie Magiera, is a Must Read for Educational Leaders Who Want to Effectively Support Teachers’ Use of Technology as a Tool within the Classroom

Don’t miss this vblog on YouTube or catch our Read This segment of our One Thing Series podcast–books you need to read to lead better and grow faster. 

Featured Author: Jennie Magiera 

Featured Book: Courageous Edventures: Navigating Obstacles to Discover Classroom Innovation 

Here’s Why Every Innovative Principal Leader, Instructional Technology Coach, and Curriculum Specialist Must Read This Corwin Book by Jennie Magiera:

Courageous Edventures is a great book for all educators. Why? It’s real in that it’s written by a former teacher, and it blends the challenges that are associated with using technology in the classroom with how to overcome them successfully. 

The author, Jennie Magiera, now the Global Head of Education Impact at Google, tells a common story, found within many schools–a story where technology is available, but woefully underemployed and arguably misunderstood. Fortunately, she also provides clear ways on how to excel at using these tools to transform teaching and learning. 

This month, our focus is on innovation and learning, particularly women in leadership who are making a significant impact. Jennie is one of those individuals who embraces change leadership through innovation. You can’t miss our interview with her, which uncovers a great deal of her stance on school and district leadership. 

Her story is found among many early adopters who discover the power of a new teaching tool, “terrifying and confusing.” In this case, Jenny realized early on that technology in the classroom, when used well, can radically improve student learning. However, it wasn’t an easy journey. Courageous Edventures is organized into four parts that we believe make it a great read and very user friendly. 

Learning from reading is our goal, and it is why we feature very specific books for educational leaders. The four parts of this book create a journey and require readers to engage with the content as a measure of growth.

  1. Charting Your Course
  2. Navigating Your Problems
  3. Sailing into the Great Beyond
  4. Reflecting on Your Edventure

Each part of Courageous Edventures is written as a journey and carries the reader to the destination. There are very practical models introduced throughout the book, such as the SAMR model or the Teacher Innovation Exploration Plan (TIEP). These models are important because they guide the development of the reader toward something that they can actually use in practice in terms of making a difference in their classroom and school. 

The SAMR Model for Innovation with Technology 

Another aspect of this book that truly resonated with us is the Critical Friends section. Our friend and Chief Ruckus Maker, Danny Bauer of Better Leaders Better Schools, has long championed the power of belonging to a mastermind group for support, connectedness, and intentional growth. Having critical friends is a tremendous way to grow as a professional because, among other things, accountability is a key aspect of the relationship. 

We’ll end this post on one of Jennie’s tips, which you’ll find early in the book: “Loyalty to Students Over All Else.” When our purpose eclipses everything, it’s easy to find courage to do those things that frighten us. Putting students first is really what this book is about; technology is the just one of the great ways that we can get it done!

We hope to hear from you about your favorite parts of the book, our blog, and the interview. Please comment below. Follow, like, and share.

For more great leadership content, follow theschoolhouse302.com.

Joe & T.J. 


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Innovation is Born in the Heart and Developed in the Mind: Embrace these 4 Proven Strategies from Top Female CEOs that Every Principal Leader Must Know

Innovation is Born in the Heart and Developed in the Mind: Embrace these 4 Proven Strategies from Top Female CEOs that Every Principal Leader Must Know

The Principal as an Innovative Leader 

In March we celebrated Women’s History Month, which gave us the backdrop and motivation to do a bit of research regarding women innovators from four very different industries but who any school principal should know about as a leader. There is no substitute for effective leadership and taking the time to read and learn from diverse people from all industries helps to expand a school principals’ ability to view complex issues through a broad yet critical lens.

We’ve discovered that schools often fail to innovate and employ a number of diverse practices from inclusion to blended learning because of the organization’s culture and not the people. In fact, it’s misleading, and somewhat of a leadership cop-out, to believe that the teachers and the staff in the organization are the ones thwarting or blocking new ideas. 

There’s only one person in an organization who can truly squash innovative thinking, and that one person is the leader. It’s only the principal, the chief officer, the managing supervisor, or anyone directly in charge of a group of people who can actually suppress innovation. 

We are not suggesting that there aren’t what we call roadblocks of resistance, but the leader is responsible for developing a culture where innovation is core value. Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed how one department within a school can be cranking out new ideas all the time, working right alongside another department that is stifled and cannot make any forward progress. As John Maxwell says, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” 

The good news is that great leaders know how to create a culture where teams are working together, thinking together, and innovating together.

Two Elements of Leadership Success 

Tony Robbins, a success expert, once said that the only two things that matter in business are 1. Marketing, and 2. Innovation. He draws this conclusion for two reasons: 1. Regardless of how great the product or idea is, if you can’t market well and sell, it’s worthless. And, 2. Sometimes an innovation is so creative and so inspiring that it doesn’t really need marketing to sell. The product itself is so desired by the market that it moves all on its own. 

Although we are writing about school leadership, there are distinct parallels when developing a culture of success in any school. Any school leader must know how to effectively market ideas, changing priorities, new programs, and so on. They have to be able to communicate to many different stakeholders for successful implementation of any new change. On the other hand, effective leaders also need to move forward with innovative ideas that may put pressure in the system but that are fundamentally necessary to change processes and practices in a positive way.  

The challenge is harnessing both–effective marketing and quick innovation–for maximum impact. This requires a style of thinking that great leaders innately possess and that principals can use in schools. Most leaders want this type of innovative thinking to permeate the organization and to spur change, but we know that it takes deliberate practice. At TheSchoolHouse302, we’ve uncovered four powerful strategies that any principal can use to create a school culture that is grounded in innovation.  

4 Strategies to Drive Innovative Thinking in Schools: 

Strategy #1: Value New Ideas Over the Status-Quo

According to Megan Tull, “Risk taking is an increasingly critical element of leadership and essential for a leader’s effectiveness.” The schools and districts that capture our attention for innovation, such as High Tech High, didn’t become successful by playing it safe. To create system-wide organizational success, calculated risks must be taken and rewarded. Principals can’t expect teachers to try new tools or instructional strategies if they work in an evaluation-driven environment. There must be room for failure.  

The play-it-safe mentality in workers will always win-out over risk-taking when mistakes are seen as a performance problem. Risk-taking, of course, cannot become reckless, but the value of teamwork and employing great people has to be placed on idea-generation and trying something new. The culture has to be grounded in earning and exploring, not the status quo. This means that leaders have to place extreme value on a continual flow of ideas so that thinking is new and not stagnant. Complacency is the death of progress. 

So that principals can see this by example, we can’t think of a greater innovative leader for valuing ideas than Sarah Blakely.  

Sarah Blakely is Our First Innovator Spotlight: 

Sarah Blakely’s success and innovative thinking is downright jaw dropping. Why? She listened to herself, solved a problem, and then pursued her invention. Spanx was born. 

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

We are constantly running into issues and obstacles in education. Rather than just tolerating them, like a pebble in our shoe, work to identify the issue and then solve the problem. Don’t jump to the solution without first analyzing the core of the issue. 

Strategy #2: Inspire Creativity by Creating Challenges 

In his book, Pure Genius, Don Wettrick outlines the fact that innovation is cultural and schools, classrooms, and organizations can all spark innovation through teaching the foundation of innovative thinking. It’s important for organizations to explicitly inspire people to take risks, to collaborate for synergy, to connect so that ideas are curated and then synthesized, to engage in a creative process that isn’t linear, and to always reflect on both the product and the journey in getting to it. Creativity is not a congenital trait but rather something that can be inculcated by culture and expectation. 

In a culture of innovation, the leader goes first and then expects others to innovate as well. Going beyond the status quo is not only the expectation, but sticking with old practices, especially when they’ve been recognized as ineffective, is met with disapproval. 

For our second spotlight innovator, we feature Jane Chen. 

Jane Chen is Our Second Innovator Spotlight: 

Jane Chen, a co-founder of Embrace Innovations, set lofty goals aimed at improving the quality of life for those in the developing world. The tagline says it all, healthtech with a heart. Their genius was born from a classroom challenge and evolved into an incredible purpose designed to help premature babies have a chance at life. 

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

As detailed on their site, in one of their Stanford classes, they were “challenged to come up with an incubator that costs less than 1% the cost of a traditional incubator.” We want to recognize and honor the tremendous research and hard work this must have taken to discover and create, but we also want to direct principals towards the purity in that the team was explicitly charged with solving a problem. That works in schools as well. 

Strategy #3: Always Start with WHY 

As Simon Sinek explains in his book, Start with Why, great leaders know that inspiration comes from purpose, not from the product or process. The bottom line nature of profitability, following specific processes, and top-down management practices are just some of the reasons that contribute to an innovation void. These are put in place for a reason but also need to be challenged by going back to our purpose, choosing impact over compliance. 

When organizations have a clear set of communicated core values that drive shared decision-making, it allows for innovation to ensue because people are focused on the importance of the work and the mission at hand. This means that organizational culture has thinking and acting at its core rather than just following policies and gathering data. Great schools identify clear core values that serve as the filter for decision-making.

Our third spotlight is Grace Colon of Incarda Therapeutics. 

Grace E. Colon is Our Third Innovator Spotlight: 

Grace E. Colon is the CEO of Incarda Therapeutics. Dr. Colon earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT. One main reason for highlighting Incarda is their purpose: Committed to developing transformative therapies for cardiac conditions. Talk about a clear WHY.

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

One thing that Incarda preaches as an organization is that their team members complement one another, demonstrating the power in hiring for innovation and other values. At TheSchoolHouse302, we often argue that filling vacancies goes well beyond the position itself. In education we are not looking for someone who can teach a subject but rather the right people to fully live out our core values. Read more by checking out our newest book

Strategy #4: Allow Innovation to be Incremental

Going back a couple years ago, we interviewed @dougtimm34, an elementary principal who values innovation and leadership and who believes in what he calls “incremental innovation.” Innovation doesn’t have to be a massive change. It can be iterative. Doug explained that innovative thinking doesn’t have to be about introducing something brand new but rather allowing yourself to have a process of revision where the end product is new and creative as a result of the effort to refine ideas over time. 

The refinement process includes feedback from others and is used in top creative organizations like Pixar and Disney Animation where everything from the storyline to the characters of a film go under extensive review by teams of people before accepting a new product for development. Tiny tweaks are always at the core of great change. 

For principals to understand this in action, we introduce our fourth spotlight, Lynn Le. 

Lynn Le is Our Fourth Innovator Spotlight: 

Lynn Le is the founder of Society Nine, which centers on boxing and sports apparel for female users. The company champions the uniqueness of women and the original product-line offered women’s boxing gloves that were really non-existent before they brought them to market. This demonstrates the effectiveness in taking something that exists and putting a completely new spin on it. 

The Principal’s Leadership Lesson: 

Pay keen attention to how and why things are changing. Always work to ensure that you are representing all students. Boxing gloves have been around for over a century but were designed for men. As the boxing and mixed martial arts world evolved, with more and more women competing, the equipment and structures that support it must also change. Think about this in terms of curriculum, school calendars, grading, and other aspects of schooling that haven’t undergone enough scrutiny and change. 

We challenge principals to use these four strategies in your school so that you can create a culture of innovation where new ideas are paramount to the fabric of what you expect as a contribution from everyone on your team. These strategies are complex by the nature of doing business with people but they are not complicated. Any school principal can put them into place with thoughtful consideration and focus. 

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at theschoolhouse302.com to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCloud. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 

Read This to Become A More Effective Principal: Is My School A Better School BECAUSE I Lead It by Baruti Kafele — Get Your Copy Today

Read This to Become A More Effective Principal: Is My School A Better School BECAUSE I Lead It by Baruti Kafele — Get Your Copy Today

Don’t miss this vblog on YouTube or catch our Read This segment of our One Thing Series podcast–books you need to read to lead better and grow faster. 

Featured Author: Baruti Kafele 

Featured Book: Is My School Better BECAUSE I Lead It?

YoutTube: https://youtu.be/Aoz7k7DFkJY

iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/servant-leadership-success-as-principal-social-justice/id1316161350?i=1000512840352

SoundCloud: 

Here’s Why Every Principal Should Read This ASCD Book by Principal Kafele:

  • Similar to other Principal Kafele books, he starts with the power of questions. If you read this book through the lens of self-development, not only will you understand yourself better, you’ll also continue on the great and challenging journey of leadership growth. 
  • Principal Kafele is comfortable with the uncomfortable. As humans, we don’t always like to confront the brutal reality, but growth occurs in the space where we willingly uncover our areas of weakness. A must read. 

Buy Is My School A Better School BECAUSE I Lead It? on Amazon

Don’t miss our One Thing Series podcast interview with Baruti Kafele where we dive into the servant leadership, social justice, and so much more. 

Let us know what you’re reading by contacting us at contact@theschoolhouse302.com

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

PS — If you have a topic you want us to cover or need recommendations on books to read in a particular area of leadership, just send us a tweet or an email. 

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And, let us know if you want to join our next MasterClass on Candid and Compassionate Feedback. If you want to see real growth in your school, click here to reserve your seat or here for more information. 

Lastly, join us in the Principals’ Club, designed to take your PLN to a PLC so that we can support one another in our growth as leaders. We hope to see you there. 

Claim Your FREE Copy to Our Praise Practice- Practical Praise Giving Tips for Principals

Claim Your FREE Copy to Our Praise Practice- Practical Praise Giving Tips for Principals

Learn how you can give practical praise each day as you lead your school to develop a better and more positive culture through this complimentary eBook we use in our workshops to help principals all over the nation and subscribe for more resources like this one delivered to your inbox. 

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