Courageous Leadership: Be Subversive
This is an excerpt from the second chapter of More Now: A Message From The Future for The Educators of Today by Dr. Mark Wagner, our founder and CEO. This anecdote has inspired his work, and ours at EdTechTeam, for years. The book comes out June 26 and is available for pre-order.
Back in 2006, I was attending a panel session at NECC (National Educational Computing Conference, which later became the International Society for Education or ISTE Conference), and among the panelists was an educator from Australia named Tom March. He shared some of the great things that were happening in schools in Australia, everything from flexible learning spaces to Wikis, blogs, and podcasts—and I was impressed. At the same time, I knew that teachers in the States would hear those kinds of things and think, My principal would never let me do that. At the time, the United States was struggling with the “No Child Left Behind” policy, and everybody was afraid to do anything that wasn’t going to be on “the test.”
So I asked, “What do you say to teachers who are in a school where the leadership doesn’t support this kind of thing?”
Without skipping a beat, March said, “Be subversive.”
He went on to say that if you think you have a better way to teach or a better way to lead, do it. Try it out, and when you get great results (because you will), go share those results; show people how awesome whatever you’re doing in the classroom is for students. So many of the schools we (EdTechTeam) have visited work from the perspective that the path to doing amazing things is to go for it, to do it (whatever it is that creates the best opportunities for learning) anyway. Think about your goal as an educator. Is it scores on a test? Or is it developing compassionate and passionate global citizens who work with others to solve meaningful problems? From my perspective, the goal of education is to equip the thinkers of tomorrow who can push the boundaries of society, science, and industry. Yes, that can happen if you teach to the test and the standards when you include project-based learning and inquiry of some kind. But the bigger risk, and I think a bigger payoff, is to say, “Forget the test; we, as a community, are committing to (fill in the blank with your vision).”
The reality is teachers often work from the perspective that they “have to” teach a certain way. There’s this vicious cycle where the teacher says, “Oh, no, no, no. I can’t do all that new-fangled stuff because of the test. My principal would fire me for sure.”
The principal says, “I know the test is not really important for our students’ personal and future success, but the district says we’ve got to focus on scores.”
On up the chain of command, the district leaders and superintendent say, “Oh, I’d much rather see kids creating and doing projects, but the board wants me to blah, blah, blah.”
If you talk to the school board, you’ll hear, “Well, we’re really only requiring this because it’s what the voters expect. The test scores are in the newspaper, and they want to see test scores go up.”
Then you go talk to parents and they say, “I don’t care about test scores; we’re only doing all this crazy homework because the teacher told us to.”
Then you’re right back at the beginning of the circle with the teacher teaching to the test. I’ve never talked to anybody who is actually involved with education that cares about test scores. Nobody. They all point to somebody else in some larger context beyond their control. I remember working with a public school board officer named Dana Black in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District here in California, who understood this need for someone to step out and take that risk to break the cycle. She inspired everyone in the room when she reminded us that education agencies are really under no compulsion to get great test scores. She said, “If we as a community decide that our own goals are more important to us than test scores, then we can announce that, and we can move toward those goals.” The district and school leaders who realize they actually already have the autonomy to drive the vision for learning—meaning they don’t need to ask for permission to launch initiatives that empower teachers, or allow for student agency, or provide the tools and infrastructure to support that vision—are the ones who get the extraordinary results that everyone points to and wants to emulate. What’s interesting is that the school leaders and teachers at those forward-thinking, innovative schools don’t necessarily see themselves as anything other than a school that started with the same challenging context as everyone else. But they were willing to step out and break the cycle based on their convictions. Although anyone at any point in the cycle can break it, teachers, principals, or community members, it’s even better if it starts with top levels of leadership. As Mike Lubelfeld, a superintendent in Deerfield, Illinois notes, “It takes a great deal of courage to lead with your core values even when people around you may not understand that the right thing to do today is different from what it was yesterday. There’s going to be vocal opposition, and it’s going to be politically challenging, even when the opportunity will yield strong instructional benefits.” Do it anyway.
School change requires courageous leadership. It isn’t always easy, and sometimes you have to work around the system to improve it, but the results are worth it.
Dr. Mark Wagner