18 things that leaders of innovative schools do differently

TIES 2017 Shelly Terrell

I had a wonderful time this past week at the TIES conference in Minneapolis. Having worked at the University of Minnesota for six years, it was super fun to connect with old educator friends and new (including a lot of goofiness with Shelly Terrell while at Flipgrid headquarters).

I served as the lunch keynote for TIES on Sunday and then facilitated a lesson redesign workshop that afternoon using our trudacot discussion protocol (thanks, Julie Graber, for joining us!). I always love redesigning instructional activities with teachers and school leaders. Two random comments from that Sunday workshop that gave my heart a warm glow:

  • “We’re not having these kinds of conversations using the Danielson framework
  • “I skipped the Vikings game for this workshop and am glad that I did” 

Both of those were high praise indeed!

On Monday I was in charge of TIES’ annual all-day Leadership Seminar. There are a few things that I would do differently next time, but all in all it went very well and we had some superb conversations. In the afternoon we looked at a variety of innovative schools from around the world and tried to answer the twin questions of ‘What is going on in these schools that’s different?’ and ‘What do we think the leaders of these schools are doing differently?’ [compared to those in more traditional schools]. Here is the list that my group came up with…

Leaders in innovative schools…

  1. give permission for innovation AND ALSO provide support. Teachers know that they can take risks and will be supported by their administrators.
  2. take risks themselves and have the understanding that things will not always go as planned. They are brave and courageous enough to put their school and themselves ‘out there.’
  3. are able to change existing schedule, transportation, staffing, budgeting, and other structures in concrete, tangible, productive, and strategic ways to support new forms of learning.
  4. empower student choice. They and their staff are able to open up spaces to find out what students are passionate about and interested in and then leverage those opportunities to create cultures of intrinsic motivation.
  5. create academic pathways that help learners be successful based on their unique interests, skills, and talents. Both vocational and professional partnerships, internships, and mentorships are created.
  6. reduce, distill, and connect disparate initiatives in order to reduce the number of things on educators’ plates.
  7. facilitate clarity of organizational purpose and establish instructional coherence in partnership with their teachers and other staff.
  8. provide lots of time for staff to collaborate in rich, substantive, and meaningful ways.
  9. engage their community in the instructional and organizational redesign processes and provide opportunities for community members to be part of the work. Redesign work is less individually-dependent and more community-driven.
  10. understand that every person brings their own beliefs, ideas, assumptions, and values to the table. They see those differences as assets, not problems to be managed, and are able to harness the power of distributed leadership to facilitate ownership and contribution across various stakeholder groups.
  11. help educators, students, parents, and community members see new possibilities and the power of instructional transformations.
  12. facilitate shared agreement and commitments toward core values and day-to-day expectations. Protocols are put into place for discussion, dissent, and revisiting previous decisions. 
  13. create climates of open communication and safety in which everyone is sharing information, successes, challenges, and questions.
  14. take a holistic approach toward identifying and addressing student needs.
  15. have a vision of what success – the end goal – looks like. Celebrations are connected to both the process and the progress. Explicit structures are created to share and celebrate those successes.
  16. are able to plant seeds of innovation and grow them successfully while anticipating the problems that may come up during the transformation process. They create proactive – not reactive – response structures that automatically kick in when anticipated issues inevitably arise.
  17. find ways to ensure that ‘the change people’ win instead of the resisters. They buffer and protect innovative educators rather than allowing ‘crab bucket’ or ‘tall poppy’ environments to flourish.
  18. are able to help teachers translate big ideas from mission and vision statements into day-to-day instructional practice. [emphasis added]
I don’t know if this covers everything but it’s an excellent start as we think about innovative leadership. This obviously is complex work, which is why most schools and administrators aren’t doing it…
Which of these do you think are most important? How are your school leaders doing with these: which are they doing well and which could use some more attention? What would you add to this list?

5 Responses to “18 things that leaders of innovative schools do differently”

  1. “…What do we think the leaders of these schools are doing differently?’”

    Great questions posed here, Scott! …which begs the question, why isn’t someone **actually asking** these school leaders and publishing the results? 🙂

  2. I am a retired educator. Teaching was my passion & I enjoyed it thoroughly. I have no regrets in deciding this as my career. It has been wonderful to follow up on my students & be able to visit with them concerning their lives over the years; as they are parents with families. Part of my teaching was teaching first grade for 5 years. It has surprised me, how little most of my students changed over the years; as to their basic personality. Many also decided on a career which was their strong academic subjects/interest in school. I have been exceptionally proud of the students: with learning disabilities, came from very difficult homes & their parents didn’t come to 1 parent teacher conference. To most of their credit, these students have gone much farther in life, than I thought possible & are job holding, tax paying citizens; now interested in education. Many of the ideas in your presentation were allowed in the school in which I taught. These are ideas which work! I wish schools today would receive first priority with government support & people giving teachers the respect they deserve. The super teachers I, my husband who is also a retired teacher & our children certainly received an excellent education previously, when teachers were valued, supported, paid better, & were allowed to teach in a creative manner; which allowed the student to learn in various ways.

  3. Such a great read. Innovative minds, curate innovative students!
    Keep up the great work!

  4. I agree with teachers using creative ways of teaching. Allows the kids to enjoy learning. And everyone is unique and good enough.
    I feel teachers are not appreciated they way they should. Teachers need to be respected also. I am speaking of teachers that teach for the love of it. And every government that in power always changing and budget cutting. I am seriously looking into private or home schooling.

  5. Great Post Scott.
    Leadership is key to set up a Learning Culture. Then, implementers that breathe it day in and day out and that are encouraged and emboldened by the leaders and the student work.
    How can we change the discussion of How we measure results from Test Scores to How Innovative a kid is? How collaborative? How creative? Problem solver? Critical Thinker? and many other skills that we need our future employees to have?
    EdDesignLab is playing with that idea by partnering with Georgetown, George MAson U, and others. Interesting idea.

    Thanks for the post!

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