This post is meant primarily for school leaders, ed tech coaches, support providers, and other individuals working in schools to establish innovative programs which are sustainable beyond your tenure. All of us in leadership positions know this is the truest measure of a leader and something many of us grapple with every day.
Great professional development is like a really fine concert or event – it’s thrilling when we’re in the moment, and it may even feel life changing. The reality is, once the moment has passed, most of us go right back into our life the way it was before. I’ve attended events and classes where I learned new things – things I wanted to come back and use. Achieving success with this, however, lies in whether or not the larger system and culture are poised to support and sustain new ways of doing things. Coaching is another place where this challenging dynamic exists. Although a longer lasting event, it’s still just an event – unless steps are taken to normalize the changes into the larger system. As someone who is deeply committed to normalizing a paradigm shift toward engaging and joyful learning which incorporates hands-on learning and technology in our schools, I’ve learned some things along this journey which are worthy of sharing.
Although these types of challenges exist in every organization, they are especially prevalent in education, and even more so in educational technology. It’s important to note this because the very nature of education with it’s rapid and repeated shifts over decades make normalizing a massive paradigm shift even more challenging due to the fact that getting buy-in is ever more difficult here. Teachers have seen change upon change upon change, and many have said to me over the years that they hesitate to dive into something new, no matter how enticing, as it will likely be gone in no time, to be replaced by something new they must learn. In the realm of educational technology, we add insult to injury with the fact that ed tech companies rapidly come and go, tools switch from free to paid, and the focus of the overall school system itself seems to be stuck in a never-ending loop of shedding it’s skin to become the “latest and greatest” thing.
In my work with teachers to create engaging, joyful learning experiences, we face these challenges together every day. From day one, I have maintained an unwavering dedication to the notion that I will never push or pull or “leverage” teachers into using a tool or learning something new. Instead, I take the “take my hand and we’ll do this together” approach, which has never failed. Examples of the aforementioned approaches always land flat. While that grassroots work is very exciting, for me, personal fulfillment can only be enjoyed if the programs and initiatives I launch have the ability to last beyond me. Sustainability makes starting the journey worthwhile.
As I ponder and experience these challenges firsthand, some thoughts surface which I believe will help others doing similar work – launching programs and initiatives which require a great deal of energy and leadership just to get started and that will live beyond the initial sprint. My take on this is if the system can’t sustain what we’ve started, why do it in the first place? Understanding the principles and steps to create sustainability is a necessity – for the sake of our kids, our teachers, and our future.
Step 1: Launching Something New in the Classroom
First and foremost, your “something new” must be enjoyable and relevant and possess a clear purpose for both teachers and students. Worth repeating because if your something new isn’t enjoyable and/or purposeful, good luck even getting past step one. Everything I do is built around the idea that it can be learned easily and sometimes even on-the-fly. Time is precious and there simply isn’t a ton of it laying around to be filled with new things which consume gobs of it. We’d like to think that we can make time, and we can to a point, but engaging learning using technology does not have to be complicated. When it starts feeling overwhelming, layered and time consuming, it’s time to stop and walk away for a minute to get some perspective on what it is we’re really trying to do. For more on engaging learning that doesn’t take hours and hours of toiling and planning, check out this post: Five easy ways to increase engagement in your classroom.
Ok, so we’ve got step one under our belts, summed up easily as this: the beginning of integrating technology (or anything new and innovative) into your classroom shouldn’t feel like an overwhelming mountain to climb. It should be fun, fairly simple to learn and easy to implement. Start with just one thing if you need to, and move on from there as you advance skills and knowledge.
Important caveat: For those of us who serve as coaches, this is the easy part. Because we are taking the lead and, as I’m sure you’ve found, teachers are very excited and eager to learn new things, with your support. But what happens when you’re not there to lead (or to cheerlead)? I’m sure you could parse this out scientifically and predictably using the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. To keep things simple, we’ll just go with what I’ve seen and learned over the last nine years: In my experience, a very small percentage of people will take the gift of an idea and run with it – these folks are easy because they really only need your help once or twice and then they’re good to go. The majority, on the other hand, will need more from you and your system before they are able to sustain what you’ve taught them – even if they’re really excited about it. This has nothing to do with skill, ability, or dedication, it’s just the way things are. People are diverse, thank goodness (imagine how boring the world would be if we were all the same)! With that diversity comes a range of “types” of adopters, from those who will dive in early, to those who move more with the majority, and so on. Understanding this helps set the stage for step two.
Step 2: The System and Life Beyond The Coach
This is the most difficult, and also most important part of this process. Difficult because it requires more than just the coach or PD person, and important because it’s the only way to really make an impact that will last.
Systems are made up of processes, culture, institutional language, and leadership. To simplify this, let’s focus in on a specific scenario: an initiative to integrate technology in classrooms in new and innovative ways, which is initially prompted by an outside force. In our case, that outside force is coaching or PD related to technology. For example, I serve as an outside force by working in classrooms with teachers on a regular basis to incorporate technology in meaningful ways. I come into the classroom, do some kind of activity with the kids – with the teacher as a partner and learner (This can also easily be applied to math, ELA, or other PD brought in to support teachers.). We run the activity together. This scenario is an example of an artificially cultivated experience, in that it potentially wouldn’t happen without the outside support (and remember, these are not the early adopters. These are the majority).
There’s so much to learn and so little time, that this is the most effective way to support teachers in embracing classroom technology. It gives them an opportunity to learn and implement in real-time. This is why so many schools have chosen to hire or contract with coaches and mentors – to quickly and effectively create the beginning of the paradigm shift. In order to keep that shift in place in a sustainable way, we must now think beyond the coach and the teachers. Sustainability requires heightened participation from the leadership in a couple of specific ways, detailed below:
Everything in a system happens because it is required, measured, or honored. We are required to show up at a specific time every day. We prepare for tests because they are measured. Innovation happens because it is honored. That sentence is worth one more read, and this is really important, because it’s tempting – very tempting – to think that the easy solution is to simply require or measure technology use in classrooms and that in doing so, the innovation will continue. Wrong. Innovation by it’s very nature cannot be required. Instead, it must be honored, recognized and valued in order to flourish and thrive. And truly, if we want teachers to embrace new things and shift the way they teach, it’s innovation we are looking for, not compliance.
- Some examples of this come out of the schools I work with: Principals know – and are excited about – what their teachers are doing. They share photos and fun blurbs on social media, illustrating engaging and innovative learning. They check in with their teachers and learn about what they need to keep going, offering support in a multitude of ways. They work to develop relationships built on trust, mutual respect, and shared goals.
Years ago, I had a job at a coffee shop while I was in college. I worked the weekend shift and towards the end of the day, it would get really slow. I used the slow time to do things that weren’t required of me, like mop and wax the floors. At the end of the weekend, the place was glowing. The first time I did this, the owner left me a short, but beautiful, handwritten note to say how much she appreciated my extra work. She noticed, and now I knew she noticed. Not only did she notice, she was very appreciative and it made me feel really good. So I did it again the next weekend and the next, and the next. Over the years, I got lots of those notes – not every time, mind you, because she was smart enough to know that if she wrote them every time, I’d come to expect them, and they would lose their impact. She knew how to show appreciation in a way that would motivate me. Daniel Pink talks about this concept at length in his amazing book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I was lucky enough to hear him speak in person at an educational leadership conference back in 2012 and know from experience that what he has to say about how to motivate people is very true. Another resource for learning on this topic is a super quick read by William C. Byham called Zapp! The Lightening of Empowerment. This book takes a completely different approach, and if you can get into the fun way he illustrates the concepts, you will find it’s a gold mine for how to bring this concept to life easily.
To sum up, long-term sustainability requires a specific commitment from principals and superintendents to keep innovation going. It requires those at that level of leadership to buy in as well, just like teachers; to embrace, recognize and honor those who strive to keep it going and to thoughtfully and purposefully weave these new things into the processes, culture and institutional language of the organization – through empowerment. It also takes patience and collaboration over time. Our job as a coaches is easy compared to what the leaders of these systems have to do to sustain the paradigm shift we start, and it’s an honor to be here, working with so many dedicated people, in support of their vision. The hard work is just beginning.
As always, I am grateful for your eyes on my work, my thoughts, and my writing! This post, in particular, begs to have input and comments from others so please post your comment below or feel free to email your thoughts to me directly so we can ponder this together! In all of this, there is one thing I am absolutely certain of: we all need each other, and together we can do amazing things that will positively impact generations of kids!