Sunday, July 12, 2015

Idea #9: Lead

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the ninth - and last for now - blog post that will explore some of those ideas.
  1. Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank
  2. Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It)
  3. Think Differently About Time
  4. Think Differently About Classes
  5. At Least They've Still Got Their Health
  6. Cultivate Curiosity
  7. The Meaning of Life
  8. Community Service

Name of Administrator,

When you and I were growing up there was an expression that went something like, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." The gist of it was that - in the corporate world - IBM was the status quo, the safe choice for your IT needs. They were a good, solid company, with tried and true solutions to your problems, and if you were tasked with purchasing something for your company nobody would ever criticize you if you chose IBM.

The downside of this philosophy, of course, is that it stifled innovation. IBM often was the best choice for a particular problem, but not always. Folks started trying to fit their problems into IBM's solutions, as opposed to IBM creating new solutions for evolving problems. Eventually IBM fell on hard times, and those that had relied on IBM often followed suit, and IBM had to reinvent itself a couple of times (to their credit, they did that really well).

What does this have to do with AHS? I think the essence of what you asked me to think about, the "big ideas" that you'd like to consider to make substantive changes to our school, is really looking at the question of how can we go from good to great. Arapahoe, by all traditional measures, is a good school. It has been for a long time, and likely will continue to be for a while, even if we don't make any substantive changes. But I think what we'd like to do, what we really need to do, is make that leap from good to great, and that requires us to move away from the status quo, move away from the safe choices that no one ever got fired for. I think we have to be willing to be fired; willing to make the choices that aren't easy or safe, but that we think are truly in the best interests of our students, that will take us from good to great.

In some ways, it's actually more difficult for a school like AHS because we are considered a good school. If we were a "failing" school (whatever that means), then people are willing to tear it all apart and start fresh, to try "radical" new approaches because it doesn't seem like it can get any worse. But when you are a "good" school, people are afraid. They are afraid to try anything new, they are afraid to innovate, they are afraid to do something that everyone else (or at least a lot of other "good" schools) isn't already doing.

Schools like AHS tend to talk about "incremental changes," let's just tweak something here and there to get a little bit better. We're already good, let's just keep making small improvements, fine tune around the edges and we'll maintain the status we've achieved over the last 50 years and everyone will stay happy. But here's the problem, you can't go from good to great by making incremental changes. You can't leap a 20-foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps.

We talk a lot with our students about taking risks, and we encourage them to take more risks. Not risks that are a threat to their well-being, but risks that take them out of their comfort zone. We tell them that unless they are willing to risk something, really risk something, to put themselves out there, they are limiting their chances to learn and grow. Yet we seem unwilling to model that for our students, unwilling to actually risk something in order to learn and grow ourselves, in order to make that leap from good to great.

Leadership is hard. It's hard to lead if you're not out in front.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to risk something.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to make some folks uncomfortable.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to risk failing.
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to sometimes say "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."
  • It's hard to lead if you're not willing to try something no one has tried before.
When I get asked to speak to educators I frequently ask them if they were creating schools today, for the first time, given everything we know about learning, given modern technology, and given the modern world, would it look like how our schools look today. No one has ever said yes. No one.
I then ask them why we don't change what we're doing, why we don't make the changes necessary to create the school we would invent if we were inventing schools today. And there's usually silence.

We need to ask ourselves if AHS looks how we would want it to look if we were creating it for the first time today. We need to ask ourselves if are willing to reinvent ourselves, if we really want to go from good to great. If we are, and if we do, then we must be willing to step up and lead. I believe our administration is willing. I believe our staff is willing. I believe our students and our community are willing. Leadership is a choice, not a rank. Are we willing to make that choice? Are we willing to lead?

I look forward to finding out if we are.


Update 7-15-15: Sorry, I meant to include one more link in this. So imagine I had typed some profound sentence and linked to the Do Better Things post.

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