Shifting the educational landscape from teacher-centered to student-centered is not an easy task. Many teachers grew up in classrooms modeled after standardization. We have fond memories of sitting in our desks, absorbing new information, and idolizing our teachers. These great students grew up fond of school and became teachers themselves, but a lot has changed in our world since we were young. Our students today need a different skill-set to be successful. Information is at their fingertips. Now, we must know what to do with all of this easily accessible information.
The ability to think critically, problem-solve, problem-find, and think “outside the box” – innovatively- are skills that are needed more than ever before. These skills cannot be easily learned through lecture. Students need relevance and opportunities to connect their learning in meaningful, real-world ways. Students need to have opportunities to collaborate with others, hear different perspectives, and grow their thirst for learning. I would guess you rarely (if ever) will be able to provide these opportunities to students by following a script or teaching a textbook cover to cover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have resources. But being resourceful means utilizing the resources available to you to get the job done.
Let’s say we agree that students need to develop the skills mentioned above. Maybe not everyone agrees- but for the sake of this post let’s say we agree. Before we can expect our students to become problem finders and solvers, think critically, and innovate, would it be safe to assume our teachers need these skills (and this mindset) as well? Teachers are professionals. Many have these necessary skills, yet they are “boxed-in” by mandates, deadlines, and programs that hinder their ability and opportunity to reach their fullest potential.
Before a culture shift can occur, we as educational leaders have some “shifting” to do as well. Just as the traditional, standardized instructional approach fails to meet the needs of today’s students, the traditional top-down, managerial leadership approach fails to meet the needs of today’s teachers. And failing our teachers fails our students. Teachers need to be supported. They need leaders who are learners. They need leaders who light the spark and get out of the way! Teachers need to be given opportunities to collaborate, problem-find and solve, think critically and be innovative. We cannot MANDATE these skills and opportunities, but instead we have to MODEL them. Today’s leaders need to inspire, encourage, and stretch thinking. And we also need to listen. As the leader of any organization, it is true that “the buck stops with you”. We do have to make the tough decisions. As instructional leaders, we have to make decisions we feel are in the best interest of our students. But to shift a culture to one that is truly student-centered, we must lead in a way that allows our teachers to utilize the same skills we expect to see their students using in their classrooms. I believe in my heart of hearts this will never be accomplished through “tighter reins” and an iron fist. We may get compliance that way, but rarely does compliance equate a person’s best.
I haven’t been in leadership for all that long, and I do not by any means feel I have all of the answers. In fact, I make mistakes often. I have teachers who would probably read this and think, “You’re one to talk!” Part of the reason I enjoy writing my thoughts, though, is because it requires reflection. Reflecting on our practice allows us to continue to grow and fine-tune our craft. As I reflect on the previous year and prepare for the next, I hope I am able to practice what I’m preaching. Our profession is losing too many great teachers, among other educators, because they lose their “WHY”. I’m afraid their “why” is getting buried underneath a lot of other less important distractors that suck the life out of people. Let’s not allow this to happen. Not to them- not to us. One of my all-time favorite quotes is Gandhi’s, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If we want to see instructional shifts in our schools, then we must shift too. As leaders, the buck may stop with us… but sometimes more importantly it starts with us, too.