Disruption and Leadership

I've been thinking about these words a lot the past few days, and about how so much of authentic, progressive leadership is disruption. Disruption of the way things are, disruption as an impetus to progress, and even how the nature of disruption itself can be used to force things to go topsy turvy solely for the sake of improvement. 

My school district was rocked and shocked this weekend when we lost a successful and disruptive leader in a terrible car accident. Dean Taylor was the newest and youngest member of our Board of Education and beloved across our vast school district. Though he had only a few years of experience serving on the Board, he certainly made good use of them. He was active in all (literally ALL, impossible though that sounds) schools across the district, and everywhere he went he looked for ways - both large and small - to be helpful.

He was out to our school for lunch just a few days ago, which apparently he did frequently for many schools, and gave the cafeteria manager $20 to put in the account of any kid that was overdrawn and struggling. A teacher friend at another school told me that her custodian said he made a point to speak to her on a recent visit and thank her for the great work she was doing to keep the school so clean. He asked her name, and she couldn't believe that someone so important would ask her name. When visiting another friend's school, the first thing he asked her was what she needed for her classroom. He really, truly wanted to know and understand, and if he could fix the problems (though not always possible), he truly would work to do so. 

I think we all looked to him as a sort of hero. If he couldn't fix it, he would at least listen and validate a teacher's concerns. That goes a long way with a group of people who tend to feel anything but heard or validated these days.

Like others, I followed his journey on Twitter and often wondered how he managed to do it all. How did he visit so many schools and have real conversations with people? How did he keep up with what everybody asked of him? How did he become a person of influence so quickly? How did he sustain the level of passion and dedication and energy he poured out into our enormous pool of educators and students?

Dean Taylor was disruptive in his consistent advocacy for boots on the ground, for those educators on the front lines of teaching and learning in our district. He fought passionately against a mass of lay-offs proposed at one point in time and, though not single-handedly of course, was credited with saving the jobs of hundreds of employees. He was a proponent of teachers having the freedom to use social media to network with one another, model appropriate use for students, and to tell the stories from our classrooms and libraries. He was a vocal advocate of libraries and librarians, and not only did he "get" the role of school librarians in modern schools, he had really fantastic and visionary ideas about how to implement those in the future!  

I met Dean through Twitter. In his mid-thirties, he was young and very hip to the social media scene, and one of his first strategies after being elected to the Board for reaching out to the learning community was to go through the district's hashtag and find active educators to help him understand how teaching and learning really work in our district. That's how we met. He followed me on Twitter (I didn't understand this at first; he was a Board Member. He was the Board PRESIDENT...and me? I was and am a complete nobody!), paid attention to/retweeting my posts, and within a month he was making the first of many visits out to my school, that particular time to observe what we were doing for the Hour of Code computer science event. I remember that he was so impressed by the work of our students, with the involvement of two parents in particular who were painting one huge wall of the library for us, and he in turn impressed all of us by asking real questions about what we do and what we need in order to do more for our kids.

Dean was disruptive in that he had the courage to ask questions, and to ask them of the people who never ever get asked: teachers.

It was a foreign concept for a nobody like me to be asked the big picture questions, but Dean Taylor taught us all that with him, there was no such thing as a nobody. Any time I would thank him for coming by an event or encouraging a group of teachers (he often popped in to professional development sessions), he would quickly wave it off and respond with "Oh no, thank YOU. You guys are the rockstars. I just get to hang out."

I remember talking to him that first day about our personal kids and all we hope to see them do, about how scary and wonderful it is to be parents, and our common goal in pouring our life into this school district because we wanted our children (personal and otherwise) to have every opportunity to receive a great education experience. From my perspective, every single decision he made and battle he fought over the next few years was fueled by that same mission. 

Dean visited my school and several others' many times, and he was even scheduled to return tomorrow to speak to a group of kiddos who struggle with behavior issues and share his story. He shared recently with me and a few other teachers at our Career Day last week (at which he was one of the volunteer speakers) that he actually was that same type of kid when he was in school, and he was eager for the chance to tell them that if HE could make something of his life, then so could they.

I couldn't resist pointing out that if he didn't have such a rebellious, disruptive streak as a child, he might not be exactly the type of leader our district needed. And I'm grateful he reminded me that there are other kids just like him who have disruptive types of futures in store for them as well,  and that if HE could make a difference by helping whoever and wherever he could, then so can they.

Though I'm sure he would be the first to tell us all that A) We're being ridiculous for grieving over him and B) He was far from perfect, the loss of Dean Taylor has and will affect many of our people because he gave so much and made such a difference in such a small amount of time. As one friend's husband put it, "It sounds like this man really wanted to leave a mark on this world and from what you're telling me, I think he did."

He sure did. There's just no better way to put it.

I will certainly miss his disruptive leadership, friendship, and kinship in a mission to serve people well, but I'll never ever forget him. 

We have to stop pretending. #makeschoolbetter

I was tagged by Amanda Dykes in the #makeschooldifferent feed on Twitter. Amanda, tagged by someone else, lists five things that we are doing wrong in the education system as a whole. In the spirit of carrying the wave, here are my five:

make school different

When it comes to education, we have to stop pretending:

-that school libraries don’t matter.

Across the nation, libraries are understaffed and underfunded. Print resources and digital resources are absolutely vital to providing students and teachers with what they need to teach and learn well, as are learning commons-style space utilization. As the one place in the school reaching every student, every teacher, every parent, school libraries should not just be adequately funded...they should be a priority.

-that good teaching equates following all the rules.

Generally speaking, this industry rewards those who stay in the safe boxes, please all the people, and follow all the pacing guides to the letter. Making a shift to recognizing and valuing true innovation (not using iPads for Accelerated Reader tests and calling that innovative) would empower teachers, bring life to classrooms, and make school a whole lot more fun.

-that poverty isn’t the single greatest barrier to success, any way you measure that.

All over the US, teachers are held personally responsible (through high stakes testing) for student achievement, without any consideration of the fact that many of those students bring with them into the classroom a culture of poverty. They are hungry, they have seen and experienced violence, they are in foster care, they are sick, they are neglected...yet teachers are faulted and sometimes punished when those kids don’t score in the upper quartiles of the latest and greatest standardized assessment. When those kids can’t think or build or interact well with others, simply because their minds are trapped in another world.

-that education isn’t very big business.

When a company packages and sells textbooks and test practice materials/software, and then they also package and sell the test (for we are talking MEGABUCKS), that is an issue. When companies court districts and promise the moon if you’ll pick their equipment, their textbook, their instructional materials, the kids are cheated. When we are distracted by all the shiny new techie toys without truly evaluating them with the eye of an educator, the kids are ripped off. Go to any educational conference and check out the vendor hall to see just how big a business that the world of education is.

-that the current model of standardized assessment and “continuous improvement” is actually working.

In reality, it’s counter-productive, trapping administrators and teachers and students into “plans” they don’t value or find exciting...checking boxes that don’t matter to, well, anyone...except for the next level of box-checkers. Thanks to the testing movement, fueled by No Child Left Behind, only reading and math are taught in most elementary schools. Social studies and science are an afterthought, until kids reach middle school and their teachers shake their heads in bewilderment that kids today just don’t know how to think.

How can we teach them how to think, when we aren’t doing very much of that ourselves?

We have to stop pretending.

Thinking about how we serve

Still here, friends. Thanks for those of you still having in there with me. :) Don't let my lack of posts give the wrong impression that I don't have any posts swimming around in this here brain o' mine. What a fantastic year this has been, and I have some posts coming soon to fill you in. For now, there are a few special reads I wanted to share.  

 *Unsplash.com under CC0. 

*Unsplash.com under CC0. 

Doug Johnson posted recently about the $3400 piece of chalk. His point really hits home. Far too often I see and hear of well-meaning educators who are taking the same old concepts (worksheets, chalkboard lecture, etc.) and simply putting a techy twist on them. Lecture notes transferred to a powerpoint or Google Slides presentation are still...lecture notes. This does not change the nature of instruction. This does not make the experience deeper or any more meaningful for the students. It simply creates a $3400 piece of chalk. As librarians and teachers and instructional technology experts, we should push for better. More. Deeper. Higher. In ourselves and our colleagues.   

Great bulletin board idea for teens and social media: Teens and social media. Twitchy yet? There is so much shark-infested water out there for our teens in the social media world. I feel some days that we're all just standing on the slope in the pool between shallow and deep, and if we take just One. More. Step. We are going to be in over our heads. And with our kids? They don't even know they're in danger...that's the scariest part. This post gives some great suggestions for guiding teens to respecting dangers and putting the brakes on their own behaviors. Which, if I know one thing about teenagers, will be waaaay more effective than us trying to regulate for them. 

The Copyright Comic Book: I'm a librarian. Copyright is my thang, friends. And this is a supercool resource that even our teens will love. 

Excellence in School Librarianship

This is a really powerful video (less than 5 minutes) compiling feedback from administrators of different schools located around the nation on the impact of school librarians. It was posted on the AASL forum yesterday and was created by Judi Moreillon, who is known for her advocacy of school librarians. This would be a fantastic resource to share with principals and other supervisors! 

*Personal side note, feel free to take or leave it: the only two aspects I really wish they had tweaked were the consistent reference to librarians in the feminine (as we all know we have some rockstar guybrarians in our midst!) and the emphasis on school librarians as the Most Important Person. We are each free to have our thoughts on this, but personally I don't think that touting ourselves as the most important members of our faculty is beneficial or accurate. We are equal partners with our teachers and administrators and students and support staff...we just have unique training that helps us fill some special roles!

What is one thing you wish you were better at?

Blogging Challenge for School Librarians, Day 19

What is one thing you wish you were better at? Just one! Why? What could you do to improve in this area?

It's unbelievably hard to pick just one thing. While I feel like I have a handle on some things, there are just so many areas in my work as a school librarian that I'd like to improve. While I could explain away each one as an effect of the current state of the profession or even of my station in life as a wife and mommy, but that's not what this prompt is about. 

So, no excuses, just pure reflection. 

 Image courtesy of Unsplash, under CC0

Image courtesy of Unsplash, under CC0

I wish I was better at finding ways to provide direct, planned instruction to students. I'm a teacher first, and I'm ashamed to admit that many days go by when I don't do much, if any, formal teaching. If teaching is like riding a bike, I spend a lot of time inspecting the tires, adjusting my basket, and oiling the chain. I look for ways to help other people ride their bikes. I spend a lot of time studying the best methods of riding the bike. But many days I don't actually get on the bike and ride it. 

I don't like that about my practice, and I'm working to improve it. 

There is a lot affecting this that I cannot do one stinking thing about, but here are a few things I can, and will, do:

  • I'm still reading and learning middle school curriculum. After almost 10 years in elementary school, I knew that COS like the back of my hand. I need to get these middle school standards in my head. Why would any content area teacher trust me with his or her students and valuable instructional time if I don't know their courses of study?
  • Instead of solely reactively scheduling the library in response to teachers' need of computers (which bypasses me entirely), I'll be trying to proactively bring them in by initiating conversations with teachers about their lesson plans and focus areas for the next weeks/months. Yes, even the math people. 
  • I'm going to flat out ask for teachers to let me at their students. I have to know the curriculum first and then have a working knowledge of teachers' pace, but ultimately what I want to improve on is having meaningful instructional time with students. Collaboration is the goal, of course, and I hope will continue to occur naturally. First, though, they will have to see me in action in order to respect me as a person worthy of instructing their students. *Though the risk here is that if teachers have no instructional responsibility, they're likely going to just use my time with their kids as their own planning or personal time. Fingers crossed.