21st Century Teaching with a 20th Century Leader

The December 8, 2015 #EdChat on Twitter focused on how a teacher can go about promoting 21st century teaching when the building administrator still holds firmly to a 20th century vision of education. While participating in the chat, I also decided to share some of my ideas in further depth by writing this short article.

If you are an educator in such a context, it can be challenging, even painful to find yourself in such a situation. You might find that your ideas are ignored, disregarded, discouraged, even completely squashed by a leader who has a difference vision for the learning organization. As I look at it, you have a few options.

Find a New School

This might seem extreme but schools are never best when they are just generic institutions void of a compelling vision. A misalignment of vision and values between teachers and administrators is not a small problem. This is a major issue and the learners will suffer as a result of it. If you come to suspect that you have irreconcilable differences in educational vision and values with the school leader, it is perfectly appropriate to use this as a change to consider if that is the right school for you. Especially if you are mobile, there are other options and, in the long run, you are better off finding a place to work and teaching that resonates with who you are, what you believe, and what you value.

Test Your Assumptions

Maybe you do have irreconcilable differences in vision and values with the school leader, but maybe not. It might be that the leader is open, interested and wants to make progress; but he/she is balancing many factors, some of which are not visible to you. In this case, it is helpful to take the time and energy to get to know the learn, really work hard at this, and try to understand the factors at play. You may be delighted to discover that there is much more common ground than you expected. Plus, if you take the time to show genuine interest and support in his/her leadership, you may find that they are more supportive of your innovative and something whacky or risky teaching and learning experiments. I’ve seen this approach turn leaders into champions of teachers who previously seemed like adversaries.

Stay and Be A Change Agent

Perhaps you really do have differences with the school leader. However, people change. You can change and so can the school leaders. You need to decide if you are okay with the persistence and often long-term work of being supportive of the leader, professional, but also a champion for changing and innovation toward 21st century teaching and learning. If you are up for that, here are some ideas to get you started.

Don’t Just Close Your Door

It is tempting and some veteran teachers will give you this advice. Just close your door and do your own thing. That is about as far from the spirit of 21st century teaching and learning as you can get. This is the age of collaboration, cooperation, collective knowledge generation, openness and connectivity. Disconnecting and rejecting the spirit of openness in the 21st century might seem like a short-term gain, but you are using a 20th century approach to pursue a 21st century vision.

Do Things that Matter Beyond the School Walls

If you want to convince people about the value of 21st century teaching and learning, build learning experiences and activities where students are creating projects and products that have real-world value and are celebrated by people beyond the school. You want to do it in full disclosure with the school leaders, but if you can get their support, you and they will be delighted with the results.

Commit to Evidence

If you want to make a compelling case for the value of what you are doing, prove it. Collect evidence and real data about student interest, student engagement, student progress, improved student learning, meeting the needs of more or new learners, and the like. Then be ready to share that with people for “feedback.” Of course, you are also sharing a promising practice and school leaders will usually not turn away from measurably effective efforts. In addition, you can be a collector of illustrative stories. Be ready to share them.

Champion Conversation about Preparing Students for Life Beyond School

If there are conversations about this, join in often. If this is not being talked about, volunteer to help start the conversation. This is a great place to discover and highlight the importance of 21st century teaching and 21st century learning. How do we prepare students for jobs and contexts that don’t even exist? That is a great conversation to get things moving in the right direction. This can’t be a one time event. It needs to be a persistent, ongoing, increasingly deepening converastion that involves a variety of stakeholders including teachers, administrators, parents, community members, students, and alumni (an especially powerful group).

“Pilot” and Micro-Innovate

When you want to try something new, don’t just to an overhaul of the entire curriculum. Start by getting permission to “pilot” a new idea. Try it and report back on the results, asking for an opportunity to expand the pilot the next time. I’m talking about building trust and support through a series of smaller micro-innovations that will eventually lead to trust in you to try something grander and more unconventional.

Draw Attention to Promising Practices in Other Schools

Many school leaders, for better or worse, have a competitive streak in then when it comes to comparing their school with others. You can use this. Find, visit, learn from and share the best practices and stories of great 21st century teaching and learning in other schools. Also share the results, taking care to find out about how they worked through common concerns and pitfalls…including any that is a special concern for your school administrator. When possible, getting people to see these other schools in action (via video or an actual visit) is best, but save time to debrief and discuss what you saw. Another great option is bringing in a panel of parents and students from this other innovative school.

Consider setting aside the buzz words.

I use plenty of buzz words but they can seem strange and suspect. You can pursue a practice or innovation without using the buzz words and that can sometimes be to your advantage. Just try this new promising practice and tell people how it goes.

Stop Turning 21st Century and 20th Century into an Unavoidable Battle

There a clear differences but there are commonalities too. Start there and you see what you can build on common ground. You might be surprised where that can take you. You might be drawn to some practice that you disregarded as outdated but work really well and the other person might come around to some of the 21st century practices.

There are plenty of other things that you can do to be a 21st century teaching and learning change agent, but these are a good start. Also consider sharing some of your own ideas in the comment area.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.