This month’s podcast episode features former principal, educational technology thought leader, and Twitter rock star Eric Sheninger. Eric discusses how he was able to bring about change in the high school he led, despite challenging circumstances and how school leaders across the country can develop the right mindset to lead the change they want to see in their district. If you are leading and managing change in schools, don’t miss this episode. At the very bottom of this post is the full transcript of our interview for those who prefer to read it.
Eric offers a no excuse, get your hands dirty approach that will challenge you to move past tired excuses and educational red tape to create the kind of schools students want to learn in.
If you want to learn more about Eric Sheninger we encourage you to check out the following:
- Eric maintains a blog at A Principal’s Reflections
- Eric has written a book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, that discusses the change he led at New Milford High School and guiding principles for school leaders who want to lead digital changes in their own schools.
- As mentioned, Eric is a Twitter Rock Star. If you want your Twitter Feed to be filled with advice and resources to help lead in the digital age, follow Eric on Twitter @E_Sheninger
I hope you enjoy this episode. If you have follow up questions or comments for Eric or myself related to this episode tweet them to us using #episode2. You can find me Chett Daniel @k12hr_solutions.
“There is a huge difference between leading change and directing change”
Hi this is Chett Daniel, Founder of K12 HR Solutions. On today’s episode I have guest Eric Sheninger. Now, if you don’t know Eric Sheninger you must not be on Twitter—Eric is a rock star on Twitter. He’s a former principal and now a Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). You can find Eric on Twitter at @e_sheninger where he has over 78,000 Twitter followers. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, chances are you probably don’t, because I don’t have anywhere close to 78,000 followers, you can find me Chett Daniel at @k12_hrsolutions. Today’s interview with Eric mostly focuses on the topic of organizational change. Eric has a no-excuse, get-your-hands-dirty approach to change. And I hope you feel empowered as you listen to him and hear him talk about becoming the change that you want to see in your district.
After listening to today’s episode, if you have follow-up questions or comments about topics that we have covered, please go ahead and tweet them to Eric or myself on Twitter and we’ll do our best to follow up. Now let’s get to this latest episode of the K12 HR Solutions Podcast.
Read about Eric’s background and experience on his website:
First of all, I wanted to thank you for coming on today. Your bio clearly represents your passion for education. Can you take a quick moment and just talk to the listeners about the path that brought you from the classroom to becoming a school leader and now someone who is helping work with schools across the country to shape educational policy and practices?
As a teacher I really strived to get involved with as many students as possible and I knew I could really only have a direct impact on those that I had in my classes. I also coached three sports and advised in environmental club, because again, I really wanted to have that impact with as many students as possible. That kind of led me to this desire to want to make a bigger difference in the lives of kids, and that is when I decided ultimately to follow down the career path to become an administrator, because at that point whether it was a building-level administrator or a district I knew I would have more impact on kids.
“I was driven by the desire to create a school that worked better for kids than one that traditionally has worked well for the adults
When I went to New Milford High School I was there as an administrator for 10 years, 7 for which I was principal, I never really foresaw how my career would have diverged down the path where I am now. When it’s all said and done, I was driven by the desire to create a school that worked better for kids than one that traditionally has worked well for the adults. Schools are just saturated with policies about focusing on control, compliance, and rules and it’s no secret that kids really don’t like school. And when I started having conversations with my own kids at New Milford and I really started looking at my own practices, I really discovered that I was the problem. And by just trying to create a school that invoked relevant meaning and inspired kids to want to take ownership of their learning, that’s when I first started dabbling in the social media space which opened my eyes to so many different things that I should have been doing but wasn’t—and the rest is history. I always look at that point of time at March 2009 when I got on Twitter (after I swore I would never use social media) and Twitter provided me a doorway and opened my eyes to a world that I never knew existed. And it was that point in time that I really became more of a leader and less of a manager, began working hand-in-hand with kids and staff to re-envision what school should look like for today’s learners.
It sounds like the change effort that you underwent was kind of organic. I want to ask—did you have an environment within your district or district leadership that empowered you to do this or was this more of an ah-ha moment for you yourself?
It was sort of a mix. When I started this sort of transformation, there was a great deal of administrative instability. In central office I had 6 superintendents in 10 years. So really to begin it was an ah-ha moment—I felt that I needed to be the change that I wished to see in my school. Because if I was not going to do it, it was just not going to happen. So, when the light bulb went on for me, I took the initiative and really felt that this was the right way to go. Eventually, we did get a new superintendent that did support me. When he got there, we had really had been full-blown into our transformational journey. But to answer your question, it really was an ah-ha moment for me. And I knew that we could do better and that our kids deserved better, and that if I wasn’t willing to change and I kept holding onto my fixed mindset that our school would just continue to become more and more irrelevant to our kids.
I felt that I needed to be the change that I wished to see in my school, because if I was not going to do it, it was just not going to happen.
So thank goodness I had that ah-ha moment because I can honestly say if I hadn’t seen the value in the connection to how all of these changes would impact my professional practice, I probably would have kept on doing the same old thing that everyone else was doing. And I think that’s what really plagues education—this mantra that “if it’s not broke, why fix it? “ Or this “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I think that too many schools abide by those principles and even in schools that have the highest standardized test scores if you peel away the layers, they are the most sterile learning environments that you will find on the planet.
…that’s what really plagues education—this mantra that “if it’s not broke, why fix it? “
Kids have become great at conforming and striving to get the highest score, regardless of whether true, meaningful learning is actually taking place that will actually prepare them to be the next generation of thinkers, or inventors, or learners that the world really needs.
As I listen to you, rigor and relevance are not really buzzwords—they are ingrained in how you think and how you think the school should operate. It’s not a catchphrase—it’s not something that had been ushered in through legislative practice. These are fundamental aspects that you believe should be part of schools.
Yeah, and I’ll even say that the one thing that social media has taught me is that everyone has an opinion—for better or for worse—it really becomes more about the words than what the word really means in a school. Take the word rigor for example—for me and for many others rigor is about providing a more challenging, transparent meaningful learning environment where students actually are thinking critically, actively employing problem-solving skills to really become masters of the different standards that have to be addressed, but also in preparation for life. I like that you made the connection to rigor and relevance because that’s sort of at the heart of what we are doing at the International Center for Leadership in Education. And it’s really about providing kids with these diverse skillsets that are not only going to allow them to out-compete their peers across our country and the world, but more importantly provide them with a toolbox to be prepared and successful for jobs that haven’t event been created yet.
In mentioning rigor and relevance, it wasn’t just trying to make connection to your work, but as I listen to you talk about students who score high on standardized test and some of them are in these sterile learning environments that to me when I hear the word rigor, it beckons me back to my days in the military and rigor in the Marines didn’t mean a really hard test—it meant that we were tested. That we were put through different events to test our medal., to see what we could achieve. I think that’s what you’re speaking to.
Yeah, it’s less about words and more about outcomes. Meaningful outcomes.
Yes, thank you for saying that.
The next question that I have is a two-part question. I think that change takes place in a couple of different ways and when I communicate with school leaders, across the country one of the largest areas that school leaders struggle with is leading and navigating change efforts. I want you think back and to briefly talk about the change that you led at New Milford. What are some of the guiding principles that school leaders that are listening to this podcast can use as they try to lead change events in their districts?
Well, I think there’s a huge difference between leading change and directing change. Change is a very difficult process because it is fraught with fear, unknowns, fixed mindsets, and a myriad of excuses for why leaders should not put all of the time and energy to go through the change process. I think for change to become sustainable and eventually an embedded part of culture, it really takes an individual and group—it really is not one individually, it really is the entire school community that is needed—to sustain change leading to transformation. But it’s this willingness to understand that it’s going to be hard work. And that the only way to have that work result in something that is going to be significant and impactful is to make sure that those individuals that are “taxed with leading change” are actually taking action.
Communication is at the heart of all change efforts. Every aspect of the change effort has to be communicated effectively
I’ll give the list of items that I feel are imperative:
Everyone loves to talk about change, but I see very little action from the ones that are talking on how they are actually leading change through different initiatives, implementations, that results in a radical change or shift in school culture in practice. Communication is at the heart of all change efforts. Every aspect of the change effort has to be communicated effectively and articulated with significance in order to help everyone understand why the change is needed and how we’re going to go about implementing this change.
When you address the why and the how, then you begin to establish a shared vision where all stakeholders, including students, have a say in the changes that are going to take place.
After establishing a shared vision, developing a strategic plan for action. Actions speak so much louder than words, but you need to have a clear plan of action that has become an embodiment of this shared vision so that everyone has this direction and support. After the plan has been put in place, there has to be monitoring and evaluation of the plan. With everything that we did at New Milford, there was a clear focus, and that focus was backed up and supported with consistent monitoring. That is how we were able to move staff towards wanting to embrace change—not looking for buy-in. Our staff were put in a position to experience the value firsthand and I think that is the most powerful aspect of change is that it is not mandated and directed, but that you provide enough support, cheerleading, resources, time and you put those most important stakeholder groups—staff members, educators, teachers, students—in a position where they can be an active component in the change process themselves. And when they experience that value, it is so much easier as a leader to move change forward because it should be directed by everyone else. The most important role as a leader, in my opinion, is to remove the obstacles in front of everyone else. And if you remove those obstacles, you then have a whole system of change agents that are working together to put the vision and resulting plan into action.
The most important role as a leader is to remove the obstacles in front of everyone else.
I think another important aspect for leaders is that you need to model the way. I never expected my staff to do things that I was not willing to do myself at some level. Modeling, leading by example—yes, they may be clichés to some, but they are pivotal to moving change forward.
When it’s all said and done, after you have that shared vision, that plan, that focus, you monitor, your modeling, you need to reflect. And you need to reflect not just on the successes, but you’ve got to reflect on the failures. And you need to be transparent about both. And openly discuss what doesn’t work and why, and not get overcome and let down because things didn’t work, but let’s focus on finding other solutions as opposed to always focusing on the excuses for why change won’t work or why we shouldn’t keep going through with the initiative. Because I think in many schools, leaders, especially at uppermost levels, get really attached to the flavor of the month and just try to initiate change for the sake of saying that they’re “changing the system”. And with all of those variety of initiatives, there’s no clear focus, there’s no follow-up, there’s no time to implement, and eventually they all fail. And that does nothing to benefit our kids and our teachers to put all of this time forth trying to implement that change.
What I hear from school leaders is that this wears them down and makes them less willing and less likely to try change the next time—they become change-fatigued.
Yeah, exactly. And it comes down to: why, how, and repeat. Because after you reflect, you’re going to have to make sure that you keep the focus on the initiative in order for it to become sustainable and an embedded part of school culture. I think that one of the pitfalls that many leaders endure is trying to tackle numerous initiatives simultaneously and struggling to do them “OK”. My advice is focus on one initiative at a time—make sure you’re doing that at the best possible level that you can. And once that becomes a self-sustaining component of school culture, then move on to something else. That’s something we had to learn early on—to sort of take a step back. Learn how to unlearn and relearn everything that we were taught as teachers and leaders—just slow down and focus on doing one thing very, very well.
Focus on one initiative at a time—make sure you’re doing that at the best possible level that you can. And once that becomes a self-sustaining component of school culture, then move on to something else
That’s a great segway. For school leaders that are listening, I think they’re going to ask “Okay, when do I get to do that one thing?” because as I listen to one of your talks on digital leadership, you mention that one of the keys to success is empowerment and I absolutely believe that—I believe that empowerment fosters engagement. And many schools leaders are operating in states where they feel like the education initiatives that they face are driven top-down and then they’re followed up with accountability through evaluations to ensure that they’re doing this. This can create friction and stifle the efforts to empower progress from the bottom-up. So, what advice to you have for school leaders who are faced with these types of circumstances—who hear what you’re saying and they agree with you, but they feel like they’re juggling six different change initiatives currently?
I think you’ve got to just take a step back and look at the existing school culture and ask does it actually support the needed changes that you’re looking for? The three things that we had to do at my school were: give up control; trust our kids and educators; and understand that it’s not about our learning—it’s about our kids’ learning. Once we were able to look at those three elements—that sort of guided our change efforts. We gave students and staff ownership of their learning. Because it’s not about us as the adults, it’s not about us as the leaders—it’s about everyone else. We empowered our teachers and students through those three elements.
The fear of failure is a substantial roadblock to the change process because no one wants to fail. But you’ve got to flip the script and look at failure as the catalyst for learning, and that’s what we really tried to engrain in our initiatives and into our culture.
With our teachers one of the most common excuses that you’ll hear is that we don’t have time. We empowered our teachers and actually created a job-embedded growth model where we cut non-instructional duties and freed up every single teacher 2 to 3 forty-eight minute periods per week to learn about anything that they were passionate about. Now that they had the time, they were doing incredible work—collaborating across content areas, integrating technology with purpose in a variety of ways. They created learning portfolios, not just as a showcase of their work, but we included that as a component of their end-of-year evaluations. We started to find unique ways that just made sense to give teachers and kids ownership over their learning. We looked at how we could give teachers more autonomy, how we could remove the fear of failure, and I think that the fear of failure is a substantial roadblock to the change process because no one wants to fail. But you’ve got to flip the script and look at failure as the catalyst for learning, and that’s what we really tried to engrain in our initiatives and into our culture.
We got rid of our fixed mindsets, moved towards a more growth-oriented direction, and stopped saying “I can’t” but instead “I will”
Everyone is always going to have those excuses that really are in the form of challenges, not to more forward. If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll make an excuse. Leaders need to really look at what is truly important to them and work to develop solutions as opposed to focusing on all the different excuses. If we used all of the excuses that are right in front of us at New Milford, we never would have accomplished a darn thing—we had no money, we had an aging infrastructure, challenging population (haves, have nots), no meaningful professional development, resistant staff, numerous initiatives that came from top-down—we were no different from any other school in this country. The difference was, focusing on the work of Carol Dweck, we really got rid of our fixed mindsets, moved towards a more growth-oriented direction, and stopped saying “I can’t” but instead “I will.” And it really was that shift in mindset—we got our heads out of the sand and focused on why we are in education—and that is to inspire a love of learning amongst our kids and prepare them to make a difference in this world.
From many of the school leaders that I speak with, it’s not because they don’t want to improve their schools, but many of them have been frustrated for so long that they feel like they’re operating in a compliance mindset and the empowerment seems like something that is fictional to some of them. I think what you’re saying provides some great tools here.
I would like if you could, in 30 seconds or less, provide an empowering counterpoint to each of these barriers that school leaders might face.
The first one– I lead in an elementary school and middle school and many of my students read far below grade-level. They can’t read content online. How can I shift them to a digital age?
I think you have to really focus first and foremost on establishing an effective literacy program at the youngest levels but then as you’re having to focus on literacy, integrate both print traditional means as well as digital means to encourage them to hone those skills. I would look at the work of Daisy Dyer Duerr—she’s a K-12 principal in rural Arkansas, 88% free/reduced lunch. They went bring-your-own-device over 3 years ago when they were told that it could not be done or that it was inequitable. And guess what?–she’s getting results. Definitely look up the work of Daisy because again, there are so many leaders who have faced all of these challenges and they’re actually doing the work and getting results.
There are so many leaders who have faced all of these challenges and they’re actually doing the work and getting results.
Great. You spoke to this one with your experience there at New Milford—
We don’t have financial resources to provide the type of digital resources that students and teachers need to develop the type of changes that you’re talking about.
The first is that you’ve got to look at your infrastructure—infrastructure is very important because you need it to access the plethora of free tools that are out there. We couldn’t go one-to-one, so we went bring-your-own-device. We supplemented school-owned technology for students who did not bring their own devices in—not all of our kids owned a device, but we didn’t let the “have and have-not” stop us. We worked on the plumbing, we made sure that infrastructure could withstand all of these different student devices and then we just took advantage of all the free tools and resources that are out there. But I’ll tell you right now there are schools of all socio-demographic levels making it happen. In order to find out about them, in order to take advantage of the space, you’ve got to be in the space. Start creating your own personal learning network—connect with like-minded educators that are working in the same schools as you so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and that you can free of these silos of information and engage in powerful conversations to help move your school forward.
I have one question left—a counterpoint that a principal might have—
There is very little parental engagement in our school. Kids just seem apathetic to their own learning and future. How do I deal with this?
I think that digital leadership is about meeting your stakeholders where they’re at and engaging them in a multi-faceted communications approach. I think it’s really blending traditional versus new aged means to meet parents where they’re at. Yes, still send snail mail home, still update your website, but you know what—start utilizing the different social media schools to communicate the same information to try to further engage your parents and work harder at bringing parents in to showcase and educate them on these new initiatives that you’re implementing. We don’t want to use this as an excuse that parents aren’t engaged in what we are doing—it’s our jobs to engage them and to provide various avenues that they can choose how they want to engage back to the school or us as leaders.
Schools are doing a great job of preparing kids for a world that no longer exists
Our website and podcast are geared toward providing organization leadership, organizational effectiveness, and human resource tools for school leaders across the country. Any final thoughts that you have for our audience?
My advice would be that schools are doing a great job of preparing kids for a world that no longer exists. Look at your structure, look at how your school functions, look at your culture—take a deep, reflective look and ask yourselves this: would you want to be a student at a classroom in your school? And if you are a parent, would you want to be a student in your own child’s classroom? Use that as a catalyst for starting the needed process of the changes that kids now deserve and expect. Because if kids are not engaged, they’re probably not learning. And if they’re not learning, don’t expect increases in achievement. We want kids to see the value, the relevancy, the meaning in their education. So it really comes down to creating schools that work better for kids. It can be done. There is example after example at every level—from K-12 on, how this can be done. When there’s a will, there’s a way and with social media it makes your job a lot easier, because you can dive right in and connect with those leaders who have had a record of success—that are currently implementing these needed changes, so that you as a leader in your school or district can begin the process yourself.
When there’s a will, there’s a way and with social media it makes your job a lot easier, because you can dive right in and connect with those leaders who have had a record of success
All right, Eric. I appreciate your time. And for those of you listening, Eric has a book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times. Eric, again thank you for your time and I appreciate you sharing your insights and helping the school leaders out there who follow K12 HR Solutions.
Thanks for having me, Chett.
If you’re a new listener or if you’ve never visited our website before, I wanted to make you aware of our K12 HR Solutions Blog. It serves as a useful resource to provide school leaders with monthly articles related to effective and strategic human resource practices in school districts. Also, we have a couple of free resources for school leaders on our site. The first resource is an e-book entitled Ignite: A School Leader’s Guide to Designing Districts That Motivate Teachers. We have another resource entitled How to Open a Can of Worms, A Principal’s Guide to Having Difficult Conversations With Teachers. Both of these are available free, at no charge to school leaders who want to take advantage.