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How Leadership Can Make or Break Classroom Innovation

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The leaders of a school or school district play a big role in setting the culture and work environment for teachers. And when it comes to trying new things, the attitude of principals and superintendents can sometimes make or break a teacher’s willingness and ability to weave new ideas and methods into the teaching practice. In most schools, strong, effective leaders can make all the difference.


In addition to setting the tone for nimble and progressive teaching that's geared towards what students need most, school leaders can also find ways to integrate technology in smart ways that work on the same goals. And they can help to remove roadblocks when necessary.

“A key leadership role is to try to build a shared vision for blended learning,” said Eric Williams, Superintendent York County School Division in Virginia. One way he does that is by celebrating effective practices publicly. Principals are encouraged to share what’s working at their schools with their district colleagues. Williams also likes to highlight good teaching at school board meetings, all with the goal of building a shared idea of what everyone is working towards.


Williams also tries to model blended learning for his staff, to help them get acclimated to an idea that didn't exist throughout most of their careers. “We have professional development activities that could be categorized as blended learning,” Williams said. In addition to face-to-face time, every week teachers can participate in an optional professional development session through Collaborize Classroom. Similarly, when Williams needed to give principals an update on the budget, he didn't call a meeting that would require each principal to spend half a day getting to and from the central office -- he held a video conference.

But the most important thing Williams does as a forward-thinking superintendent is to support principal and teacher innovation. Rather than saying no when an idea conflicts with district policy, he works to change the policy. He’s found that working that way removes most of the barriers people cite as obstacles to fully integrating technology into classrooms.

Williams has worked to set policies that allow for new approaches. Websites like YouTube, Facebook and other social media are no longer blocked in the district and the middle and high schools have been had a Bring Your Own Device policy for years.

“It’s a student-driven perspective,” Williams said. “We put students behind the wheel with our guidance, recognizing they will make mistakes, but we’ll be there to get them back on track.” Letting students direct their own learning is at the heart of many policies Williams endorses. He knows that some kids will use their devices for non-academic purposes, or will check Facebook, but the benefits of allowing those tools in the classroom outweigh the few bad actors.

[RELATED: Parents Want Kids to Use Mobile Devices in Schools]

That’s his approach to everything in the technology space. If there are permission issues with sharing student work online, he works to change the policy, believing that a global audience for student work is engaging. And he’s been strategic about how to spend limited public funds. The York County Schools Division has decided it doesn't have enough money to invest in devices for each student; it invests in infrastructure, like adequate bandwidth, and in-school devices instead.

York County schools didn't implement these changes all at once; they moved slowly and ushered teachers, parents, and students along with them. Some teachers had concerns about the relaxed rules.

“It’s very practical legitimate concerns that come from the classroom level,” Williams said. “A teacher may say that if we let students bring cell phones to school they're going to use it to cheat or bully one another.” Williams’ response? Kids are going to bring devices whether they are allowed to or not, and if it’s allowed teachers can guide them. Classroom management problems are always going to exist, so let's not blame that on the devices, he said.

Williams has also been sure to provide a lot of professional development around technology so that teachers feel comfortable using the unfamiliar tools. The district also created a private cloud-based network for staff and students to access from both home and school. “This is huge because it really is an example of breaking down barriers of space and time to access learning,” Williams said.


The most influential leader in any single school is the principal, but that person often gets caught between higher level policies and the needs of his or her school. To be a strong supporter of blended learning practices in the classroom, a strong principal has to be willing to take criticism from superiors.

“I get why people wouldn't do it,” said Chrystina Russell, principal of Global Tech Preparatory a New York City iZone school. “You have to take a lot of heat.” New York’s iZone is a part of the Department of Education that supports innovative teaching practices. The iZone helps fund some initiatives and provides a space for teachers throughout the city to share best practices and lessons learned. It would be easy to assume that iZone schools are free to innovate -- after all, that’s why the office exists.


“Being an iZone principal is like living in two different worlds,” Russell said. On the one hand she and her staff are trying different strategies to reach their high needs students. One the other hand, she grapples with district rules requiring high-stakes testing and annual reviews based on strict criteria that don’t take into account what it’s like to be a school experimenting with new practices.

“The most challenging, but sometimes most empowering part of [being] principal is really that mezzo-level where all the higher up stuff is going to collide on the ground,” Russell said. She’s trying to create an environment where teachers feel they can try new things and even fail, as long as they report out what worked and what didn't. She doesn't let money stand in the way of good ideas; she organizes fundraising instead. Keeping the pressure she feels away from the teachers is where she feels squeezed.

“I try not to transfer that top down test-intensive energy to the teachers, and instead make the teachers feel like they can take risks and offer them support,” Russell said. But that doesn't help her when New York’s Department of Education sends a reviewer to the school. That person has a checklist of things that the school is supposed to be doing well, but he may or may not have any understanding of the iZone or that innovation can take time to implement well.

[RELATED: New York City Schools' Experiment in Blended Learning]

Russell is clearly frustrated with the rigidity of the review process. “You can’t do everything traditionally well and innovate well at the same time,” she said. “The quality review can penalize schools for not having traditional indicators.” For example, Global Tech Prep worked with a consultant from Teaching Matters to try out and vet English Language Arts software and teaching approaches. In their annual review, they were criticized for not having enough in-house expertise. Russell believes her school is on the cutting edge of figuring out what works and what doesn't, an on-going, iterative process that is necessarily collaborative since it’s so new. In one instance, she said, her reviewer said the DOE gave explicit instructions not to give value to iZone innovations on the evaluations.

“There’s an office of innovation, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the system is aware of it, nor does it mean that they honor it,” Russell said. She feels that ultimately the disjointed approach hurts teachers and students. “When you are doing this work with teachers, for everything you put on their plate you need to take something off.”

Russell says it’s her job to bring the fun back to teaching for her staff, not to pile on more responsibilities.

“Giving teachers more control over what they do makes them want to come to work,” she said. And she’s found that the middle school students she works with respond to working with tech, although she’s clear that the technology is one more tool, not a substitute for good teaching.

[RELATED READING: What's Worth Investing In? How to Decide What Technology You Need]

Ultimately, Russell is clear that her school needs time to see which innovations really work. She’s skeptical of fad initiatives that never have time to take root. “We don’t know if innovation works, but we know that the traditional ways of schooling are not working for our kids,” Russell said. “If we know that doesn't work, then there’s really no other option if we are really thinking about the kids.”

Her job as principal, she says, is to be the connector. She provides cover to her teachers so they can practice their craft most of the year, then six weeks before the standardized tests they start prepping. Russell said she has to make sure the school meets traditional standards of measurement so it can stay open, while ensuring that real learning is also taking place. “You have to embrace being the rebel for the sake of kids and know that if you get push back you are doing something that makes change,” she said.


Teachers are often the first adopters of technology and the most eager innovators. Most teachers are looking for ways to connect students with content, anything to help them “get it.” But without support from school and district leaders it can be hard for a creative teacher to find resources or share what he's learned.


Ananth Pai was at the cutting edge of using technology and especially games for learning in his classroom. “There wasn't even the word gamification, yet,” Pai said. “I was just doing stuff that worked.” Pai raised money to buy computers and hand held games for his classroom after his principal refused to let him use funds meant for a smartboard that he didn't want. “All of a sudden the engagement was just night and day, so I thought, there’s something here,” Pai said. He found he had more time to focus on conceptual ideas and he could clear up misperceptions in the moment as he moved around the classroom checking on his student’s work. And his student’s test scores improved.

Instead of leveraging Pai’s success, his superiors tried to ignore him and occasionally reprimanded him by reminding him to stick to school board approved curriculum. “As it is our job is a lonely one, but if my professional practice is so different from my colleagues there isn’t that much that I can share with them,” Pai said. “I miss having colleagues who are practicing this because I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off. My practice would get better if I had more people to collaborate with.”

[RELATED READING: Money, Time and Tactics: Can Games Be Effective in Schools?]

While his district hasn't shut him down, they haven’t been supportive with resources or support. And that has embittered Pai. “This business is so stuck with calcified brains,” Pai said. Before becoming a teacher Pai worked in the corporate world of desktop publishing. He’s used to either innovating or getting passed over. “I come from having survived the business world in India, Singapore and the U.S. and if you didn't do stuff that advances the company, you are fired,” he said.


Now, Pai has washed his hands of the system. He doesn't try to get money for instructional technology anymore and he’s upset there’s no way for him to give feedback to his superiors. Pai is an example of what can happen to innovative teachers struggling alone in the classroom without institutional support. Rather than applauding his initiative, his results and his commitment to his students, his superiors ignored him and they may soon lose him altogether.

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