When I started my journey of school leadership, I thought being a risk taker was better left to other professions or hobbies people liked to pursue. Eventually, I learned that for change to occur taking risks is often needed. However, taking some chances, even if they make sense and appear reasonable, can be daunting.
The school principal sets the tone for a school: a tone of intentional risk-taking and innovation or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a tone of rigid compliance. It is the principal who can stifle creativity, imagination, and risk-taking or empower staff to find their best, professional selves. Leadership matters. The world we are preparing students for is far different than what we experienced in school. And, collectively, educators need to prepare our students for this changing world, as well as the uncertainties and unknowns of the future. For innovation and creativity to flourish in schools, some risk-taking will need to occur.
At times risk-taking requires us to change patterns. Repeating the same practices and methods and expecting different outcomes will not lead to substantive change for a school. As a school leader, what can you do to help create a culture where all members of the school community are encouraged to take sensible risks with learning and instruction to bring about new results? But, remember – and this is important – staff and students will not take chances if they don’t feel safe, or if they believe they’ll be reprimanded for trying something new, especially if it doesn’t work the first time.
Let’s get this moving with a simple yet important reflection:
There are two ways to get into a swimming pool: you can dip your toes in the water, or you can dive in. Diving in might be scary, but if you keep practicing it can become fun and even enjoyable.
So, let’s dive in!
There can be times when staff might be nervous to try something new. Walkthroughs have the potential to relieve this stress. Walkthrough visits can allow you to see staff trying new and innovative ways of teaching. Most importantly, these are opportunities for you to positively reinforce what you observe through some positive, old fashioned, specific praise! This can be oral feedback, a short note, or an email. Although this may sound small, positively noting what you enjoyed seeing is an excellent way to empower staff to continue trying new methods and taking some risks.
TAKE-AWAY: We are all likely to do more of what we are encouraged to do!
Share your personal experiences with staff! No principal can build a culture of change and risk-taking if he or she is unwilling to do the same and face some setbacks along the way. Recently, I shared with my staff how a project I worked on failed. No one wants something to fail, but I found value in sharing this with staff to demonstrate my frustration but also my ability to reflect and not place blame, but instead to use my failure as information to help me move forward.
TAKE-AWAY: Words and actions should be congruent. Leading can’t be do as I say, it should be do as I do!
Create a new committee focused on a school goal or initiative. Serve on the committee, but don’t lead it. Instead, empower a staff member to lead the committee. Creating such a collaborative opportunity will allow you to work side-by-side with staff, be part of a team, and, by your actions, demonstrate a commitment to working together. Serving as a member of a committee instead of running it sends a message to staff that you are willing to take a risk and that you value their ability to collaborate and solve problems. This can be a powerful example to staff facing the challenges of moving from teacher-centered learning to student-centered teaching and learning environments.
TAKE-AWAY: Leaders must model their talk!
There is an old saying that boats may be safe in a harbor, but they are meant to sail. Safety is always important, but leading and teaching with no willingness to take risks will never allow people or schools to be their best. You may not have thought that the term “risk-taker” applies to school leadership, but it does. In fact, taking thoughtful and intentional risks are a platform for growth and change. Yes, there are two ways to get into a pool. Once in a while it is good to take a leap off the high dive, and invite others to join you!
The Ten-Minute Principal: Free Up Your Time and Focus on Leadership by Evan Robb was published by Corwin in May, 2019. In this book, Evan shares stories, experiences, and ideas on how to be a more effective leader. Each chapter of the book offers a Ten- Minute Opportunity, a Ten-Minute Tip, and a Ten-Minute Collaboration. The chapter structure allows readers to quickly find ideas on how to be more effective by using about ten minutes of focused time. The structure of this blog post is similar to the book.