… risk-taking … creativity … collaboration … problem-solving … self-direction …
These are all words that are tossed around the education circles as if everyone understands the importance of these concepts. We call them 21st Century skills, but then quickly acknowledge that these are skills that we’ve always needed, regardless of which century we’re in.
As someone who, after a 14 year tenure in traditional education, recently spent the last half a decade classroom floor, learning, creating, innovating, and trying some very new approaches to how school can run, while at the same time, facing students and parents who trusted me to lead them in a better direction, I like to think I’m on pretty solid ground when I’m listening for something deeper than “leadership rhetoric.”
So, when listening to school and district-level leadership, I often find myself searching for something beyond a catch-phrase, beyond a key talking point. And beyond just doing what we’ve always done with more intensity or “fidelity.” I’m listening closely for a leader who can actually communicate a vision for how these phrases are to be integrated, are to be fostered in our students…in ourselves.
Funny enough though, even when asked point-blank, I’ve found quite a few school leaders who use these terms freely are unable to tell me what students and what teachers will be doing differently in order to foster these skills. All the right words are there. All the right intent is there (some don’t even have vision or intent, I think). But there seems to be a lack of understanding for exactly how we’ll move these big ideas forward. It seems it’s being left up to the teachers, who, incidentally, in this type of environment, need more freedom to take risks than ever before. Who need more time for collaboration with colleagues both near and far. Who need to have their own creativity fostered. Who need leadership to explicitly empower them, to give them permission to be self-directed outside of the straightjacket of assessment and the omnipresent negotiations of “fairness.”
You see, these skills of risk-taking, creativity, self-direction, collaboration, problem-solving…they’re like muscles. We all have them; it’s just that through the years of compulsory education and regimented pathways, these muscles have atrophied. Some have atrophied to the point of being paralyzed. Frozen.
I know how I began to re-discover my creativity, my ability to take risks after I’d been in school for 18 years, then a teacher for 14+ years). I remember each step as if it was tattooed in technicolor on the backs of my eyelids (please ask me about it someday). And I know how I began to ask my students to remember their muscles. But not all of us remember. And not all of us have the strength to to begin alone. It would be easy to call stalemate; we’re not strong enough to even begin?
But I don’t think so. I’d like to see school and district leadership recognize that while they might hold a vision, that they likely don’t know what it might look like, what it takes at the classroom level.
But leadership does hold the first key. And this is the key that opens all other locks: leadership must protect the risk-takers, the creative, the problem-solvers from local domestic abuse; to keep the nay-sayers at bay as the muscles are being re-awakened. They must keep the path clear for those who are trying things radically different.
I like to think of our risk-taking teachers who are moving us forward as tiny new-born deer; gangly, unstable, failing, trying, yet growing stronger with each step forward. To allow the wolves to come too closely too soon, this little deer is doomed. Protect her and she’ll grow strong and make the entire herd stronger.
Sure, on a Public Relations scale, it’s a difficult mantle for leadership to wear, but it’s no more difficult than the classroom teacher who faces students every single day. It’s just a different difficult.
Because in education, we’re about getting stronger. We’re about nurturing new souls who are preparing to enter the next phase of their lives. And these teachers and students stretching and exercising their new “21st century skills” deserve no less.
Incidentally, while this post admittedly skims the surface, I’ll very happily dive deeper into specific steps. Because as someone who has done it, as someone who has tried, failed, adjusted, tried, succeeded, failed, adjusted, tried, succeeded, ad nauseum, I’d love to help your district, your school, or your classroom take the first tentative steps.