Vulnerability as a Strength in School Leadership

There may exist an old-school conception that educational leaders should not show vulnerability as it may display weakness, which could undermine one’s authority.  Think of Morgan Freeman’s first speech to his faculty as a new High School Principal in Lean on Me when he shouts ‘no one talks in my meetings, no one!’   This is a great movie, but times have changed in school leadership.  With the increase of desired traits such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness, transparency and authenticity, vulnerability may now be viewed not only as a strength but as a necessity.

This idea is succinctly reinforced in an article from Forbes: “Every leader has vulnerability. The greatest leaders have the self-awareness to recognize this fact. They also recognize that showing their vulnerability is a sign of courage and strength.”

The question that remains is when are appropriate times for a leader show vulnerability?  A short answer: To make those ever-important human connections.  Human connections between school leaders and teachers often gets pushed aside or ignored as we are consumed with results, paper work, deadlines, evaluations and testing.  Of course all of these are important for making a school run, but behind all of these processes are people.

This is summed up by this quote from Harvard Business Review: “Why is human connection missing at work? As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to a spouse or close friend behind closed doors at night but we would never show it elsewhere during the day, let alone at work.”

This stereotype is changing however and is one reason why AI may not be able to replace a strong/vulnerable leader: because AI cannot empathize as meaningfully or effectively as humans.  Ironically, AI’s weak spot may be that it doesn’t show weakness.  In the end, in education, we are humans working with other humans, none of us are perfect, all of us have weaknesses and all of us deserve forgiveness.  Taken from the same Harvard Business Review article : “Forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerance of error but rather a patient encouragement of growth.”  A strong educational leader not only recognizes their vulnerabilities, but forgives all stakeholders including themselves for the mistakes and shortcomings that come with being human while at the same time maintaining high expectations.  We are not perfect, but we can always work to be better, including our ability to show strength through vulnerability.


Curricular Integration : STEAM

One comment I have heard is that the acronym STEM or STEAM may perhaps not be the best way to promote curricular integration.  What does this mean?

It means that STEAM may not just be confined to Science, Technology, Engineering and the Arts.  It also means that schools should have strong Science, Tech, Engineering and Arts programs, but not while sacrificing other disciplines.  In short, the end goal is curricular integration via 4Cs: Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking & Communication (twenty first century learning skills).



Instructional Principal: Quality Instruction: Lesson Planning: GANAG

‘Quality of instruction is the top priority for the instructional principal’ (link to source).  Lesson planning plays a crucial role in the delivery of quality instruction.  Fostering an environment in which a faculty uses the same lesson planning structure and language can help create a culture of practitioners that work collectively toward student gains.  One common lesson planning schema is via Jane Pollock.

Jane Pollock is a renowned author/co-author of seminal educational texts such as ‘Classroom Instruction that Works’.  In her books she describes her ‘Teaching Schema For Master Learners’ which is an improvement/evolution of Madeline Hunter’s work and is referred to by the acronym GANAG.  GANAG stands for Goal, Access Prior Knowledge, New Information, Application, Goal (revisit).

One question that may arise for Jane Pollock is ‘How does your schema differ from Madeline Hunter’.   Mrs. Pollock’s response might be that we have had many advances in the field of neurology since Madeline Hunter’s work.

Facilitating faculty adoption of a consistent instructional language is an exciting and rewarding process.  Along with quality teaching and learning improvements one might witness faculty being able to communicate with one another with more ease and fluency as they become familiar with a vetted common language.  While such an endeavor may be vast and time consuming, teaching and learning along with general climate could see marked improvements in a short amount of time.


‘Death of the Classroom Desk’

This is an article I wrote for TIE: The International Educator.  TIE has been in business for over 25 years, ‘matching the best educators with the best international schools around the world.’  It is an honor to be published in a leading publication for international education.  The article is shared in it’s entirety below:

Death of the Classroom Desk?

By Derek Kensinger



Death of the Classroom Desk?

The idea is ancient: Mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. Regular physical activity is linked to general wellbeing in school and in life. But what is being done about this at the curricular level?

Most international schools have physical education classes, sports, and clubs, but do these activities meet often enough to provide each student with the recommended amount of exercise per day? What about academic classes, after school classes, and home, where most of our students spend the better part of their time? Are these huge swathes of time providing any physical activity? Why not?

Then there are the teachers; are they getting enough physical activity? And school administrators? Let’s not even go there. In response to the question “Are you getting enough exercise?” most of these folks would answer, “No, because I just don’t have the time.” This may be due to the fact that teachers and school administrators are so focused on their students’ success they neglect their own wellbeing. How ironic that we are so busy teaching lifelong habits of holistic wellbeing that we often don’t have the time to pursue the same tenets ourselves.

How is this issue dealt with at international schools? Does your school have a gym for its faculty? Does your school openly encourage teachers to exercise during their prep time? Such things are not unheard of.

One government has begun to take some of these matters into its own hands: Finland. The Finnish government is recommending that children get three hours of physical activity per day. That’s right—per day! Take a moment to think about your students as they are busy preparing for test after test, assignment after assignment. Honestly, how many hours a day are your students physically active? How many hours a day do your students play with other students? And we aren’t talking about video games. We are talking about physical play with other students on your campus. Go on, add it up. How many hours per day?

How is Finland encouraging/mandating more exercise? One way is in the way their school day is structured. A typical Finnish school day is divided into hour-long sessions that include 45-minute lessons and 15 minutes of outdoor play. Additionally, under Finnish curriculum, schools are looking at new ways of teaching that involve more movement among children. Finnish schools are also removing traditional furniture to encourage more circulation and collaboration.

These are measures that seem very possible for international schools to implement, and many international schools are already doing so. Such changes need to occur at the macro-level; schedules need to be changed, bells re-programmed, more spaces created for physical activity, and student activity more closely monitored not only by physical education teachers and coaches, but within academic scenarios as well. Can anyone else imagine classrooms with exercise bikes powering learning instead of groups of students uncomfortably hunched at desks?



Instructional Leadership: Real – time coaching?

As instructional leaders part of our jobs is to get into classrooms, observe teaching and learning and give timely feedback to teachers to create a culture of high expectations and improve student learning.

During observations, should administrators interrupt teachers and provide ‘real-time coaching’ or wait for a post-observation debrief?

According to this study administrators are more inclined to provide real time coaching during short/informal walkthroughs than during formal observations.  The study asserts that real time coaching occurs under the following circumstances:

• If  admin has an interesting idea or anecdote that will enrich the lesson;
• If admin wants to draw attention to something particularly praiseworthy;
• If the teacher is missing an opportunity to make an important point;
• If some students seem confused and the teacher isn’t noticing;
• If the teacher makes a consequential error (for example, mixing up perimeter and area); or
• If a student’s behavior is seriously disrupting instruction.

This source concludes that real-time coaching has too many pitfalls: “skill threshold is too demanding, the risks of being superficial or getting it wrong too high, the probability
of upsetting and alienating teachers too great, and the chances of not having deeper conversations about teaching and learning too real.”

Whether or not you choose to use real-time coaching as an instructional leader, timely, accurate and useful feedback is crucial after an observation.  Short debriefs are recommended as well.

Needless to say, in the event of an emergency situation during an observation intervention is necessary.



(Marshall, Kim.  2015. Should Supervisors Intervene During Classroom Visits.  Kappan 2015.)








Feedback Approaches

Giving feedback to teachers is an integral part of an instructional leader’s job.  In an  ideal world feedback does not create friction while promoting a culture of high expectations for performance.

Some feedback may be evaluative in the form of tangible summative TESC scorecards.

Some feedback may be conversational  based on anectdotal evidence after informal walkthroughs.

What do these intangible conversations look like?

The linked article explains three categories of conversations with teachers after walkthroughs.

  1. Directive (boss): Telling a teacher what needs to change

2. Reflective (coach): Asking a teacher questions after a visit

3.  Reflexive (servant): Listening to teachers and making changes

All three styles will come in handy depending on the context, thus each is useful for an instructional leader to sharpen.


Building Trust: Key Points

Trust MattersLeadership for Successful Schools is an ‘honest guide for educational leaders’ written by William & Mary professor Megan Tschannen-Moran.

The book contains wisdom that can be applied to international schools.

The following are some key points and takeaways about how to become a trustworthy leader:

  • Apply five facets of trust: construct a shared vision, model trustworthy behavior, provide coaching, manage the environment and mediate breakdowns of trust.
  • Leading quietly by being soft on people and hard on problems.
  • Flexibility, not blaming, problem-solving, involving teachers in important decisions.
  • Don’t push to hard and don’t push to little, don’t take too much responsibility and don’t take too little.
  • Trustworthy leadership is at the heart of productive schools

Overall, this book comes highly recommended for school leaders.

‘One of the greatest dilemnas faced by school leaders occurs when they don’t trust the competence and motivation of their teachers.’

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Servant Leadership, Maslow and Daniel Pink in International Schools.

As international educational leaders we are interested in cultivating a motivational environment in which our teams flourish.

The term ‘servant leadership’ was coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1972.

Removing obstacles is one of major outcomes of servant leadership: ‘alleviating … pain’.

Maslow’s hierarchy agrees: impediments block access to maximum human potential.

Daniel Pink in his seminal work Drive maintains that we reach our full potential  via three factors: mastery , autonomy and purpose.

Here is a 10 minute RSA animation that clearly distills Pink’s main points.

Recognizing that servant leadership is a conduit for international educational eco-systems to progress toward self-realization, mastery, autonomy and purpose, potential open-ended questions remain, such as: how can we become better servant leaders in times of conflicting viewpoints? And how can we help develop future servant leaders in our schools?



To grade or not to grade?

Do you believe grades are a good measurement of student learning?  This can be a polemical topic that divides educators around the world.  On the one hand, grades may keep students accountable and provide a measurable result to students and parents.  On the other hand, grades don’t tell the whole story.

This  article   is written from a Physical Education perspective, claiming that narratives are a much preferred option to grades for communicating student learning and progress.

As educational leaders this topic is something that will undoubtedly arise in our careers in the hallways, at parent/staff meetings, and at conferences.  It may not be as important which side of this discussion we agree with as educational leaders, but rather that we are able to discuss the pros and cons on the topic intelligently.



Assessing Self-Directed Learning

You may have heard of the term ‘self-directed learning’ before.  Often self-directed learning refers to adult learning models that meet the needs of professionals at work that pursue advance degrees while on the job.  Many beginning school administrators go through predominately online platforms to gain their administrative credentials while teaching full-time.  Self-directed learning for adults assumes that adults want to learn a their own pace, on their own terms and want to some choice/democracy with their educational process.  The same is true for K-12 students.

Ironically, as students progress through the grades they experience fewer and fewer opportunities to have input into their own learning experience.” Why?  Because schools are beholden to educational outcomes that are often not identified by students.  Rather than dictating learning to students, a student-led model views youth as “co-constructors of learning and players in education redesign”.

Self-direction is a student learning outcome promoted by social emotional learning models evidenced by these core competencies.  There are two conclusions from this research:

  1. As administrators we will need to cultivate competencies  related to self-direction that students crave in their school/learning environment.
  2. As administrators we will see that Self-Direction is a very difficult skill to accurately assess, but there are efforts being made to provide quality tools for assessment, such as the Youth-Adult Partnership Rubric.