Taking Smart Risks

To create a safe environment for risk taking, school leaders can talk about taking smart risks in educator goal setting meetings early in the year
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At the recent Tech & Learning Live in Boston, many school leaders took risks in the interest of professional development. I participated in my first EdTech #PoetrySlam. Carl Hooker (@mrhooker), Director of Innovation at Eanes ISD (TX), delivered an interactive keynote speech in which he addressed the challenges of achieving collaboration between instruction and technology (check out his slides for a full look at the content here). One phrase that resonated with me and our table was about being a “Yes, and” community. By taking this approach, edtech and curriculum leaders can share innovative ideas and become a cohort of learners, not two separate commodities. By shifting from a “Yes, but” to a “Yes, and,” more ideas are launched through pilots or full adoptions and edtech and curriculum leaders can work together to solve problems and enhance the current system.

Carl created an environment for all of us to take a risk. So how do district leaders do that for others? There are some basic rules to taking smart risks:

  • Don’t risk everything – taking a risk is for growth
  • Know what you want and ask/plan for it
  • Execute
  • Practice and learn from errors
  • Don’t stop and don’t worry about what others think

Here are some ways school district leaders can further support their curriculum and technology colleagues in their risk-taking: 

[Robotics Showcase 2017! (Why taking risks is legit)]

Define Smart Risks and Set Limits

We need to define what we mean by “smart risk.” The last thing we want as leaders is for every staff member to just take a risk for the “heck of it” and jeopardize student learning or educator confidence/growth. That is not smart risk taking.

Model Risk-taking Behavior

School district leaders can’t just show staff what they do well. They must be willing to try something new and let staff observe and celebrate their willingness to try. Try using new technology in staff meetings, social media, or professional development. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability to your staff.

Create A Safe Environment for Risk Taking

Creating a safe environment means not punishing people who take smart, acceptable risks. As a principal for 11 years, I know the evaluation process well. Unfortunately, concern over teacher evaluations may deter some from taking risks. To create a safe environment for risk taking, school leaders can talk about taking smart risks in educator goal setting meetings early in the year. They can encourage educators to try new instructional styles or incorporate new innovative tools into lessons. If educators hear in their first meeting with school leaders that one of their goals is to try a new edtech and/or curriculum initiative or instructional style, they will be more willing to take risks. Leaders can assure teachers that they will not be punished or ratings affected for trying new things, even if those ideas don’t always succeed. Using educators’ goals and creating an encouraging community will diminish teacher concern and in turn increase the excitement for trying something new.

Reward Smart Missteps

Set up a structure that reviews missteps and celebrates the best attempts to show that the school is serious about risk-taking. Instead of just designing plans in the spring and summer that will focus on academic success in the first few weeks of school, why not create plans that encourage risk taking and celebrate attempts? One idea could be to build into every staff meeting a time for staff to share something they tried the past month. They can share successes and missteps. This process could also be a time for staff to come to the meeting with an idea and gather feedback. Sharing missteps could help to gather other ideas to increase collaboration and create a safe time to share.

When staff understand what smart risk taking is, they will understand their comfort zones and be able to deal with anxiety and uncertainty more easily. Create a culture of risk taking starts with preparation, vision, and taking a risk to do it.

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph (@MatthewXJoseph) is currently Director of Digital Learning and Innovation for Milford Public School, Milford, Ma. Before Tech and Learning Boston 2018, he had the opportunity to present at #TLTechLive in Boston and New Jersey in 2017 and other state opportunities focused on Ed Tech Leadership and empowering teachers. Before Milford, he was a building principal for 11 years in Massachusetts. Other professional roles include: classroom teacher, PD specialist, and other district roles supporting technology instruction. Dr. Joseph holds licenses in general education, school administration, and MA superintendent. His master's degree is in SPED and he holds an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Boston College. 

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