Learning “With” vs. Learning “About”

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Tawheed Manzoor

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
The Matrix

I sometimes get these secret emails or direct messages from some pretty amazing thinkers in education, talking about how they feel really constrained by the leadership in their schools.  Sometimes after speaking, I get teachers in near tears thinking of “what could be” in their schools if only their administrators started reading blogs, looking at twitter; just something to push their learning.  It seriously hurts to see the pain in the eyes of these teachers because they just want to do what is best for kids, yet they are feeling extremely constrained.  They feel they are not in a situation where they can serve students in the way they feel would help them best in the future.  The paradox that they face is that they stay and be frustrated or leave and feel they have abandoned students that need their help.  This is an extremely tough situation.

The misconception for many is that if you start using social media, you are focusing on “technology” and not really what is important in schools.  I will be terribly honest; every time I am referred to as the “tech guy”, I cringe on the inside (and sometimes on the outside as well).  I am very comfortable with technology, yet I am extremely focused on school/district culture, building relationships, leadership and learning.  Those are my passion areas. My use of social media helps me learn about those things, not just about technology.

Stepping Back

About four yeas ago, I did not blog, read blogs, or really read much anything other than “From Good to Great”; I only looked into the really popular books and felt that this was enough for me in my leadership pursuits.  I could tell you about what I did in the classroom as a teacher, but I drew upon my own experience only, and not the experience of others.  Teaching was always something I was comfortable with and I did not spend 18 hours a day at school.  My students did well on exams, I felt comfortable connecting with parents and students, and it just came easy.

Then I jumped into Twitter.

Then I ignored it for a year.

Then I tried again.

Then it stuck for good.

I look back at that time when I started reading and learning from so many educators and felt like taking the “red pill” that opened Neo’s eyes in “The Matrix”.  It was like this whole new world had opened up and I had started connecting with actual practitioners sharing their work as they went.  I did not have to wait for a publisher to put something out after a year.  A person would post about what they did “today” and I could read it that night.  The notion of “just in time learning” was now something that was going beyond technology, and into all areas of school.  

As I felt more comfortable consuming, I then started creating and sharing myself as well.  It took awhile, but I wanted to be able to give back to so many other educators that gave me so much in my own learning.  I wish that I could say that this just came easy and I got it the first time I tried, but it took me awhile.  The most important trait that I had during this time was that I wanted to learn.  As I look at any successful educator, that trait is so apparent.  The best ones always want to learn more and once I started to connect on Twitter, so many opportunities to grow and become better became apparent and accessible.

Present Day

It is funny, but as I write this, I just received a direct message on Twitter from a good friend (who lives nowhere near me but we have built a connection through social media), that said the following:

Our people have great intentions. I just don’t think they have any vision. Frustrating.

This is a problem.  Many get so frustrated with posts like this that I am writing right now, because they feel people need to be able to go at their own pace, and be comfortable with learning, and I get that.  The difference is that when you are the principal or superintendent, shouldn’t teachers and others be at least a little impatient?  The teacher that wrote me this note is not only a great writer, but a great teacher (I have seen her in action as I know being a great writer about education does not make you a great teacher) and her district is probably going to lose her sooner rather than later.  The scary thing is that I am not sure they would know exactly what they would be losing.  I am positive they know she builds great relationships with students, but I am not sure they understand that she is churning out kids that are solid learnersnot simply kids that have mastered school.

One of my mentors has said to me, “my patience with kids is endless, but with adults, not so much.”  What about our leaders?  Our role needs to go on beyond saying buzzwords such as “21st century learning”,”success for every child”, and “lifelong learners”; I want to know that they can articulate what a classroom, school, and more importantly,what learning could look like today.

Here is the thing…I don’t think that anyone has the “best” answer for this, but are we as administrators the “problem finders and solvers” that we want our kids to be?

Moving Forward

There is so much more to school than simply the use of technology.  Relationships are the foundation of any good school and as Kelly Christopherson shared with me, each community is unique and it is important we recognize that.  There are lots of opportunities for leaders to openly learn, and I have done my best to share these strategies in the past with others.  What is extremely important though is that we recognize the difference between “learning about technology” and learning with technology”.  Leaders need to understand that distinction.  The second statement opened my eyes to things that I honestly never knew existed in all elements of learning and leadership, and I believe has led me to do my best to help others learn along with me.

Still, as many educators may be frustrated with what they feel may be a lack of “vision”, it is important that we still talk to our administrators and help them to see the learning opportunities that are out there for them.  You don’t have to be “above” them in the food chain to have a conversation.  Sometimes they just don’t know what they don’t know.  I have said many times that people should not complain about something that they have never talked to their boss about.  Take the time to sit down with them because honestly, they want to do what is best for kids as well; they may just not see what you do.  Once you do that, the next move is theirs, and I am again reminded of a quote from the Matrix:

I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.

In my own experience, it took several times for me to see the door, but when I finally walked through, I feel I saw different and better opportunities for our kids.  When leadership gets that, often those doors will really start opening for others as well, including our students.  To me, that is all the reason I need to keep trying.

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