Inspiring leadership in education

This week I attended the Global Education Conference in Boston sponsored by Harvard and Goldman Sachs. This was one of the most inspiring conferences I’ve attended in recent years. Sessions were spread over two days and included hot topics such as “financing disruption”, “creating value in a world of content abundance”, “bridging the skills gap” and “the promise of accessible education”.

I could happily write a post about each of them. But I will write about just one. The absolute highlight of the meeting for me was the opening keynote by Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school network of 12,300 students in New York. He has been instrumental in improving the performance of his students over a period of two decades such that 95% of high school seniors these days are accepted into college. He gave the best live keynote speech I have ever seen.

GeoffreyCanadaMuch of the focus of the conference was on technology, and I certainly believe that technology can be a great enabler in improving education.

However, Geoffrey’s impact comes from excellent leadership. In particular in taking actions to re-set the normative behaviour amongst the stakeholders including the local community. In a nutshell, in changing expectations in the community from “you have to be a genius to go to college” to “if he can do it, I can do it”. And amongst teachers from “don’t blame me, this is a mission impossible” to “my job is to get these kids into college”.

I personally believe that excellent education can be delivered when skilled teachers, motivated pupils and high quality learning materials play together effectively for the benefit of the learning of the pupil. The role of the school leader has not been strong on my radar. But of course, these three cornerstones rely on selecting and leading the right teachers and ensuring that a healthy culture and practices are in place in schools and their communities! The role of the school leader is pivotal. I should re-examine my beliefs!

Canada is a brilliant and inspiring speaker. You know that he wants the best for his pupils. You know that he will do whatever it takes to make it happen. He is highly engaging and has tremendous energy. He’s firm but fair. It’s not about him, it’s about the future of the kids at his school. I liked the clarity of his message. “Your job is to get these kids into college. The military is good. Vocational training is good too. But your job is to get these kids into college. That is what I expect from you”. I liked that he saw it as a journey. Year-on-year he saw impact. But transformation is a journey and the impact 20 years later was massive.

What would the equivalent message be for my own team? The essence of it is “help teachers to excel at developing the talents of every child in their class”. I believe this is the right direction and will be the journey of learning in the coming decade. How to achieve and measure that? If you have inspiring ideas then you are welcome to join our Learning Lab this coming Autumn!

Most of Canada’s keynote was energetic and funny. He is also a poet and took a more serious tone at the end by reading one of his own poems “Don’t blame me”. Inspiring and touching. Thanks Mr Canada, a brilliant leader, for making a positive impact on thousands of lives, and for inspiring me too.

DON’T BLAME ME
February 2007

The girl’s mother said, “Don’t blame me.
Her father left when she was three.
I know she don’t know her ABCs, her 1,2,3s,
But I am poor and work hard you see.”
You know the story, it’s don’t blame me.

The teacher shook her head and said,
“Don’t blame me, I know it’s sad.
He’s ten, but if the truth be told,
He reads like he was six years old.
And math, don’t ask.
It’s sad you see.
Wish I could do more, but it’s after three.
Blame the mom, blame society, blame the system.
Just don’t blame me.”

The judge was angry, his expression cold.
He scowled and said, “Son you’ve been told.
Break the law again and you’ll do time.
You’ve robbed with a gun.
Have you lost your mind?”
The young man opened his mouth to beg.
“Save your breath,” he heard instead.
“Your daddy left when you were two.
Your momma didn’t take care of you.
Your school prepared you for this fall.
Can’t read, can’t write, can’t spell at all.
But you did the crime for all to see.
You’re going to jail, son.
Don’t blame me.”

If there is a God or a person supreme,
A final reckoning, for the kind and the mean,
And judgment is rendered on who passed the buck,
Who blamed the victim or proudly stood up,
You’ll say to the world, “While I couldn’t save all,
I did not let these children fall.
By the thousands I helped all I could see.
No excuses, I took full responsibility.
No matter if they were black or white,
Were cursed, ignored, were wrong or right,
Were shunned, pre-judged, were short or tall,
I did my best to save them all.”
And I will bear witness for eternity
That you can state proudly,
“Don’t blame me.”

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