21st Century Leadership: It’s All About the Trust

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

Written by Aaron Brengard, Principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School (San Jose, Calif.)

burnt toastHow Does Trust Create And Encourage 21st Century Leadership For Learning?

Calling all classroom teachers, building managers, or district level administrators, we need you. 21st century learning schools need 21st century learning leaders. While I'm a school site principal, I use the word leader to describe everyone throughout the system from the classroom teacher to the district superintendent.

There is one thing we all need...TRUST.

Across 21st Century classrooms, schools, and districts or networks, everyone needs trust. We need trust in others – teachers with students, principals or site leaders with the staff, and central office with the schools. We need a trust in the process to stay the course through mistakes and continually improve. Trust in ourselves to authentically use and live the beliefs we want. Finally, build trust across the system. The practices and expectations should resonate for everyone from students to leaders.

Trust Others

There is a certain amount of letting go that is needed to be a leader in 21st century schools. Letting go is central to trusting others. Part of this is pure survival. The number of decisions and work that is done everyday is just too overwhelming for any one person. The other part is that it's just a good practice to trust others.

In Daniel Pink's 2009 book Drive, he talks about three things needed for motivation – mastery, purpose, and autonomy. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. In a school setting, working towards mastery is an easy one. It's built into the complexity of our work. There are so many challenges, we will never "master" everything, and there will always be room for improvement. Purpose is another key. Knowing the "why" encourages motivation and better outcomes. In his 2009 TED talk Simon Sinek makes this point with his Golden Circle. A whole other post could be dedicated to this. The final point is the last and most often missed – autonomy. Although it can be difficult, leaders must trust others to create for empowered decision makers. Because there are limits or boundaries, I use a term that may sound somewhat contradictory – defined autonomy.

Imagine a picture frame. The outside edges of the picture frame are the boundaries. State testing, budget restraints, or even a shared set of beliefs may represent restraints. With the limits clearly defined, a leader can then allow for autonomy within the empty space. Decision making, innovation, and empowerment result.

At Katherine Smith School, a P21 Exemplar in San Jose, California, one of our boundaries is the expectation that we all collaborate with others. Working alone is not an option, least of all by me, the designated principal. Teachers must work together to design and implement projects. Within that space, they are able to make decisions with one another and are empowered to use creativity and problem solving to meet the needs of students.

Trust the Process, Burn the Toast

I'm not sure where I first heard it, but my new favorite phrase is "Don't be afraid to burn the toast." Because project-based learning (PBL) requires a new way to think about instruction, anyone's first project inevitably comes out like "burnt toast." Sure, students as well as teachers may have learned a lot and gained knowledge working through that first project. Ultimately, though, the first pieces of toast have to be tossed. Then in a cycle of continuous improvement, new "bread" is thrown in the toaster, temperature revised, and once again it likely results in more burnt toast. Back to design, revisions and adjustments applied. Eventually, scraping off the dark spots, we find something we can use. Ultimately, this takes trust in the process.

Burning toast becomes a lot easier in a professional culture where risk taking and making mistakes is not only encouraged but celebrated. Katherine Smith School operates under the assumption that we can always do better. We give and receive feedback to encourage and validate what works and push our work to the next level. The leader's role, and we are all leaders, is to celebrate those mistakes as valuable lessons and set a culture of revision where there is a need to give and receive feedback and continually improve.

Looking back, there are no projects that teachers repeated from our first year of using PBL. Each represented a piece of "burnt toast." Keeping a trust that PBL will get the 21st century learning outcomes we want for our students, strengths and lessons learned were collected and are put into place in a cycle of ongoing revision.

Trust Yourself

A third lesson is to look within. Leadership comes with challenges around every corner, so what could be better than to use the same practices you expect from others by trusting yourself? Often this may be described as modeling, but I would argue use of the term modeling does not capture fully my point. When I hear someone say, "We need to model this," I immediately stop and wonder why? Is this to just demonstrate an idea? Or is it to actually use the idea or practice? Just modeling has an essence of inauthenticity. We need to do more than demonstrate - we need to live the practices we preach.

One example is using a driving questions in PBL process. Having a driving question is an essential element of any project. The question drives the inquiry and need to know process. It's the question that creates the meaning and purpose to construct learning. Therefore, if this is a best practice in the classroom, it can be authentically used at the school level. Nearly every staff meeting and professional development at Katherine Smith is connected to a school driving question. This is my chance as a school leader to use the PBL elements, make mistakes, get feedback and drive authentic inquiry.

It's important to note, I am not using a driving question just because I want teachers to know how to use them – it is something that really drives our work. One of the driving questions for this school year is, " How do we design for, assess, and communicate growth?" This question has empowered the staff to create new systems for task design, formative assessment practices, and implement a new digital portfolio tool. It was by trusting myself and using the same elements and practices as teachers that has empowered the adults to engage in learning and problem solving.

Trust Across the System (With a Capital "T")

Trust is the thing we need more of across every level of school – from the classroom teachers to the central office administrators. For 21st century leadership, practices need to resonate and be used across the system. When I'm pushing myself to trust, I use the following questions to focus:

  • How can I frame my work to define autonomy and encourage empowerment? Thinking back to the frame, what are the boundaries? How can the limits be defined to free up and share decisionmaking? Boundaries can be state mandates, district pacing guides, or even schoolwide beliefs. Inside those boundaries gives space. For example, if an expectation is that everyone at a grade level should design and implement projects collaboratively, that is the boundary. The way the team conducts meetings, the duration or frequency, and even the process could be left to the team's design.
  • How can I support risk-taking that cultivates a culture of revision? Having space to make mistakes is critical. Burning the toast is part of the process. Knowing that is the first step, but certainly is not the last. When mistakes are made, feedback is the key. Systems for encouraging improvement encourage the culture. We regularly use "Critical Friends Protocol" to give and receive feedback. This video from BIE offer a great overview of the process. Besides offering ideas for revisions, the process encourages great collaboration, and we all know risks are easier to take when you take them with others.
  • What authentic practices am I putting in place to drive the work? What outcomes do I want in my students and how do those outcomes relate to the adults? I can't help to think about the countless professional development trainings I have attended on topics like differentiation. I can remember being taught in "sit and get" format. What a contradiction! As a principal, I think of myself as the "teacher of my teachers." If I want them to implement something in their classrooms, I must find the way that practice or strategy resonates for them as adults. In that, I not only develop true empathy for what they will experience, but I am able to engage the teachers as learners. A recent example, to infuse some "design thinking" across our campus, we didn't just read about the design process. We spent a meeting prototyping and designing. Teachers walked away with an authentic experience and a solid grasp of the process. Not to mention, had a lot more fun than just watching video examples and pair sharing about them.

All in All

With trust – trust in others, trust in the process, and trust in ourselves – leaders will cultivate a 21st century culture. Define the frame and offer autonomy to encourage motivation. Accept that the toast will burn from time to time. Make mistakes part of the process and innovation and creative problem solving will flourish. Finally expect in yourself what you expect in others. Use the practices you preach to connect across the system. Imagine autonomy, risk taking, and authentic practices from teachers to superintendents. Sounds good, huh? Now imagine if we could get this pattern continued all the way to our policy makers.

This post originally appeared in P21's blog, Blogazine. Reposted with permission.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning FIrst Alliance or any of its members.

Photo courtesy of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills


This post originally appeared on AACTE's blog, Ed Prep Matters. Reposted with permission.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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