6 Considerations for Education Leaders

Guest post by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

1. What are some of the biggest challenges facing superintendents, principals, CTOs, curriculum leaders, and tech coordinators today?

ISTE Leadership Forum 2012I think probably the biggest challenge that leaders in any of these roles face is that we are really living in two worlds now. We’re operating in an outdated system in terms of meeting the needs of 21st century learners, so we have to reimagine who we are as educators and reculture our schools. At the same time we have to meet the requirements of state testing, curriculum standards, and the more traditional responsibilities that come with leading schools and school systems.

It’s a fast and intricate dance that requires very good balance. Superintendents, principals, technology directors and teacher leaders have to figure out how they can gracefully lead faculty and help them understand what they need to know to be effective constructors of learning. And also how to be effective change agents who can stretch learning environments beyond the boundaries of traditional school, so that their iGeneration kids develop the sophisticated skill sets they’ll need to be successful in work and life situations we can barely envision.

Additionally, as leaders, how do we meet mandates and comply with policies that don’t always fit perfectly into the dynamics of a true 21st century school, adapt 20th-century planning processes to the change dynamics of the Google Era, and do it all within budgets that don’t begin to match the price tag of deep transformation?

How do leaders meet this incredible set of challenges? My answer would be the same answer we give to the teachers in our Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) programs who are trying to cope with all this change. We say to them: “If you want to change the way you teach, first you have to change the way you learn.” And I would say to folks in leadership roles: “To be a successful leader in the 21st-century educational environment, you have to become a learner first. You have to be the Lead Learner.”

2. Why is it critical for administrators to take time out for their own professional learning and networking amid their busy schedules?

Leaders need cutting-edge knowledge and skills to be effective. Most leaders in education today began their careers in the classroom. Many entered those classrooms before the dawn of the Internet Age and moved into leadership roles before social media, mobile technologies and virtual learning environments became dominant forces in society.

As a leader, you may need to reinvent yourself professionally. Certainly you have to position yourself as “learner first” and figure out what new skills you must gain to be able to lead other educators through this revolution in teaching and learning to build 21st-century capacities on a large scale within your organization. Michael Fullan, who will be Lead Facilitator at the ISTE Leadership Forum, says the most effective change drivers are not testing, accountability, performance pay, and the like, but initiatives that change the culture of school systems: distributed leadership, collaboration, teamwork—all undergirded by a focus on values, norms, skills, practices, and relationships.

In my book The Connected Educator, I describe a three-pronged professional learning approach for the Digital Age that applies to both teachers and school leaders. Part of the “learner first” mindset for leaders today is to build and engage with a personal learning network, both virtually and face-to-face. Given the impact of technology on everything that has to do with learning, that means attending conferences such as the ISTE Leadership Forum. It’s one of the places where you come into contact with other leaders who not only understand your challenges and aspirations, but who have come to the conclusion that they cannot delegate to others the responsibility for figuring out what it means to learn and teach in a technological society and a connected world.

You really need to have one foot in the future while you try to balance all the challenges you face today. The contacts you make and the insights you gain through your PLN and a well-designed conference such as the ISTE Leadership Forum will make sure that your foot is “out there.”

3. What do you think differentiates this month’s ISTE Leadership Forum in Indianapolis from other educational conferences and professional development opportunities?

The great thing about this conference is that ISTE’s leaders, members, and advisors are constantly thinking about what’s on the change horizon. The conference design grows out of questions such as, “What are the implications of rapid culture shift—driven in very significant ways by technology—for students, learning, teaching, and schools?” And, of course, “What does that mean for education leaders?”

This is not a conference that will teach you how to create a wiki or send you home with little more than the scary message that all this crazy change is going on and schools are being left behind. I’ve served on the conference planning group, and I can say that this is a conference shaped by informed educators who have created an agenda that will provide leaders with information and ideas they can act upon and with opportunities to explore solutions to real problems together.

One of the biggest problems with so many conferences is that however great the experience might be you walk out and that’s the end of it. There’s nothing in the way of follow-up, nothing much that you can take home and put to work right away. The entire ISTE Leadership Forum has been designed to not only bring in thought leaders who talk provocatively about the future, but to then have those thought leaders work directly with participants to build an action plan they can take home.

So whatever you’re involved in at the conference—the consideration of essential conditions, listening to one of the Digital Age panels, any of the content strands—you’re getting ideas and elements that you’ll be able to pull together into an implementable strategy when you re-enter the daily torrent that characterizes the leadership workplace today. ISTE’s leadership conference serves as both catalyst and resource base—the “how” as well as the “why”—and that’s pretty unusual in my experience. As a leader you will walk away with some firm ideas about how you can begin to lead this change back in your local context.

4. You and your PLP co-founder Will Richardson have worked with school and system leaders in several professional learning programs, including the Leading Edge Experience. You have a good idea of what leaders are seeking from professional learning experiences and conferences. How does the ISTE Leadership Forum match up?

I think what busy education leaders are looking for—when they take the time to leave their schools or districts and come to a conference like this—are stimulating ideas. They really want to be able to remix and build on what their colleagues are doing. They want to have some deep conversations with their peers in leadership roles. That’s not easy to do back home and really not that likely to happen, at least in a focused way, at most conferences.

Leaders are looking for opportunities to find out what’s working and what solutions others have found to knotty dilemmas similar to their own challenges. The beauty of the ISTE Leadership Forum design is that it very deliberately creates time for education leaders to talk to each other, not just be talked at. At most conferences, even if they say there will be facilitated conversation, it’s an afterthought or limited to discussion around pre-set themes. ISTE’s goal is not to present a series of one-size-fits-all “solutions” but to create an environment where participants are contextualizing the ideas and working to adapt them to their own unique circumstances.

What leaders really want, as Will and I have seen over and over again in Powerful Learning Practice, is for you to help them gain what they need to begin their own self-directed journey to 21st-century leadership—to consider issues such as change drivers, school and teacher culture, and what’s going to make sense back in their own local schools. If you can help them do that through a facilitated process that also includes lots of access to each other, then you have a great leadership conference.

As part of the Leadership Forum, ISTE is facilitating a wiki that will include the ideas from every single one of the breakout sessions. So not only are you going to be able to pull from ideas in a session you attended, you’ll have access to all these other ideas—to a real peer leader “idea database.” It will be a very rich, thick resource that will help people shape ideas to fit their own local conditions.

5. What are you most looking forward to experiencing at this year’s forum?

I’m excited about Michael Fullan. He’s not just making a speech; he’s serving as the lead facilitator for the ISTE conference and will be working with all the panels and breakout sessions. I’m thrilled about that. We’re going to be up close and personal with one of the truly brilliant minds when it comes to educational leadership, school reform, and large-scale school system change. ISTE’s knowledge about the impact of technology, Fullan’s research-based understanding of how positive change comes about, and the conference design that facilitates peer interaction—it’s a win-win-win.

6. What would like to tell administrators who aren’t familiar with ISTE?

ISTE is a forward-thinking organization led by a group of educators who never lose sight of what all of this is about—student learning and success. ISTE is really on the cutting edge of technological change. None of us know it all, because as we’ve said, the change is taking place at blinding speed. But the people in key leadership positions at ISTE do an amazing job of staying abreast of technology and learning. They constantly reach out for advice and counsel to people like myself and many forward-thinking teachers, principals, instructional leaders, district administrators and others who spend a lot of our time thinking about the implications of all this change. That’s a smart way to lead any organization.

I’d say this to school leader: If you prefer to be involved with organizations that model the Learner First concept, you’ll like ISTE, and I predict you’ll be back for more in the (unknowable) future!


Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is both an educator and an entrepreneur — co-founder & CEO of  Powerful Learning Practice LLC and a recognized expert in creating, developing and leading highly productive virtual professional communities.

During a 25-year education and business career, Sheryl has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school developer and principal, district administrator, university instructor, digital learning consultant, and leader of a successful professional development company.

Sheryl is the co-author (with Lani Ritter Hall) of The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2012), which presents a model of learning in online communities. She has been a trainer, speaker, and keynote presenter at workshops and conferences in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Norway, and Belize.

Sheryl served as a key consultant and advisor to the U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators initiative and a leader in the development of USDOE’s first Connected Educators Month. She co-founded the K12Online Conference — a free global Web 2.0 professional development opportunity for educators around the world — and led a four-year statewide project in Alabama, funded by Microsoft Partners in Learning, to develop teacher leaders as change agents on behalf of 21st century learning approaches.

Sheryl has worked with more than 7,000 teachers and education leaders in dozens of virtual community environments to create specific work products and accomplish a variety of learning goals. She has also consulted for the American Institutes for Research, the New York State Department of Education, the Virginia State Department of Education, the Center for Teaching Quality, Intel, SchoolNet, Microsoft, IBM, CLNet, and the Alabama Best Practices Center.

Interviews with Sheryl have been published by connected learning thought leader Howard Rheingold, Education Week, Edutopia, the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Partners in Learning, Connected Educators, Media & Social Change, Larry Ferlazzo, and TeachersCount. She’s also published articles in TechEdge, ASCD Express, Tech & Learning, Teacher Magazine, and Access Learning, as well as a book chapter in What School Administrators Need To Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media (Jossey Bass, 2011).

Sheryl is a graduate of Valdosta State University and is completing her doctoral dissertation at the College of William and Mary.

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