Risk and risk-taking – we talk about it all the time in education. I am thankful there seems to be a general push towards being more open to taking risks. Every teacher and administrator needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better (Dylan Wiliam). Some people embrace risk, while others avoid it at all cost. There is a myriad of factors that contribute to why folks differ in how they view risk. Much has already been written about fixed versus growth mindsets, so I’d much rather share my thinking around risk, why embracing risk is important, and how risk-taking can be fostered for good.
First, to be clear, I know risk-taking is important to personal growth. When approached in specific ways, risk-taking can help you develop personally and professionally. This growth has the potential to strengthen your practice, your organization, and those around you. As a muscle needs to be pushed beyond its limit and fed in order to grow, people need this as well. So, when faced with the opportunity to go into uncomfortable places that extend you, scare you, make you feel uncomfortable and everything inside of you says NO, it’s important to say YES. As a school principal, this is what I always wanted those around me to do – say YES! But, I also realized that my most important work was to create the conditions that make risk-taking OK.
So, how do you create these conditions? How can organizations promote this mindset? This is the question I have been reflecting on over the past days and I believe:
- Leaders need to model risk-taking.
- Risk should be grounded in research, be clearly communicated, and should benefit others.
- Strong relationships are the foundation of a risk-taking learning community.
A good friend suggested I unpack these important points with examples. Here goes!
Leaders need to model risk-taking.
One of the most important things a leader can do is to model the very behaviour they’d like to see in others. I’m not Superman and contrary to outward appearances, I take myself to dark places to consider and worry about what could go wrong. It’s important to do this. But I am usually secure in my decision to take a risk because I go through the mental checklist below: what does the research say, what are the benefits and how will I communicate this, have I invested in the people? The most vivid example I can think of is the move towards using digital portfolios to communicate student learning and the move away from letter grades. That doesn’t seem like such a stretch today, but 7 or 8 years ago? I was asking my colleagues to stick their necks out in the most visible way. How would I model this? I would change the way I myself communicated with the larger community. Gone were paper copies of NEWS letters. I decided to transform the way I communicated with the larger community. I would blog. More than sharing news, I would communicate through stories the powerful student and teacher learning I saw in classrooms, in the hallway, at recess and lunch. I would hopefully help parents understand their child’s experience at school and how they could support learning at home. I would help explain the ‘why’ behind what might have seemed like crazy things being done at school. I would try to work as hard as my teachers and I would try to model not only what I hoped teachers would provide for parents, but also highlight the moral purpose behind the work they do. I hope I did. I will let you decide here, here, here, and here.
Risk should be grounded in research, be clearly communicated, and should benefit others.
There should always be a good ‘why’ behind what you do. I first began thinking about this when I saw Simon Sinek’s video titled Start with Why. Since then, it’s been a regular question I ask of myself and others. Research can and should be used to help us understand risk and change. I have most recently become fascinated by John Hattie and his use of effect size to help determine the effectiveness of what we do in schools.
After all, if we know that some of the things we do in school do not positively impact learning, can we afford to waste valuable time on them? If we know that things we aren’t doing can improve student learning, shouldn’t we look at that?
At a staggering effect size of 1.57, Collective Teacher Efficacy represents the teacher practice that research tells us has the most powerful effect on student learning. In basic terms, this refers to the collective belief a teaching staff has that what they do – their work towards intentionally fostering positive relationships and designing learning experiences that personalize the experience for each child – has the greatest impact on learning. This means shifting away from attributing student success to factors beyond our control, like when we make statements such as:
Well, if only _________ would attend more regularly!
__________ parents need to do more work with her at home!
If only this class was less distracted and gave more attention to the lesson, they’d actually learn something!
She’s at-risk … He’s ELL.
Well, they’re (school name here) students.
Well, you know the _________ family … what do you expect?
Read more here.
We need to keep reading, keep thinking, and keep evolving. Most important, we need to keep asking whether or not what we are doing has the impact we need for students.
Strong relationships are the foundation of a risk-taking learning community.
Strong relationships are foundational both personally and professionally – in and out of education. Don’t expect others to change and to risk if there is even the slightest chance of ridicule or having the axe dropped. Leaders are called to form genuine relationships of support, the sort of “got your back” type of support that will encourage colleagues to make the sometimes very hard admission that by changing, they could be more effective in their practice. I had the pleasure of meeting Lee Watanabe-Crockett some years ago and when the topic turned to change, he said something very profound that has never left me [paraphrased here]:
Pretty dramatic and a way of looking at change and risk like I hadn’t before. We know kids are resilient and if you’re like me, you could easily look back at your practice 5, 10, 20 years ago and consider the many ways you’d change what you did. I do this often. I believe and understand what I do today because of what I used to do. I was doing my best, but I didn’t know any better. Read one of my admission blogs here! The point is, I’ve been blessed in my relationships and learning communities to work with people who had my back, who didn’t judge, who encouraged me to keep learning and getting better because kids deserve it!
Oh, and one more important thing … you can’t fake caring. If you don’t genuinely care for people, they’ll figure it out. Your words and actions over a prolonged period of time provide a window into who you really are.
Risk, for the sake of risk, is not valuable. In education, we are tasked with some of the most important work in society. I love that I can say that! We take risks to change because school communities are in the battle of their lives; the battle to win back our students. If we keep doing what we’ve always been doing, we’ll continue to get what we’ve always gotten.
We can’t be satisfied watching the light of joy and excitement for learning gradually diminish in our students as they move through school. We can’t be satisfied with students surviving school, when what we really want is for them to thrive.
As my friend David Burns recently shared:
So, I simply ask, what are we going to do about that?
I would love to hear your thoughts, how you and your learning community embraces and supports risk-taking, and how you know what you are doing is making a difference! And remember…
I am a classroom teacher, not a principal, but every year I have the honour of nurturing a small learning community. With the new curriculum and new assessment practices… there has been a lot of talk about risk taking lately, and it has given me the opportunity to think about it.
I have realized that the biggest thing that holds me back from risk-taking is the fear of not being good enough: perfectionism problems. But what gives me impetus to take a risk, any risk at all in my personal or professional life, is giving myself permission to ‘not be that be that great, not be even close to perfect! Then I will go ahead happily and create all sorts of things… I try to share this AHAH with my students, modeling all sorts of mistakes as I go!
One thing that I realize in all this, is that I am but one small person in their lives, a drop in their total experiences. But that should not be discouraging to any of us from trying to make a difference. We as teachers, can create spaces where children feel safe. We can create opportunities. We can guide children to see their strengths. (See Michelle Borba’s book, Self-Esteem). When students have built a strong base of self-esteem, it is easier to take risks of any kind, personal or learning.
I feel pretty lucky to be an educator – to be with children, and to have a chance to make some kind of a difference. Just to share, I am a natural scaredy cat, and I was terrified to become a teacher, but now I am gladI tried and didn’t give up when times were pretty tough.
Lately, I am realizing more and more how important risk taking is. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts on a subject that affects not only learning, but the well-being of all involved.
I appreciate this thoughtful response. Yours is the response a student might share. They are often afraid to share for fear their peers with mock or dismiss their ideas. Teachers are great at creating the conditions – the community – where it’s safe for students to share without fear. We need to create the same conditions for teachers and administrators. As I wrote, I wasn’t referring to risk without reason and thought. I was referring to the type of risk-taking I often see people wanting to engage in … based on their own research, based on wanting to improve their practice, based on wanting to try something they saw or read about.
This is the work we are all called to do – formal and informal leaders – to create the conditions for this risk-taking to take place.
As always I enjoy reading your blog. As a parent it gives me hope for the future of education and the commitment of those teaching today. This message resonates beyond the world of education to my work life and my life in general. Fear can be so debilitating. As I go forward soon to my new chapter in life- retirement, your message is so on target.
So great to hear from you and hope you and the whole family are doing well. Thanks for reading and always being so supportive. Agreed that risk and reward is (or should be) part of everyone’s life, both personally and professionally.