Is your classroom the next Uber?

If I say the word startup, what image springs to mind?

You probably picture an open-air office full of twentysomething hipsters in sandals huddled around a whiteboard or laptops.

It’s easy to stereotype the startup “look.” But startup culture is about more than funky offices and millennial-era perks.

Startups pride themselves on risk-taking, innovation and adaptation, as well as the ability to respond quickly to customer and market demands.

The mindset has captivated the business world with the meteoric rise of companies such as Uber and Airbnb.

But business leaders aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the startup vibe. Schools would do well to adopt some of these traits as well, says startup and education advocate Jeff Hemmett.

In a talk at last year’s TedxWestVancouverED, Hemmett outlined why a strong startup culture could benefit schools, and help educators and students succeed in a world of perpetual change.

‘Classroom, Inc.’
Comparing America’s traditional education system to a tiny startup might seem impractical. But if you start to view each classroom as its own entity, you begin to realize that our schools are more nimble than we like to think.

Hemmett dubs this way of thinking, “Classroom, Inc.”

Instead of producing the next great social network, streaming platform, or online retailer, America’s classrooms create an even more valuable commodity: opportunity.

“Now, the kids in your classroom, they might not know what they want to be when they grow up,” Hemmett told a group of educators during his talk. “It could be a rockstar, could be a CEO, could be an activist. It doesn’t matter. Their opportunity to become any or all of these things comes from you.”

In the face of rapid, unpredictable change, it’s up to schools to provide new opportunities and avenues for students.

Staying lean and responsive
Large, blue-chip corporations are averse to change, says Hemmett. That’s because they’re not built to react quickly to disruption.

Startups, on the other hand, are lean and responsive. They challenge each employee to cultivate that elusive entrepreneurial spirit and they give people the freedom to learn and build on their own, or in collaboration with others.

This is why startups attract the best talent in the world, Hemmett says.

Attracting great talent is a challenge education faces every day, along with developing leadership, creating a unified vision, and navigating a complex maze of human emotion and interaction.

Talk the talk
Speed and adaptability are great, but they don’t mean a thing absent the ability to forecast and react to reliable data. That’s why startups put so much effort into gathering feedback from customers and users.

Take Uber for example. A large part of the company’s business model is based on one simple, but effective premise: riders provide feedback on drivers, drivers provide feedback on riders. The company uses this feedback to hone and perfect its services, and to keep customers coming back.

In an era of increased competition, where students and families can choose to ditch traditional public schools for alternative options on a whim, the power of feedback and the importance of listening to parents’ and students’ concerns is more important than ever.

For more on the startup culture in schools, check out Hemmett’s full Tedx talk below:

What ways might your school or district consider adopting a startup culture to stay ahead of changes in learning culture? Tell us in the comments.

Want to encourage greater collaboration in your schools? Here’s one way to get students and parents engaged in a conversation about real change.

3 ways to be a more charismatic school leader

For education leaders, the challenge of rallying different groups, from board members to staff to faculty to students to parents toward a single purpose is no small feat.

Success requires more than good management or organizational skills. Some would say it also requires charisma, that intangible something that so many good leaders have.

But where does charisma come from?

“Many people hold the false belief that charisma is something you’re born with, a trait that cannot be developed or cultivated,” writes author and business expert Chris Myers in Forbes. “In reality, anyone can learn to cultivate charisma, motivate their team, and become a more influential leader.”

Myers suggests that effective leadership is a talent that needs to be cultivated and worked on. The best leaders succeed because they constantly assess their skills, understand their weaknesses, and address gaps in their approach.

He offers three steps for leaders to foster charisma.

Though the article is written with the boardroom set in mind, school leaders too can use these tips to build consensus in their communities.

Confidence is key
“I’ve learned that charisma and confidence go hand-in-hand, and neither can be faked,” writes Myers.

Without confidence, it’s hard to sell others on your idea, he says.

Do not confuse confidence with arrogance. Confidence comes from being secure in your understanding of problems and from leveraging what you know to develop solutions.

Confident leaders understand what they know and learn about what they don’t, writes Myers. That’s why the best leaders are not afraid to gather feedback, or to change course when they encounter a better idea.

They also make sure that their constituents understand their strategy before they implement it.

For school leaders, openness is the best policy. Not everyone will agree with your approach upfront, but they will appreciate your efforts to keep them informed and engaged in the decision-making process.

Body language and tone matter
Sometimes success depends as much on how you carry yourself as what you say.

“Charismatic people are naturally magnetic and attract others into their orbit,” writes Myers. “Warm smiles, good posture, and a quickness of motion all help to make people feel energized, safe, and happy.”

How often do you walk the hallways? Do you meet personally with students and teachers and ask them about the challenges they face? How often do you meet with parents and other community members?

Tone matters too.

Is your messaging dry and overly formal, or do you find ways to let your personality and charisma come through?

Temperature is equally important
Myers adds that real charisma requires warmth and compassion.

Such qualities simply cannot be faked.

As a leader, do you make an effort to get out into your community? What steps do you take to show parents and students and others how much you care?

You might not always make the most popular decision. The key is for your community to both see and to feel how much you care. And charisma can play a big role in that.

How have you sought to develop charisma in your job as a school leader? Tell us in the comments.

Want to be more accessible to the members of your school community? One way is to ask for their feedback.

How to connect teachers with the communities they serve

In most rural and suburban schools, students are taught by teachers who have similar experiences to themselves.

Many of these teachers went to the same or similar schools, live in the same communities, and hail from comparable socio-economic backgrounds.

But that’s not often the case when it comes to inner-city education.

By now,  you’ve heard about the horrendous attrition rates in underserved urban school communities, especially when it comes to those hard-to-keep first-year teachers.

Their reasons for leaving run the gamut from higher-paying job opportunities elsewhere to high levels of stress in urban education environments.

But most experts attribute the annual exodus of new urban school teachers to one unshakeable reality: most of them simply are not physically or emotionally invested in the communities they serve.

While children of color account for more than half of the students in America’s public schools, just 18 percent of public K12 teachers are people of color, according to a recent Brookings Institution report. This contrast is especially stark in urban schools where poor students of color are often served by first-time teachers, many of whom are predominantly young, white, and from middle- or higher-class backgrounds.

This difference in background, and culture, often creates a dissonance that is difficult to bridge.

Change in the Windy City
In Chicago, one program is working to change that trend.

The Step Up program offers teaching students from Illinois State University the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the communities they hope to serve as teachers upon graduation.

The program pairs 21 aspiring teacher fellows with host families in four of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. For four weeks, these fellows assist in classroom environments in those communities, volunteer with community service organizations, and take classes and seminars on culture and teaching approaches in that area.

The ultimate goal is to put some teeth into the “cultural competence” requirements embedded in many university teaching programs, and to instill in aspiring teachers a commitment to the communities they serve.

The idea is to teach fellows “not to have the savior mentality,” one host dad, Tony Velazco, said in a recent Education Week and PBS News\Hour report (watch below). “They’re not coming in to save people. They’re coming in to be part of the community and they really have to know where the kids are coming from in order to teach them better. To reach them. To inspire them.”

For more about the Step Up program, check out this full video report from Ed Week and the PBS NewsHour:

So, what’s the next step?
Start with a question: Will this approach and others like it help more teachers take jobs and stay longer in urban schools?

So far, the answer seems to be yes. Step Up reports that more than 80 percent of fellows are still in the classroom beyond the five-year mark.

If you’re having trouble with teacher-community engagement, getting your teachers in a full-immersion program might not be feasible. But you can encourage engagement through on-going dialogues between teachers and the students and families they serve.

How do you actively promote teacher-community engagement in your schools or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to help your teachers develop a deeper sense of engagement and connection with your school community? Here’s one way to get the ball rolling.

15 years on, teaching about 9/11 still isn’t easy

It’s exactly 15 years later—and the memory is still etched in my brain.

I was standing by my high school locker waiting for the bell to ring for my fourth-period sophomore English class. A classmate walked by and mentioned that a plane had crashed into a building in New York.

I walked into my class. There, I saw my teacher, and dozens of my classmates, huddled and standing around the television.

Plumes of black smoke rose from the twin towers. It didn’t take long for us to understand that we were witness to something terrible—even if we didn’t know exactly what. We watched for another 30 minutes, until our principal ordered our teacher to turn off the TV.

Most of us have similar “where I was when” stories about September 11, 2001. The tragic events of that day have redefined the modern world, changed history and politics, and ignited still-raging debates over national security and the meaning of freedom. How could we possibly forget that moment when everything changed?

But today’s students don’t have those same recollections.

To most of them, 9/11 is a historical event that happened either before they were born or before they were old enough to remember. For educators, trying to teach 9/11 as history presents challenges, especially considering how fresh the events are in so many of our minds.

That reality has prompted important discussions about how to develop curriculum that both honors the memory of those lost and presents students with historical facts about the cause of the tragedy and its geopolitical aftermath.

Honoring the memory, teaching the history
While many states have written and approved lessons about the 9/11 attacks, most do not mandate them. In many cases, teachers are left to develop curricula around the event on their own—and the approaches vary.

“I don’t think there’s a school system that has said ‘We’re going to focus on this,” New Jersey teacher Colleen Tambuscio told USA Today in a recent article. “I think what has happened in New Jersey—we’ve had moments of silence; we’ve had commemorative acts that were important. But now we should be getting into the educational piece, where we’re doing more with the education. That’s the trajectory.”

Tambuscio developed a 9/11 curriculum for her high school that touches on the political and religious causes and influences that surround the tragedy, such as the history of Islamic extremism, privacy debates, economic effects of the attacks, and more.

At the same time, given their age, many students have not talked about the events of 9/11 at home or in elementary or middle school, according to USA Today. To the contrary, for many adults, the emotions are still too raw and the lessons too difficult to discern.

Starting a community dialogue
Given these challenges, how can your schools identify sensitive ways to both remember and teach 9/11?

Asking your community for advice is a good first step.

The lessons and meanings of 9/11 are different for everyone—who they knew, what they do for a living, where they were. Because of this, everyone has different ideas about how to focus curricula around the event.

For some community members, the idea of teaching 9/11 in a historical context raises emotions—and, to some extent, controversy. That’s why engaging them in the planning process is so important.

Of course, the responsibility rests with you and with your staff to actually teach the history.

As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11, let’s think about the important conversations we need to have in our schools, how times have changed since, and identify the best ways to remember and to teach the tragic events of that day.

Embracing solutions to fight negativity

In a perfect world, every school leader would make the right choices for students and families. And the only feedback we’d ever receive is praise.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. And, more often than not, the feedback we receive from staff and community members comes in some form other than praise. Not that we don’t receive praise. But, you know what they say about complaints…

Fortunately, negative feedback isn’t always a bad thing.

Oftentimes, it illustrates where we’ve gone wrong, what students, parents, and teachers think we’re overlooking, and how we can improve.

The problem is that not all feedback is constructive.

If you’ve worked in schools for any amount of time, chances are you’ve bumped into a community member whose feedback is consistently negative, and who, for whatever reason, isn’t interested in finding a solution.

When you do hear from stakeholders with this kind of reputation, the default reaction is sometimes to dismiss their feedback, or ignore it entirely.

But that’s not always a good idea, writes former principal and education leader Eric Sheninger. While it’s easy enough to ignore consistently negative feedback, Sheninger says it’s better if you work to turn naysayers into positive contributors.

Of course, getting people to change isn’t always easy. But it can be done, says Sheninger. He offers this approach.

Force solutions
“The secret to dealing with negative people is to make them part of the solution by not allowing them to continually be part of the problem,” writes Sheninger on his blog. “Giving up on these people is not an option.”

In the same way that the squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, the loudest complainers usually get the most attention. Add social media to the mix and the drumbeat of negativity can often drown out meaningful conversations about productive solutions.

To the contrary, when dealing with negative comments from parents or from staff, Sheninger recommends positive reinforcement, stronger professional development and training, more time and resources allocated specifically to resolving issues, and encouraging feedback. Though he acknowledges that attempting to train away negativity rarely works.

Instead, Sheninger offers a simpler solution, inspired by Jon Gordon’s book The No Complaining Rule. The idea: for every potential complaint that hits your inbox, ask the complainer to propose two solutions.

As a principal, Sheninger implemented this idea with his staff: “As leaders we must create the conditions for staff to be honest and open about professional issues,” he writes in a description of his approach. “We must then encourage and sometimes challenge them to share practical solutions to the problem and listen intently.”

Incubate solutions
It’s easy enough to require teachers and staff members to proffer solutions as a matter of policy, it’s harder to encourage this type of exchange among community members, such as parents.

But not impossible.

By setting ground rules online and in public meetings, you can begin to encourage the members of your community to listen to each other and to engage in conversations about solutions, not problems.

If your social media accounts, email inboxes, online forums, or in-person meetings have become veritable dumping grounds for complaints, it’s not too late to transform these forums into solutions incubators.

Have you thought about a solution-only twitter hashtag or live chat, for example? What about a mandatory field on your next school climate or parent or staff engagement survey that asks respondents to provide open-ended answers, including potential solutions to defined problems in your schools?

What steps do you take as a leader to acknowledge staff and community members alike when they contribute to solutions in your schools?

Whatever your approach, it’s important to encourage constructive conversations around viable solutions. Let your community know you’re listening to their thoughts and that you are actively using their ideas to inform your decisions.

Looking for a better way to start a productive, solutions-driven conversation with the members of your school community? Here’s one way to start that conversation.

Is this the end of homework as we know it?

Homework: It’s been the bane of students’ existence since…forever.

As a kid, how many times did you ask to go out and play only to be met with this question from your parents:

“Did you do your homework?”

Homework has long been viewed as a frustrating but necessary part of the school experience.

Now, that thinking may be changing.

Just ask second-grade teacher Brandy Young. When Young sent a note to parents’ of her second-grade students advising them that she would not be assigning homework this school year, the note set the internet abuzz.

Young’s homework policy has shone a light on a long-simmering debate about homework in the nation’s K12 schools.

As a new school year kicks off, it’s a discussion you’ll want to have with parents and students. Here’s why.

The jury’s still out on homework
Young’s short note to parents was written for “Meet-the-Teacher” night in her small Texas school.

“Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” wrote Young to parents. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

What research does Young reference in her letter?  She doesn’t specifically say.

Homework used to be viewed as a tool to reinforce concepts taught during the school day. If practice makes perfect, the thinking was that homework made good sense.

But more recent research says after-school practice is best in moderation, if at all.

A recent Washington Post report cites a study from the Center for Public Education. That study found that homework doesn’t necessarily correlate to higher student achievement.

“The central lesson of this body of research is that homework is not a strategy that works for all children,” the report’s authors state. “Because of its possible negative effects of decreasing students’ motivation and interest, thereby indirectly impairing performance, homework should be assigned judiciously and moderately.”

According to the New York Times, leading education advocacy groups such as the National PTA and the National Education Association promote a 10-minute per grade level policy. In other words, first graders shouldn’t receive more than 10 minutes of homework per night. Comparably, high school seniors shouldn’t receive more than two hours of homework per night.

A growing number of parents and teachers agree that there is such a thing as too much homework. A Facebook post of Young’s note to parents garnered more than 73,000 shares in more than two weeks. Most of the comments were in support of her policy.

The debate continues
Young’s note has reignited a debate that’s been brewing in education circles, on blogs, and in discussion forums for years.

When it comes to homework, everyone seems to have an opinion.

As a new school year begins, chances are you’ll have similar discussions with parents and others at your schools.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to engage your community in important conversations. Empower students, parents, and staff to contribute to your decision-making—and draft a homework policy that works for your community.

What steps are you taking to engage parents, students, and teachers about homework in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for an easy way to collect feedback from your school community? Here’s one solution that can help right away.