Leading with an Educator’s Mindset
Sitting criss-cross-applesauce with 19 pairs of Kindergarten eyes looking at me, I don’t think I would have believed someone if they told me that the same skills that made me a great teacher could also serve me as a vice president in a company with a thousand employees. In the classroom, I learned that every student’s future achievements were dependent upon not just the skills they were developing in the classroom, but also passions that would make them want to keep learning. What I know now, after 15 years leading teams of edtech professionals, is that instilling that same love of learning and discovery are also the goals of a great leader.
If I had to characterize what it looks like to lead with an educator’s mindset, there are three actionable traits that make both a great teacher and a great leader:
- Model Curiosity: We’re all learning, all the time. And, through your own experiences as a learner, you’ve probably found that when you are most engaged with a subject, you are asking questions and actively seeking out more information about the topic. As educators, we cultivate these behaviors in our youngest students by creating strategic provocations by modeling what it looks like to wonder out loud about something. For example, when students inquire about the backstory of characters in a book or when they start a thoughtful debate about a topic like the best kind of pet to own. As a leader, one of my goals is always to ensure that my team members feel ownership of the initiatives they are working on. Modeling curiosity is one of the best ways I can do this. When I ask open-ended questions with the goal of engaging in a dialogue, I give both myself and my team the opportunity to dig deeper and tackle a project with the ownership needed to ensure all angles are considered.
- Provide Guidance: Outside of the opportunities for direct and explicit instruction that exist in both school and business, the majority of learning and working is done with a reasonable level of independence. And that works well, as long as the expectations, goals, and relevant rules are communicated and understood. As an educator, this might look like giving out an assignment, circulating while students get to work to answer operational questions, and then conducting group instruction to provide more specific guidance on how to proceed based on students’ needs. As a leader, it often takes the form of setting aside dedicated time with team members to work through a specific challenge or dig deeper on a set of open questions. This helps them identify the next right step to take. In both cases, my job is not necessarily to dictate the outcome; rather, it’s to make sure that the goals and rules guiding the work remain clear and that decisions being made reflect the objective of the original assignment.
- Encourage Deep Thinking: “What are the pros and cons?” “What would happen if you tried that?” “What alternative would you suggest?” The educators among us will recognize those questions as great starting points for encouraging higher-order thinking: analysis, evaluation and creation of information. Those who have worked on high-functioning business teams will probably also find them to be familiar discussion starters with their colleagues and managers. I believe that critical discourse is a shared goal of learning and working successfully. Ultimately, we want our students and our teams to operate at a deep enough level to allow for the kind of discussion that leads to constant improvement. Asking questions that don’t have a single right answer and that require evidence and consideration to move the discussion forward, helps ensure that there are opportunities for reflection on the work being done.
It may not have been clear to me as I fielded the piercing questions of five-year-olds that I was laying the groundwork for a future in leadership; however, when I reflect on the hallmarks of my approach to engaging with my students and my team, I know there is even more we can learn from how educators run their classrooms. Leading with an educator’s mindset not only helps encourage strong, independent teams, but it also keeps us aligned with the needs of our community of educators – helping them feel seen, valued, and heard.