Disrupting Education: Unlocking Your School’s Potential

Shape your school’s culture by modeling risk-taking and developing innovative ways to disrupt the practices that no longer serve your school, staff, and students.

Topics: Professional Development, School Culture and Climate

The field of public education is about a decade behind the private sector in terms of innovation, said Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, to a room full of leaders in education during his virtual general session speech at the 2022 NAESP Pre-K–8 Principals Conference in Louisville this past July. This comes as no surprise. Even prior to the pandemic, schools recognized the need to develop their portrait of the graduate, define and integrate 21st-century skills, and “disrupt” the traditional practices that have stymied student growth. What practices no longer serve us (our students!) well?

Defining Disruption

Jeff Schagrin and James Roscoe, cofounders of disruptionEDU, an organization that seeks to create moments that shift the paradigm to push education forward, frame disruption positively, as a way to question the status quo with the goal of unlocking potential within our schools.

Schagrin and Roscoe, who presented “Disruption Starts on Day 1” at the NAESP conference, share their three core beliefs about education:

  1. Education won’t change if leadership doesn’t change.
  2. School leaders should follow the Lead to Fail model daily.
  3. Be humble, be vulnerable, and be prideful. Culture is the foundation of change.

Shaping School Culture

As schools integrate professional development (PD) with staff, consider priorities. According to Schagrin and Roscoe, it’s imperative to build energy and excitement for the first day of school—but don’t let it stop there.

They shared personal experiences from the past few years that have led to the overwhelmingly positive school climate at Grayslake North High School in Illinois, starting with this: Every moment of every day, school leaders work on culture through every interaction they have with staff.

“Every interaction you have, you are either adding to your culture or taking away from it,” they said during their session.

As positive interactions build over time, a supportive relationship is built. Referencing the Moments Matter by Dave Sanderson, Schagrin emphasized that every moment and every interaction molds your relationship with that person, and ultimately, it carries over into a strong school climate. When challenges arise (hello, global pandemic!) you have a strong foundation to move the proverbial big rocks.

“School culture is the elasticity that allows a school to grow and stretch,” and this has never been more evident than in the past three years.

On a whole-school level, a yearly message helps unite the school with a common theme. In previous years, their school messages have included “Moments Matter,” “Making Connections,” and “Educators Are Superheroes!” These messages serve as a catalyst for everything else throughout the year and enhance a positive school culture. What’s your message to unite your school?

Modeling Risk-Taking

When leaders model innovation and risk-taking, it gives teachers the freedom and permission to do the same in their classrooms. Truly, we need to model what we expect to see as instructional leaders. Schagrin and Roscoe shared experiences from Grayslake North to showcase some of their risks as they intentionally modeled risk-taking.

To disrupt the traditional direct instruction-style professional days of staff sitting in the library or lecture hall, Schagrin and Roscoe created an Amazing Race challenge. They developed this digital scavenger hunt using the platform Goosechase and divided staff into heterogeneous teams, including support staff, paraprofessionals, and lunch and hallway monitors, in a conscious effort to make this an all-inclusive experience.

Staff participated in team challenges beginning at this PD session, but their challenges continued throughout the year each quarter, with other staff also creating challenges. As the year progressed, teams continued to complete missions to keep this momentum going.

Missions included a food drive and “chalk it forward” messages written on student driveways during the pandemic. Is this a huge risk, considering all of the priorities schools must balance in the negligible amount of time devoted to professional development? Yes! Could multiple things have gone wrong? Yep. But the benefits of collaboration, team building, and fostering a strong culture outweighed the challenges as Schagrin and Roscoe took the lead by modeling risk-taking.

As a result, they have experienced the trickle-down effect. Teachers and even students have taken more risks. Several teachers used Goosechase with their students; students have also gotten involved by creating missions for staff, like the mannequin challenge. Teachers have felt more comfortable piloting new strategies with students or trying more unconventional lessons.

Ultimately, the risk taking by leadership has resulted in more risk taking from staff. Practice what you preach, and your school community will reap the rewards.

Jennifer DeRagon is principal of George Hersey Robertson School in Coventry, Connecticut.