The 2019 National Principals Conference (NPC19), scheduled for July in Boston, is shaping up to be a particularly exciting event. This month, we offer a preview of what’s in store from three thought leaders who will be speaking at the annual meeting: George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, a consultant at Couros Innovations Ltd., and co-owner of IMPress Publishing; Tommy Welch, principal at Meadowcreek High School in the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Norcross, GA, who was named 2017 Georgia Principal of the Year and a 2018 National Principal of the Year finalist; and Tracey Wilen, researcher and keynote speaker on the topics of technology, leadership, education, and careers who has authored 13 books, including Career Confusion and Digital Disruption. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion in February.

Levin-Epstein: What are the biggest challenges facing secondary school principals today?

Couros: For me, one of the biggest challenges, not just in the principalship but as an educator in general, is obviously an age-old issue—time. Seemingly, no matter where we were in our time of education, the amount of hours in a school day is basically the same, but the demands are going up and up on our principals and our teachers, and also our students. So, this is leading to, I think, a lot of issues with mental health, physical health. I think that some of the work that I do is trying to get people not necessarily to focus so much on lack of time, but how they use their time.

I think that’s one of the shifts that we’re really trying to get people to think differently about. Not only within the school, but also helping people think differently about how they look at and take care of their physical health, their mental health, and making sure that they create time for things that are meaningful outside of education. I think those lead to better leaders and better teaching and, honestly, to helping our students move forward in their lives, too. We don’t want to create a generation of workaholics in education. That’s something I really have been looking at quite a bit lately. I don’t know if I’d say it’s the biggest challenge, because I think every person, every individual, has different challenges based on their communities and their needs, but I do see it as something that’s trending all over.

Wilen: My perspective [as a higher education professor and a corporate executive] is that the biggest challenge is preparing students for future careers. First, there are more options than in the past. A student can pursue college, start their own business, work in the public or private sector, [or] join a startup or large corporation. As educators, we need to provide the foundation for whatever they pursue. Second, most of the jobs today and in the future have a technology component. Educators need to prepare students for a world of work that they themselves may not understand. Third, the skills required for modern-day jobs and careers have changed. Students need to have hard skills, soft skills, be adept with technology, and be able to solve problems and create solutions while working with advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart machines, Internet of Things (IoT), immersive technologies, etc.

We have to somehow teach our students continuous learning, skill development, and consistent inquiry. That is very different from the past, where we’ve taught very structured curriculum for a predictable employment outcome. George mentioned leadership. That’s an expectation by employers that employees entering the workforce have leadership, particularly women, and teaming skills. I really hand it to principals who are trying to face these challenges in real time.

Couros: I really appreciate Tracey’s focus. I think it actually ties in quite significantly to what I just shared. I think that we are in this situation where we still have a lot of schools trying to micromanage, when we actually have to be giving ownership more to students, more to our staff, and let them figure out some of their own paths and some of their own purpose. As Tracey was saying, we’re trying to help our students find their own way. There’s no better way to do that than by giving them opportunities within school.

I think if we want to lessen some of the pressures of principals, of teachers, we have to be willing to give up ownership, which, ultimately, is not about letting kids do whatever they want, but helping kids find their own way. That’s why I have a massive focus on the notions of empowerments in schools and how crucial that is. I think it ties in beautifully to what Tracey is saying and what we’re hoping for our students.

Welch: The biggest issues I see for educators today are school funding, school safety, curriculum, and assessment. Especially for the secondary principal, I believe the issues of curriculum, assessment, and school safety are at the forefront of every high school principal’s mind. The expectations regarding assessment and curriculum have changed dramatically over the last 10 years within high school, and based upon a school’s region, the schoolhouse’s ability to keep up with the technology requirements and curriculum changes can become a challenge.

Imagine making the technology changes required for adequate testing with the same technological infrastructure as 10 years ago, or implementing STEM, STEAM, biochemistry, or artificial intelligence classes with a traditionally trained and certified teacher. These are principals’ challenges, and they lead their communities and students to success through creative and innovative ways to solve these challenges.

The challenge of school safety has occupied the minds and hearts of many principals and community members. Everyone expects that the priority of schools should revolve around teaching and learning, yet when the basic need of safety in schools is challenged within our communities, schools respond. Principals understand that if students don’t feel safe at school, achievement suffers. Across America we have witnessed local schools collaborate with major stakeholders and first responders. As principals know, it is the paramount duty of everyone within the community to help create safe learning spaces.

Reforming Education

Levin-Epstein: What do you consider the most important area in need of reform in education today?

Couros: I know that many people look at standardized tests and that schools are constantly being measured without having the ability to grow. One of my favorite quotes—I don’t know who to give credit to—is, “You can’t fatten a pig by constantly weighing it.” I know that this is something that schools talk about quite often in my travels and consulting with them, and one of the things that I try to get people to focus on is that standardized tests are one thing when they’re coming from the government, but are our schools and our districts overtesting our kids to prepare them for a standardized test that comes from their state?

I think we have to emphasize more focus on learning and understanding that there can be some really incredible, deep learning and innovative teaching that happens in schools that still tie in to curriculum. Obviously we can’t just ignore those things, because that’s ultimately part of our job. But how do you connect innovation and curriculum in the way that we teach and learn, as opposed to separating the two? Yes, we know that these items are an issue and it’s something that has been ongoing for several years, but this is why the focus on innovation inside the box is really crucial. We identify the constraints that we have, identify some of the issues that we see; then, how do we still make incredible things happen inside of those constraints?

Wilen: I discuss in my book Digital Disruption the frustration of company leaders who feel students are not prepared to work and innovate in today’s competitive environment. Because of this, companies are trying to close the growing skills gap. Oracle [Corp.], for example, built a high school Silicon Valley campus to prepare students for the future of work in a technology-based world. I was in San Antonio, and Toyota has made a significant investment in schools and robotics to prepare students for local jobs and to close skill gaps. Cisco Systems has a long history of developing curriculum to prepare students for networking, IT, IoT, and security careers. As an educator, I feel my role has been to expose students to the opportunities and realities of future work. People are living longer and will be working longer, and we need to make sure we build a foundation so that students will be prepared.

Welch: School funding is a concern throughout the nation. Wilen makes some valid points about the private sector becoming more involved with local schools to inspire innovation and offset district cost. The changing curriculum and communities’ requests for innovation have created expenses that are not typical for a system designed to predict expenditures per student two years in advance. Bureaucracy is attached to school funding, which can—at times—create barriers.

Successful school leaders master the navigation of bureaucracy to ensure their community and students are considered when important decisions are made under the gold dome capitol of each state. Teacher pay, per-pupil funding, and mental health have been issues across the nation mentioned by our elected officials as areas of concern; it’s up to us to properly advise and move forward the agenda items to support our youth.

Justice and Equity

Levin-Epstein: What role can principals play in instructing students on equity and justice issues?

Couros: When we talk about equity in schools, one of the things that I really try to get people to focus on is this: Are we creating equity at the highest levels or at the lowest levels? Making sure that all of our students have opportunities for high-quality learning—high-quality opportunities that maybe are not necessarily only inside the classroom—is something that we focus on. For example, when I talk about equity at the highest levels, one of the things that I always share is we have a lot of schools where kids come in to school and maybe they don’t have access to devices. It’s similar to kids not having access to a library now—it’s just that the library is way bigger than anything we could have imagined as a child. So, what a lot of schools do is say, “Well, we have kids in our school that don’t have access to these things, that don’t bring these to school, and we have kids that do. We don’t want to identify the haves and the have-nots—what we’re going to do is we’re not going to allow anyone to bring these things within our schools.”

With the shift in learning, you’re creating equity in that conversation, but you’re creating equity at the lowest level possible. What we should be doing is saying, “Look, we have some kids who don’t have access to these things, and we have some kids who do. So, we have to figure out a way for kids to have access to all of this so that we create the same opportunities for all of our kids throughout our school.” That’s something that, when we look at the conversation on equity within schools, we want to make that sure we’re creating it at the highest levels, that all of our students are getting high-level opportunities to get teaching and learning and those extracurricular opportunities within our schools.

Wilen: As a researcher, higher education professor, and Silicon Valley executive, I feel that technology is a way that we can provide more access and connect students to resources that are not available in the classroom. This is the reality of how working adults continuously learn today. There is digital content that is available today for teachers and websites where students can augment what they learn in school. In terms of equity, the principal needs to set the tone, be a role model, and hire the best faculty to ensure every student is treated fairly.

Welch: We have a responsibility to provide equity of instruction within a schoolhouse. The No. 1 responsibility of a school principal as the instructional leader is to decrease the variability of instructional quality within the building. That task in itself is an equity and justice issue. Through our actions as principals, if we allow a school to have a “tale of two schools” under one roof, we are perpetuating injustice and indirectly teaching it as a social norm to our students. Civics lessons involving justice and equity are intertwined into social studies curricula across the nation. As a school leader, empowering our students through civic engagement activities and culturally relevant material is seen at times as innovative and forward-thinking, but I contend our primary responsibility is to create empowered thinkers who will become productive citizens.

Engaging Parents

Levin-Epstein: What can principals do to better to engage parents?

Couros: One of the things I’ve done in the past, and I know has been really successful, is having parents actually involved in professional learning days—not only parents but inviting students as well. Learning looks a lot different from the time that many of us went to school, and you’re getting a lot of pushback. One of the biggest misconceptions is that parents want it the way they had it in school for their own children. I don’t believe that’s true. What parents want is what’s best for their children, but they don’t necessarily know any other experiences than their own.

Inviting parents into professional learning days, and having our community truly have a voice in it, not only creates a different accountability for all of us on what’s happening in our schools, it gets us to really think deeply on what teaching and learning look like in our schools and classrooms. These parents now become advocates for you. When we look at schools, we don’t necessarily have parents asking educators about the quality of school; we have parents asking other parents. So, I have to think that when we have them more in the process of teaching and learning, not only on those professional learning days—obviously other aspects as well—[the concepts hit home].

I’ve seen very few parents receive the opportunity to work directly with schools to develop an understanding of how learning is shifting within our schools and how the opportunities our kids have for learning in our schools today is so much better than what we had as kids. I think when we include parents and students in the process, they become our biggest advocates for meaningful changes in education.

Wilen: My view is that parents are critical to the outcomes of students. Parents have to have skin in the game, more than sports activities. Learning doesn’t stop in the classroom; it doesn’t stop with the teacher. Parents really have to be involved, as George talks about; they need to be brought into the picture. I am frustrated when I meet parents who don’t engage with their student’s academic activities or [who don’t] expose them to experiences, people, and options and wonder why their students aren’t excelling at the rate of other students whose parents are very involved. To me, learning is 24/7, and it starts at home. It might move into a classroom or some other environment, but then it continues at home.

Parents are absolutely critical. I share an anecdote in the book Career Confusion: “Jack’s parents told him to aggressively pursue sports and grammar in high school so that he could be eligible for a college sports scholarship. Jill’s parents told her to pursue math and science, volunteer for community projects, and pursue company internships. Today, Jack is a high school soccer coach. He was injured in his junior year of high school and could not continue playing sports. Jill is an executive at a top high-profile technology firm.”

Welch: Principals are partners in education and should be treated as the most important partner. Connecting with parents begins with reaching each parent in their comfort zone. To do this, principals have to become familiar with the community and their parents. Reaching parents in their comfort zone creates a foundation of trust; that is paramount when we have critical conversations about teaching and learning beyond the classroom. Over my years, the best connections have come when the parents truly know and feel the principal is a partner in helping the student and parent accomplish their goal.

Social Media’s Influence

Levin-Epstein: Has the use of social media by students gotten out of control? If so, what can be done about that?

Couros: I think that, obviously, in some cases it has, and in some cases it hasn’t. I think what we control within our schools is really important. One of the things that I’ve seen schools do for years and years and years that I’ve really struggled with is they will have someone come in to talk about social media to their students, and all they will do is talk about the negatives. They’ll talk about cyberbullying, they’ll talk about this bad thing, how this can ruin your life, etc., and if we really look at our students, many of them are much more savvy than the people presenting those conversations. So, what I’ve focused on for years is the notion of digital leadership, using social media in a way to positively impact the lives of others.

I think that if we start shifting the conversations—because I’m sure a lot of people reading this will say they’ve seen a lot of negative things that students have done with social media—but my question to them would be, “Have you talked to students about this? Have you been proactive about the process? If you have been proactive, have you only focused on the negative aspects?” I think that what we’re doing when we’re having those conversations about all the negatives, we’re setting an extremely low bar for our students, that we’re just saying to them simply, “Don’t be horrible people,” as opposed to saying, “Hey—here’s some really positive ways you can actually use this.”

And starting at a young age with our kids so they have an understanding of this—not getting kids to sign up for Twitter accounts when they’re 5 years old—but highlighting and giving them examples of ways that people are using this in a positive way to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Social media gives you a voice that we’ve never had in any generation prior. So, we can solely focus on all the negative aspects, which are so easy to find, or we can focus on leading our kids to doing positive things, to making a positive impact, using this to collaborate with people, have better empathy and understanding of people and their situations around the world. I think that what we can control is how we present this and how we guide our kids and how we lead them to do something really positive. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to do in my work.

Wilen: I drew two checklists and asked myself, “What are the benefits of social media when it comes to education, and what are the risks that need to be addressed?” On the benefits, I see social media as a way for students—and teachers—to find outstanding role models, speakers, lecturers to bring into the classroom to discuss careers and connect the dots between what the students are learning and the positive outcomes and bring the future to life. The second benefit I see is both virtual and physical … it’s commonplace in the workplace. Social media put faces on names. As George mentioned, people can actually work in groups and use social media to share really good ideas and concepts and group teams and projects. That actually happens in real life at work—it might be behind a firewall, but it does happen. Social media concepts are integrated into real-time learning apps, so understanding how to use these tools successfully is useful.

On the negative side, there are rules of engagement. When I taught higher education classes, I always brought the librarian to the first class—to talk about the rules of engagement on how to research. What are the tools that are available? What are some of the risks of plagiarism? How do you determine what is a valid online source from a fake source? How do you search securely? In terms of social media, how to use the tools is important, such as security issues, poor uses of the tools, what is out-of-bounds behavior, when is social media not relevant to learning, etc.? There’s a positive to it, but we also have to be responsible in explaining what the risks are.

Social media apps will come and go, but some of them can be useful ways for students to meet unique role models who are doing interesting things that teachers can’t even imagine in jobs. We can connect students to great researchers, great scientists, and great role models at their favorite company, whether it be Apple Inc. or Activision Blizzard, so they can ask questions: “I want to be in the gaming industry; what subjects should I be focused on in school? Is it math and science, or is it history and art?” To me, there is so much benefit from it, but we just have to show the rules of engagement.

Welch: Social media has taken over many lives in the United States, including our students’. As a principal, I see it as a tool to increase the speed and span of communication. This tool is used for both good and bad information. School is a microcosm of society; therefore, we cannot just ignore social media, but instead we can teach positive strategies to engage with and use social media. Principals should embed technology etiquette, social media responsibility, and tech security within student leadership and character development classes.

Technology has evolved over the years, and we have adapted. We should not treat social media differently. I have learned to embrace the use of social media and become the positive Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat alert they receive while in class or at home. The movement of social media is here; I suggest we use it to connect with our students and make their screen time productive.