This article is a part of the Innovation to Change Education blog series, which is written by members of the Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative to provide educators with ideas and information for practical and innovative approaches to pedagogy and leadership.

By Greg Garner

During the 2014-2015 school year, 60 digital leaders from across the state were selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of the North Carolina Digital Leaders Coaching Network (NC-DLCN).  This group spent four face-to-face sessions learning strategies, discussing promising practices and exploring innovative ideas focused on digital learning and how to coach the teachers that they work with. While the purpose of these gatherings was for these leaders to learn and develop their skills, of course you always learn so much during the process of teaching others. Here are five lessons I learned trying to create a new kind of professional learning opportunity:

1. Change is HARD

This may not be rocket science or even revelatory, but it was seriously reinforced as we worked with leaders in various roles from around the state of North Carolina. Everyone has any number of ideas and initiatives for improving their schools, but there’s a stark difference between ideation and action. There were three things that really resonated to try and navigate the change process. First, you have to get the right people on the bus (to borrow from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”). Who are the people that need to be in your organization to move your vision forward and how can you get them on board? Second, you have to create a shared vision. If you’ve got the right people on the bus, the next step is to work with them to decide where you’re headed. Tech facilitators and media specialists learned to work with their teachers and administrators to craft a clear, specific direction. Third, HAVE FUN! Life is too short to not enjoy your successes along the way. Besides, it’s much easier to get your bystanders and naysayers engaged when they realize the enjoyment of making a positive difference on campus.

pllc blog callout12. Ask the Right Questions

School districts are obsessed with data collection. And for good reason. Data tells us where we have been, where we are now, and can help point us to where we need to go (see point number one about creating a shared vision). But we need to be strategic about the data we collect and the way we interpret it. It’s a huge waste of time to become data rich, but information poor. For example, it doesn’t do you much good to collect data on what websites teachers are using if you aren’t going to figure out a way to expand the usage, create new learning opportunities, or measure how it impacts learning. Our coaches drilled down and really dug into data, asking better questions than just a surface-level one-over might provide. Once you have data you can use and know the right questions to ask, you have to make the information actionable. Make a plan for how to move forward, but make sure your plan remains flexible. The data could change and your old plan could be rendered obsolete. Plans are important, but flexibility in those plans just might be more important.

3. You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader

This one is pretty straightforward: leadership only requires your willingness to step up and step out. If you want to lead, you already have everything you need to be a leader. Our coaches took this seriously and began rethinking their role on the campus. They realized they are leaders in digital instruction and have the opportunity to show the way for the teachers they work with. Often, leadership is about courage and possibly failing (in public!), which takes real vulnerability. The lesson here is that sometimes, the very lack of a leadership title puts you in a place to lead even more effectively, since you can fly under the radar (a bit, at least).

4. No Teacher is an Island

There is a lot of power in understanding that you are not alone and others are facing the same issues as you. It can be lonely to not have anyone to collaborate with, bounce ideas off of, or even just share experiences! We heard loud and clear that what we taught our coaches was important, but it was superseded by how we taught it. That is to say, getting like-role professionals in the same room was an invaluable experience. Break out of the echo chamber of your own thoughts and ideas, create some time to collaborate with your peers, and take advantage of the networks around you to improve your practice.

5. You’re Never Done Learning

pllc blog callout2Perhaps the most important, foundational truth that came out of our Digital Leaders Coaching Network is the idea that we must intentionally engage in a continuous cycle of learning, unlearning, collaborating, and iterating. We have to explore new ideas and not hold quite so tightly to things that might stand in the way of providing students with an education that meets their needs. As coaches, we have to model what we want to see in our classrooms. If you want to encourage teachers to innovate, we must be innovative. If you want to promote the growth mindset, have one. If you want them to have passion for learning then we must be inspiring. Five years from now, will you be better than you are today? And if the answer is “yes,” then ask yourself what you’re going to change to make that happen.

As we kick-off Cohort 2 of the NCDLCN, we are eager to keep learning, keep iterating, keep improving. This year, we’ve invited 75 coaches and mentors representing 40 districts from around the state of North Carolina to grow, connect, and lead. All told, tens of thousands of students stand to benefit, but only if we’re willing. Follow our learning at #NCDLCN.