Let's #ShadowaStudent and #ShadowaTeacher


It’s time once again to #ShadowaStudent (runs February 19- March 2).  Shadow a Student was started by School Retool, a professional development fellowship supported by IDEO that helps school leaders redesign their school culture.  This is the 3rd consecutive year of this campaign, where over 5,000 educators have now cleared their calendars for the day and spent it immersed in the school lives of their students.  The goal is to use the information gained from the day to improve the learning experiences for students.

The first time I intentionally shadowed a student was on the first day of a new school year.  I thought it would be interesting to view the “back-to-school” excitement through the students’ eyes.  As a student I had participated in plenty of first days and yet, I was in no way prepared for the reality or the boredom of what I experienced.  I was shadowing an eighth grade student in a traditional middle school setting with a seven period day.  The welcome back excitement from the students arriving at school, carried into the first period class where there was a quick “get to know you activity” followed by rules, syllabus and expectations.  It was very teacher centric, with little engagement or participation from the students.  The class went by fairly quickly but then I realized I would likely be repeating this same class structure six more times in different content areas.  Ugh—my heart sank and by period four I was bored beyond belief.  I found it hard to muster enthusiasm in any of the classes.  What a perfect opportunity for a redesigned experience and one that, unless you look at it through the eyes of the student may not be apparent.

Shadowing a student is a very powerful experience, so powerful that it made me also think about the potential impact of shadowing a teacher.  What would it look like for school leaders, principals or assistant principals, to shadow a teacher for a day?  What might we learn?  Teachers can be critical of school leaders that we have forgotten what it is like to be in a classroom, maybe this would be a way to reconnect with the teaching experience.  Who’s in?  I’d love to hear about your experience whether you #ShadowaStudent or #ShadowaTeaccher!

Make sure to #shareyourlearning!

Lead by Design, Not Default

5 Questions to Define Your Personal Leadership Brand

5 Questions to Define Your Personal Leadership Brand

Have you ever felt like you were operating on autopilot at work?  I have.  At one point, I was working as an elementary principal of a k-6 school and every day my morning routine, barring any emergency, was the same. I would get to school early, check my email, calendar, and subs for the day, stop in the teachers’ lounge and then head out to greet students/families as they arrived at school. It wasn’t a bad routine, in fact, there is a lot to celebrate here, but it had become so automatic it started to lose its’ luster.  I was caught in a “rinse, lather, repeat” cycle and I was no longer clear on why this had become my routine in the first place. I was leading by default. It was time to shake things up. Is it time for you to shake up and redesign how you lead?

The exciting part is that anything that has been designed can be redesigned.  Anything at any time can be redesigned.  We can choose to lead by design, or we can let inertia have it’s way, stay on autopilot and lead by default.  Let’s be honest, leading by default is the easy option. You can do what has always been done, but is that why you chose to be a leader?  I’m guessing not.  I’m guessing you chose to be a leader to make a difference, improve learning and make a big impact on the future of our world.  If so, choose to lead like a designer.

Leading like a designer means not accepting the default options in leadership or in life.  Here is a fun example to think about.  Adam Wharton, author of Originals: How NonConformists Move the World, uncovered insights about what your web browser says about you. When you purchase a computer, it comes with a default browser installed: Internet Explorer if you own a PC, Safari if you own a Mac. The actual browser you use doesn’t matter; what does matter is how you acquired it. Sixty-seven percent of computer users stick with the default browser without ever questioning whether or not there is a better option. They just assume they are stuck with what they have. Those who select and download Chrome or Firefox display initiative and take steps to personalize their browsing experience. Choosing the default system is certainly easier. It is a stance that says, “The world is supposed to be this way; therefore, I don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.” This default stance also keeps us from considering alternative and, in many cases, better solutions. What are the default settings of your leadership or at your school?

If you don’t want to be a part of the majority who choose default settings, here are five questions to ask yourself that will help you lead more intentionally by design.

  1. What is my leadership mindset? (What are your values? How do these influence your mindset and your work?)

  2. How do I want others to experience me as a leader? (How do you want to make others feel? Is it clear who you are (and who you are not?)

  3. Who do I want to model my leadership after? (Who inspires you?  How can you surround yourself with leaders who inspire you?)

  4. How will I cultivate meaningful relationships as a leader? (What actions will you take to build relationships?  With whom do you need to build stronger relationships?)

  5. How do I want to change and grow as a leader? (What areas of curiosity will you dive into? How will you evolve over time?)

Answering these five questions will help you begin to design how you lead and create your own personal brand of leadership.  How you lead can be different from other principals, superintendents that came before you.  It can be different from your colleagues or how educational leaders are portrayed in the media. You do not need to be like the sixty-seven percent of people who accept the default settings of life.  I’m convinced together we can redesign the role of educational leaders and create a system where all leaders are leading by design rather than default.

Leader as Designer


Last year brought innovation and some pretty cool new inventions to a lot of industries, yet we still see very little innovation or large-scale change in education. We continue to face many of the same problems we have been facing for years—problems of equity, achievement gaps, outdated instructional practices and lack of funding just to name a few.  As I ponder the problems and solutions we’ve collectively tried, I am convinced it’s time to more widely embrace design thinking and mindsets of designers in education.

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that is human-centered, possibility driven and iterative.  Engaging stakeholders in design thinking has the potential to bring something new to the conversation.  Many businesses have accepted design thinking as a practice to solve their “wickedest problems” with great success. Our problems in education tend to be bigger, messier and in at least my opinion, the outcomes matter more. We aren’t just focused on improving the bottom line or designing a new product, we are focused on designing a better future for our world. Embracing design thinking can help us approach this work differently.

In order for the world of education to fully utilize design thinking, we need leaders who are able to embrace new mindsets and incorporate design principles into their leadership. Leaders who understand the importance of empathy in their work, leaders who are willing to question the status quo, take bold risks, and constantly iterate in pursuit of what is best for students.  It’s time for education to embrace “leader as designer.”  Why designer?

  • Designers love problems.  But even more, they love starting with people who are impacted by the problem.  They ground themselves in empathy and are clear for whom they are designing.

  • Designers love questions. They are curious and constantly questioning the way the world works.  Good designers not only ask a lot of questions, they reframe questions to allow space for new insights and ideas.

  • Designers embrace ambiguity.  They see that they are multiple possible solutions and there isn’t one perfect answer or solution, so they embrace “better over best.” They know the first idea is unlikely the best idea, so they stay in the dark a little longer playing with lots of ideas and possibilities.

  • Designers build to learn.  They don’t just live in theory and think about the future or solutions.  They acknowledge the impossibility of knowing what will work without trying it, so they actively build prototypes with a transparency and feedback loop that allows for quick iterations.

Education desperately needs leaders who can lead like designers.  While researching our upcoming book, Design Thinking for School Leaders: 5 Mindsets & Mindsets that Ignite Positive Change (coming May 2018) we were especially interested in researching leaders who were using the mindsets and habits of designers to impact change.  

Our working theory was that leaders who have embraced these mindsets are able to impact greater change more quickly than leaders who are working with more traditional educational leadership mindsets. We identified common mindsets that these “Design Inspired Leaders” have and believe any leader can learn to lead in this way.   Without taking the time to understand design principles, many leaders are operating as “accidental designers,” occasionally stumbling upon innovative ideas or solutions that aren’t lasting. In our upcoming book,  we’ll provide knowledge, tools and actionable steps that help leaders shift from being leaders who are  “accidental designers” to “Design Inspired Leaders” acting with greater intention and achieving greater lasting impact. “You don’t think your way to creative work.  You work your way to creative thinking.” -George Nelson

Next week, we’ll begin sharing profiles of “Design Inspired Leaders” we met on our research journey.  While our book is complete, our learning isn’t.  We would love to continue to learn from “Design Inspired Leaders.”  Do you currently lead this way?  Do you know any “Design Inspired Leaders?”  We’d love to hear from you and learn from your experience. Email alyssa@inprogress-consulting.com to connect, look out for our book and in the meantime keep “Leading Like a Designer!”