Connect with George Couros on Twitter: https://twitter.com/
George’s blog: http://georgecouros.ca/
George’s book: The Innovator’s Mindset
How stories bridge the gap between knowledge and application and also spark creativity (2:00)
What George hopes is the main idea readers get from The Innovator’s Mindset (5:44)
Some things admins can do to help cultivate an innovator’s mindset in teachers and build a “culture of yes” at your school (7:15)
The crucial importance of “why” (11:07)
The best leadership advice George has ever received (12:04)
Give people time and space to develop and grow, and you’ll be amazed at the changes (15:00)
Take time to celebrate your progress but never stop improving (21:00)
Lessons we can learn from the success of Netflix (and the failure of Blockbuster) (21:30)
What George sees as his biggest strength as an education administrator – building relationships and rapport with others (25:40)
George’s advice on how to get better at building relationships and rapport with others (29:38)
Some great books George has found to be helpful in his career (39:03)
George’s advice to school administrators on working with the students that you serve (40:45)
His advice to school administrators on working with the teachers in your school, including some great tips for delivering constructive criticism (44:50)
George’s favorite quote: “Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” (50:18)
The key to being fully present and powerful despite negative circumstances (57:30)
Here’s the advice George would give his younger self if he could travel back in time to when he was just starting out in school administration (1:00:50)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with George Couros
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Educator’s Lead Episode 77
Part 2 | Change Is An Opportunity To Do Something Amazing | Appreciate The Moment You’re In And Do The Best You Can With What You’ve Got Right Where You’re At | Sometimes If You’re Data Driven, You Are Weakness Focused | Focus On What You’re Doing Right And Why It’s Working
Show Notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/georgecouros2/
Welcome to Educators Lead where we interview leaders in education to offer inspiration and practical advice to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. I’m your host Jay Willis and I want to thank you for subscribing to our show.
Intro: Hello Edu Leaders! Jay Willis here and I’m excited to introduce part 2 of my interview with George Couros.
George Couros: I wanted it to be a book that you could pick up 15 years from now and it would still be relevant. So it’s not very tools focused or anything like that; it’s really focused on helping people see differently and I think one of the premises of the book is that you can’t change people – you can just create your environment where change is more likely to happen.
Jay Willis: There’s so much I’d love to dig into here but just when you’re talking about how you wrote the book, that’s the thing about…there’s a big difference or seems like there’s just this huge chasm between knowledge and application, right? Like probably most people or a lot of people maybe know what they should do in certain areas, but there’s just a big difference between knowledge and actually doing what you know you should be doing. And I feel like what stories do is it kind of helps bridge that gap. I mean, if you just read a bunch of information in a book, it’s like oh that’s nice, that sounds great, that strikes a chord, absolutely, right on, common sense, but then when you actually attach stories to it I feel like it makes it more real for people. And at least in my own experience, books that I read that are filled with more stories, like – here’s a principle and then here’s a story for how you can apply this principle, here’s how it made a difference, how it made an impact. I feel like that I take more from that and actually it’s easier for me to apply that, because I guess I see more value attached to the principle that I’ve just learned about.
George Couros: Yeah and that’s actually…one of the books I read, Made To Stick, it does talk about how you make those ideas sticky and about that component of telling stories and sharing the stuff and it does resonate with people in a different way. So I think really, you want these ideas to stick with people and I think that taps their emotion and near the end of the book I really encourage people to tell their stories and share their ideas.
So what I think is really powerful is that, the book has connected me with a lot of people that weren’t reading my blog, didn’t know me from Twitter, because they look at a book in a different way. Like for some people you’re not legit until you have a book, right? I think that has been fascinating is how many people ever read my book then started a Twitter account and then connected with me and are like, “Oh my god! I’m speaking to the author.” And I’m like everyone else just knows me as George, right?
To me it’s not that big of a deal but then they see that power because our connecting with people like on Twitter and through Facebook and them asking me questions and doing things like this or doing Twitter chats or whatever. It’s really made it so that it’s more of a conversation, like it’s more…the book is meant to be more of the beginning of a conversation than the end of it, if that makes sense. It’s supposed to spark questions – like one of the things I talk about in the book is that if I can tell you exactly step by step on how to do innovation in your school, it’s not really innovative. And so you want people taking these ideas and going in their own directions I guess. And I think that’s what one people appreciate the accessibility of me as the author because I do like I go through that hashtag every single day and I try to respond to people and connect with them, yeah it’s been pretty cool.
Jay Willis: Well so, if you are the just kind of sum up you as the author, if you were to say or state I guess a goal, if somebody just read your book and they set it down – like what would you want them to walk away with? Or what application or what message would you want to have? What would you want their takeaway to be?
George Couros: I think one of the things I say in the book and I tell audiences all the time when I speak to them is that somebody somewhere is doing the exact same thing you say you can’t do – they’re just finding a way and their thinking is the thing that’s shaping that direction. And I think that is probably the biggest takeaway from a book, is that you can have two schools literally across the street from each other with the same access to resources, same budget per kid and everything. And one school is just flying and the other school is really held back, and really what’s different is the way that the one school thinks. It’s not anything else, and I‘m trying to get people to understand that and start to look differently at what faces that because there will never be a time in education where we’re not facing adversity. We will always face adversity and so how we look at these things, how we solve things, how we move forward and bring these ideas to action is really what’s going to differentiate the amazing schools from the average ones. It’s really not necessarily anything else.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so, what would you suggest to a listener who is a school administrator? What are some things they can do to help draw out that innovation mindset from their teachers?
George Couros: I think they need to model it, for one. I think that’s really crucial is how we have, how we shape our thinking – like the principal I mentioned earlier in the podcast. I talk a lot about her and how she gets me to think differently about stuff and so, this is where leadership is so crucial and how you think and how you lead. Chris Kennedy talks about the idea of the culture of yes, how do we support people with these ideas, how do we get them to think differently, how do we get them to push things? And one of the things that I understand is that, every time you say no to an idea from one of your teachers, that “no” can resonate a lot longer than that original question. So if they hear it too many times, sometimes people just feel defeated and they’re just done and they won’t even try anything anymore. Whereas when people get excited about your ideas it changes the dynamic and I think the book is meant to be written for anyone that wants to create meaningful change in our schools. So it’s not necessarily principals, not necessarily superintendents and it’s not limited to teachers.
And in fact if you’re a superintendent who doesn’t want to change maybe the book’s not for you. Maybe you want to stay the same but as the world continues to move if you stand still you’ll eventually fall behind. And I think that embracing that mindset in the way you do things and questioning – like I always tell people that when they walk in their schools and they go and look, even if you’ve been there 10 years, pretend you’ve been there for 1 day. Look at everything, start to ask questions, start to look and ask yourself why do we do this? Because we get so comfortable with how things look that we tend to like stick in that same space and I think we have to start asking more questions about why we do what we do.
And there’s a question I talk about it I ask people at times, “What is actually more important to teach to our kids today – how to write a blog post or how to write an essay?” And people automatically assume that when I’m saying it, because I do embrace technology, that obviously I think it’s a blog post. But the reality of it is, the reason I ask the question is because we just…how many times do we teach essays because we’re supposed to teach essays? And we don’t even question, we don’t even ask. There’s so many great elements of writing that are taught when you’re teaching an essay, but there’s also elements of a blog post that we never teach when teaching an essay, like we don’t teach kids how to like embed videos, we don’t teach kids how to like grab media and reference it properly and those little things. And both of those skills are actually needed in my opinion but to a teacher who continuously wrote an essay every single year but never paid attention to why since the 1st year, that’s why I ask the question. It’s not to say you’re doing it wrong, it’s to say why are you doing that? Like, why are you actually doing this? I think that’s what’s really crucial from every perspective of an education is that we can easily fall into, “Well, we’ve always used a textbook” right? Yeah. But why, right? So I think people need to start asking those questions.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah, that reminds me of the book Start With Why by Simon Sinek. And just how when people really understand the why…that they’re there doing the right things but then they’re also much more motivated to do these right things.
George Couros: Yeah and the first part of the book is actually really defining why innovation and education is important. Like why it is – to make a case for it at the beginning, not to just jump into this stuff. And I think that’s I took a lot…and I know that I reference Simon Sinek several times in my blog and my book and that little TED talk has had an impact on so many people. It’s been pretty cool to watch.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well that’s awesome. If you’re good on time I’m going to roll through some rapid fire questions if you’re ready for those? So first off what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
George Couros: Just to listen more I guess, just to kind of listen and build from where people at not to try to really get them to go where you want them to go at that moment. I think it’s easier to sometimes pull people than push them, if that makes sense.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well are there any tips you’d recommend for being more effective as a listener?
George Couros: Actually listening? (Laughter)
Jay Willis: Well I mean, because I know as a school leader there’s just a billion things going on in the school and so at any given point you could be thinking about 1 or 50 of those billion things. I mean, what are some things I guess that you did to help you be more effective at just saying “Okay I’m gonna cut out all the noise right now and I’m gonna focus 100% on the person who’s sitting in front of me.”
George Couros: I think is kind of just going over what they’re saying in your head. I think it’s like really trying to listen but for me, like, I’m a very anxious person, I do have a million things going on in my head at any given time, and so it’s really hard to calm that down but really trying to like I said earlier trying to listen from their perspective, and work from there backwards. I mean…not just like saying “Okay well thanks for that anyways here’s what I was going to say anyway.” So like oh “Okay I understand this” and actually sometimes understanding…I find that sometimes we get really frustrated with teachers that are doing things that we don’t necessarily agree with, that we also used to do. That make sense, right? So one of the things I see on Twitter all the time – you’ll see someone who started a Twitter account 2 years ago and they’ll be like, “Aw, how come not everyone’s on Twitter? You’re missing such a great opportunity!” And I’m like, I’ve been on here since 2009 so, like, where were you for 5 years? And my brother would be like, “I was here since 2007” and just understanding that, that people tend to embrace things at different points and just kind of being comfortable with that. And really what I think is really crucial is that it’s not that I need everybody doing this at this point, I need everybody moving all the time. Like I need everyone moving forward and learning and I think that’s when you’re trying to build an organization that’s technically meant to be a learning organization the focus is, that you are learning, not necessarily what you learn at that moment. And so the openness to continuous growth, the openness to flexibility and so, not everyone’s going to embrace what you do at that moment. Are they moving forward; are they learning or are they stagnant? That’s what we have to differentiate.
Jay Willis: Yeah and if it used to be an issue for you, you probably have some good insight as to how you could speak to that for someone else, right?
George Couros: I still think there’s a ton I can learn about teaching and continuous growth because there’ll always be a deeper understanding of the art and of science teaching but God, if I look back at when I first started teaching how terrible I was compared to now, oh geez right? But at least I’m not the same as I used to be. I think that’s what’s important and maybe 10 years from now I’ll think, “What I was doing then?”, right? (Laughter) So I think that is important to recognize if you really truly look back, I don’t know many teachers that just started off amazing. They developed over time.
Jay Willis: Yeah, I think I would guess the more experience you have kind of the more you have to learn to be patient with those people who are kind of just starting off on their journey and just acknowledging, as long as they’re headed the right direction it’s great and they’re growing as people, great…and I’m sure you have to kind of step in and say “Ok yeah, you shouldn’t say that kind of stuff in a group setting or whatever.” But, still acknowledge that “hey, this person is where I was 15 years ago.”
George Couros: Or 2. Or 6 months ago. Right. (Laughter) Yeah, because like all the time we discover something that’s the best thing ever why isn’t it I was doing this, right? And I think that’s kind of…I mean that’s important to understand. I used to be like “if you’re not on Twitter you’re really becoming totally irrelevant” and I don’t think that way now. I just don’t. I do think that we need to be in spaces where you can access ideas for more than just your school, though. It just doesn’t necessarily have to be on Twitter and I think that understanding that my thinking…and the beautiful thing is that’s been the beauty of my portfolio – that I’ve actually been able to see my differences in thinking. Like I used to say technology is just a tool and now I don’t say that. Now I look at it as something more transformational, not simply just a tool. And so, I think that understanding that I’ve changed my perspective and I’ve grown over time – I think that’s a good thing. Where some people are just not open that growth and development.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah I actually just redid episode 1 of this podcast for that reason. Because like going back and listening to the 1st episode is just painful because I’ve had a chance to do – this is…I just posted my 70th interview since like December 16th I think is when this launched, and I went back and listened to episode 1 and I was like “ah that’s just painful to listen to.” But of course I was open to that and I said “Okay if I was doing it again or doing it over now, what would I change?” and I’m hoping to create that like within the next week.
George Couros: Well it’s actually interesting is that when I talk about the portfolio all the time, we don’t appreciate starting point as much and I think when you’re doing podcasting and when you’re talking about this you are in some ways developing somewhat of a portfolio for podcasting, right? There’s this really great article that I read and it showed an artist’s progression from 2 years old to 28 and it showed pictures they had drawn every single year from that time. Now, to be honest, when he was 2, he was pretty good for a 2-year-old. Like I was like it’s pretty good, right? But it was still a child’s drawing and they show the progression and you can see like probably around 13 or 14 they got really, really good and at 28 they were absolutely amazing. But when I see the picture – if you just showed me the picture, the initial one, I would look at them and be like “Yeah, that was pretty cool.” But when I look at at it and it’s compared to their progression, it looks amazing. Yeah. If that makes sense, right? Because you’ve seen that growth, you’ve seen that willingness to develop over time and you see where they started from. And I think that that’s a really crucial thing with teaching is that you kind of document and see that growth in a meaningful way to kids and they can see where they came from, not just where they are right now. Like how often does a kid go, “Hey I did this well this year, look where I was where I was on my 2013 report card.” Like I don’t think we compare those things, right? You get your report card and you put it away and you may never look at it again. Probably few people actually to that.
Jay Willis: Yeah I feel like we don’t take enough time in general, just as a culture to kind of celebrate the victories. I feel like a lot of times we’re so hard on ourselves and potentially cynical and I feel like – not that you should live there, not that you should constantly be like you were talking about earlier Al Bundy thinking about the glory days. I mean you don’t want to live there either, but at the same time like as it’s happening it’s really okay look back once in a while and see where you’ve come from and acknowledge that yes I have I’ve really grown a lot.”
George Couros: Yeah absolutely. But although I would like to be back at those days. (Laughter) I already said I’d like to be back in those days! I was just thinking “man that was awesome, I wish I could play high school basketball.” So I don’t know if I agree with your there! (Laughter) And I had no money and no debt – those were the days! I do think that the organizations that I’ve worked with over the years, the ones that are like the most forward-thinking, doing the best stuff, they are never…they celebrate but are never satisfied. The term is like “relentless restlessness”, but they do take that time to appreciate and have that as part of their culture. But they’re like “Okay we did a really great here but let’s keep going.”
And I think you have to have that balance of both, right? Yeah. And I think that I see where some school districts totally talk about how awesome they are but, it’s the same thing – they’re talking about being awesome for the last 5 years and they don’t even realize maybe how far they’ve fallen behind other places because they’ve been just so busy celebrating their awesomeness that they’re not looking to do this, right? I talk about how Blockbuster basically had the chance to acquire Netflix and they said like, “nah, we’re good” and now look at that decision, right? And they were just like “Hey, we have this awesome company – why would we want to buy your little Internet company? What good could you do for us?” and so, right? Yeah. Kind of along those – I think Netflix was already doing well. They were making a lot of money and then they started creating their own T.V. shows and movies. And I would say probably House of Cards is my favorite show. So like House of Cards, Master of None, these are all at Netflix shows and I would be very surprised that in their initial mandate that they were like, “We’re going to become an Internet company, we’re going to make our own T.V. shows, but they started doing those things and it’s been pretty amazing to watch. And even the same with how they made House of Cards and how they knew how successful they would be at that time was really interesting. They actually – this is this is what I read so I hope it’s accurate – but they basically have access to what viewers like and how they are rating stuff and so a lot of people, gave high ratings to political dramas, and a lot of people gave high ratings to Kevin Spacey movies. So they said “let’s do a political drama with Kevin Spacey” so they kind of knew it was going to be a hit before it even aired. So that’s why they’re comfortable giving 10 show contracts as opposed to like 3 show pilots to see what happens, right? They’re going into it with data in a way to help shape the innovation moving forward, which is really interesting.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah well and that story about Blockbuster it probably, I guess that the message that I pull from that and then it sounds like it’s probably the message kind of throughout the book, is that it’s just constant growth – like, never be complacent. Certainly celebrate the victories, but just constantly be looking for ways that you can grow and be innovative so that you don’t ever become irrelevant.
George Couros: Yeah and I think that is so subjective to where you’re at, right? So this is after the book, this is – because I’m still learning, I’m not like “Well, I talked about innovation and I’m done.” So there’s still growth for me. But I talked about – and this is a really simple thing that I’m going to share. I was with a school district and I actually made them a Google form, talked about how I could acquire the reflections really quickly and you can use that to help shape the workshop and how I could use it for different things in classrooms how I’d use it to shape instructional leadership and I just went on and on and on. And the people in the room were like totally blown away by what I was showing them and so, what I gathered from that experience is that, that isn’t innovation to me anymore; it’s just what I do. It’s become a my best practice, whereas to that group it’s now an innovation; now they’re going to start thinking differently about doing that and eventually, if it is truly innovation which is the notion of becoming and doing better, is that it actually becomes the best practice. That will be something they’ll really embrace.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So next question in my rapid fire questions here. I’m loving this conversation. What would you say was your biggest strength as a school leader?
George Couros: Well, what I would say and what others would say… (laughter) I think what people appreciate about me is my ability to connect with people, my relationships. And I think I was pretty young when I started as a principal and I think that young sometimes equates to not experienced and there can be some misperceptions of that and for whatever reason and I think some of my teachers on my staff were probably nervous about that. But then they saw how I interact with kids and they saw how I interact with staff (I think mostly with the kids) and once they knew that I really cared about kids and was there to do what I could for them and was there to be supportive, I think that it gave me a lot more leeway to screw up if that makes sense? Not horribly but, they knew I was there with the right intentions because yeah I think that for me, building relationships is really core and I think there’s a lot of really smart people, really smart educators and brilliant minds, brilliant minds but their lack of ability to connect with people is what holds them back. Yeah. One of my mentors and his name is David Passik(?) he was a former principal, this guy – I’ve never heard so many staff say how much they love their principal. Everyone just seemed to love him – I can’t find one person who’s ever said anything bad about him. But he told me “a teacher that can build relationships and doesn’t understand how to teach the curriculum can last a lot longer than the one who can teach the curriculum and can’t build relationships.” Yeah. So, so that’s always resonated with me.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well, I’d guess some of that – would you say that some of that kind of came from growing up in your family’s restaurant and just seeing the way they connected with people?
George Couros: Yeah, totally and I think that watching my family and understanding that…I’m sure people complained about food and stuff but my parents just were awesome with how they treated them and how they connected with people. And kind of growing up in that environment, I think it really shaped me. Like my mom doesn’t shake anyone’s hands; she only hugs people and growing up in that type of family was really awesome for me. It really made a difference. I think that as a speaker, one of my goals is to build rapport as quickly as possible. How do I stand up on a stage and in 5 minutes build rapport that people will see my experiences as their experiences and how do I do that quickly? I think my parents were in that same place, where you just try to build rapport as quickly as possible. It’s not just eating food; it’s creating an experience for them.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well I’m sure you’ve probably worked with some people who maybe that wasn’t natural for them. You talked about just how there’s lots and lots of really smart people who have a hard time just connecting and building that relationship. Are there any good resources that you’d suggest – either books or anything like that that you’d recommend that would maybe help get somebody started on the path to how to develop those relationships?
George Couros: To be honest here I don’t know of any books. I think…my blog – I focus on it quite a bit. And so just looking at something differently…like if you are complaining about supervision, how do we redirect people to understand it’s a really great opportunity to connect with kids that you usually wouldn’t connect with? That’s a mind shift. I remember I used to complain like, “Man, I do not want to go outside. I do not want to do this.” And one of my principals said to me, “This is a really great opportunity for you to connect with kids.” So if you see it that way, it’s going to be awesome for you to do it and it did make me think differently. I think the suggestions are – like, it’s the same online for me, is that I really encourage people to be themselves online, to not only share the educational part, but share parts of themselves. And it’s not to forego your privacy, which people misconstrue all the time. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Like I talk about my family, I talk about my dogs, I talk about just things that I think are funny because those are things I would’ve totally done with kids and I always say that the best teachers in the world don’t only know their kids – their kids know them, they feel a personal connection to that and I think that’s really important to focus on.
Jay Willis: Well, I have certainly met speakers before who weren’t exactly the same in person as they were up on stage and to me it just always just impressed upon me how exhausting that must be , because for me it just it would be really hard for me to be one kind of person in one setting but then just be a completely different person in another. Now maybe they’ve done it for so long that they’re really effective at that but I guess for me at least my personality, I think it would be very difficult for me to feel congruent if that’s the way I was and eventually feel burnt out and exhausted because it couldn’t be real.
George Couros: Yeah and to be honest with you – I know you mentioned Tony Senanis. Tony and I connected a lot online. He sent me a message before he was going to see me speaking, and it was like, “Please don’t be a terrible person.” (Laughter) I was like, “Tony, trust me here”, right? So since he saw me speak, since he came to the day and we connected, him and I have been very good friends since. We were good friends before we met but since then…but I will I will be honest is that sometimes speaking and I don’t want it to sound like a complaint, it can be exhausting. A lot of people don’t see behind the scenes like, I think last year I was speaking in South Carolina and I was in Memphis the night before and just plane troubles and da da da, and all this other stuff, so I actually had to drive from Atlanta to like South Carolina. I think 5 hours at like 12AM. And so I didn’t get in until like 5, I hadn’t had a shower, I didn’t have my luggage and so…but then you’ve got to be on, right, you’ve got to be on and ready to go.
So here I am 24 hours without sleep and I go through the day and I go out of my way to like make sure that I build connections not only during the conference like not just when I’m speaking but I usually it’s pretty rare that I just speak and leave. It does happen once a while, depending on schedule and if I have to catch a flight but I try not to, but I am actually what would be considered an ambivert. So I have very introverted qualities but I can be an extrovert when I need to be. And being around people can be very tiring for me sometimes and so I know that when I’m getting to a point where I might start getting a little bit snappy or I’m a little angry or hungry kind of thing, I do tend to leave. Because that is part of me, too – like I spent a lot of time at home watching T.V. and just chilling out, relaxing and not talking. And my wife is very supportive and she’s great because she understands that I need some of that just quiet time. So I’ve seen where people criticize speakers because they may not have face time with them or stuff like that. But you never know what people are like and so I just try to assume the best. People are different and they connect at different levels.
But I do make such a conscious effort to connect with people, like if I’m having lunch there to sit with people I don’t know and just hang out with them. And yeah, a lot of the people I connect with at conferences aren’t on Twitter, they don’t do some of that stuff and then they hang out with me and they’re like, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you again”, and I’m like “Hey, I’m on Twitter, and that would be awesome.” I was in California on the weekend and like I said I’m an ambivert and so, as soon as the conference was done, because it’s a lot of energy to connect and be “on” with people, I usually will do this – I go to Starbucks, I’ll find the closest Starbucks, throw on like the biggest headphones I have and then I’ll go through the hashtags and I’ll reach out to people who tweeted me or anything or answer their questions and so it gives me a little bit of space but it shows that connection after time but it does it in a way that’s comfortable for me and I think people really appreciate that. So I spend a lot of time after sessions connecting with those people in a meaningful way and they see how powerful it can be. So I do try to make the effort at that. Yeah. These are all things I do when I have a chance.
Jay Willis: So, is the term ambivert? I thought it was omnivert. So for those listening who have no idea what he’s talking about. I’m actually I have a degree in psychology and so like I’ve always been fascinated with the whole Myers Briggs and introvert/extrovert thing and it certainly doesn’t mean – like for introverts, because I probably lean a little bit more toward Introvert, it doesn’t mean that you don’t like people. It just means that you draw energy and you recharge while you’re alone, not when you’re around people and an extrovert, you just kind of you get energized being around people. And then ambivert is you could kind of go either way, right?
George Couros: Yeah I think that’s really like the thing is that, when you are – people will talk about Twitter celebrities like, “Aw, they weren’t that friendly in person.” I think some of those people are just really introverted and they feel more comfortable sharing online. They just do. That’s their contribution and they feel more comfortable because they might have more control over the situation. I don’t know what would be the actual explanation so when people say “Oh, no, I met this person they weren’t that talkative.” But it doesn’t mean that they’re not a good person; they might interact differently. I have some very good friends that are always on Twitter, they share stuff, they’re very funny and then you hang out with them they don’t say anything. And they’re not bad people; it’s just not their space. Sometimes they just don’t like that. It doesn’t mean they don’t have social skills, because I’m very good friends of people who were very introverted when I was in high school and they had nowhere to share their voice. And they have a lot of amazing things to say. And I think that gives options that weren’t there before. When I want to get my time to myself I have to block it; it’s almost like therapy for me. I get ideas percolating my head and it’s just a way to get them out of me. But yeah I know that speaking – and I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to get to meet so many people also about but I’m also very cognizant of my own time. I’m very cognizant of my time when I just get to be myself.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so obviously The Innovator’s Mindset is a fantastic book that everyone listening should definitely check out if they haven’t yet, but in addition to that – and I actually had a chance to have Dave Burgess on the show just a couple episodes ago so. It hasn’t released yet but it’ll release actually just a little bit before this one airs, and Teach Like a Pirate, that’s obviously a great book, but are there any books that you would recommend for other school leaders that have made a big impact on you?
George Couros: Probably one of the books that really changed my thinking was Drive by Dan Pink. He talks about motivation; I love that book. It just opened up so many doors for me. I love anything by Barry Schwartz. He talks about basically the paradox of choice in one; I can’t remember the other book. His TED Talks are amazing. Those to me are really, really good books. One that I’m reading right now that I find really interesting is called The Originals by Adam Grant and he talks about people coming up with original ideas, like where they come up from and how they develop it. Stephen Johnson’s stuff…I didn’t fully read his last book. I can’t remember the title but he talks a lot about innovation. His books are really interesting. Like I said, none of those are educators they’re all business books to some extent but yeah they’re really really good ones but if I had to pick one it would be Drive by Dan Pink. It would be one of my favorites ever.
Jay Willis: So, what advice would you have for a school leader as far as working with the students that they serve?
George Couros: Just take every opportunity to get to know kids. One of the things that I found really powerful in the work that I did was I never had to be mad at a kid. I just had to be disappointed and that was punishment enough. But that takes relationship building, right? One of the things that when kids got in trouble and were sent to the office, these are two things I did all the time. (And this is my go to.) I would say “Why are you here?” And I wouldn’t move on until they told me. And so some kids wouldn’t say anything. I’d say “Okay well I’m going to sit here until you tell me why you’re here.” I think that what you’re trying to get them to do is take ownership over what’s going on and that’s a really important thing but that other little interesting thing is you’ll sometimes hear, a teacher will say like “this kid was here and they did this and they did this.” Then when you ask the kid why they’re here, they’re telling you like 10 other things, because they have no idea what you know, so it’s like “Oh my god, this is really bad”, right? It’s always kind of funny.
But you have to be patient, right? And then once we get through the odd parts then I just say “what would you do if you were me as a principal?” And so they start working out their consequences and usually kids are like way worse on themselves than the adult would be, right? Like a kid swore and he’ll say he should be expelled. I’ll be like, “I don’t know – that’s probably a little bit harsh.”(Laughter) And you ask them for some other ideas and so you try to get them to think about this. Well what I’m trying to do through the process…first of all – think about when you get a ticket from a cop. He pulls you over and “Hey, you’re speeding and here’s your ticket” and they just go on their way. And the first thing you think is like, “What a jerk. ” You don’t think, “Yeah they are totally right. I’ll never do this again.” And you’re often place blame on that person who just kind of like didn’t even take the time and didn’t care about your story, were just like “you did something wrong” and wrote you the ticket.
I didn’t want that mentality and so when I am not having to speak they’re not thinking what a jerk, they’re like thinking of their own actions and then basically to self-regulate after the notion of why are they doing this? Like, what would they do, what do they see as a way to do this? Because you’re trying to help that kid develop as a human being, that when you’re not there, and nobody makes the consequence for them that they understand, they don’t do something wrong or whatever.
I think that that really helped me because it really taught me a lot about listening and being patient. And doing this is like, I would just sit with kids in the office and I would be eating my lunch and I would say “hey, anytime you’re ready. I’ll just put my lunch down but we’re not leaving until you tell me why you’re here.” And I wouldn’t say anything because…it’s funny, my secretary is like “What did you say? There are these kids coming out your office just bawling” I didn’t say anything – this was just them, like this is their own thing they’re dealing with right now, right? Because they place it so much on themselves as opposed to me doing this, right? I think if you’re really trying to help kids have those strategies, but you’re like, “I can’t believe you did this, this is your punishment, da da da…” Did that actually help the kid after the fact? Like are you using that punishment later to do this? But to be honest with you, going back to the original question, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do that if I didn’t build up that rapport with these kids first. I wanted to ensure that my first interaction with the kid was not in my office, right? I wouldn’t want to say to a kid, “What’s your name again?” Because then it’s already impersonal.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so, kind of along those lines what piece of advice would you have for a school leader as far as working with the other teachers?
George Couros: I think just having conversations with them, working backwards trying to understand where they’re at and when I talk to people about being a new principal, my advice is to say when you go into the school the very first thing you do is you sit back and you try to learn what’s going on. Trying to understand what people are doing. And a more concrete that people can do is literally have a spreadsheet of every single person that’s in that building and then beside it, write something they’re awesome at and try to build from there. Trying to understand what their strengths are and until you’re able to do that you shouldn’t implement any change. So that’s one of the suggestions I always have. Because when people know they’re valued they will go the ends of the earth for you. And I’ve learned that through a lot of school leaders.
Jay Willis: Yeah. It’s good advice. I should do that with my own team.
George Couros: Yeah. It’s a great process because you’re looking for the positives right away. Yeah there’s a lot of places that are data driven but that really means they’re weakness focused, because they’re really looking for what they’re doing wrong and they try to fix it, as opposed to using the data to say what are we doing right. Like why? What is leading us to being right in the first place? So I think that is a good lesson for teachers or administrators to think about – find those positives first and work backwards from there, as opposed to what they’re bad at.
Jay Willis: Well, now would you look at that then if you had someone, say, coming to your office – would you kind of look at that before your appointment with them, just kind of remind yourself and get yourself in the right state of mind or how do you cull all that information?
George Couros: Oh I think once you I think once you actively go look for it, it kind of sticks. It’s sincere, right? That leads to a really interesting article; I didn’t tweet it out but I read it yesterday. I don’t know why I didn’t tweet it, because it’s really good. It talked about “the positive sandwich”, where you say something positive and you give ‘em the hard stuff and then you end with a positive. And I hate that to be honest with you; I don’t like that approach at all. But so many people use it so you’ll think it’s great, but the reason I’ve never liked it is I don’t know many people that are like, “Well, at least they were positive about this!” They totally focus on the negatives, right? A sandwich is made by what the filler is so, if the filler is crap, that’s not a sandwich I ever want to eat! (Laughter) I’m just saying hey give feedback by saying like “You know what? I really appreciate this, and I’m doing this because I want to help you grow, but here’s something I’m seeing.” And setting out a different way as opposed to this kind of positive/negative/positive pattern. I think that being clear and turning it more on yourself like saying, “I really want to help you. I want you to be successful so here’s something I’m seeing” is different than, “Hey I really like that you do this. Here’s something I’m concerned about. But I also like this.” That just seems insincere. And when people know that you’re doing it to help them as supposed to punish them, I think it’s a different thing.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah I guess it seems so formulaic that it’s like it could easily go into impersonal it’s like, well I really want to chew this person out but first I have to come up with 2 good things to say about them and then…
George Couros: I would actually, if people did that to me, I’d be like, “Just get to it. Just tell me what’s wrong. I know what’s coming next so just get to it.” Instead of this, “BUT…” (laughter) “BUT…” You know what’s coming, and I just want to be talked to, I know this might sound like a horrible thing, but it’s somewhat almost disrespectful of my time. It’s like you’re adding 2 actual things to do the agenda that will take more time as opposed to just getting to it. Just get to it, let’s move on, let’s move forward with this, or figure it out as opposed to trying to do this. Because it’s like if know that pattern, you already know that negative’s coming up so, I think just being open and honest with people and making sure that…I think if people know that you have their back then they’re more open to the criticism, right? And I think that’s what’s important.
Jay Willis: Yeah give me the criticism without the bread; just straight criticism. (Laughter)
George Couros: Yeah. I’m on a no-carb diet, so… (Laughter)
Jay Willis: So, do you do you have a quote maybe that you’d say is your favorite leadership quote?
George Couros: Well in my book, I say “Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” And I look at changes that people have in their lives and how do they embrace them and how do they see them as opportunities. I even wrote a blog post just today about the idea that some people are very reluctant to leave because they’re so scared of changing, even when they’re not in good situations, but sometimes when you actually are more comfortable and you see that change as an opportunity…a lot of times I’ve learned this the hard way. I talked earlier in the podcast about moving from one school to the other – I was terrified, I was done with teaching, and it just totally changed my perspective. And I didn’t realize that at the time. I think my parents coming over Canada they did it to create an opportunity not – and I’m sure they were terrified but they created a pretty amazing life for them. Moving to a country, like you’re literally on a boat moving to a country across the world, not knowing the language and doing all these things, is a lot more daunting than moving from Word to Google Docs, right? (Laughter) The stuff we complain about is a little bit ridiculous compared to what our families went through. That’s one of my quotes that I try to stick by.
Jay Willis: I can imagine, I’m just guessing, I don’t know how many generations were here before I was born – I haven’t really ever gone back and looked at the geology – but I can only imagine that your parents probably I would guess one of the things that they see is how much people take things for granted. Would that be accurate?
George Couros: Yeah. I think it’s kind of interesting because my mom is very traditional and very forward thinking at the exact same time. She grew up in a totally different time and what good parenting looked like…it’s kind of the old notion that if you got in trouble at school and you got a phone call, you’re also going to have trouble at home. Teachers were very comfortable calling the parents and telling them like things like that. It’s a totally different mentality on what they appreciate. Even my family that’s still in Greece don’t necessarily, I don’t want to say don’t work as hard as we do, but they don’t place the value on your career or job as much as we do. They just really appreciate simple things and having dinner together and a lot differently than here. It’s just kind of interesting because when I go back to visit my family in Greece it’s totally so awesome to fall back into that way of life and it’s hard to come home.
When you introduced me today, to be honest with you, usually on Fridays, when I was a principal I would stay at school til 8 or 9PM because nobody was there. That was when I could do the kind of work I had to do. And usually I would just go home because I was tired anyways, so I’d just thought I’d stay there. But the rest that week I would be out of the school probably by 4:00. That’s a horrible thing for me to say because part of who I was, was someone who liked to run, someone who liked to play sports, someone who liked to do other things, and I needed that. And to stay in school for another 3 or 4 hours after, I found really as a struggle and I think that kids appreciated my love for other things. Sometimes I would do my work at night, sometimes I would do it at different times, sometimes I’d stay a little later just depending on the situation. But a lot of times when you see teachers that stay every night at school until like 9 or 10 o’clock, they have trouble connecting with their students.
Because they’re just about teaching and they’re just kind of stuck in that, whereas like when I see that a lot of times if you truly think about it – is the teacher doing something that the kids should be doing? Like are they just designing and creating stuff so the kids just have it ready to go? Or are they actually doing some other things? Like, the little things that teachers do all over the world is that – I used to go into my classroom a couple weeks early. I’d set it up, I’d design it, I’d do all the stuff to get my classroom ready and…I always think about this – I just love basketball. So all the kids woul;d come to school and all their names would be written on a basketball. Now, imagine that you are the kid who hates sports and you’re like, “I have this guy for a year, this sports nut? Are you kidding me?” So the notion of our room is not totally true; it’s really my room that you’re now in, right? Because I got to design and got the say so. I always challenge teachers to think about – why don’t you just leave that? And have the kids design the room as a wave as they come in? And as you have a conversation and you build this together then it becomes your room, right?
When I say your it’s like I mean all. Like not just the teachers but as a kid and they have some say on it. And it should be distinct – if your room looks the same every single year with different kids, you’re not necessarily focusing on the learner as much as you are the teacher. Now maybe that’s just me being lazy, just me saying why am I doing this stuff, right? (Laughter) But I think part of it if you really look at it deeply, now there’s an ownership of the room and I thought I did some really good stuff when I first started teaching. But there are things that I would never do now. But usually the first hour of the first day of school I would kind of like try to build rapport we do a little of whatever by about 10 o’clock we’re into the syllabus, like “let’s get started getting stuff done” and Tuesday we were like totally rolling. Whereas now – what would it look like if you spent the entire week building rapport with those students? What would that create? And that investment you create earlier, would it actually pay back huge dividends later where kids are more focused, kids are more connected to you and wanting to do better, and some of that is on their own time. And I think that is just a different way of looking at things.
Jay Willis: Yeah, well so I have just kind of a curiosity question. If as a principal, as an author, as a speaker, you have life stuff that happens as well. Like for example when you’re talking about how you had to drive and you basically got very little to no sleep before you had to present. So how do you effectively in that position, how do you bring it consistently? Like what do you do I guess to get in the right frame of mind so that you can kind of like just check your baggage, check your everything you have going on at home, like just everything that’s just bouncing around in your mind. How do you check that so you can be that fully present person in whatever scenario you happen to be, in whether it’s speaker or whether you’re a principal? Just how do you bring it every day?
George Couros: Well, when I was a principal, this is one thing I told my teachers is that if you feel like you’re on the verge of a meltdown and you’re just struggling mentally to deal with kids, take a day off. I don’t need you to have a cold, I don’t need you to have the flu, I don’t need you to do those things because if you’re struggling to make it through the week and you give 5 days and you’re not great, but if you just took 1 day to yourself and just checked your mental health, and then you’re awesome for 4 days, I’d rather have that. And so, I think that understanding that we have to be comfortable with some of that stuff, be comfortable with basically that just because we can’t see stress and anxiety doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and kind of doing that. I just think that sometimes you have to just realize when you need a day and you need some time to recuperate, so I’ve been really appreciative of that.
I’ve known stories of teachers that brag about how they never missed a day of school ever and then have heart attacks a year after they retire. Did they take good care of themselves in that process? So you have to just kind of understand where you’re at, why you’re here and to be comfortable that it’s not – sometimes when you acknowledge when you’re struggling it’s not a sign of weakness but it’s a sign of strength. And that’s a really important thing to do. That’s just personal and it’s something I really encourage my teachers to think about. I don’t want them there necessarily when they’re really struggling and so to try to recognize that. And when you say that to people I think they’re more comfortable with you and they recognize that that they’re human being as a teacher, not just a teacher, if that makes sense.
Jay Willis: Yeah, kind of like people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I would I would assume that really communicates to them I really care about you as a person first. Absolutely. Yeah. All right so last question – if you had a time machine and you could jump in it and go back to the point in time when you first made the decision to go into school leadership, what advice would you go back and give to the younger version of yourself?
George Couros: Just to appreciate the moments and appreciate the opportunity that you’re in right then. For me, when I was a vice principal, I really loved it and I really appreciated it every single day, but I was already thinking about becoming a principal. I think that was in my 2nd year, so it was 2 years before I became a principal after being a vice principal. So in my 2nd year I just thought, “You know what, I’m just gonna do awesome stuff” and if I do that then when I become a principal… like to be a principal kind of ___ me instead of me just actively going for it. And that’s kind of what I’ve always focused on. You see people like…and I don’t want to make assumptions here, but really trying to make a name, trying to do this, and trying to do this, and trying to do this…and my focus is like if you do great work, those opportunities will find you eventually. So just focus on doing the great work. And that will happen for you. It’s great to have goals and aspirations and things like that, but really try to appreciate that moment and do your best at that time because when you do that it really hugely benefits those kids that are in front of you. And that is noticed. For sure.
Jay Willis: That kind of speaks to an earlier question – just how do you bring it all the time? I would that maybe one of the issues occasionally that people have, especially driven people who are kind of in leadership and they’re thinking about the next thing, once I become a principal then it’s going to be awesome and then once they reach that position they begin thinking about maybe once I’m a superintendent or once I’m…they’re always kind of looking at that next goal and I would think that living that way makes it very difficult for you to be fully present and so I would think that just taking the advice that you’re giving, just enjoying where you’re at – that really has a lot to do with your ability to be fully engaged and fully present.
George Couros: Yeah. For people that are aspiring to go into leadership, then just do an amazing job. Do that and people will notice. Just focus on that; just do great stuff.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so, finally if one of our listeners wants to reach out to you after the show, what would be the best way to connect with you?
George Couros: My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can connect with @gcouros on Twitter. My blog is georgecouros.ca and you can just Google George Couros and you’ll find 10 million ways to connect with me. And usually people use all 10 million, right? They’ll DM me and send me and email, just kind of like whack-a-mole wherever they are, send me a Vox, hit me up on Skype…
Jay Willis: So choose one of those methods to reach out, right? (Laughter) Well, Edu-Leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word George into the search tool to find his show notes. George, thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
George Couros: Thank you. I really appreciate you having me and it’s really been a great connecting with you.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders three days a week to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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