Spending time listening to those whose ideas change lives is never going to be a waste of time so I was bristling with eager anticipation at the start of TEDxCapeTown last weekend. Having spent many hours being challenged, inspired, entertained and challenged by the many TED videos available online, I was anxious to experience something of the TED experience in-person. I was not disappointed.
Despite an opening by the organisers in which they apologised for what could go wrong before it had (note to conference MCs – never apologise for what has yet to happen; it doesn’t inspire confidence!), the day was extremely well-organised. I tend to be ultra-critical of the small details and there are some aspects of the day which irritated but on the whole, this was an excellent event. There was a tangible sense of excitement and energy in the air as some of Cape Town’s brightest young (and not so young!) minds gathered to share “ideas worth sharing”.
Videos of the talks will be available on the 5th on May so I am not going to expound on each speaker’s input. Rather I would like to share of my learning from a macro-perspective.
I have had almost a week to reflect on the TEDxCapeTown experience and to process the input from the day. There are three major themes which come through for me :
1) People with passion find opportunity to make a difference in their community.
2) People who believe they can, usually do!
3) Hope is alive when ideas are made real.
These three learnings challenged me to think about what I could do differently in both my professional and personal capacities to improve myself and the impact I am making in my sphere of influence.
As leader of a school, I need to apply these learnings to the leadership of my school. How then am I to do this? Here are my thoughts on the application of each “idea challenge” to our school context :
1) People with passion find opportunity to make a difference in their community
Passion is a powerful driving force. It keeps us focused on the task at hand and allows us to persevere through times of struggle. It is also the force which drives us to find solutions for seemingly impossible problems.
Many schools today face serious challenges which threaten their effectiveness and, in some cases, their very existence. These problems range from financial instability, unionised teachers who feel obliged to strike to make a political point, a lack of basic resources to the very real socio-economic problems of pupils who arrive at school under-nourished or frightened by the violence in their home and community.
Passionate school leaders and teachers will not sit back and accept these realities. They will constantly strive to find solutions so that their pupils may have the best possible opportunities at school. They will work with the community to look for ways in which the people of the community can be engaged in improving the status quo. They will seek ideas to bring a new reality to their school and pupils.
The local school is an integral part of its community and a place where the future leaders and difference-makers of the world spend the vast majority of their hours each day. We owe it to our community and our country to be passionate in our leadership of our schools and to give our energies to finding solutions to those problems which threaten the effectiveness of our teaching and the process of learning.
2) People who believe they can, usually do!
The game-changers of society are those who are not distracted by the nay-sayers or those who choose to see the mountain ahead of them instead of the path leading to its summit.
It is true to say that anyone in a leadership position will be open to criticism by others. In a school context it is the school principal who is the embodiment of the school for parents, community member and education officials. It is he/she who has to spearhead the changes needed to move the school into new, exciting and relevant realities. Changes in curriculum, teaching practice, school policy or indeed any other changes will not always be accepted with open arms by those in the school. Armed with the confidence that his/her plans for change are well-researched and in the best interests of the school, the principal needs to have the courage of his/her convictions to press on. There is a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance and the two are sometimes confused by those who choose to criticise instead of engaging in a positive way.
Many schools have for far too long been too comfortable with the status quo, scared of upsetting education boards, parent interest groups and various other factions. The truth is that if our schools are to be true to their mission of providing children with effective education which prepares them for relevancy in the world, they will need leaders who are prepared to swim upstream at times. They will need leaders who have such a strong belief in their mission that they will do whatever it takes to make their schools models of effective, relevant and dynamic education.
3) Hope is alive when ideas are made real
I remember reading a newspaper article some years ago about a rural high school principal in the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape Province of South Africa who walked several kilometers to school each day and transformed his school from one where hardly any pupils passed their school-leaving exams to one where they managed to achieve a 100% pass rate several years in a row. He inspired his teachers to go the extra mile with their pupils by planting an idea in the school that every pupil had the potential to succeed. His teachers brought in desks and chairs from their homes, photocopied (at their own expense) local newspaper articles for language lessons, came in on weekends and in school holidays and began each day on time. The idea that every child could succeed inspired both teachers and pupils and brought hope to a school where there was none before.
The above example is but one of many in the education sector where an individual (not necessarily the principal) has shared an idea which has kept the hopes and dreams of a school and/or community alive. School leaders are in unique position to influence adults (parents, teachers, community members, education department officials) and children with ideas that can really “change the world”. This places a huge responsibility on those of us privilege to lead schools. We get to influence the decision makers of today and tomorrow. In how many other professions is that true?
It is our duty to bring to fruition ideas in our school which can change the present and future of our community. In the midst of political, social and economic turmoil, we need school leaders who keep the hope of a brighter future alive and who inspire others to bring creative, thought-provoking, challenging and game-changing ideas to reality.
I left TEDxCapeTown with the sense that I could do and be so much more. I have been challenged to focus my energy on the idea that our school can become a beacon in the community – a place where young minds are given the space to create and a community of learning which celebrates different modalities of learning in a far greater way than we have done in the past. I am encouraged to develop our staff to think even more deeply about how we teach and how we can further develop the natural curiosity of the young minds we are privileged to work with. I am inspired to develop in our pupils, staff and parents a knowledge of the phenomenal talent present in our country and to celebrate with them the wonderful place we call home.
The next local TED event is in Stellenbosch – I intend to be there and would love to take some of our staff along for the experience! If you are going to be there, please send a tweet to @artpreston so that we can meet up and share our “ideas worth sharing”!