What keynote speakers can and cannot do

Dennis Sparks

Keynote speakers and “presenters” at conferences and other events can provide a sense of direction and sometimes even inspire change. On occasion they may stimulate breakthrough thinking or model an effective teaching strategy.

But they cannot do the hardest work of real change, what I call “the final 2%” — solve challenging problems within the unique context of the school, deepen understanding of new practices, teach skills, engage in dialogue to examine assumptions, and have difficult and even courageous conversations.

The final 2% is the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation.

Keynoters and presenters cannot do that work, although they may inform and motivate it. Everything else is up to the principals and teachers leaders who are closest to both the problems and to their solutions.

Question: What leadership actions have you observed in schools or district offices that truly engage the school community in solving complex problems, promote deep professional learning, and/or engage the community in crucial conversations?


2 Responses to “What keynote speakers can and cannot do”

  1. 1 Cathy Gassenheimer January 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

    What a wise post. As I read it, I reflected on several points: First, the difference between keynote speakers, presenters, and facilitators. Good facilitators can at least try to set-up processes that can better guarantee that participants will follow through. Of course, as you note, it is up to the participants to make that commitment. It is easier for participants if the facilitators model the type of powerful learning strategies that can make a difference.
    Secondly, I’m reminded of the vast number of resources available to teachers and administrators ranging from tools to help implement the Common Core, strengthen the use of formative assessment, etc. Those of us who work with schools can connect them to those resources, but as you note, it is up to them to use it.
    Third, revisiting a topic that we’ve discussed frequently: building capacity vs. building codependency: It is incumbent on those of us who work with districts and schools to ensure that we are crafting a gradual release of responsibility from the consultant to the district/school.
    The schools and districts with which we work and where we see strong impact, have a clear focus for improvement. District and school leaders participate in the professional learning side-by-side with their teachers. Administrators, instructional coaches and teacher leaders follow-up with their colleagues between sessions. And, because we value and foster lateral learning, we see evidence of teachers and leaders collaborating with other districts in a variety of ways — electronically, through Instructional Rounds and/or site visits, and at our meetings.
    To use a somewhat tired metaphor, we hope that we are a little like Johnny Appleseed. We work side-by-side with the schools and districts to plant the seeds. But the watering, fertilizing, harvesting, etc. is ultimately up to them.

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks January 16, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Your work, Cathy, and that of your center is an excellent example of preparing administrators and teacher leaders to do the demanding day-to-day work of continuously improving teaching and learning. Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us.

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