In a way, the job of school district administrator is like a tugboat. If you have ever watched a tugboat work, it appears far too small for it’s job of maneuvering huge ships around a crowded harbor. Yet a smart tugboat pilot knows exactly where to push or pull on that ship to ease it into the needed location. Administrators, likewise, need to lead through influence, and must choose carefully where they nudge and tug on the enormous mass of a school district organization to guide it exactly where it needs to be.

There is a great deal of conversation around 21st century skills for students, and how teachers need to help students accomplish them. Something that has come out of my conversations at ASCD this weekend is the need for 21st century skills for administrators. Our roles and responsibilities must change in order to meet the needs of our students and teachers. The ships are different today–they are bigger, heavier, and balanced differently. The harbors are different, too–different layouts, depths and organization. The key pivot points, therefore, are in new places, and require a different touch.

Some things I believe 21st century administrators need to know, understand, and be able to do:

  1. Get connected. Tom Whitby, Eric Sheninger, and George Couros are three of the biggest proponents of administrators getting connected with other educators. Unless you know and interact with other people in your field, your point of view and your understanding of the context will be narrow and skewed. The world is much larger than your building or district office, and chances are that someone else has already been through what you’re about to go through. Having a coach, or better yet, a whole collection of coaches, empowers you to accomplish things you couldn’t otherwise do. Tugboats sometimes tag team, and so should we.
  2. Be Humble. The tugboat is the least flashy, least visible, least interesting boat in the river. And yet the harbor would not be able to function without it. The administrator is essential to the functioning of a school. Our job, however, is not to be the figurehead. Instead it is to facilitate everyone else’s job. The tugboat does not deliver any goods; that is the cargo ship’s job. The tugboat just makes it possible to get into position to get the delivery done. Be transparent. Open up to your staff and community about what is working, what you are struggling with, and how you are thinking as you move through any process.
  3. Model. If you are promoting 21st century skills, know them and practice them. Be creative, collaborate, practice good communication, and think critically. Use technology in authentic and embedded ways. Be globally aware (which connects back to #1). Innovate. Encourage a safe environment for learning and risk-taking. Are these easy to do? No, but they will not happen in classrooms unless they are happening on a building and district level.
  4. Be a Lifelong Learner. We expect our students to become lifelong learners; it is stated or implied in the mission statement of just about every school district. We expect our teachers to be lifelong learners so that they can model this for the students. How can we expect it for all of them without holding ourselves to the same standard? Read voraciously, take courses, participate in book studies, attend conferences (in person or virtually), read some more. Sit in on classes and workshops run by your teachers, not because you want to observe and supervise them, but because you want to learn what they’re teaching.

What other skills are important for a 21st century administrator? What have I left out or not considered? How might even these skills change in the next few years, and how can we anticipate them? Share your thoughts in the comments.