How does the leader model risk taking? #askanadmin

One of my good principal friends, Amber Teamann, started a blog series this July called #askanadmin. In this series of posts this summer, you’ll find answers from oustanding practicing school leaders to tackle many of the questions that aspiring administrators and practicing administrators ask one another.  You can follow all of these posts at her blog and check out the twitter hashtag #askanadmin.

Jessica Cabeen and I teamed up to answer the question: How does the leader model risk taking? Here is our response that you can find originally posted on Amber’s blog HERE.

Jessica Cabeen:

Listen….Learn….Lead has become my mantra when modeling risk taking on our campus.

Before jumping into the next new intervention, tech tool or curriculum  I listen to what teachers, students and other leaders are saying.  Then I take the time to really learn as much as I can about the concept and its application on our campus.  Finally I take any role necessary to make the change successful. Here is a concrete example of this mantra in action:

Computational Thinking, Coding…Kindergarten?  

Listen:  What do students know about robotics?  Are families tuned into the importance of computer science?  How are teachers incorporating computational thinking into instruction?

Learn:  I keyed into leaders like Dr. Brad Gustafson and Adam Welcome.  I read research from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Center for Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erickson Institute.

Lead:  From that point I jumped in and started teaching Coding Club at Woodson (#PackInTrain), we also started offering “play dates” for PreK-4th grade teachers during professional development days and included coding, robotics and makerspace time so we could all grow together with a common goal of amplifying student learning.

Using this framework when jumping in provides me with a structure that grounds me in research, allows me to listen to staff/student/family voice, and gives me an opportunity to support new learning for students (as well as adults).


Jessica Cabeen is a former Middle School administrator and current elementary principal.  She has lead at the Woodson Kindergarten Center since 2012 and enjoys learning in the ‘Happiest Place in Southeastern Minnesota!’.  She is the 2017 National Distinguished Principal in Minnesota and a 2016 NAESP/Vinci Digital Leader for Early Learning Award Winner.  You can connect with her on twitter @JessicaCabeen or her blog:


Jessica (Me):

Are you a Lifeguard or a Swimmer?  Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks this great metaphorical question about whether or not you are walking the talk. He explains:
I connected immediately to this comparison, because with every new initiative in our building, I have fully immersed myself into the learning and actions right alongside my teachers, which models my risk taking for them:“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” (pp.14-15)

  • When we purchased different tech devices to explore with, I volunteered to teach in classrooms so I could use their classrooms as “guinea pigs” to model lessons and learn along with the classes (teachers and students!) before encouraging all to jump in with me. This was foundational for what later turned into a full 1:1 iPad initiative.
  • When we implemented a new literacy and math program, I fully immersed myself in the learning with lead teachers to roll out training to all staff, even though each was not an area of expertise for me. I even taught a summer school class using the new literacy model before it was required for all to implement in the fall. This old dog can learn new tricks too!
  • When teachers ask me questions that I don’t know the answer to, I don’t pretend that I know. I am honest and tell them I don’t know, but I will seek to find out. My superpower is connecting with other colleagues on Twitter/Voxer to find out!
  • I continued to grow from my Professional Learning Network, seeking out others with far more experience to learn from the obstacles they overcame and how they made it successful. I formed a group of those experienced in leading with Math Expressions and we met on several Google Hangouts. I’ve joined in Voxer discussion groups specific to Units of Study for Reading and Writing and joined in the hashtag #tcrwp for further learning. I continue to share from their lessons learned, along with sharing suggestions and other resources with our teachers.
  • I have been the voice for my staff to say, “nothing new” in response to potential new initiatives, because I knew how much was on their plates. I believe that administrators are more likely to put too many initiatives in place when they are not swimming with their teachers, because they don’t have a full understanding of all of the hard work teachers are doing. If you swim with them, you get it.


Jessica Johnson just completed her 9th year as the Elementary School Principal and District Assessment Coordinator at Dodgeland School District in Juneau, Wisconsin. She is also an adjunct professor in the Education Leadership Department at Viterbo University. She is the 2014 National Distinguished Principal for Wisconsin and has co-authored the books The Coach Approach to School Leadership (ASCD, 2017) and Breaking Out of Isolation (Corwin, 2015). You can connect with her on Twitter: @PrincipalJ or her blog:



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