Imagination in Leadership

Imagination has factored into my life in a myriad of significant ways. It is largely responsible for many of my happiest memories in childhood, teaching, and parenting. The role of imagination in my leadership has been more obtuse. Is there room for imagination in the many management responsibilities and competing priorities of principals and vice-principals? Although I know in my heart it has to loom large, I have been struggling to articulate it.

When I was young, developing the imaginative ability of children was not a priority goal.  School was task oriented.  I remember my Grade 5 teacher closing the curtains so we would focus on copying the notes from the board rather than the snow falling outside.  I spent the morning staring at the curtains, imagining what it would look like at recess.  You did the work and then the recess or lunch bell rang, and we spilled out onto the playground.  The holes in the chain link fence meant that play easily extended into the forested areas bordering the school.  After school, we were set free to run with the neighbourhood kids and be home for dinner.  My bike was another appendage of my body and it took me off to explore, build forts, and discover.

My parents’ divorce made travel part of my early life. First by car. Then by plane. I learned there were lots of places to explore and lots of different ways to live with different expectations and rules of engagement. We were still free to roam the Hollywood Hills and the wilds of the Sierra Nevadas. Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm provided a window into how adults can structure imaginative play.

As a first-year teacher, every Friday the Shape of the Day was titled Friday Fun Day with coloured chalk and large swirling letters.  It was a day devoted to engaging students in learning in wild and wonderful ways.  My Grade 2 students actively participated in planning our explorations.  That was the year that Krista Pera hand sewed a shiny fabric bauble at Christmas for my tree and demonstrated that anything was possible if you created space for it.  Inquiry brought a structure to my teaching practice that allowed me and my students to go after finding the answers to interesting questions.  Imagination was a habit of mind that I brought to my practice and continued in my teaching of elementary, secondary ELL, and post secondary.

There is a comradarie between teachers that exists in many schools that makes teaching rewarding and filled with lifelong friends.  I was fortunate to have many colleagues that would spark ideas that became great learning adventures for my students and me.  I also had many enthusiastic colleagues who were willing to ask questions and play with ideas.  The strong professional development wing of the BCTF and supportive principals provided funding and many opportunities for distributed leadership to allow our imaginations to flourish. 

As a parent, my first born led the charge into imaginative play. His grasp of the possibilities without any concern for safety, took me to new places. How do you create a safe context and an opportunity to explore was my quest. His sister arrived and followed his lead with abandon. I walked into her room one day to witness her brother’s scaffolded instructions for how to escape from her crib. He assumed the role of Batman. She had no alternative but to be Robin. Just as my sister and I had been many moons ago ( to quote my mother). The Dynamic Duo wanted challenge and adventure. Imagination was not taught, but spaces were created for it. And yes, sometimes they included trips to the Emergency ward. As they grew older, outlets for creativity were formalized through many sets of lessons, and classes as Place Des Arts. Imagination was not only part of free play, but also expressed in clay, paint, crayon, music, and pencil. For our son, even biking and snowboarding became acts of imagination. It became as much a part of the process as muscle memory.

Last Sunday, my husband and I jumped on our bikes and did our standard route around Stanley Park.  En route home, a car stopped at a red light on a busy street, suddenly decided to make a quick right turn to avoid the light and didn’t notice me stopped in the bike lane beside him.  In my peripheral vision, I saw him and muscle memory from years of trail riding and riding along logs in bike playgrounds kicked in.  I jumped off the other side of my bike while he drove into the front tire of my bike and knocked it down.  It was a habit.  I learned long ago on my Brody Mountain bike that sometimes, you just need to bail.  I think that’s what it’s like with imagination.  The more you think divergently and aspire to problem solve creatively; the more opportunities present themselves.  It becomes a habit to think wide and consider possibilities. 

Organizational skills and problem-solving ability are required parts of the job of principals and vice principals.  It is the foundational piece for administrators, as classroom management is to teachers.  Imagination is not a prerequisite or even a standard expectation. Professional development, diploma programs, graduate work, training for faculty associates, and teaching teachers in China allowed me to further develop my skill level in tandem with my vision of possibilities for learners.  Imagination is required to envision what education could be beyond a current reality.  It is present in those administrators who are able to formulate a vision of the possibilities.  That vision may reach beyond the specific context and limitations that exist.  If being imaginative has become a habit in the principal or vice-principal, it kicks in just like muscle memory.   It needs to be fed by hope in order to flourish.  If we hold tight to the fact that we have the capacity to make a positive difference in the world, we can enlist our imagination to aspire to bring a possibility to life.  And if we are lucky, the spark will ignite the imagination of others. 

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