I long ago lost count the number of mistakes I have made as a school principal and literacy leader. My errors are often the product of not practicing what I preach as it relates to effective literacy instruction for students.
For example, I created a vision board in our staff lounge and invited faculty to join me in adding to it.
Can you guess how many contributions staff have made to it? If you said “zero”, you are wiser than I was in the beginning. I even added the title “Vision Board” to the top to be clear about what it was. Similarly, I attempted to host a staff book club using Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s memoir, encouraging teachers to respond in writing to a part of the text. A few teachers wrote pieces at first, but the project faded over the course of the year.
Initially, I felt guilty about the time and resources spent in developing these activities. At one point, I even experienced resentment that the faculty did not respond more positively. When a teacher expressed concern on behalf of colleagues that they didn’t have the time, I was tempted to counter with “Then how can we be okay with expecting our students to read 20 minutes a night, or demanding that students’ parents sign off on their reading logs each evening?”
Of course, if I had expressed these feelings, it would not have ended well. Even if I were right, it wouldn’t have been the right response. Teachers likely would have become upset by my reaction. Negative feelings could have been created around a literacy activity, which was counterintuitive to my purpose of building a community of readers.
What is the goal?
Mistakes can be reframed as opportunities for learning, instead of stewing on them or feeling guilty about initially unsuccessful actions. In the case of the two activities I described here, I learned through reflection that I didn’t involve faculty in the development of them. I was creating something for the staff instead of co-creating the experience with them. This omission resulted in a lack of engagement and ownership in the work, which led to little to no empowerment of faculty to help lead and guide this community-building experience.
So where does this leave us? How can we co-create a community of readers as a faculty with the larger goal of modeling for our students what we want to see in their lives as literate individuals? When I don’t have the answers, I turn to people wiser than me. In this case, Regie Routman offers an entire section of her new book Literacy Essentials on engagement.
Regie defines engagement as “the attention, commitment, and eagerness learners show in inquiring, creating, and responding to a question or a learning opportunity” (6). This understanding is different than how one might initial describe engagement. It’s good to clarify that engagement is not just focusing our mind on the task at hand; it is becoming emotionally and cognitively involved in the process of the learning experience. When I asked our teacher to participate in the community activities, there was no opportunity for them to commit. Additionally, they had little involvement in the creation of the vision board or the book club.
Spring is an opportune time to rethink our upcoming professional learning experiences. Our instructional leadership team and I are discussing next year’s focus on deepening our understanding of effective reading instruction and applying these practices to the classroom. With these teacher leaders, we decided to spend the first three months of the coming fall to do a deep dive into self-selected resources on the topic. We generated a list of books, online resources, and even possible site visits to other schools as options for teachers to take advantage of in the fall. In addition, all faculty will have the option to add resource options to this list. Voice and choice would be paramount in our work.
To emulate a true learning community, we have plans to facilitate a book club-like atmosphere once a month during our weekly PLC time. Time would be provided to read/explore the resources, discuss the information in self-selected groups, and report back to the whole faculty about what was learned. My anticipated role will be to document our increased understanding visibly, such as through a KWL. At the end of this experience, teachers could also be invited (not expected) to provide reviews for the resources they explored and encourage colleagues to continue learning once this deep dive had ended.
The Paradox of School Leadership
As administrators, we feel the pressure to have our students perform at high levels of success. This expectation can lead to principals chasing excellence without first engaging the faculty and students in this collaborative journey. It is the wrong pathway. The paradox of school leadership is that in order to achieve schoolwide student success, we have to give up some level of control over the process. Yet the best results we can hope to attain in our schools is a product of a shared vision and plan we can all celebrate.