One of the greatest strengths that literacy leaders can bring to their schools is a willingness and the ability to be vulnerable. We think we need to come into a culture with all of the ideas that will “fix” a situation. Maybe someone gave us this directive. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Being honest about our areas for growth can be a source of strength and can even bring teachers together to become co-leaders of a literacy initiative. This idea of vulnerability arose during a recent house project.
For two years we have known that our backyard deck, as well built as it might be, did not have an adequate railing. The metal conduit would pop out. A few posts were loose. It got to a point, I think, where we would not spend time in our backyard for the simple fact that it always reminded us of the work that needed to be done.
What was holding us back from fixing it? One word: pride. Specifically, mine. I told myself that I could fix this railing adequately and could avoid hiring a carpenter. Yet after almost two years of no progress, I came to grips with the realization that I needed help. I asked a family friend, an accomplished carpenter, to fix our railing after I had stained some of the boards. In three days, it was done. Since then, we have spent every evening on the back porch with family to enjoy some pre-dinner snacks and drinks.
The point to be made here is, there should be no shame for school leaders in admitting that they may lack knowledge regarding what needs to be known about literacy. Honesty is a great policy. There are several reasons for this.
- When we admit we don’t know something, we actually increase trust with our faculty. This seems counterintuitive but it is true. When we communicate a gap in our knowledge, we are perceived as more human and fallible. This increases trust. I realize there can be a thin line at times between vulnerability and incompetence, but literacy knowledge is impossible to fake. We either know it or we don’t. Let’s be honest with our faculty as well as with ourselves and start learning.
- Being honest about our lack of knowledge allows other faculty members to become leaders. If I had been stubbornly prideful to the end, I would not have the nice deck to enjoy today. By being honest about my inexperience and reaching out to more knowledgeable individuals, I gave them a chance to shine and be successful. The same holds true in schools. Principals and other administrators are wise when they lean on their resident experts to guide faculty toward more promising literacy practices.
- Leaders can position themselves as true learners with faculty when they are vulnerable. In my current school, we recently completed the Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection professional development program. Even though I had already participated in this series at my last elementary school, I was dutiful about rewatching each session with the teachers. I took notes and participated in professional conversations. My modeling of being a lifelong learner is as important as anything I might say during these sessions. Probably more so.
Principals: please don’t leave this post thinking you should air out all of our inadequacies during your first meeting with teachers this fall. That’s not with this is about. Instead, I simply suggest becoming more aware of the areas in which you lack knowledge or experience with regard to excellent literacy instruction. Be honest about this gap. Let others lead when necessary. Be a learner with teachers. After eighteen years as a classroom teacher and administrator, I still come into each September with a feeling of anticipation of what I might discover. Isn’t that the point of education?