Repositioning Educational Leadership: Leading from an Inquiry Stance

A book that piqued my interest in the principalship was Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass, 1990). During one of my first years as a teacher, I found it while browsing through our professional library. At the time I only knew I should probably go for my masters but I was unsure about any focus.

After reading Barth’s classic resource, I knew what I wanted to study. He shared his own personal journey as a principal, the ups and downs, before conveying his belief that empowered schools have all they need to continuously grow as a community of learners. Barth’s frank and authentic descriptions of the principalship are something I don’t often read about in today’s literature on school leadership.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance (Teachers College Press, 2018) carries Barth’s torch and follows a similar journey. The editors – James Lytle, Susan Lytle, Michael Johanek, and Kathy Rho – have collected a series of narratives from doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. They are research summaries that describe the real problems of practice for these leadership students within their context at the time.

Among the eleven memorable experiences, I want to briefly highlight one narrative that hit home for me as a principal.

“Language and Third Spaces” by Ann Dealy

A principal in Ossining, New York explores the possibilities of implementing a more culturally-relevant curriculum into her increasingly diverse elementary school. What she discovers is that when leaders try to make instructional changes, they also have to consider the school culture and community in the process.

Professional development shifted from looking for answers from outside of the school to studying our students as learners and collaborating on changes in practice to better support teaching and learning (38).

Dealy also learned through her inquiry that, by upgrading a curriculum to be more culturally responsive, other groups may inadvertently experience somewhat similar feelings of being underrepresented.

It became clear that in the effort to open up curricula, we can also inadvertently close out those whose prior dominance we may have been countering (41).

This research helped reveal for Dealy and her partners that the process of organizational change is most effective as a team effort. Not taking into consideration others’ perspectives will likely lead to limited results.

The implementation of best-researched models of equitable practice is a start – but it is not enough. My leadership learnings include the necessity for collective inquiry to affect systemic change (45).

After reading Dealy’s narrative, I reflected on my own experiences when I have not included the broader school community in decision making on behalf of our students. Almost always when I have engaged with others regarding our schools’ needs, the direction we took was positive. The narratives shared in Repositioning Educational Leadership provided necessary perspectives for me as I considered my own context. It also brought me back to the original goal of getting into the principalship: to affect change from within and with many.

Note: A copy of Repositioning Educational Leadership was provided for me at no cost to read and respond to for this post.

Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

Express Gratitude By Blogging

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

This month I have committed to reading one blog post a day and leaving a comment. It’s my way of saying thanks to other educators and writers who take the time to share their thinking online, as well as to frequent the sites of readers of my own blog.

Maybe you don’t have a blog but have always wanted to start one. When I have asked people what’s stopping them, they usually cite one of two reasons: “I don’t have time,” and “I don’t have anything worth sharing.” I won’t argue with the first reason; people’s life circumstances can vary. But the second one is debatable because every educator I know who writes regularly online about their practice is providing a benefit to others as well as themselves.

In fact, sharing our work and our reflections in a public space is one of the best ways to express gratitude for others. Consider the following reasons.

  • Blogging reduces professional isolation. When you write about your experiences and observations in school, other educators who read what you share will often relate. They may realize they are not alone in feeling a certain way about a similar situation, for example, confusion over whether or not to purchase a commercial literacy program. I know this because I have received comments and emails in appreciation for bringing up these topics (and likewise reciprocated on others’ sites). Benefit: other educators.
  • Blogging improves your practice. Through the act of writing about our professional lives, we start a process of reflection. We put our ideas down, reread and see what we initially wrote from a more objective perspective, and then continue writing in response to our thinking. Writing is an act of creation, so it makes sense that we will come to deeper or different understandings about a topic through this process. That will make us better educators, which can impact the staff and students with whom we work. Benefit: our school.
  • Blogging puts our ideas somewhere. I know educators will bring home their challenges, unloading the days’ frustrations onto their spouse and nearest adult. Maybe we feel better, yet I don’t know if this is the best approach to living a fulfilling life. What if you altered some details, not letting “the facts get in the way of the truth”, and published a post around an area of concern? Now we have put these thoughts somewhere that won’t change the mood at home and will likely be appreciated by our colleagues online (see reason #1). If the post is too close to our current school context, leave it as a draft or trash it. The act of reflection itself can be satisfying enough. Benefit: our families/friends.
  • Blogging brings value. The opposite of those who feel like they have nothing to say or share are people who expect to be compensated for all of their writing efforts. Some see blogging as giving away their work. Others worry about their ideas getting lost in all of the tweets and posts. I remember one well-known connected educator remark about blogging: “The market is saturated.”  It’s not. Good ideas always have an audience. And no one has a better point of view about the world of education than those currently practicing within it. Maybe your writing efforts won’t bring in additional income, but it will give you more credibility and visibility, which is of immense value as you navigate your teaching or leading career. Benefit: you and everyone else.

I write this post not to put one more thing on your plate. Rather, I encourage you to rethink your plate. By adding to the collective understanding of education through blogging, we help others and ourselves become more connected, we grow as professionals, we find a healthy outlet for our ideas, and we build on our practice. Writing online about your practice is a selfless action that can benefit everyone, yourself included.

Professional Learning: Engagement Before Anything Else

I believe that when you teach a work of fiction, you should not bring all the baggage that comes with it. You should not fill the minds of the students with the background material. Let the students first connect to the book. Even if that connection is negative, even if they hate it – that reaction belongs to them.

Azar Nafisi, “Enough About Me”, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

Our school’s theme this year is “A Community of Readers”. We believe that creating an environment of authentic inquiry and student-directed discussion will lead to an increase in reading engagement. The expected outcome is growth in comprehending text. We have also come to agree that this outcome is largely a product of lots of time to read and respond to high-interest texts with the support of a knowledgeable teacher.

We are becoming more knowledgeable as a faculty by developing our own community of readers. Teachers have selected one of a variety of faculty-suggested professional resources. Their book choice has determined what groups they are in within the school. Although many of the groups were already formed prior to our book study, i.e. grade level or department, there has been some crossover. The art teacher is meeting with the 4K teachers. 2nd grade and kindergarten are discussing What Are the Rest of My Kids Doing? by Lindsey Moses and Merideth Odgen (Stenhouse, 2017).

Another example: I purchased several copies of each selected text, a few more than requested. As it became known which teachers had what books, some staff members would request a copy of this or that text because they’ve “heard good things” about it. For instance, Conferring with Readers by Jennifer Serravallo and Gravity Goldberg (Heinemann, 2007) is now located in three different grade levels/departments (and counting). I have a running Amazon cart of professional titles. I’m almost afraid to purchase too soon in case one more request comes in.

As I have ordered and handed out these books to teachers, I have been wondering: Would this level of engagement be happening if I had been more directive in this professional book study? The question is rhetorical; the answer is “no”. I recall a schoolwide book study in a previous school in which I was principal. During one all staff book discussion, a teacher remarked that she hadn’t read the assigned chapters…and I was in her discussion group!

I am not advocating for laissez-faire literacy leadership. We need to be working with teacher-leaders to guide the direction of the faculty’s professional learning focus. But the more we try to steer toward a specific outcome, the greater the likelihood that we will disengage our faculty in building our collective knowledge. In fact, our expected outcome might change – what does “growth in comprehending text” really mean? This is the paradox that I have struggled to deal with in the past because we should simply “deal with”. Instead, appreciate the journey we are taking as professionals. Be more curious than constraining. There is more than one pathway toward schoolwide literacy success.

 

 

Innovation in Education

I walked into a classroom that was modeling the story structure process. The teacher had provided one-word sentence starters as a guide. The students were using this structure to organize a personal narrative in their writing journals.

There is little doubt the world has changed with the advent of technology and globalization. It is hard to imagine some of the jobs people have today existing even twenty years ago. Schools are, like any large enterprise, challenged to keep up.

But does that mean we are “behind the times”? What if some of the practices we have utilized in the past are, in fact, timeless? Consider the story structure I saw in the classroom. It is very similar to what Pixar Animation uses when they plan out a movie:

Once upon a time there was ___.

Every day, ___.

One day ___.

Because of that, ___.

Because of that, ___.

Until finally ___.

Pretty innovative, right? Pixar uses a tried and true structure to create some of the most technologically advanced media today. This company has one toe in the 21st century and the other in an abiding idea. Pixar knows it works due to their success both financially and in the awards and the accolades they have received.

Of course, some ideas in education do need to be relegated to the past. That goes for every complex profession. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that continued to use mercury to treat health issues. So we do have an obligation to be critical consumers of instructional approaches, both tried and new. That’s why reflecting on our beliefs and discussing the impact of our practice on student learning with colleagues is important.