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.

Teachers as Learners

I have seen this posted more than once:

My job is to teach. Your job is to learn.

I understand the main message. Students need to buckle down and get to work. This allows teachers the time and space to guide their students toward becoming independent learners.

But at second glance, what is also being implied? That a teacher is not a learner, nor a student a teacher?

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photo credit: Ian Boyd via photopin cc

I am currently rereading Improving Schools From Within by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass, 1990). This is the resource that got me interested in the principalship. One part I read this morning is still rattling around in my head:

Implicit in many of the lists of school reforms is a vision of school as a place where students learn and adults teach, where the role of educators is to serve, not be served. Because schools and those who work in them are accountable for pupils’ achievement and because no amount of pupil achievement is sufficient to place every student in the top half of the class, pupil learning usually preempts adult learning. Yet only a school that is hospitable to adult learning can be a good place for students to learn (46).

As I read, I am continually amazed at how prescient this book is, considering it was written a quarter century ago. I agree with Barth that the best educators are learners: Learners of best practice, learners of child development, learners of their own students, learners of their colleagues’ strengths. The best educators also guide students to be teachers and resources for one another.

When schools are able to bridge these collective attitudes into one coherent set of beliefs, that is when true improvement can take place. This is not reform, where something needs to be fixed. Rather, it is a transformation into something better than it once was.

Adult learning is not only a means toward the end of student learning, but also an important objective in its own right (47).