What is the most important message principals need to hear? As educators we are driven by the passion to make a difference in the lives of others. How might we best do that in the schoolhouse?
A principal’s job, like a teacher’s, is huge and complex. Where do we direct our energy? How do we focus on important notions like action research, differentiated instruction, co-teaching, collaborative inquiry, lesson-study approach, or book studies in the midst of PACS, concerts, assemblies, scheduling timetables, balancing classes, newsletters, supervision, broken arms, and more. Ultimately, our primary goal is to ensure, “Every student receives excellent instruction every day in every class” (Knight, 2011). But how do we do it? Where does professional learning fit in the midst of all this?
Decades ago, Peter Senge asked managers, “If people imagine their organizations as an ocean liner and themselves as the leaders, what is their role?” How would you reply to that question? Responses ranged from the navigator, social director, captain, to engineer. However, Senge posits that there is a role that eclipses them all, “The neglected role is that of the designer of the ship. No one has a more sweeping influence on the ship than the designer…it’s fruitless to be the leader in an organization that is poorly designed.” This speaks to the necessity of using “design thinking” to create the architecture within the schoolhouse. Principals, and teachers too, need to think about creating the systems that ensure we can maximize the learning of everyone in the schoolhouse (as discussed in Knight, 2011).
Foundational to this system is creating a culture of learning that permeates the organization. Learning is “la joie de la vie” and it is the lifeblood of educators. Schools that are vibrant, alive and growing are grounded in a culture of learning. For educators, learning is a social enterprise. We do our finest learning in relationship with others. As Peter Benson underscores, “Relationships are the oxygen of human development.”
Our optimal learning occurs when we do it together. We establish a focus together. It’s not my focus, but a shared focus. The voice of teachers and their ownership in the work of the schoolhouse is honored. Shared goals, in response to the identified needs of the students, are meaningful to all. It has less to do with a school plan and more to do with the process that helps us identify where we need to go. As Doug Reeves declares, “The size and prettiness of the plan is inversely related to the quality of action and the impact on student learning.” Michael Fullan is more succinct: “Fat plans don’t move.” The question to ask, “Is everyone committed to moving in the same direction?”
Critical to creating this learning culture and having a focus together is to actually find and make time to examine practice. One of the biggest challenges for teachers, and administrators, is finding time to focus on improving classroom instruction. If we think about the design of the ship, we can create the opportunities for finding time together. In Powerful Professional Development, the authors devote a whole chapter to exploring ways to find time to engage in dialogue in the schoolhouse.
Finally, when we create a learning culture, have a shared focus, and provide time for thoughtful dialogue…we need to consider how we might structure that time to leverage its effectiveness. We want to move beyond the single event professional development to a lived culture of professional learning. We can find tools that provide greater leverage for learning. Having a variety in our toolkit allows us to find the right tool for the right time and context. The tools are not just for principals; any staff can pick a tool for their purpose. We are mindful, however, that some tools (eg. the lesson study approach) can be more powerful for improving student learning.
If our goal is to ensure, “Every student receives excellent instruction every day in every class” then we need to create a system that maximizes learning for all. Whether it is teacher or principal or student or parent, when we establish a community of learners, focused together, and engaged in productive dialogue, we will maximize everyone’s learning. And really, isn’t that the responsibility of each and every one of us in the schoolhouse?
Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction by Jim Knight (2011) is a must-read and informed both my thinking and writing.
Dana & Yendol-Hoppey’s (2010) Powerful Professional Development: Building Expertise with the Four Walls of Your School has lots of practical applications.
Thank you to Chris Kennedy for inspiring my Slideshare and blog.
My learning was amplified through twitter sources.