Several years ago a teacher from another school made an appointment with me to discuss the potential of him coming to my school for a new experience. He was interested in going into formal leadership in a school and had only taught at one school in our system and it was suggested that he seek out other opportunities even though he had taught internationally.
We had a pleasant enough meeting and he let me know what he was looking for but then he asked me a question, “If you had to describe your vision for your school, what would it be?” I paused for a moment and my thoughts went something like this…
Shouldn’t I know this?
Shouldn’t I be able to articulate this clearly, without thought because it is what I believe and who I am and why I think I have any business being in this role at all?
When the insecurities and self doubt eased up a bit a tiny little sentence popped into my head.
I want my school to be a learning community.
Then, like anyone who knows me would expect, I couldn’t stop. I started to describe what that would mean, how it would look and most importantly, how it would feel.
People listening to each other — really listening with the intent to learn.
People learning from one another and with one another.
People taking risks, asking questions, seeking out answers to those questions with their colleagues, community, other schools and other teachers, experts and most importantly, their students.
Multiple voices explaining different points of view and coming together to creatively solve problems in a space that values dissonance.
Breaking down hierarchies in the school and expanding beyond the walls of the classroom and our school.
Valuing, honouring, learning from and interacting with the lived experiences and knowledge of our school community.
Then he says to me, “This reminds me of your thesis. You wrote about the spaces of possibility.”
That was it. We had our Jerry McGuire moment. He had me at “this reminds me of your thesis…” Other than my thesis committee, I am not sure anyone has actually read my thesis.
Our chat ended and he never applied to my school because the “right” vacancy didn’t come up for him. Although I was disappointed, I am a firm believer in “everything happens for a reason” so I let it go. A year later, he would be my vice-principal for two amazing years together.
So we continued to develop the idea of a learning community together and all that entailed. We asked ourselves what our role would be in this community and how we can best support others.
As we move to more responsive and personalized professional learning in our schools that is job embedded, teacher directed and differentiated, what type of leader is needed?
It is not enough to have a vision, there needs to be actions tied to the vision.
It is not enough to have actions and goals, the leader needs to be co-learning with the staff through those actions and goals.
It is not enough to share the learning goal with the staff, the leader must also consider what the leader learning is in any given context.
Our learning is different but it is essential that we also learn from, with, on behalf of and alongside our staff, students and community.
In David A Garvin’s essay, Building a Learning Organization, states: “Without accompanying changes in the way that work gets done, only the potential for improvement exists” (July/August 1993, Harvard Business Review, p 4). He outlines the “building blocks” to every learning community:
- Systematic Problem Solving
- Learning from Past Experience
- Learning from Others
- Transferring Knowledge
I would also add Iterative Design.
Yes, we need to engage in experimentation based on our past experiences and learning from others in a problem solving approach, but we have to know our impact through monitoring impact and not through trailing indicators such as summative assessments and standardized testing. We need to know our impact through conversations, co-learning, connecting with students, staff and parents. We need to know our impact through asking questions and participating in learning. When we hear a new idea or new concept from a staff member, we need to read about it! Seth Godin asks, Did you do the reading? Do the reading!
Then, and consistently, we need to listen to the feedback, respond to it and take actions based on the feedback. We need to explicitly show our learning community what changes have taken place, what adaptations, and what questions have been raised as a result of their feedback. Then we start the cycle again — and again and again.