Embedding Learning

In The Principal, Michael Fullan makes the distinction between instructional leadership and learning leadership. Instructional leadership, though well-intentioned as a strategy, creates the persona of the principal as the expert instructor and evaluator. In this role, the principal espouses knowledge and attempts to pass this along through individual teacher evaluation and feedback systems. This probably also involves large group, one-size-fits-all professional development.

A learning leader, in contrast, learns alongside the faculty. This leader is a master manager in terms of creating systems and structures that allow for collaboration and embedded continuous learning. The learning leader’s primary role is to develop ‘group efficacy’ by focusing on the group, not the individual. Most importantly, it’s leader remains a learner, someone who models redefinition, refinement and failure.

In my own leadership journey, I have experienced this all too well. Years ago, as a fledgling assistant principal, I was shocked at how little impact faculty meeting presentations or individual goal-setting had on creating any lasting change. Mind you, these were interactive presentations that involved discussion and creation, and goal-setting was personalized and centered on school goals. Yet all too often, most teachers went back to their classrooms and did what they did.

Things improved greatly once we built a master schedule that embedded common planning time into the school day. Teams met daily to plan together, learn together and engage in dissonance together. Still, the efficacy of the team varied greatly, so we added another layer.

Once our admin team became a regular part of team meetings, we really started to grow as a collaborative culture. Though we were largely listening members who attended only once every 2-3 weeks and did not set agendas, we became an integral part of the dialogue. We engaged in regular professional conversations with teams of colleagues and we were part of the planning and goal-setting process. Between team meetings and regular walkthroughs, we knew our programs inside/out, which helped us communicate accurately with the community and cross-pollinate ideas across departments. We were also able to promote fidelity to our mission, assessment philosophy and other school initiatives. And when needed, we were able to help groups function more positively.

We were proud of our structures and our ability to build a culture of collaboration. In fact, I’m still proud of our work in this regard.

However, once we added learning coaches to the structure, things really started to move!

Fullan writes that instructional leadership is a myth because we learn more from our peers than authority figures. Thus, by nature of position, people will learn less from their principal. Certainly, in my own experience, there were times of deflation where I was left wondering why teachers didn’t engage in an idea I had. If all ideas are created equal, why were mine less so?

  • though I was a regular member, I didn’t attend every meeting
  • I was a member of multiple teams, so I could not follow through on implementation of ideas
  • some of it probably was positional, as Fullan notes

Learning coaches, however, can become an integral part of the team. In my last year as principal, I worked closely with a literacy coach and a technology coach, who worked closely with our teams, meeting regularly and setting team goals. The growth in our teams was phenomenal (both in literacy and technology) and we all learned together – teacher, coach and principal.

More importantly, ideas were implemented with the guidance of coaches, so teachers received continuous, job embedded support.

Most importantly, the impact on student learning was tangible and real. Even when one wasn’t in love with a structure (such as Writers Workshop in place of direct instruction), we could not argue the impact it had on student writing.

For years, principals have been schooled to develop the capacity of the individual teacher.  Fullan points out the futility of such exercises, focusing the learning leader on the group so that the leader becomes “the curator of positive contagion…who models learning, but also shapes the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis.”

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