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.”

Lean In

Some rights reserved by Lauren Manning

In our profession, we often create a deficit-based climate because we focus on what we are not doing rather than on what we are doing. We are constantly looking for areas of growth, and it is common to feel inadequate. In fact, in the blog post “Focus on Your Strengths,” the author notes that it is almost impossible to feel successful as an educator because teaching requires three very distinct and different traits. Hence, we may be strong in two of the three, yet constantly focus on our deficit. Instead of comparing our weaknesses to other’s strengths, he suggests we should recognize our own strengths.  

While it is valid to want to learn and grow and to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is also valid to do so while leaning in to our strengths.  

What strengths do you have and what contributions do you make to our profession because of your strengths?

In the same vein, this is a valid strategy to use with students.  In assessment, ask what they are currently doing well and how can they build upon their strengths and successes?  Lean in to their strengths and they will likely be more motivated, more engaged and therefore make greater gains.

It is exhausting to be constantly seeking what isn’t there.  It creates negativity for all parties and strips away joy and passion.  A colleague recently left me a beautiful closing line to a letter: lean in.

Lean in to the work.  Lean in to what you cannot do.  Lean in to your strengths. Whatever the interpretation, lean in.  I promise, you will learn more, grow more and laugh more!

Five Reasons to go Ego-less

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Too much ego is a pervasive, worldwide problem and one that is holding us back.  In my own experiences, I have witnessed (and experienced) how our ego holds us back from collective growth.

When I say ego, I am not talking about Freud’s balance between the Id and the Superego.  I am not referring to self-confidence or self-esteem, and I am certainly not arguing against positive feedback and praise.

When I say ego, I am talking about egotism.  I am talking about the right/wrong dilemma that is so prevalent today.  I am referring to attachment and defensiveness.  And, I am referring to the fixed mindset (versus the growth mindset) that keeps us tied tied to our own self-importance.

In this post, I am arguing for a collective letting go of ego.  Here are five reasons why we need to let go of ego and embrace the discomfort of real growth.

  1. Our ego serves no one, not even ourselves.  When we get attached to an idea, that is our ego refusing to let us grow.  When we get defensive, that is our ego protecting us against vulnerability and discomfort.  But vulnerability and discomfort equal growth.  If we do not practice being uncomfortable, we will never reach our highest potential.
  2. Our ego is detrimental to our goals.  Our ego puts up barriers and tells us that we are right.  Maybe we are, but how does being right serve the goal?  What would be more helpful in moving the situation forward in a positive direction?
  3. Our ego keeps us attached to mediocrity.  Our ego tells us that we are great, wonderful, right…What it doesn’t tell us is that we are also fearful and timid.  Perhaps of being wrong? Rather than being focused on being right, commit to learning more, being better, and serving the greater good.
  4. Our ego equals pride.  Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  Need I say more.
  5. Our ego causes fights.  Our ego eggs us on, tells us that we are right and revels in conflict.  It feeds our anger and makes us feel righteous and indignant.  But, does righteous indignation actually feel good?

If we are truly in the business of learning and growth, we must be learners ourselves.  That means allowing ourselves to be wrong and “inexpert” at some things.  As humans, it means being vulnerable.

Serving our own egos does no one any good, not even ourselves.  So, I am calling for a collective letting go of ego(tism), so that we can all grow, continue to improve, and learn more!

Why Poetry?

The Gaelic Harp traditionally symbolized poets and musicians. Some rights reserved by Neneonline

I’ve just spent a month in Ireland writing poetry in a land of poets. Bliss for someone who loves poetry in a world where poetry is largely tossed into April for National Poetry Month (a practice which I detest, but that’s a different blog post). The reason I was in Ireland for the month was to finish my course work for my MFA…in poetry.

As I’m finishing my degree soon, poetry is at the forefront of much of my conversation of late, and recently someone asked me a brilliant question:

How does poetry inform your work?

He thought it was a common question, but no one has ever posed this question to me, and to be quite honest, I’ve always framed poetry as my indulgent degree. Truly, I have embarked upon my MFA to improve my craft. And yet, upon reflection, poetry most definitely informs my work.

So why poetry?

  • Poetry is beautiful. It allows you to think in images, possibilities and imagination.
  • Poetry is concise and precise. It forces you to be specific, use precise words and foster an economy of language.
  • Poetry is reflection. You aren’t supposed to get it right away, so it forces you to think deeply, reflect and reread for deeper meaning.
  • Poetry is creation. In a world where creativity is making a huge comeback, I love the fact that I get to spend my free moments using words to create something new. And though poetry is a more conventional form of creativity, thinking creatively in one genre transfers to other realms of life.
  • Poetry is the essence of literature, society and language. Yes, I know this is a big claim, but look at how many cultures value poetry, either today or in history, as the foundation of culture, language and politics. I always started my English classes with poetry, for, as I told my students, if you can analyze a poem, you can analyze anything. And if you can write a good poem, you can most certainly write a good essay or story.
  • Poetry is problem-solving. A great professor once told me that writing is 90% revision. Revising poetry is definitely an exercise in problem-solving. Form must serve function. There has to be a balance of heart and head, a “foot on the ground and a foot in the clouds.” Writing a poem can take 10 minutes. Revising a poem can take 10 years. It is a series of deliberate decisions. It requires thought, separation and perseverance. It is the ultimate exercise in problem-solving.

So there it is…my attempt to answer a thought-provoking and valuable question. My work requires creative problem-solving, imagination, patience, reflection, perseverance and a range of other skills that the act of reading and writing poetry give me on a daily basis.

I love bridging connections between distinct areas in life, and now, I have new inspiration for why we should all embark upon a bit of poetry in life.