In light of Hurricane Harvey and its devastating effects on our community, my heart tells me to back up with some thoughts on leadership presence which, to me, is vitally different from visibility. Early in my administrative career I heard a phrase that I wholeheartedly agree with, “You can’t lead from your office.” I have reflected often on leaders that I felt were supportive and “hands on.” The characteristic of visible stays with me. The idea that to lead an organization in the right direction we must step out of our air-conditioned offices and put our eyes on the happenings of our building remains a concept I firmly embrace. Yet for me when looking to TRANSFORM an organization, a school, visibility will never be enough. In my experience, to be visible is to show support through being seen. To be present means to be physically and emotionally invested in hearing, responding to, and supporting the needs of the organization. There is never a day when I don’t come back to my office after observing classrooms in deep reflection. This reflection is where the work of being present is ignited. From this reflection, teacher leaders are identified and empowered to affect change, next steps for department and campus professional learning are noted, and social emotional supports for staff members in need are put in motion. It boggles my mind when any organization maps out its inflexible plan for employee learning and growth before its clients, in our case our students, have even entered the building. Being present as a leader is truly the idea that we must constantly put ourselves in situations to be able to respond to staff needs, so that they are more apt to put themselves in situations to respond to the diverse needs of their students. School transformation will never be supported on a series of professional learning requirements that are disconnected from the needs of the students our teachers are teaching tomorrow. Being present allows us as leaders to make “real life” decisions regarding the support our teachers need to change learners’ lives. Our leadership agenda must never drive the learning requirements of our staff. So… you better believe when our staff and students return after the devastation from Hurricane Harvey… my faculty meeting will not be about the state appraisal system or technology initiatives. It will be about holding hands and weathering this recovery together. This comes through presence.
In my last post, I shared that as we began defining learning and our purpose as educators a common theme emerged- fear of losing control, fear of chaos, and fear of non-compliance. “We cannot pull small groups of students during class time because the other students cannot be trusted to finish their assignments. “Our students are not self-motivated or self-directed.” These are just a few of the fear statements we heard as we explored higher yield instructional practices than lecture for 45 minutes. I use the phrase “fear statements” as opposed to excuses or resistance because, in my opinion, 95% of teachers want to do what is best for kids. They want to create optimal learning environments but fear of losing control of their classroom impedes the implementation of high yield instructional practices. I title this “detrimental compliance.” When the operations of our schools and classrooms are driven more by compliant children than engaged children, we run the risk of “superficial learning.” To me superficial learning is the belief that if students are quiet, compliant, and seated then they are learning. This could never be more untrue. It is no secret that procedures, rules, and expectations are necessary in any organization, however when we begin to mistake meeting behavioral expectations for learning we are in BIG trouble. When we fail to see that the operations of our classrooms and our schools are impeding learning through silencing our students and teachers voices then we run the risk of breeding a complacent culture. A culture where students nor teachers feel they have a sense of agency or empowerment. When eventually we have succeeded in shushing all innovation, inquiry, and passion then what happens next is frightening. Next we just exist, not flourish, not grow, not improve- just exist. This has dramatics effects on the “soul and spirit” of organizations. Status quo is celebrated and new ideas are annoyances. Passion is called overzealous and mediocrity is masked as excellence. Caution: Compliance is NOT the same thing as engagement. Engagement must be in place to ensure learning.
Let’s continue our beliefs conversation… what do we believe is the definition of learning. After a very clear understanding has been established that people are our most valued resources over programs comes the importance of defining what we do in school. As elementary as this sounds, this is one of those crucial conversations that if left out will result in people moving in different directions and meaningless initiatives that lead to purposeless change or even worse yet complacency. For us at Brookside, it started as a conversation about our mission. Through these conversations, it was discovered that we did not all agree on our purpose nor did we agree on what learning looks like on our campus. In my experience, we can often mistake teaching for learning. Unfortunately, just because we taught it doesn’t mean our students learned it. This was a messy, personal, and controversial topic – who would have thought? As I reflect now, I believe it was because we had lost real sight of our purpose as educators on our campus. We focused on the teaching and the teacher in all that we did- the lesson planning, the school operations, the kinds of clubs and organizations offered, and in how we communicated. Because we were out of focus, we failed to remember whom we really serve- our students. The challenge next was to ask ourselves, “Are we doing what is best for our learners or what makes us comfortable?” Uh oh- this means we had to address comfort zones, fear, complacency, accountability, and control. As we began to focus more on WHO we taught first then we were more prepared to talk about HOW to best teach our WHO. This resulted in each department publishing agreed upon best instructional practices that we vowed to employ from that point forward. As new pedagogical research is shared and as students’ needs demand something different, we revisit our published practices. The idea is that we agree on what is high yield and what is not based on ongoing response to our learners. We commit to letting go of practices that makes us comfortable and agree to allow our learners to lead our instructional decisions. So we find ourselves back at valuing people (our students) over pre-packaged plans. You see… if we as leaders value our people (educators) they will then feel compelled to value their people (students). One thing I left out that emerged as a big monster through these messy yet meaningful conversations was… CONTROL. COMPLIANCE. RULES. So… up next comes the belief system we had to delve deeper into… a compliant community vs. a learning community.
As mentioned in my first post, transformation of any kind starts with what is going on in the heads of the people belonging to the organization – their beliefs. This is because to shift beliefs in the minds of our educators in schools, we must first ignite and inspire their hearts. In my experience, our belief systems drive our daily actions, interactions, and our words. Therefore, the first belief that I find is vital in beginning to transform schools into learning communities is the belief that your power to create school improvement ALWAYS lies in the right people over programs. Time and time again, we buy into high dollar programs in hopes that this will create the change we need to see in our schools. Then when we don’t see the changes we felt we were promised, we blame the effectiveness of the program. If the teachers in our schools do not feel they are agents of change, that students success lies in their hands, or that they are not trusted to make important decisions that can increase student learning, improvement WILL never come to fruition. It is absolutely the Principal’s job to create campus structures to support teacher efficacy, leadership, and voice. We must create environments where teachers are empowered to quit asking permission to innovate and recognize that this is promoted and expected as a response to students’ needs. When we continue to allow each other to blame programs, we not only waste money, but worse yet, we perpetuate a culture of weak teacher agency and efficacy. School transformation is highly dependent upon EMPOWERED educators who thrive off of risk taking and innovation. This kind of leadership requires vulnerability as it implies you, as the leader, do not have all the answers, but will support establishing the conditions for their success ideas. Stay tuned for some stories of ways we have tried this…
Below is a picture of our “Let’s Hear It For Our Heroes” event held as a welcome back for our heroes, our teachers, on their first day back from summer break.
This blog is the result of years and years of reflection of how to truly transform school into a learning community in which students, teachers, parents, and community are all working together to support student learning. I am often asked how do you go about this enormous task of transforming a school into a community which prioritizes its sole purpose to support student learning. I will start by sharing that it is always a journey. It must always remain a journey because students change, communities change, and research shows us higher yield instructional practices. Having served as a Principal at multiple campuses, I have to come to discover having a understanding of the steps of school transformation is possible. However, make no mistake school transformation has more to do with belief shifts than it does with check lists and action steps. Although these are necessary, no action without common and agreed upon beliefs will yield any improvement. In fact, it will create change for change sake, which, in my experience, creates frustration and resentment. Here in this blog, I will back up to chart what I have been able to learn about school transformation, as well as journal the continuing journey of creating a learning community within a public school of diverse needs, abilities, beliefs, and backgrounds.