Leadership is an interesting idea. Often times it seems to be reserved for some people but not for others. Does anyone else struggle with this elite form of thinking? Leadership lives in all of us and we need to support each other to help unlock the potential we all posses.
Our year started by examining this very notion. Our staff watched a wonderful Ted Talk that explained how leadership can happen in lollipop moments. Those moments when you don’t even know you are leading. It’s funny how leadership has become viewed to be more than it is. What happens, when you take it back to something simple? Something so simple as conversing with others. Through rich conversations, where listening and striving to understand are key elements, opportunities begin to abound. Before you know it enthusiasm is generated and ideas begin flowing with endless possibilities.
This very thing happened at our campus when we invited staff to talk about what we wanted to do this year to make a difference for our students and their learning. The conversations began with ideas and before long a vision was born. It was not one person who led this process, but a collective group that trusted each other enough to share the hopes and dreams they have for their students. Our learning board was designed with a purpose…a place to capture those lollipop moments where we share our leadership and inspiration with others. Who knows where this will take us, but the leadership we have in our hearts will guide us to places we never imagined existed at our campus.
Stepping into an unknown place takes courage and involves many leaders to help pave the way. It does not help if all the leaders are attached to different points and pulling in different directions. Clarity and purpose are critical to success. When the leader within us understands the purpose of what is to be accomplished it becomes easier to pull in the same direction. Richard Elmore reminds us not to create”unexamined wallpaper” in our schools. Our classroom practices and school policies cannot become so calcified that we forget to examine how they are affecting student learning. In order to create a culture that supports student learning we cannot be satisfied with doing things the way we have always done. As we move forward towards our goal of creating a culture of readers by developing positive reading habits and essential skills, we will need to examine our purpose and determine if our actions align with our goal. It won’t be easy, but if we keep focused on the culture we are trying to create and student learning is at the forefront, the place where we land is sure to be filled with lollipops and leadership.
This year has been an interesting one for me in that I feel that I have done more learning than I have done leading. Our focus has been on engaging students as readers and I have tried to read and understand as much as I can on this topic. Everything I have read has only confirmed for me what I have always known. Teachers are the experts. It is their tireless efforts to figure things out that has the greatest impact on students. When teachers start asking questions I need to listen and be prepared to push my sleeves up and help look for answers. For some time now our teachers have been asking why we use certain resources and why we have stayed with certain approaches to teach our students. Those questions are never easy to answer sometimes I don’t know. Although the answer is honest, it isn’t very helpful for the person who is looking for direction. People are asking because somehow they can no longer make sense of their approach to teaching and want to do better. I need to be prepared for this type of question and help sort through the muddle so that the end result is our students are better served.
Justin Tarte is someone I have come to follow on Twitter. He often shares words of wisdom about leadership and a recent tweet that resonated was the suggestion that asking someone what they think can be one of the best questions you can ask. I have used that question, not because I felt it was such a good question, but because it matters to me what people think. When I can hear people’s thoughts it is easier for me to make connections and to help make sense out of situations that appear troubling or challenging. It also helps me identify flaws in my own thinking which is so helpful for my own personal growth. However, his suggestion also reminds me that I need to intentionally ask this question because it includes the voices of everyone in the work we do.
This year I have worked with a talented team of teachers to explore how using SMART goals can have a positive impact on teaching behaviour. The team meets approximately once a month and the conversations they had have are incredible. The depth of understanding they have for their own practice, and the desire they possess to improve is motivating for me. We created an Edmodo group to track conversations and share ideas and documents. This has resulted in some significant change occurring in their classrooms. These teachers are challenging how literacy has been taught at our campus by carefully examining research and observations about their own practice. When this group of educators started they wondered why we assess students’ reading the way we do. They wondered why we stuck so closely to a resource when other literature was more suitable. They wondered how to manage a classroom where students were doing different things at different times. All of these wonderings were legitimate and deserved further investigation. I didn’t need to provide the answer, I needed to find out what they thought and boy did they let me know what they thought. Together we have puzzled our way through a year that has led to more questions than answers. It has certainly inspired me and I hope that it has given inspiration to them. Leading isn’t about knowing the answers, leading is about asking the questions, and then delving with people to find the answers. That’s exciting work and I am glad I signed up for it.
The school year always begins for me with much anticipation and hope. I am excited to see the progress I know students will make and I am hopeful that everyone I work with will feel they are making a difference towards this progress. How can I be more intentional in my efforts to keep this anticipation and optimism alive?
This year my administrative partner and I decided to do something different. We decided to create a visual to track our journey of learning. Instead of talking about what we wanted to accomplish we decided to document what we wanted to accomplish. This has been an interesting experiment because I feel for me, the goal of improving student engagement in reading has not gone away. It remains in the forefront of my mind, and I believe it is also lingering in the thoughts of my colleagues. I just recently finished reading report card comments and I was astounded by the depth of feedback teachers provided to their students and parents in relationship to reading progress. Teachers seem to have grabbed hold of the goal we have set and have really looked at ways to achieve success, not only for their students but for themselves as well.
As a campus we have worked collaboratively to examine our approach to reading. We have discovered that many of the strategies we have been teaching are significant and supported by research to be important for students to know and use. We have also discovered that our understanding of why these strategies are important is key to using them intentionally to build students’ capacity to be effective readers who see value in engaging in text. The questions we have begun to ask have set us on a mission to examine what changes need to be made in our current practice. Currently we have more questions than answers, but it is through this questioning that things have begun to seem clearer. Ideally we are looking to change teaching behaviors and I believe we are well on our way to accomplishing this goal because our staff is committed to looking at our approach and figuring out how it might better serve students.
Through the reading and research I have done in this area, I am coming to know what questions I need to ask of our staff. I am asking how they ensure students are reading at their level to practice the strategies being taught. I am pointing out the components of fluency so teachers can see it is more than just a reading rate. I am intrigued with the notion of grand conversations and wonder with teachers how those can be built into classroom discussions around literature. Teachers are talking to each other and sharing their practices, and it is evident that the anticipation and hope that started our school year still exists. Teachers are excited to see their students evolve into more engaged readers and they remain hopeful that even more can be done to entice our students to be even more involved in reading for a real purpose.
Our vision remains a messy work in progress and the board we have established to collect evidence of our work reflects this messiness. Learning isn’t pretty, but when it is done collaboratively with a clear focus, it is rewarding. I am anticipating that where we end up will be a place where teachers and students see hopeful opportunities for success.
Teaching is an interesting profession. From the outside it appears that organization and planning are all it takes to ensure a quality learning experience occurs each day for students. A series of steps that outlines what is to happen, should be sufficient to ensure all students learn. But on the inside things are very different and as a leader I need to think about creating a space for teachers to embrace the complexities that exist on the inside.
On the inside students arrive each day with diverse experiences, outlooks and strengths that impact how they approach a teacher’s carefully crafted lesson. On the inside, new insights are shared with teachers that have a direct impact on the planning and organization that takes place. On the inside there exists colleagues and parents who contribute to what happens in a classroom. So what happens, when teachers think differently about what happens inside the school walls?
What happens is planning and organization are still important, but they are not carved so deeply into the edges of a teacher’s mind that she can’t maneuver change or new possibilities. Learning begins to be looked at, not as a series of steps, but as an experience that is meant to last and have relevance. Questions are asked, and in the quest to seek answers, new opportunities for student engagement and learning arise. Old ways of doing things are carefully considered, juxtaposed beside new things. New things don’t override what the old has taught us, rather new thoughts build on what we have known in the past to be true. At the heart of all of this are the students, and their needs both in the moment and for the future.
Once we begin to think differently, opportunities become endless. Change doesn’t become something that is feared or avoided. It is expected and each change is thoughtfully considered to inform the next step. Nothing lasts forever, and that includes a lesson that has become a tried and true favourite. Thinking differently allows freedom to exercise professional judgment that is informed by research, conversation and collaboration. As a leader I need to encourage teachers to think differently. I need to hear their conversations, listen to their questions and support their struggles. Thinking differently involves courage to confront a present reality and not accept it as something that has always been done. Thinking differently involves looking at the challenges on the inside as an opportunity to be better. As a leader I want to provide space for teachers to think differently because it is in this space that a future can be created that makes a difference for students. I need to think about what is happening both on the inside and on the outside so that I can help weave these two spaces together into a positive environment not just for students, but for teachers as well.