Leading Through Learning - Steve Barkley

Leading Through Learning

For the past three years I have had the opportunity to consult with NJEA’s Priority Schools Initiative.  Schools that opted to apply for the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative have to demonstrate a commitment to include all stakeholders in the school improvement process; teachers, parents, ESP, administrators, the local association, the school board, and the broader community. One of the keys of the program is the placement of experienced educators as consultants working as coaches in the schools. In addition to my work with the implementation teams at each school, I have had the pleasure to work directly with the consultants who have grown from an initial cadre of 7 to 12 and now 16.

I recently facilitated a two day training session for the consultants that was designed to extend the skill development of the most experienced as well as newly selected consultants. As part of the opening activity, I had the experienced coaches identify and share the personal learning and skill development that they had during their roles as a consultant/coach. We went on to have the new members identify where they thought learning opportunities existed for them and then asked the experienced coaches to share new learning areas they envisioned in the coming year.

I pointed out that when I am asked to suggest criteria that districts should use in selecting instructional coaches, on the top of my list is “interest in learning about teaching and learning.”  During an interview I am leery of applicants who are more interested in “sharing” all that they have learned, than in what they could learn from working to increase student success, alongside their colleagues.

Following the session, I went on a search for support for my opinion. Here are some examples of what I found:

Michael Fullan reported that a  comprehensive ‘best evidence synthesis’ of research on the impact of the principal on student outcomes, found one factor  was twice as powerful as any other factor with respect to the principal’s role in effecting student outcomes. It was ‘the degree to which the principal participates as a learner’ in helping teachers figure out how to make progress….. learning alongside.

Digital Online Learn Technology Network Working Concept

J Johnson writing on the Connected Principals blog  states that administrators as “lead learners” need to model and nurture continuous learning:

 “If teachers see us in their classrooms only with the “evaluator’s hat” coming into their classrooms with a “gotcha” each time, then they will not be as willing to try new techniques, they will just continue to perfect the techniques that they know and have already been using for years (whether they are effective for student learning or not).

By acting more as a “Lead Learner” we are not only “talking the talk” by telling our teachers to continue their professional learning, but we are also “walking the walk” by continuing our professional learning and being transparent about it.”

Pernille Ripp,  a blogger and teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin, raises a concern with principals using the title of lead learner.

“When you combine lead with learner, it changes the meaning of both those words, because all of a sudden no one else can lead the learning. I would say it’s more limiting because now you’re also going to encroach on my learning [as a teacher].Classifying principals as simply “learners” would help”.

Vicki  Day,  the principal of  East Side Elementary School in Gouverneur, New York writes:

“As the lead learner, I model and shape the conditions for all to learn.  I learn alongside my teachers. For instance, we moved to a Responsive Classroom philosophy that has dramatically improved our culture and I was trained alongside my teachers so I, as the lead learner, can have sustainability in the program.  We are being trained in PBL.  I will be at that three day training so I can sustain the outcomes and learning for the staff and students. It is a new way of thinking about the role of the principal.  There are a bunch of us that are calling ourselves lead learners.  It’s also about building professional capital.  Our staff and teachers can be lead learners too.”

Learning definition highlighted

 In an earlier blog,  I shared Will Richardson’s thinking on teachers being master, transparent learners:

Richardson suggests that as transparent learners, teachers show examples of not only what they are learning, but also how they are learning. Students often see their teachers as experts in content and may miss the teachers’ expertise in learning. He states that what students need now are,” models of how to learn powerfully in a world filled with information, knowledge, teachers, and technologies” and that with transparency teachers can “move their classrooms from a culture of teaching to one of a community of learners.”  

As a “master learner”, Richardson shares that teachers need to understand “ not only the most effective practices to help kids learn deeply in classrooms (i.e. authentic, student-led inquiry) but also those that expand our opportunities to learn in the connected spaces we now find ourselves in. It means keeping abreast of new technologies and the new conversations around learning that come with them.”

 School leaders can model being master, transparent learners. What’s your learning plan for the coming year?  How will you share it with your staff?

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