Leadership that Models the Model | Steve Barkley

Leadership that Models the Model

In my backwards planning model, I build backwards from desired students’ outcomes to student learning production behaviors, to teacher behaviors, to collegial supports to leadership behaviors.

In many ways, leaders model the desired behaviors and actions that are needed by teachers and students. School leaders are lead learners and lead teachers.

Jal Mehta’s article Possible futures: Toward a new grammar of schooling, (February 2022 issue of Kappan, Vol. 103, No. 5, pp. 54-57.) highlights three foundational pillars in a new approach to PreK-12 education for a future that is going to be significantly better than the past.

  1. learners whose agency is respected, whose diversity is embraced, whose selves are deeply known, whose joy is cultivated, and whose holistic growth is the paramount concern;
  2. learning that is purposeful, authentic, and connected to the broader human domains of which those learners are part;
  3. learning communities that enable deep relationships, cultivate democratic values and dispositions, and model the kind of society and environment we want to create.

As I reread his pillars, I felt that in many ways they mirror a focus that one would generate now in planning for students to experience “learning leaps” as they move forward from COVID’s impact. Ron Berger’s article in The Atlantic, “Kids are not broken,” reinforces that view.

“If districts focus too much on remediating ‘learning loss’—holding kids back a grade, categorizing students according to their deficits, and centering lesson plans on catch-up work—the students who have experienced the most trauma and disconnection during the pandemic may be assigned to the lowest level and most stigmatized groups. They will be viewed as deficient, and the inequities in place before and during the pandemic will be further amplified. Children, having been told that they are behind, will internalize the story of their loss. …. Schools should recognize their students’ resilience over this past year, support their healing and emotional growth, and honor them with meaningful and challenging academic work, not with remedial classes.”

Autonomy word cloud concept

My pondering with these messages reminded me of a blog I wrote several years back, Scaling Teachers Up or Cutting Them Loose. While I facilitated a leadership group discussing the kinds of learning engagement they sought for students, a leader shared that teachers would need to be scaled up (professional learning) to change their practices. In the same discussion, someone shared that teachers would need to be cut loose from the curriculum pacing guide that they felt drove coverage over learning.

Teacher and Student Autonomy

The authors of Grades K-12 Rebound, citing the work of Filippello (et al. 2019) describe the connection between learner autonomy and learner agency.

  • Teaching that is highly controlling places a premium on compliance, conveys approval based on achievement and ignores students who do not achieve, resulting in a “chilly” classroom environment. These teaching behaviors foster an external locus of control that is authority-based, and students in these classrooms grow more insecure about their learning and their ability to take action. The result can often be learned helplessness.
  • Teaching styles that increase students’ autonomy foster those who have a higher sense of learning agency. These teachers encourage discussion, listen for students’ points of view, make feedback informative, and take time to link student actions to their success. Choice and relevance help students develop an internal locus of control.

How do leaders encourage teachers to maintain an internal focus of control? Teachers need to sense autonomy in order to promote student autonomy. In a podcast that I recorded with Jim Knight around teacher autonomy, Jim highlighted autonomy and professionalism:

“I would say the defining characteristic of professionalism is discretion. The ability to make decisions. We go to a doctor because we want the doctor to look at all the data she can gather and make a decision about what’s best for our health. We don’t go to the doctor so she can plug a little thing into our body and give us a printout. There may be an element of that, but ultimately the professionals make a decision based on their expertise. They have to make a discretionary decision. It’s discretion maybe more than anything else that defines what a professional is. So. if we take away the person’s ability to have discretion, that is to make decisions in the moment about the complexity they’re facing, we treat them like they’re unskilled laborers, not like they’re professionals.”

We need teacher agency to build student agency. Student agency is supported by student autonomy. Generating student autonomy requires teachers continually receiving “scaled-up support” with “cut loose” discretion. Leadership modeling the model is critical.

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2 Responses to “ Leadership that Models the Model ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    A powerful article by Jal Mehta… school leaders continue to demand that all education innovations fit into the current grammar of schooling. It is encouraging to read how a new grammar of schooling can open multiple pathways to learn for our young people. In my current volunteer position as teacher of high school dropouts, these students’ voices continue to reinforce how the current structure of schools must give way to a more authentic, flexible, and connected approach to teaching and learning. Kudos to Jal Mehta for sharing his message for all of us to hear!

  2. steve Says:

    Agreed, Michael

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