“A culture of collective efficacy does not simply happen; it is built intentionally.” Sarah Sugarman, from Lead by Learning, identifies leadership actions that support the building of teachers’ belief that as a school team they have the power to help their students learn more effectively. This belief is based on their own shared experiences of success.
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:27 Building collective efficacy. Joining my podcast today is Sarah Sugarman. I reached out to contact Sarah after I read an article that she had written titled, “Three Actions for Building a Culture of Collective Efficacy.” I’m excited that she responded rather quickly that she’d love to join the podcast. And Sarah, I have to tell you, as I was looking over it to get ready for our call today, I saw the line that you wrote early in your article that caused me to reach out. And that was, “a culture of collective efficacy does not simply happen, it’s built intentionally.” Powerful, powerful statement. So Sarah, welcome. I’m wondering if you’d start by telling people a little bit of about your background and the work that you’re doing with lead by learning.
Sarah: 01:28 Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. So I started in the classroom actually. I taught second and third grade for 11 years. Loved it. Might still go back one day, but about six years ago, now, I’m made a tough choice to leave the classroom and start working with adults in our education systems. And that’s when I joined Lead by Learning. And what I found is that adults actually need all the same things that kids need. They need to feel like they belong, they need to feel challenged and engaged, they to feel like they’re part of a learning community and that they have agency and ownership over their learning. And that’s basically what we do at Lead by Learning, we work with communities of practice, whether those are teacher communities, principal, communities, district leaders, and we try to give them the same high-quality engaging learning experience that we would want for our students.
Sarah: 02:27 And at the heart of all of that is this effort to really help them feel their collective efficacy, their ability to make a difference, whether they’re focused on student learnings, a group of teachers, whether it’s a group of leaders focused on teacher learning, we really want them to feel their own power, their own ability to affect the change and reach the goals that they have for their sites. So we have a number of ways we go about that. We have a set of core practices that we rely on, we have a set of mindsets that we also try to lift up, infused into those practices. What we have often found is that just engaging in practices, a data protocol for example, or doing a collaborative structure is not enough. It also is really important to think about what are the mindsets that we’re bringing, how are we engaging in those practices. So we try to really focus on both.
Steve: 03:18 Well, Sarah you highlighted three specific strategies that I thought were key for the instructional coaches and leaders that are often in the that are often listening to this podcast. So if you’re okay, I’d like to kind of give a them back to you one at a time and have you put them out in a little more detail for us. So the first one you said was embed a routine of public learning.
Sarah: 03:50 Yeah, absolutely. So, what you often find in teacher professional learning spaces is an emphasis on certainty, an emphasis on what we know. Here’s a curriculum that we know works, or here’s a best practice, here’s a teacher who has figured something out and we wanna kind of showcase what that teacher is doing. And of course there is always a place for powerful curricular programs, there’s always a place for lifting and celebrating best practices and teacher successes. But if that’s all that happens often, what that leads to, is a compliance oriented culture for those teachers where they’re expected to do things a certain way. This is the right way, this is the way that we do it. And what that robs them of is their own agency as professional learners. And it doesn’t create the culture, what we call a culture of curiosity, where people are curious to understand how they can improve, how they can better meet students needs.
Sarah: 04:54 So in our learning spaces, rather than uplifting only best practices or sort of implying that there’s a right way of doing something, we try to kind of flip that coin and really put uncertainty at the center of what teachers are talking about. So we support teachers to share or leaders as well, what are they grappling with? What are they uncertain about? What are their struggles right now? What are they seeing in their classrooms that is just really stumping them, they just can’t figure out. And to invite their colleagues to engage with them about that, asking probing questions, looking at their data along with them and trying to understand what’s going on for a group of students, supportively challenging, maybe some assumptions that they might be making about student learning. And all of that is what we call public learning, inviting teachers to engage, not what they know, but instead about what they don’t know. And that is at the heart of what we try to do in our teacher learning spaces.
Steve: 05:50 It’s a nice connection for me to my work with professional learning communities. I describe that the the key question when you’re looking at student data is, what do the kids need us to learn?
Sarah: 06:05 Absolutely. Yeah. I love that so much. We say that for us, improving teaching requires better understanding student learning. So instead of the lens being on the teacher, we really put lens on the student. What is the student experiencing? How can we deeply understand that so that we can make those informed changes to our practice.
Steve: 06:27 I just finished reading Adam Grant’s book, “Think Again,” and he describes the need to think like a scientist. And I posted that that’s really the critical issue for teachers because we are constantly collecting data, collecting observations and thinking like a scientist.
Sarah: 06:48 Yeah. I love that. We’re really excited at Lead by Learning about this idea of street data. I don’t know if you’ve seen this book, Shane Safir just came out with a book called, “Street Data,” which is exactly that – it’s what we observe on a daily basis in the same way a scientists is always observing and attending to minute details that as teachers, as leaders, what we observe on a daily basis in front of us, from our learners, that’s what gives us that really rich understanding of their experience and helps us know how to improve what we do for them.
Steve: 07:22 The second item that you suggested was pause to reflect and celebrate.
Sarah: 07:29 Yeah. So the public learning conversations that I mentioned are things that happen routinely. Usually we meet with teachers or leaders on a monthly basis. So we’re supporting them to engage in those public learning conversations regularly over time. But we also like to put in what we call pause points. We often have a midyear pause and an end of year pause, where we ask people to kind of take a step back and think about in a bigger picture sense what have we learned so far this year? And there’s both individual learning that happens and then there’s the collective learning as a group that happens. So the individual learning can sound like, well, I was really struggling with this area of my practice, supporting guided reading or whatever it is. And I tried some things and I found some things out and now I have a better sense of how I conserve my particular students in that area.
Sarah: 08:21 And when a whole group of teachers is engaging in those kinds of inquiries together, what happens is there’s collective learning that happens as well. And they start to say, oh, we are discovering something about our particular students, about our particular context, about our particular values and beliefs as educators. We’re discovering what work for us and for our community. And it’s that sort of pause to think about, where did we begin? What have we tried? What were the key learning points? What led to those key learning points? And then where are we going from here? That’s sort of one of those strategies that we found really builds that feeling of we are making a difference, we’re learning how to make a difference, we can continue to make a difference for our students over time.
Steve: 09:07 It’s interesting. You stated earlier about the need for teacher learning to have all the element that we should have in student learning. So as I was listening to you, I couldn’t help but think that kind of pause and reflect is exactly where we are with students from time to time, whether it’s looking at their writing or looking skills that they’re developing as a learner.
Sarah: 09:34 Yeah. It’s kind of that metacognition, right? It’s not just engaging in the learning, but noticing how I’m engaging in the learning and thinking about what’s happening for me as a learner. Yeah, powerful for kids as well as for adults.
Steve: 09:47 And the last item you mentioned out of the three was making teacher learning visible.
Sarah: 09:55 Yep. So much is happening for teachers on any given day that it can be hard sometimes to really pin down and follow that thread of learning over time. So we try to really hold teachers and leaders as well in being able to document for themselves what is happening in their learning so that when we get to those pause points in the middle of the year and the end of the year, they have something they can go back and look at to kind of help them see the arc to tell that story of what happened for them over time. And we have more complex and more simple ways that we do that. One of the simplest ways is just a Google doc that has a table and each person has a row on that table where periodically, we invite them to jot down what’s happening for them in their inquiry process.
Sarah: 10:44 So here was my goal, here was the data source that I looked at and here’s something that I found out from that data, or here’s a change in my teaching practice that I’m interested in trying. Here’s a way my thinking shifted today. So even just five minutes a month to do that sort of knowledge management, that documentation, can create enough so that when we get to that pause point, they can look back at their own learning and see, oh yeah, something did happen for me this year. In the midst of all these things that I was holding and all of these priorities that are on my plate, there is a thread that I can return to and see that I started at point A, now I’m at point B and I can see where I wanna go and that’s point C.
Sarah: 11:27 And when we put all those things into one document or one spreadsheet, people can also look at each other’s arcs of learning, which can be a really powerful experience too, because you’re not just seeing your own own path, but you’re seeing that as a group, we all have similarities, we have alignments, we have things that we’re working on together. And so it’s kind of a way to hold that and make that visible for people. And what teachers often object to is this feeling of filling in little boxes. It feels kind of compliance-y. So we try to really reinforce that this is for you. Put in there what feels meaningful for you. This is not for an evaluation, this is not to check a box, this is really for you to see the arc of your own learning.
Steve: 12:09 I’m wondering what you would say about where leadership or administrator learning fits into this picture?
Sarah: 12:17 Yeah. I love that question because for us at Lead by Learning, we really strive for symmetry across all levels of the system. And we
really believe that again, what’s powerful for students is powerful for teachers and it’s powerful for years as well. So in the same way in our teacher learning spaces, that we try to create opportunities for them to follow a thread in their own learning and document and share that with each other, we do that for leaders as well. So we lead principal communities of practice. We have district leaders who work with us and we try to do the same. We offer them the same opportunities we would offer for teachers with the the shift being that usually what they’re thinking about is supporting the adults in their community whereas teachers are thinking about supporting students, but the same practices of public learning, the same practices of pausing to reflect at key points in the year, the same practices of making their own learning, visible to themselves, we would apply for leaders as well as for teachers.
Steve: 13:21 Well Sarah, my blogs on my podcasts have Steve Barkley Ponders embedded in all of them and you’ve got me pondering. So I’m gonna do a little pondering piece out loud here and respond to it. The piece that I’m working through in my mind, is that I I’m hearing that collective efficacy is built on collective learning. I had a tendency to see that collective efficacy was this belief that we together can make this happen, but I’m kind of hearing now, it’s a belief that we can learn how to make this happen. So even if you don’t know what to do now, we have efficacy because we believe we can learn.
Sarah: 14:14 Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true. I mean, we always are saying at Lead by Learning, how teaching is complex and uncertain work and leadership is complex and uncertain work. And so, we don’t do anybody any favors when we try to pretend otherwise. So to imply that you have to have it all figured out or you have to somehow know what to do, is in fact not helpful for people and de professionalizes. So what you’re saying I think is really true, that it’s making visible, the learning process that we go through as teachers and leaders that really leads to that belief in, oh, we can get better, we can improve, we can make a difference. And it’s because we see that we are able to learn and to grow.
Steve: 15:04 Well, Sarah, thank you so much for extending my pondering. What’s the easiest way for listeners to be able to follow up with you if they have questions or find out more about what what happens at at Lead by Learning?
Sarah: 15:23 Yeah. We’d love to hear from folks. So we have a website it’s weleadbylearning.org. And then they can also send us an email – we’re part of Mills College in Oakland, California, so our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve: 15:40 I’ll be sure to include that in the lead-in to the podcast, so people can go back and find it and I’ll also put a link to your article. I encourage listeners to check that out. Thank you so much for joining us.
Sarah: 15:56 Happy to be here.
Steve: 15:58 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and
review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.