Reflecting on the school leader

The bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise; the great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves”. ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Part of my PhD literature review encompassed what makes effective school leadership, and effective leadership of change or reform in schools. If you don’t fancy savouring all 300 odd pages of my dissertation, the summary of my literature search determined that effective school leaders:

  • Develop shared vision;
  • Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
  • Develop an environment of trust;
  • Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
  • Solve complex problems;
  • Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
  • Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

Many of these points are reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, which break school leadership down into the following components:

  • Leading teaching and learning;
  • Developing self and others;
  • Leading improvement, innovation, and change;
  • Leading the management of the school; and
  • Engaging and working with the community.

Both of these lists cross over one another, and each seems simple in its short-list nature (5 dot points! How hard can it be?), but looking closely at many of these aspects of school leadership quickly reveals the complexity of the mandate. On top of that, school leadership teams are under pressure from constant measures of their performance. Leadership itself becomes a quantified, evaluated performance. Meanwhile, on a daily basis leaders constantly code-switch as they move from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the parents’ committee, to the community event, to the performance management conversation, to the staff member or student who needs support.

My PhD study found that school leaders are constantly navigating internal, relational, and organisational identities. These complex and sometimes competing identities affect leaders’ experiences and decision making. The leaders in my study were moving, often deliberately and relentlessly, between leadership modes that were directive and empowering, hero and servant, visible and invisible.

Leading is a constant state of becoming and of identity work. Peter Gronn, in his 2003 book The new work of educational leaders: Changing leadership practice in an era of school reform, reminds us that leaders’ senses of who they are, and who they aspire to be, play a pivotal role in their engagement with their work. Having multiple leadership roles in my current school has meant that it is not only me who has had to shift my self-perceptions or identity enactments, but also my colleagues who have had to see me in new ways across my time at the school. Additionally, I have multiple, competing identities that exist simultaneously with my school identity; as parent, spouse, sibling, daughter, researcher. Boundary spanner and pracademic. Identities like plates precariously spinning atop spidery poles.

While Gronn suggests that individuals rework their perspectives in relation to their contexts, my PhD found that, while context does shape professional identity, individuals also choose their contexts to fit their own identities. My leader participants indicated that they stayed in schools that resonated with their senses of professional self, and left schools in which they did not feel aligned with organisational purpose and action. That is, school contexts shape leaders, and leaders shape their contexts. Leaders can and do choose schools with which they feel an identity fit, and leave schools in which they feel they do not fit.

Wellbeing is a real issue in school leadership, as reflected in the results of the longitudinal Riley study, which has found that Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Leaders need formal and informal support, as well as their own strategies for self-care and renewal. It might be that school leadership can be summarised in a series of dot points, but it is contextual, complex, and lonely. It is challenging and rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating.

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Transformational adult learning and growth: a conversation with Ellie Drago-Severson

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware. ~ Martin Buber

Columbia University

Columbia University

It was my privilege to meet in New York with someone whose writing has shaped my PhD research and my school-based work in building a teacher growth model: Ellie Drago-Severson.

Ellie is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her ‘four pillars’ of professional learning are: teaming or partnering with colleagues within and outside the school; providing teachers with leadership roles; engaging in collegial enquiry; and mentoring (or coaching).

While I have read her work (including Helping teachers learn: Principal leadership for adult growth and development, 2004; Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development, 2004; and Learning for leadership: Developmental strategies  for building capacity in our schools, with Blum-DeStefano & Ashgar, 2013) it was most interesting to hear her stories of working with teachers, school leaders, schools and districts to help them apply learning theory to practice. One example was of a school which, after working over time on the learning of its teachers, now consistently achieves the highest student achievement scores in its district.

Teachers College

Teachers College

Ellie’s examples of working with educators were based in some fundamental principles:

  • Teachers are adult learners who own their own learning and should be provided with choices. They should be able to choose if they are ready for growth. Even in mandated programs they should be able to choose their own paths.
  • Developmentally, learners may initially want ‘the answers’ or to be told how to improve, but the aim of adult learning should be to develop self-authoring individuals. Coaching should aim to grow individual capacity (e.g. Developmental Coaching, Cognitive Coaching).
  • Talk defines and drives behaviour (similarly to the beliefs of Adaptive Schools I explored here). Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (2002) looks at how language determines feelings, governs action and impacts learning. As well as talk, the quality of listening has been confirmed by research to be a developmental support for learning.
  • Change should start at a slow pace, with volunteers, building momentum and reach over time.
  • ‘Push back’ (resistance or questioning) should be welcomed and explored.
  • The key to learning is a trusting nurturing environment in which people feel ‘held’; they need to be simultaneously supported and challenged. It is vital to spend the time building culture and developing group norms and ground rules for confidentiality.

Strategies that Ellie uses when working with educators include:

  • Exercises from Developmental Coaching, such as those which help individuals to identify the underlying beliefs driving their behaviour and build a plan to address those beliefs;
  • Informal ‘drop in / drop out’ lunches to which staff are invited but not required. Lunch time conversations based on professional readings and the question ‘What might this look like in your practice?’
  • Journals for teachers / coaches / leaders as a sacred technology-free space for thinking.

There are many affirming ideas here for my school’s work in designing and implementing a teacher growth model, including the importance of a trusting environment, the role of talk and language, deliberately going slow, and providing scaffolds for ownership and differentiation of learning.

Some questions that arise are:

  • To what extent are we differentiating our teacher growth process for teachers? Is it enough for their experience to be one of meaningful, self-driven ownership?
  • What further strategies might we employ to build the cognition and engagement of teachers in their own learning (such as optional journals and online portfolios, or informal lunches to talk about teaching)?
  • How might we support those staff who are not yet self-authoring learners to develop their capacity for self-directed learning?
trust & rapport from the High Line: Eduardo Kobra's mural

trust & rapport from the High Line