Questions & Authors: Mastering the art of school leadership

In his recent book Leading and Learning, Fred Brill draws on more than 240 interviews with new and experiences school administrators to examine common concerns, successes, and failures. In this edition of Questions & Authors, Fred talks about the importance of Professional Learning Communities for new school leaders and the role regular reflection on practice plays in professional growth and development for these leaders as they navigate their wide-ranging responsibilities every day.

Novice administrators regularly talk of being overwhelmed by the relentlessness of their work; they express uneasiness with the ambiguity of the roles they are expected to play. They struggle to find meaning and to create coherence and clarity in their work.  Being new to a leadership position, being new to a school site, or being unclear of roles, responsibilities, and expectations can be highly stress inducing. It takes time and experience to comfortably assume the identity of a school leader. Before we explore how reflective storytelling might be used as a tool for professional growth and development, it is important to understand why the role of the school leader is so important to a school’s success.

Although successful school leaders spend significant time at the intersection of teaching and learning, they are also responsible for the operational management of the school, community relations, and culture building. At one moment, they may be putting a Band-Aid on a child’s knee; the next moment, they might be working with an angry parent whose child was suspended for fighting. One day, they are facilitating the professional development on rubric development for teachers; the next day, they are convening a school site council to determine the best use of Title I funds. Educational leaders are charged with setting the tone, crafting the vision, and making good decisions to create a clean, safe, and healthy learning environment for every member of the school community.

Indeed, the principalship is one of the most exciting and rewarding roles in the world of education. It is the position at the epicenter of school reform and site-level decision making. A strong principal cultivates an effective learning community for students, teachers, and parents, and is able to develop strong relationships with individuals across stakeholder groups. The effective principal is the conduit, the connection, the spark, the stick, the carrot, the architect, and the builder responsible for ensuring that effective teaching and learning is taking place for every student in every classroom throughout the school.  But can school leaders really meet the needs, expectations, and mandates of all stakeholders?

“Although the job of school leader is not for everyone, it is clear that-with the proper training and support-administrators can become more effective, resilient, reflective, deliberate, principle-based leaders.”

The position of school principal requires an ability to recognize and understand the root causes of the challenges emerging in the field. It necessitates continual reprioritization and alignment of scarce resources. In addition, the work must be done beneath the stage lights, where any decisions and actions, signs of tentativeness, and missteps or miscommunications are witnessed and judged by a wide swath of stakeholders. Indeed, impeccable judgment is expected at most every turn. Ours has become an extremely litigious culture, and the principal is expected to serve thoughtfully without ever breaking a sweat, decide without showing any sign of angst or uncertainty, and resolve so that all parties feel listened to and validated. Unfortunately, like any baseball manager who does not get immediate and favorable outcomes, the school leader is subject to replacement at the end of the season.

The responsibilities, conflicting expectations, time demands, stressors, and challenges associated with administrative positions often make such jobs highly undesirable. One school leader described the sense of being overwhelmed by the competing demands: “And then I get to my office this afternoon, and I have papers all over the place. You can always tell what kind of state my work life is in because when it’s really, really busy, there’s just papers falling off the desk and under the desk. And you know, I keep putting things into my in-basket; my in-basket now is like this [holds hands about three feet apart]. And I just felt so frazzled because I knew I had to get here by five, and I’ve usually been staying until eight o’clock every night, so I was like, “Crap, I don’t have time.” (Gretchen C., September 2002)

In a typical workday, few school leaders are afforded the opportunity to reflect on their practice, the decisions they make, or the actions they take. Yet, regular reflection on practice is imperative for professional growth and development. School leaders are calling for structured opportunities to serve as co-researchers and co-learners who base their learning on actual challenges confronted in the field. Although the job of school leader is not for everyone, it is clear that-with the proper training and support-administrators can become more effective, resilient, reflective, deliberate, principle-based leaders. New leaders can learn to choose where they allocate their time and other precious resources, and how they might work more effectively to make decisions and improve student learning.

Adult learning theory suggests that professionals learn not only from their own practice, which is a trial-and-error type of learning, but also from interactions-formal and informal conversations-with other professionals. When systems and protocols are embedded within a professional learning community, there are more likely to be higher levels of achievement, more positive relationships, and psychologically healthier group members than might be found in individual learning situations

One fact is clear from looking at the research on professional development: learning and reflection do not happen readily in isolation. Learning is a social activity, and it comes largely from our participation in daily life. Communities of practice are everywhere; they emerge in social and professional settings, and they fill an inherent need for struggling individuals to make sense of their challenges. One new school leader explained: “We’ve got to learn from each other’s mistakes. I’m not going to live long enough to make them all myself” (Sally B., October 2003).

“One of the most damaging myths that aspiring school administrators often learn is that the change process, if managed well, will proceed smoothly. That myth amounts to little more than a cruel hoax, an illusion that encourages educators to view problems and conflict as evidence of mistakes or mis-managed process rather than as the inevitable byproducts of serious reform” (DuFour and Eaker 1998, 49).

Indeed, the school leader must manage dissension and opposition, setbacks, and unintended consequences. Although it is sometimes excruciatingly challenging, school leaders also must maintain an unshakable belief that all human beings, including adults, can continually learn and grow.

New school leaders are expected to burst forth from the cloistered phone booth of an administrative credentialing program, take to the air, and effectively meet the needs of all students, teachers, parents, and higher-level administrators. Unfortunately, leadership development programs are not generally structured or organized in such a way that prospective leaders are prepared to address the challenges they will face and the various roles they will be expected to play in the school setting. Classroom learning for professionals is inclined toward the theoretical rather than the practical.

It is tragic that schools become environments in which teachers engage in a form of parallel play. Child psychologists describe this behavior in preschoolers as when similar activities take place in different corners of a sandbox, with nary a word of interaction flowing between the children. In school environments, those who have participated in committees to improve one area of the school or another typically have not met with much success in making a difference or even having their voices heard. One new leader offered his favorite quote when the subject of professional collaboration was being discussed: “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” Clearly, a lot of work needs to be done to get educators to learn, understand, and experience the value of participating in a professional learning community.

In the world of education, professional learning communities have become all the rage. Workshops are held around the country to promote the creation of collaborative structures focused on the improvement of student learning. DuFour and Eaker (1998) describe the critical components of a professional learning community: participants develop a shared mission, vision, and values; they engage in collective inquiry, which includes public reflection and the building of a shared meaning; they maintain an action orientation, promoting experimentation and a focus on continual improvement; and, finally, they maintain a strong outcomes orientation that places a high value on results rather than intentions. The four guiding questions that are intended to frame the work of a professional learning community (Dufour, Eaker, and DuFour 2005, 15) are:

  • What is it we want all students to learn?
  • How will we know when each student has mastered the essential learning?
  • How will we respond if a student experiences initial difficulty in learning?
  • How will we deepen the learning for students who have already mastered essential knowledge and skills?

It is no wonder that PLCs are gaining traction in public and private organizations. Professional learning communities can meet so many basic human needs: the need for a sense of belonging and acceptance, the need for esteem based on learning and growth, the need to serve a higher moral purpose, and the need for meaning in our work and our lives. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it calls to mind Maslow (1943) and his hierarchy of needs. The lower level of Maslow’s pyramid contains our basic human needs (physiological requirements such as oxygen, food, and water). The next levels are safety; love, acceptance, and belonging; and esteem in the community. The apex of the pyramid, the highest form of human development, is the need for self-actualization. Maslow argued that the only reason individuals would not move toward self-actualization is because of hindrances placed in their way by society. Sadly, educational organizations often fit neatly into this category.

“A primary mission for all educators is to help students understand that their education is not about their parents or their teachers or their principal-rather, it is for their own benefit.”

What is the role of the school leader in cultivating professional learning communities? Where and how do school leaders get to reflect on their own craft? If PLCs are primarily about teachers collaboratively engaging in the improvement of the teaching and learning activities that take place in their classrooms, what is the role of the school leader in this process?

Regardless of administrative intentions, desires, suggestions, or expectations, it can be very challenging to influence teacher practice. School leaders are not direct service providers. Rather, the teachers are responsible for student learning, and a classroom with a closed door has proven to be a safe haven for students and teachers to do what they have always done and to resist the latest school reform effort. For school leaders to achieve a desired outcome of improved student learning, they first must figure out how to influence teacher actions in the classroom. At the same time, they must efficiently tend to the various operational responsibilities and institutional expections that are part of the position.

Building on the four guiding questions asked by DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour (2005), I propose four questions that must be continually addressed within a professional learning community of school leaders:

  • What is it we want all teachers to know and be able to do?
  • How will we know when each teacher has mastered the essential learning and is actively using the agreed-on tools and strategies?
  • How will we respond if a teacher experiences initial difficulty in learning or actively resists implementation?
  • How will we cultivate leadership capacity and opportunity for those teachers who have already mastered essential knowledge and skills?

School administrators cannot improve a school and increase student learning on their own. A primary mission for all educators is to help students understand that their education is not about their parents or their teachers or their principal-rather, it is for their own benefit. It is intended to increase their opportunities for success in college or the workplace. Likewise, a primary charge of the school leader is to help teachers understand that collaborative processes and active engagement in a professional learning community are not about the principal, the district, the state, or the federal government. These are simply the best ways we know to do business. Over time, as these practices become systemic, the principal becomes less visible and works behind the scenes to ensure that teachers have the necessary support and resources to participate fully and deeply in a professional learning community; the notion of distributed leadership becomes a reality rather than a buzzword. Professional learning communities can provide the structures to engage in collaborative inquiry for the purpose of improving instructional practice and determining the necessary actions that must be taken to ensure that all students are learning.

The role of the school principal is one of the loneliest and most challenging positions in the field of education. School leaders must seek out or create their own PLCs, so that they-like students and teachers-continually engage in reflective practices with colleagues who are interested in growing and improving their practice. Professional learning communities are all about translating theory into practice, learning into action.

Add comment May 5th, 2010

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