By COURTNEY BROWN & LAURA RIGOLOSI
When teachers are given space to imagine possibilities for their schools and students, time to refine their ideas, and the support necessary to implement new projects, what can they achieve?
Since 2017, we’ve been tackling this question through our collaboration with the North Plainfield, NJ district. In response to a statewide initiative to develop teacher leaders, the district leaders at North Plainfield tapped us to support this development process alongside the implementation of teacher-led passion projects across the district. These passion projects allowed teachers to identify and respond to district-wide issues, while gaining experience in initiating and executing district-wide improvements.
To meet this complex goal, we designed our professional development as an inquiry cycle for teachers based on their interests and passions, while simultaneously studying adult learning theory. Using this model, participating teachers developed an action plan for implementing a passion project alongside an exploration of what it means to lead other adults through the role of a teacher leader.
When designing projects with these types of goals, it’s important to focus on the foundational elements of adult learning theory, providing purposeful, practical, and empowering experiences that are directly related to teachers’ roles and responsibilities. Through meaningful experiences and discussions, we can provide opportunities to learn facilitation skills, explore action planning, and implement an extended inquiry process. Equally important in the design phase is the alignment with New Jersey State Standards and district-level goals. With this in mind, we can customize our professional development as needs evolve from year to year and project to project. The key is to focus on creating safe spaces for teacher leaders as they explore, practice, and reflect on their experiences.
How do you build teacher leaders?
As we begin working with teacher leaders, we make a commitment to read and share the unique elements of adult learning theory. Through training and experience, teacher leaders are well-equipped to plan and present instruction to children, but working with adults is different, and even the best teachers benefit from deepening their understanding of adult learning theory.
With North Plainfield, we encouraged teachers to explore their own learning and leadership styles, and dedicated time for teachers to reflect on situations when they were nurtured by a leader, and what moves those leaders made to create a positive and productive environment. Alongside articles such as Pillars for Adult Learning, we asked teachers to identify their own learning styles within Ellie Drago Severson’s framework of ways of knowing, using a Four Corners protocol. Giving teachers time to explore who they are as leaders, teachers, and all of the identities they bring to their school allowed them to reimagine themselves as learners. We can (and should!) be both leaders and learners at the same time!
In addition to exposing teacher leaders to adult learning theories, we infused literacy practices into our workshops so teachers could use them in their own classrooms. As we read excerpts from Malcolm Knowles’ articles on adult learning, and utilized a text rendering protocol as a model, we demonstrated how to pull key ideas from a text in a concise and collaborative way.
Most importantly, we want our teacher leaders to understand that unlike teaching children, “Adults...tend to have a perspective of immediacy of application toward most of their learning. They engage in learning largely in response to pressures they feel from their current life situation” (Knowles). Using this concept as a guide, we recommend that teachers reflect on their own perceptions of positive leadership, as well as how they can directly apply these tangible qualities to their own work.
Starting and supporting a passion project
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes how motivation is developed through the combination of autonomy, opportunities for mastery, and a driving purpose. With our North Plainfield team — after establishing that as adult learners we all learn and process our learning in different capacities — it seemed only natural that we create space for teacher leaders to consider the issues they were passionate about and ways they might use their passions to enrich their school community. For their passion projects to be successful, we needed three critical components:
Community of practice
Before starting any training for teacher leaders — especially across a district, with teachers who may not usually work together — it is crucial to develop a safe space where participants feel supported and heard. Participants need to be willing to take risks, and also pilot, revise, and push restart on their plans. To help develop a community of practice, we used reflection and sharing strategies such as our Success and Dilemma protocol and A Picture Tells the Story.
We worked closely with North Plainfield’s administrators, who helped teachers with logistical questions and concerns throughout the year. The district is spread out across several schools, and when a group of teacher leaders was planning on implementing a committee to oversee functions and events that would create school spirit, the administrators were able to suggest teachers from other schools who might also be interested in joining this committee. As a result, district-wide events such as a reinvigorated pep rally and an evening fitness event for parents and students were created.
This concept can be replicated in any school district where the administrators are a part of the professional learning. As outsiders to the school, we do not have the privilege to know all of the teachers in a district; this is where having engaged and supportive administration is crucial for bridging the gap between professional learning and teachers, particularly when the professional learning is designed to highlight teachers’ passions.
Allow teachers time and space to brainstorm their passion projects, and use meeting time to plan them with actionable goals in mind. Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang's Strategic Planning for School Change article guided this idea as we worked to incorporate modified design thinking components for small groups into our time with North Plainfield, and as teachers developed individual and collaborative action plans. Approaching this process by first testing a plan and then piloting, tinkering, and iterating is a cycle that can be replicated by any school district — provided that everyone involved feels safe to take risks and fail forward.
What changes are being made in school communities?
Teacher leaders are implementing so many wonderful passion projects in North Plainfield. Their projects are rooted in their passions, and their passions stemmed from improvements they wanted to make in their school community. In challenging areas, teachers saw new opportunities. Here are just a few examples:
Capitalizing on the passions of educators can spark change within a school community, and can empower teachers to take on new leadership opportunities. Allowing teachers space to dream, and investing in their learning creates a powerful pathway for authentic, teacher-driven change within a school district. When teachers are empowered to take on new roles and address real concerns, the possibilities for positive change are limitless.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
We might think that the hardest part about becoming a leader is knowing the right thing to do, at the right time, and then doing it. In reality, the hardest part of becoming a leader is knowing the right thing to do at the right time, and then not doing it. Let me explain.
Leaders often find themselves in a position to manage others in an area where they’ve previously been successful. The problem is, when it comes to supervising others in doing a job we know how to do well, it’s often easier to continue to do the job ourselves than to watch others struggle through it. Face it — if we do it ourselves, it’ll get done faster, better, and everyone will see how skilled we are and they’ll learn in the process. Except...not really. In reality, it’s vice versa.
Letting go is one of the hardest parts of effective leadership
When we’re doing our jobs well, our work as leaders is to coach and supervise the tasks and responsibilities of others — and that role should take more of our time than anything else. If we’re spending the bulk of our time doing the tasks ourselves, we aren’t leading, we’re doing. The true task of a leader — as a teacher, an administrator, or even a superintendent — is to lead from the ground up, nurturing those around us to take root, grow tall, and bloom.
But this process is easier said than done. In reality, even when we establish a process for delegating tasks, distributing roles, and differentiating responsibilities, it’s easy to spend all day, every day putting out fires, stopping fights, and feeling frustrated. This is because in ground-up leadership, we have to train and coach others to know how to do the right thing at the right time, even when we aren’t around. This is when leadership feels like a vice, when the weight of our leadership role feels like it has such a tight grip on us that it makes it hard to move or even breathe. When we feel the vice, we need the VERSA.
VERSA is a process for leadership that includes five principles of leadership that will help us to transform our teams from the ground up, allowing us to step back while others step forward.
V is for Vision
Effective leaders set a clear vision to help their teams see what matters most.
The first step for working with any team is to set a clear vision for the work they’re doing. It’s our responsibility as leaders to find the big picture vision for the task at hand, and help each person on our team to take on that vision as their own. This means they need to see value in the vision, see the role they play in reaching toward the vision, and see the vision as it fits into their own purpose in the work.
To set a vision, leaders must ask themselves: What is our goal?
We must remember where we want to go.
E is for Expectations
Effective leaders clearly communicate their vision and establish shared, explicit expectations — even when they seem like common sense.
All conflicts are the result of missed expectations, whether known or unknown. We all have expectations of ourselves and of one another — when those expectations are not clearly defined, are not stated explicitly, or are not agreed to, we’re bound to have accidental missed expectations. We’re also bound to have purposeful missed expectations, where someone wants to leave early or doesn’t meet a deadline. Without clearly stated and agreed to expectations, it can be challenging to realistically hold people accountable for their mistakes.
To establish expectations, leaders must ask: Do we agree on what needs to be done?
We must remember to say what we want to see.
R is for Responsibility
Effective leaders identify who, what, when, where, and why.
If it’s everyone’s job, it’s no one’s job. The idea of shared tasks and shared responsibility is great on paper, but in the real world, when the components of the task are ambiguous or the process is mysterious, we often create more problems than we solve.
Responsibility entails the strategic and purposeful passing of the baton from one person to the next, for a defined period of time. We can think about it like a relay race. If everyone runs all at once, the team is doomed to fail. If no one runs a particular leg, everyone loses. Most work in teams requires thoughtful distribution of tasks, even if they can be completed by multiple people on the team.
To establish responsibility, leaders must ask: Who will do what, and by when?
We must remember to monitor the baton pass between team members on our project.
S is for Support (and praise)
Effective leaders provide opportunities for professional growth and strategically match people with tasks linked to their gifts and talents as often as possible. They praise with purpose.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown challenges leaders to imagine that each of their team members is actually doing the best they can, without reservation. The question she leaves us with is, if that’s true (which she is very confident that it is) what does it mean about how we support them in the work? How do we determine that our team has all the skills they need to meet the demands of the task? How can we anticipate their professional learning needs, as well as create a culture where people feel comfortable coming to the front to say where they need help?
If we are truly motivated by our goal, we’ll take the time and put in the effort to provide support and praise to our team members, offering feedback on what has been done well and where growth is required to meet the goal.
To provide support, leaders must ask themselves: Do we have the skills to meet the expectations?
We must remember that common sense isn’t always common, it’s often learned through culture and prior knowledge.
A is for Accountability
Effective leaders follow up on met and unmet expectations.
In direct conversations, we can identify the obstacles to meeting expectations, collaborate on action plans for next steps, and when necessary, establish proportional consequences.
Part of the challenge is that many leaders grew up in the light of the epic quote, “if you build it, they will come.” I know that I spent a lot of time believing that if I just set a clear vision, hired the right people, and created clear structures, I wouldn’t ever have to have those hard conversations, or correct someone on the team, and of course, I’d never need to fire anyone.
But accountability is just as important as every other part of the process. It’s what raises the stakes, creates a fair working environment, and reinforces the values of the organization. Without accountability, anything goes...and when anything goes, everything goes.
To hold our team members accountable for their contributions, we ask: What feedback or action steps will translate into met-expectations?
We can remember that accountability doesn’t equal punishment, but it is a call to account — to explain what happened, why it happened, and how we can make a change in the future.
VERSA is a process for leadership that allows us to lead from the ground up — stepping back in order to move forward — and authentically move our teams towards knowing the right thing to do at the right time.
When our teams take center stage in these ways, it’s a huge win. It means as leaders, we can begin to set our sights on the future, knowing that day-to-day, our team is leading the way.
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
I was walking down the hallway of one of our classic New York City high schools, talking with a teacher who was struggling with classroom culture issues. They were explaining that day in and day out, it was the same thing with the same kids. I stopped dead in my tracks, turned to the teacher, and said, “The thing is — if nothing changes, nothing changes.”
I wasn’t trying to be clever, it just seemed so clear and simple to me in that moment. If nothing changes, nothing changes. Why would we ever expect anything to change if we do not bring something new or different to the classroom? If we do not see our students differently, or if we do not speak to them differently? If we do not teach them differently?
The clearer this concept became in that moment, the clearer I saw this simple truth in all areas of my professional and personal life. I realized that when we have a goal that we want to reach, we must be the first to change our mindset and our actions. This is as true for school leaders working with teachers, administrators, and teacher leaders as it is for teachers working with students.
When I recently had the opportunity to support a group of teacher leaders and administrators in a three-day institute at Teachers College, I wanted to focus on helping them develop a strategic plan for school change. We knew that nothing would change if nothing changed — but we weren’t quite sure what should be changed first, which is why we developed a three-step process for our work. This process allowed us to reflect on the challenges that were having the biggest impact in their school community, and work collaboratively to develop strategic solutions.
Step 1: Identify your leverage area
Before developing a solution, we need to determine the underlying problem and the ultimate leverage area. Using our 5 Whys protocol, we can dig below the surface and identify the root cause of our challenge, which leads us to a new understanding of the problem. The 5 Whys begins with a basic statement of the problem, then prompts critical reflection to consider why this problem exists, in five rounds.
While working through this process, we want to keep our critical reflection focused on factors that are within our sphere of influence. For example, if our challenge looks like this:
Problem statement: Students are struggling on state tests.
...well, there isn’t really anywhere to go to solve this problem! It can leave us feeling very powerless, when that isn’t the case at all. This isn’t to say that poverty isn’t an underlying reason, but it isn’t the only reason, and it is far too broad a topic to be resolved by a small group of people. Instead, it is more productive and empowering to focus on areas in which we have more influence.
Let's see what happens when we reframe our challenge. Students are struggling on state tests. Why? Because the tests are long and students get tired. Why? Because students struggle with test-taking stamina. Why? Because they get tired and bored, and it’s difficult for them to retain focus. Why? Because the texts or tasks are complex and they struggle to comprehend them. Why? Because they struggle with assessment literacy and text types or question styles become difficult for them to read.
This could go on and on, but notice how, when forced to keep the responses within the realm of the team’s influence, we can drill down to some concrete areas of focus. The 5 Whys protocol helps to unearth a tangible root issue that is contributing to the problem. By resolving the root cause, we can begin to see what we can change.
Step 2: Understand your connection to the challenge
In order to really incite change, every person needs to see how they are connected to the challenge, and articulate a way that they can personally contribute to the solution. By creating a personal action plan, each team member is invited to consider the nature of the problem, how it's connected to their role, and what they can do about it as an individual. Through a series of sentence starters, a personal action plan asks educators to examine their current role and responsibilities, where they have influence or decision-making power, and to reflect on what they can do to make an impact on the root issue. By using the sentence starter, “One thing I can do to make a difference is…” you begin with a powerful prompt as you consider what you can do to influence change in your community.
Step 3: Create a collaborative action plan
While everyone can individually contribute to a solution, more progress will be made if there is intentional collaboration. When educators work together to solve problems, they have a greater impact in a shorter time period. Consider the impact on struggling readers if one teacher uses a literacy strategy once a day for two weeks. The students will see that support 10 times. Now consider if five teachers used the strategy for two weeks. Students would see that strategy 50 times in 10 days. That kind of emphasis builds capacity within students at an exponential rate. This is what the collaborative action plan is all about — it helps to create a timeline, a team, and benchmark objectives to meet the goal.
Our ability to solve complex problems increases when we better understand the problem we’re trying to solve, when we’re able to get down into the root of the issue, and when we make a personal and collaborative commitment for targeted change. These strategies can be applied in all parts of organizations, and especially in schools where our actions impact the current and future lives of our students. Nothing changes when nothing changes. But when something changes, anything can change, and you can be a part of it. Be the change you want to see!
TAGS: LEADERSHIP, RESOURCES, ROBERTA LENGER KANG