Cultivating Capacity with Quiet Leadership

 

On Tuesday of this week, I was invited to attend a Board of Education meeting at Wellsville Central School to share a bit about the professional learning opportunities I’ve begun to facilitate there. As my description of the year’s events drew to a close, members of the Board opened a thoughtful conversation about sustainability, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this.

It wasn’t the fact that members of a BOE were interested in hearing more about how I was attending to it—this is usually the case when I’m asked to present to groups like this. No, I was most impressed by their deep desire to explore what sustainability might even mean in terms of professional learning and how we might work together to ensure that what I begin can continue well beyond my days in district. This remains the greatest challenge that I face in every dimension of my professional life, and knowing that these leaders were more interested in HOW I planned to facilitate professional learning than merely WHAT the content of my work would attend to was inspiring.

Sometimes, initial conversations with district leaders at any level are focused on the “stuff” of staff development and the intensity of their need to ensure rapid change and improvement–particularly around performance. The design of the strategic plan, the explicit steps that could and should be taken to cultivate internal capacity, and the power of quiet leadership seem to take a back seat during these initial conversations, when such considerations are most critical. In my experience, these are the factors that have the greatest influence on sustained improvement. On Tuesday, we devoted a good amount of time to the exploration of the collegial circle professional learning model that took shape at Wellsville High School this year, what the teachers and administrators learned as a result of their experiences with this new approach, and how the group intends to move forward. This post provides a summary of what took place and what we intend to do next.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Theresa Gray here as well. Thanks for sharing your own experiences with collegial learning with me, Theresa! I continue to learn a lot from you.

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Last spring, the district administrative team invited me to meet with them to begin exploring community-based professional development approaches. They shared a vision for the culture that they hoped to create within their district and revealed a variety of curiosities relevant to professional learning communities, book clubs, collegial learning circles, and critical friendship. Some essential questions were designed, and different members of the group established connections with a variety of others who have extensive expertise in these domains. After meeting with high school teachers and coming to know their needs, it was agreed that collegial learning circles would take root and begin to evolve over the course of several years.

This year, teachers shared their hunches about learning and performance, the findings from varied assessment measures were considered, and students were surveyed in order to gain deeper insight about their interests and their needs. These experiences illuminated some common threads and helped us identify entry points into our work together. Teachers, students, administrators, and assessment findings suggested the following focal points:

  • Engagement
  • Rigor
  • Critical Thinking
  • Comprehension

Each teacher was invited to form a collegial learning circle comprised of colleagues who shared their professional curiosities and were willing to investigate one of the topics above. They established professional learning targets, determined when meetings would take place, adopted protocols to ensure productive sessions, and devised an action plan that outlined their intended outcomes and the activities that they would undertake each month to achieve them.

Each collegial circle met with me twice during the year: at the outset, to share their plans and their needs, and early in the spring, to share what they were learning, what was accomplished, and how they planned to disseminate their expertise to the rest of their colleagues at the end of the year.

Every teacher was expected to engage in inquiry work, share their findings with the other members of their collegial circle, and collaboratively design research-based instructional strategies that were then tested. Most of them collected student work samples and annotated their observations in order to open evidence-based conversations with their colleagues about the ultimate success of their efforts.

Each circle then shared their findings and supporting artifacts at our Collegial Learning Celebration in May. Groups shared what they accomplished and most importantly, what they learned as a result of this experience. Take a peek at this slideshow to gain a better understanding of how this event unfolded.

As our work together continued, a rubric was created to help groups and individuals assess their progress. Collegial learning is a process that deepens and evolves over time as new needs and professional curiosities emerge. Like the circles themselves, this rubric is a living document that will reflect shifts in our own  perspectives about what success might look like as we learn more. If you’d like to receive a copy of it, just leave me a comment, and I will be happy to share.

As we plan for next year, teachers have suggested that they intend to:

  • Refine their learning targets and outcomes in order to ensure greater alignment to needs that were defined
  • Integrate the use of technology in far more meaningful ways
  • Investigate what action-research is and attempt it for the first time
  • Consider working with other colleagues, now that they have had the opportunity to learn more about their professional interests and needs
  • Determine how to capture the kind of data that will help them assess their students progress better AND their own, as learners
  • Strive to make all collegial learning sessions engaging and productive
  • Brainstorm ways to collaborate more often

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As the facilitator of this experience, I positioned myself at the back of the process.

My first task  included conducting a needs assessment, which required me to use far more than standardized assessment data to define potential focal points and strategically plan. I spoke with kids and teachers and administrators and parents and listened carefully to what they had to say about their experiences within the system and where we might begin our work together. Collegial learning was recommended in response to what these groups told me.

As groups began their studies, they were asked to locate and share the resources that they found. It was important that I didn’t hand them anything, advocate for any one practice, or impose my own processes on them. Members of every stakeholder group that I spoke to suggested that teachers have had little time to engage in meaningful research or learn collaboratively. It was imperative that they begin to do so, and in response to this recommendation, no “training” was provided to these groups. They were responsible for pursuing their own learning, developing some collective expertise, and sharing it with others. I supported them in their efforts to accomplish this and intervened when I was called upon to do so.

It was no surprise when some teachers demonstrated discomfort and even frustration when they were unable to define learning targets that were measurable, find resources that satisfied them, or use technology in ways that were efficient and productive. During the Collegial Celebration, several people realized that the quality of the research they engaged in wasn’t as high as they would have liked it to be. Others were honest about the fact that some of their sessions weren’t productive. Everyone recognized a need to investigate and begin providing better support for 21st Century learning skills. These realizations and other helped us set goals that  will improve our work as we move forward next year.

As a learner, I found myself assuming a reflective stance often. As I’ve continued to gain more experience as a facilitator of adult learning experiences, my assumptions about what it means to be an expert continue to be challenged. More significantly, I find myself questioning initiatives that are designed to position me as someone who has expertise that should be “given” to others. I’m recognizing that every time I share what I know with others, no matter how well-intentioned I might be in doing so, I often relieve people  from the struggle and discomfort that is a necessary part of true learning and growth. I’m continually negotiating my approach here. What do I share? When? How? What does it mean to truly HELP adult learners? What are the long-term consequences of lowering levels of concern, simplifying complex processes, and filling in the blanks for others?

How do I best help others define their own needs, seek their own solutions, and share their own expertise? How do I improve my own ability to lead quietly? Those are the questions I continue to pursue. Looking forward to keeping them front and center this summer and throughout the coming year.

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