School leadership is complex. It’s often an enigma. It is simultaneously invigorating and exhausting. School and system leaders are pulled in hundreds of directions by hundreds of constituents every second of the day. Having the passion, skills, strategies, and with-it-ness to thrive in a position of school leadership requires, in part, taking the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other leaders.
I had the opportunity to review William Sterrett’s recent publication, Insights into Action: Successful School Leaders Share What Works, published by ASCD. This book features the success stories of a number of school leaders, including Principal Baruti Kafele and Superintendent Pam Moran, both of whom I hold in high regard. Interwoven into the shared experiences of these leaders, Sterrett embeds practical advice for administrators on the themes Learning to Lead, Strengthening the Learning Community, and Challenges for Today.
It was with great interest that I read this new book, curious if and how the author would encourage his readers to become connected learners and leaders — to harness technology and social media tools to enhance communication, collaboration, and learning opportunities for those in the organization and school community. While these qualities are important to my role as a leader, and others in my network, many school leaders in our local communities have not yet developed an awareness of, and appreciation for, these elements of leadership.
Connected learning & leadership
While the author provided insights and practical ways to get started in each of the key components of this text, I found it, on the whole, to be quite lacking in encouraging school leaders to use technology to enhance teaching and learning in their organizations. It caused me to consider “instead of that/try this” ideas, which I’ve summarized here.
|The principal makes morning announcements||Create videos featuring principal’s messages and share with students, staff, and the school community.|
|Send daily staff emails||Use a staff blog to highlight resources, ideas, and post important informational items; help staff subscribe via RSS to be notified of blog updates. Send out weekly “must-reads” posts to inspire your staff. Create a Diigo group for your school to fluidly share resources – all staff can contribute.|
|Hold monthly faculty meetings||Meet only when there are opportunities for true learning. Share informational items via blog updates. Allow teachers to create agendas for meetings, which should include sharing/teaching/learning.|
|Traditional PLC meetings||Enhance the experience by infusing technology into communications and data-analysis; encourage teachers to use Google docs to save and track student learning data and anecdotal notes; provide electronic templates for team leaders to submit PLC logs/notes to administration; encourage teachers to “meet” regularly through online means and to collaboratively plan with Google docs; maintain a shared space such as on a wiki or blog where all PLC information is shared.|
|Read and reflect privately||In addition to reading texts of interest, subscribe to the blogs of other educational leaders and business leaders that inspire you. Use Google Reader or another RSS service to manage your feeds. Begin your own blog, and share your ideas with your PLN and school community.|
|Establish meeting norms that include “banning the use of computers or phones during meetings” (p. 37)||Encourage relevant use of technology during meetings. Establish backchannels for discussions during meetings. Consider the use of Today’s Meet or the chat features of Google Docs to capture the flow of ideas. Empower your teachers as part of the conversation.|
|Using meeting exit slips for faculty to provide feedback||Use Google Forms to survey teachers following meetings and professional development days, making it easier to compile responses and survey data. In addition: the use of backchannels allows instantaneous feedback that a meeting facilitator can use to change focus mid-session if necessary.|
|Speak at regional, professional organization conferences and write for print publications||Broaden your audience! Join Twitter; develop a professional learning network; seek out “unconference” opportunities where leaders can be more self-directed in their own learning; engage in daily learning by interacting with other educators around the world. Write daily on a blog- a personal blog for reflection, and/or a blog where you can share your school’s progress and happenings with the school community. Be transparent and share with an authentic audience.|
|Recognize student success through a “bulletin board wall of fame” (p. 55)||Benefits/negatives of “awards” debate aside, displaying student work in classrooms and hallways is always a wonderful way to recognize student learning efforts. But who gets to see this work? Give students a more authentic audience by sharing student work on a school blog/website, and considering the use of student blogs and online portfolios to showcase their learning.|
|Use Morning Meetings to ensure students’ voices contribute to the learning process.||Teachers can use a variety of tools and methods to engage students in providing feedback. Here are some examples of student reflections that help the teacher assess her effectiveness.
At Morning Meeting and/or other opportunities throughout the day, consider how classes can connect with others via Twitter, Skype, etc. to share what they’re learning and/or pose questions.
|Monthly newsletters for community-building and communication||Develop a blog or other space on your school website to regularly share school happenings and information. Those who don’t have the chance to visit the school often will have a more clear idea about what’s happening in classrooms and will get to know faculty and students through your sharing. Create school Facebook and Twitter accounts; go to the online spaces that parents and community members frequent – don’t make them try to find you.|
Highlights from the book
Insights into Action offers a general overview of key elements of school leadership, with examples of how successful school leaders have achieved success in these areas. The sections on PLC development, the strengths in peer observations/coaching, and meeting the needs of all learners are informative. Certain elements of leadership, such as relationship-building, are essential in face-to-face environments, of course. However, leaders should always strive to broaden horizons, develop more authentic audiences, and find ways to bring the community into schools.
If you only have time to read one chapter of this book, I highly recommend chapter 7, Turning Technology Into Engaged Learning, featuring the work of Pam Moran, superintendent of schools in Albemarle County, VA. This chapter read as a slight disconnect from the rest of the text due to its emphasis on innovative leadership, but it is so inspiring to learn more about Moran’s work and how she exemplifies the essential elements all school leaders should today possess. Sterrett describes how Moran has led the way in transforming her district into a dynamic environment focused on learning, providing ample evidence that leadership is key in remaking learning organizations for the 21st century.
Moran’s quote opens the chapter: “I’m convinced that we as administrative leaders have an obligation to initiate new learning, become skillful in the use of new tools that accelerate and advance our learning work, and share with others what we are learning” (p. 80). Sterrett does a fine job describing Moran’s role as a visionary leader, as she seeks to improve the educational experiences of all students by “equipping schools with technologies that save time, enhance universal access to crucial information, showcase successes of various stakeholders, and align system work in a productive manner.” (p. 81). Moran realizes the importance of helping students and staff use technology effectively — “not for technology’s sake, but for learning’s sake” (p. 82). She leads by example, willing to model her use of new technologies to improve organizational efficiency and communication, and her philosophy involves “promoting a proactive, involved approach to technology that is centered on both action and reflection” (p. 83).
Moran’s shared leadership approach ensures that her teachers, principals, instructional coaches, and support staff members have access to the help and resources they need to support their roles within the organization. In addition to Moran’s personal blog, her district blog is worth a read. Various school leaders contribute posts, and if I was a community member, I would have a very clear understanding of the district’s vision and important events through these leaders’ communication efforts.
A message that is apparent throughout Sterrett’s book: Leaders must be reflective in their practice. “Yet unless school leaders are deliberate about continuing their own learning as well as that of their staffs, they and the organization they lead will stagnate.” (p. 35)
This learning and reflective practice, which needs to be embedded throughout any district or school organization, must be modeled. It must be visible. It must be continuous. If you’re a school leader, ask yourself what about your own teaching and learning methods needs to be transformed in order for you to grow your capacity as a leader. Then turn your insights into action.
Image credit: CC licensed image shared by Flickr user shareski