To be an effective leader, we need to first and foremost be great learners. Today's episode features highlights from a book from Brookfield and Preskill who are talking all about what leadership as learning really looks like. We're going to dive in with great tips for teacher leaders, school leaders, principals, superintendents. Get ready for a great solo show.
Nine Learning Tasks For Leaders
Welcome to another solo show of the Time for Teachership podcast. Today, I want to talk to you about the concept of learning as leading and this concept of learning as leading comes from a book from Steven Preskill and Steven Brookfield called Learning As A Way Of Leading: Lessons From The Struggle For Social Justice. And I'll link to that book in the show notes for today. But first I want to start with our big thinking, why is it that we, as leaders should be lifelong learners and to many of you, this may be obvious. You may be committed to lifelong learning already and improving leadership skills. We're in the middle of a global pandemic as we record this episode and it is necessary to be able to constantly learn new information from new sources, to be able to adapt in the way that we need to, to meet the needs of our students, to meet the needs of the moment, meet the needs of our teachers and our students are always watching that.
So if our students see that we are committed to our learning and growing and development of professional practice, then we get to offer a model of what it looks like to be a lifelong learner to students and why it's important to embrace learning. I often cringe when I have heard teachers say, and I know I've said this once, which is just really cringe inducing, but the idea that, you know, "I already have my degree". "I don't need to learn anymore". You need to learn because you're in a class still and you still need that high school diploma. That just is gut wrenching, that we would say things like that. But I think what that comes from is this overwhelming
frustration with kind of whatever is going on in our daily lives, at that moment. And not truly a belief that we hold, right? Most teachers, I would venture to say, all teachers, are passionate about learning, right? That's why we got into learning in the first place, in the field of education to help students learn because we know learning is critically important and we love learning new things ourselves. So it's a matter of reconnecting with that love, with that passion. That really fuels my soul. When I get to learn something new and apply it in practice. Learning is not just good for kids. It is good for everyone and it's necessary in an ever-changing world for us to make sure that we're giving students and giving ourselves what we need to be successful. Now, in terms of how we take action around this idea of learning and you know, how do we learn and lead simultaneously? How does our learning improve leadership skills? This is really exciting stuff. So as we think about learning as a way of leading, as we dive into the work of Preskill and Brookfield, as we look at their book, Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons From the Struggle for Social Justice, I'm going to give a quick overview for you of their nine learning tasks for leaders.
Being Open To The Contributions Of Others
The first is truly critical. It is a mindset that is necessary for all of the other tasks in the list. So you can't do the other eight things without first doing this one. And that is being open to the contributions of others. This is a fundamental piece of leading. I have written extensively on shared leadership, and I will link to a blog post. I wrote about setting up structures for shared leadership. If you're interested in kind of building up this ability to build capacity for leadership in students, in families, in teachers, across stakeholder groups in your school community. Now being open to the contributions of others truly is a mindset shift. So this first piece is shifting our minds around what leading looks like, what sources learning can come from. It doesn't always have to be a textbook or a podcast or an educational research article. It can be the experiences and the knowledge and the wisdom of the community members who are part of our stakeholder groups, our students, our families, our teachers.
Reflecting Critically On One's Practice
Looking at the second learning task to improve leadership skills, we're talking about reflecting critically on one's practice. And the authors really point out that this is not a solo endeavor. We need that first task, that being open to the contributions of others, we need that mindset to be able to reflect critically on one's practice, because if we're not extending our minds in our ways of thinking, our perspective taking beyond our individual selves, if we don't take on the perspectives and embrace the thoughts and ideas and experiences of others beyond ourselves, we can't truly reflect critically on our practice. And that critical reflection on our practice is how we grow. It's how we identify where we're going next as a school, where we're going next as a leader, what our vision is for personal development and growth in our leadership role and in our lives. So that critical reflection is necessary for our school success. It also models as with everything, when we do this as leaders, it models for our teachers and it models for our students, what this looks like to be critically reflective and why it's important for all of us as stakeholders to do this in an educational community.
Supporting The Growth Of Others
The third learning task for leaders is to support the growth of others. And again, this is a huge piece of shared leadership. So make sure to check out that blog about how to set up these structures so that we can really systematize supporting the growth of others and building capacity in all of our stakeholder groups, not just with teachers, but with family members and with students as well, to make sure that they have an opportunity to lead and be a voice for change and thriving in our school community.
When we support the growth of others, we're also talking about how we evaluate our success as a school. I've talked before about measuring what matters. And the fact is if we don't measure things that we purport to value, the signal that teachers and students and families receive is that's not really a priority because when it comes down to measuring success, this isn't on the table. This isn't being measured. This data isn't being taken into account and critically reflected on to improve our school community and our practice of educational leadership. So when we're talking about supporting the growth of others specifically, let's talk about a teacher example. When we talk about how we evaluate teachers, instead of asking the question that Preskill and Brookfield suggest: "How well did you do your job this year?"
Moving to the question that Preskill and Brookfield aimed to replace that former question with, which is: "What, and how did you learn this year?" So again, we're going from, how well did you do your job to what, and how did you learn. Asking the question of teachers as well as students, as well as families, as well as ourselves as leaders? "What, and how did you learn this year?" is a big shift. That's going to really radically change how we think about our roles as educational leaders and how we think about schooling in general. If we think about how grading exists in this moment in many schools, it has existed this way, traditionally throughout our educational systems history, we evaluate others, not necessarily by growth.
We have students submit an assignment or take a test. We give them a grade. We put that grade in the grade book and we value each grade as a stand-alone grade, which is averaged together perhaps based on some sort of complex formula. And that's the number or the letter associated with a student's knowledge or expertise for that entire year, that final letter or number. Now, if we were truly looking at student growth, if we truly valued that they were learning and progressing and growing each and every day, moving forward along that learning continuum, that grading practice is going to look different. And many schools have already embraced grading practices like this. Mastery based learning is a huge source of educational equity. A lot of our traditional grading practices really contribute to educational inequity. And once we realize this and rethink how we grade, we can apply it, not just to students, but to teachers as well. Again, the question we want to ask is: "What, and how did you learn?"
Developing Collective Leadership
Let's go to the next learning task for leaders that is to develop collective leadership. So once we realized that we're open to the contributions of others, we're able to critically reflect on our practice and support the growth and build capacity of all of our other stakeholders in our communities. We want to make sure that all stakeholders have an opportunity to continue building their leadership capacity and have an opportunity to influence policy, to truly embrace shared leadership and shared decision-making as a way that the school operates. When we learn as a group, we exponentially increase our ability to make good decisions for the school. Each individual person contributes their ideas and experiences. That's going to help us make decisions that are best for all stakeholders in our community. If we don't have that information, we can't possibly make good decisions for all members of our community, because we're only operating from the perspectives of our individual selves or a limited stakeholder group that's part of that leadership body. So if we expand our understanding of what leadership is and who gets to lead and who gets to make school decisions, we embrace that learning task for leaders of developing collective leaders.
I've spoken before about the different dimensions of capacity building that Mitchell and Sackney write about in educational spaces and that it expands from the personal to the interpersonal, to the organizational capacity levels. And so there may be a need for students, for example, or teachers or other staff members or parents and family members to develop leadership skills and to have concrete training for particular interactions via technology or whatever is required to engage in your school leadership.
Leaders themselves are going to want to continue these training as well to improve leadership skills. And so when we identify gaps that our stakeholders have, if that's, what's holding us back from developing those collective leadership structures, we want to make sure we recognize that it's not just the organizational structures, those opportunities to lead that we need to focus on, but also what do those leadership conversations look like? How do we build that mindset of partnership between school-based stakeholders and home-based stakeholders. And how do we make sure that those discussions value and honor the dignity of all stakeholders and the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom that each stakeholder brings?
So that interpersonal capacity building is important there. And also as I said, the personal capacity building. So how do we make sure that each member has the necessary training to engage in the way that we need to engage? How do we, as leaders, identify our own needs for training? So maybe training on consensus based decision making and what does that mean versus a majority rules decision-making and just informing ourselves about those different practices in which one feels truly democratic in nature.
The next learning task for leaders is to analyze experience. When we think about analyzing experience, it goes beyond data to the point where we are also publicly analyzing our critical reflections on our own decision-making processes, on our historical practices and decisions that we have made for our school building. One of the things that the authors Preskill and Brookfield talk about in their book is the examples of really powerful leaders who did not lose people's confidence in them when they radically changed direction. They were able to change their mind because they were very public and transparent about the critical reflection that they engaged with. And so they said, we looked at these different data pieces, we heard from these diverse stakeholders, we thought critically about our past decisions and the direction this organization is going. And you know what? We made a mistake, or we need to pivot now. And because they were so public about that analysis, that analytic process of looking at their experience and taking into account a variety of sources of new information and critically reflecting on their past decisions and practices, they were able to build people's confidence in them as a leader. In fact, it may have boosted people's confidence in them as a leader because they were so transparent and they were willing to say, "Hey, I was wrong." "Hey, we need to do this differently." So analyzing experience is an important learning task for leaders.
Questioning Oneself and Others
The next learning task for leaders is to question oneself and others. So when we question ourselves and we question others, this inspires all of our stakeholders in our community, our students, our families, our teachers, to embrace the complexity of a lot of these adaptive challenges that we are working on as instructional leaders and school leaders. When we embrace complexity, we don't see things as this or this. We might see them as "both, and" as opposed to "either, or." We understand the deep historical contexts that problems are rooted in. And we unpack and identify and work to dismantle things like systemic racism that are embedded in our systems and have been embedded in our systems of education since their inception in this country. When we are able to question ourselves and our others, we inspire our followers, not just to see the complexities of different adaptive challenges, but also to launch their own inquiries, to ask the tough questions of our leaders, ourselves and other stakeholders. And "What is possible?" To question: Is there a better way? Is there something different that we could be doing? Do we necessarily need to follow the same path that we have been so confined to, because this is "the way we've always done things".
When we question ourselves and others, it inspires everyone around us to do the same. That act of questioning is an ongoing process. It is never done. We are constantly growing and constantly seeking answers to questions that we don't already have the answers to, or we had an answer and now the answer has changed the next day or the next month. And we need to reevaluate. So this idea of constant questioning and inquiry is something that we want to teach our teachers and model for them. We also want to make sure that the teachers themselves are embedding these inquiry-based practices into their lessons, into their units. So supporting students' ability to question and critique and inquire that's where inquiry-based learning comes from. And that is a critical component of being an engaged person in a democratic society, which brings me to the next point: learning democracy.
When we're talking about learning democracy, we're talking about valuing both the means and the ends. So we don't skip over the democratic process to reach a policy decision or, you know, decision about anything that seems really right to you. It seems obvious. It seems like, yes, this is the direction that we to go. But instead it says, regardless of how I feel about this decision or this policy, I know that the democratic process itself, the way that we come to this decision is just as important as the final decision. We're not rushing to action based just on our own perspective and worldview, but we're embracing shared leadership. So that the way that we get to that decision is democratic in nature. That's who we want to be. So valuing both the means and the ends. And we want to see educational institutions as critical to the democratic process. So that's asking ourselves and our teachers and our school community as a whole, what and how are we supporting students to effectively engage with principles of democracy, both in the school space and beyond it. So how are we preparing students to be effectively engaged with democracy?
A lot of times we talk about once they leave school, we want them to be able to do XYZ once they leave school. But also how do we create school systems and school communities, which have embedded opportunities for student leadership and student engagement and forms of democracy before they leave school? Or how do we support them outside of school before they graduate? So while they are still a student in our school community, how do we set up school experiences? How do we teach content that is rooted in democratic principles so that they can go out into the community while they're still students and do both—be democratically engaged in the school community and outside of it while they are still in their school years.
The eighth learning task for leaders is to sustain hope. And this can be really difficult, especially when we're examining with a critical lens, all of the things that we are doing and deciding. It can be very difficult when we're constantly looking at the negative or what is wrong or what could be better to maintain and sustain that hope. When we get down into uncovering and unpacking all of the ways that our system has been constructed to be oppressive and to be inequitable, it can be exhausting. And so a practice for leaders that Preskill and Brookfield talk about is that sustenance of hope. And they highlight several leaders in their book who do this well and have historically done this well, so that we can look to them as examples of how to lead during difficult times, how to balance that criticality with sustaining hope.
And the final, the ninth learning task for leaders is to create community. And when we create a community, we're talking about the fact that the group as a whole, the school community, as a whole, our success as a community, it depends on each individual's opportunity to contribute their experience and their knowledge. It recognizes that our success as a school community depends on the invaluable contributions of each individual and each stakeholder. That is a part of that larger school community. And when that is held up as not just a value that's stated in our mission statement, but is embedded into the fabric of how we do school of the schooling experience as a whole, that is when we've truly arrived at what schools can and should be.
So again, those nine tasks, just to give you a quick summary. I know there were a lot. Nine is a lot to remember. The first is being open to the contributions of others. The second: to reflect critically on one's practice. The third: to support the growth of others. The fourth: to develop collective leadership. The fifth: to analyze experience. The sixth: to question oneself and others. The seventh: learning democracy. The eighth: to sustain hope. And the ninth: create community.
So as we go forward and think about the next step that we want to take after this episode ends to improve leadership skills, there are so many things that we can do. First, I want to emphasize that that setting up structures of shared leadership blog posts from the Time for Teachership blog, that predated the Time for Teachership podcast, that's available linked in the show notes for this episode, I would check that out as a way to really make sure that we are bringing into the leadership folds, bringing into the larger conversations and decision-making process all of the varieties of stakeholders that exist in our school communities. So that will support you with the structural elements.
Now, as we think about learning ourselves, we also want to make sure that we personalize a little PD for ourselves as leaders we talked about in the last solo show, leaders supporting teachers to have personalized PD during this year, especially, but really always. And so you can check out the previous episode on personalized PD for teachers to get some ideas and a template for that, if you are interested, But leaders ourselves, we also need to learn. We need to learn from others, and that's where those structural pieces come in. That's why you should reference that blog post, if you want some support there. But we also, as with teachers, want to make sure that we are able to narrow our focus into what we really need to do next. What is the big barrier that is not enabling us to grow and thrive and support the shared leadership of our community in the way that we want. And once we can identify what that thing is, we can start to build a plan for personalized PD so that we can grow, whether it's, you know, transformative mindsets that need to shift, whether it's a particular awareness of a protocol, like consensus based decision making. Whatever it is we want to really make sure that we are focused and narrow in what we want to do.
Myisha T, who's the author of Check Your Privilege, talks about, you know, really focusing in and kind of niching down because you can become overwhelmed with just all there is to learn about all kinds of topics. And so she's talking about, you know, laboring for racial justice. She says, take 90 days to follow just one racial justice activist, 90 days, follow one person, and just read what they have to say on social media throughout those days, or on their blog posts throughout those days, read one book during those 90 days. So don't try to read 20 books in that time period, but just choose one and dig in deep. And so, as we think about the recommendations of Myisha T, I also really highly encourage you to check out her book, her website, called Check Your Privilege. I will link to that in the show notes as well. I want you to take her recommendation and just niche down, really narrow your focus.
What is one thing as a leader that would help you improve your school community, embrace shared leadership, set up those structures. What's one thing that you really need to learn more about to have an equitable educational environment this school year?
Figure out what that is, identify your focus, and then you can start selecting and kind of constructing for yourself your own PD path for the year or for the semester, whatever given time point you would like to take this journey down. So the freebie for this week is meant to help and support you with this endeavor of leading as learning. And so I've created for you...
And of course you can print out multiple versions of them so that you can have, you know, a total of 90 days, if you want to print out three, for example. That is an opportunity for you to really just apply all of these things, we've kind of talked about narrowing down your focus. The first page of the journal is really identifying what your focus topic will be.
And then each day forward is really just a daily journal. So you can kind of check off what it is that you learned, or what form your learning took that day. Maybe it was a podcast video, it was a conversation with a stakeholder. Maybe it was a book or some critical reflection time where you kind of sat with all the things that you learned on that day. And you're thinking about your own practice and what needs to shift or what you would like to shift. It could be something you saw on social media, as you were following that one person for 90 days. It could be something you read on a blog, whatever it is, you have an opportunity to kind of check off the type of the learning that occurred. And then you have a space to journal on your reflection. So what is it that you learned today?
Again, we're harkening back to the idea that the authors of this book we've been talking about all episode, Preskill and Brookfield, talk about when they say we really want to switch over to the question, "What and how did you learn?" So instead of the frame of this year, we're talking about each day: What, and how did you learn" each day? And this could be something that you start a staff meeting with, where you encourage teachers to use as an exit ticket at the end of their lesson with students. But this question of what and how did you learn each day, each week, each month, each year, whatever it is, is a powerful one. And I think that's really at the heart of what we can do to lead and learn and be leaders who promote and embody lifelong learning.
So last week we spoke with Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick, who talked about the importance of just reflecting for three minutes, critically reflecting on your own practice, your own bias, your own ways of thinking. And so I tried to embed that into this freebie for this week, this journal that you can print off and use. So if you just take three minutes a day with each of these journal pages, you'll be able to kind of put these things into practice and to start to highlight where and how you learn and what you need to do to set yourself up for maximum learning each day, moving forward with your practice.
I hope that this was a helpful episode for you. I think the idea of lifelong learning is critical to quality educational leadership. And I am so excited to hear what it is that you are dedicated to learning for this school year. And for the next 30 days, I hope the journal helps. And I hope that you spread this idea of lifelong learning and personalized PD to your staff, to your families who are part of your school community, as well as your students until next week. Continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
Thanks for listening, amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me @lindsaybethlyons or leave a review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it, to continue the conversation you can head over to our Time for Teachership Facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.