Welcome back to Flipping the Focus.
In the first of this 3-part series, I will be focusing on the first leg of my journey into learning about the role of the principal and school-level leadership.
The foci of the posts are as follows:
Part 1: My current position and learning regarding effective leadership
Part 2: A culmination of initiating and directing a professional learning community (PLC), 2015-17
Part 3: Contemplating the future of/for school-level leadership
Chris Stewart, OCT
Learning Partner, UCDSB, 2017-18
Learning about school-level leadership: getting Started
At one point in time, I wasn't sure if school administration was a role that I wanted as a career development option. My stance has changed: I can see how I could thrive as a school administrator and school administration could thrive through me.
This, I believe--personally thriving in school administration AND school administration thriving through me--is an incredibly timely and important thesis: it is through the varied leadership opportunities that I create and explore with others that I will come to fully know and appreciate school-level leadership.
Through the flow and connection of ideas that follow, I will attempt to define these two stances--how they are inseparable and how they relate to my moral compass or 'why'.
Thriving as a School Administrator
As I reflect on my, albeit relatively short, career in education (now in my 15th year), I can easily point to several administrators who have impacted my growth in education. None of these individuals were the same in terms of their strengths and leadership styles, but because they were different and supportive, I am growing to understand where styles correspond to context. For example, great visionary leadership is required to devise, implement, and sustain cycles of inquiry in families of schools across our school district. This type of leadership is paramount when setting directions to achieving the vision and goals of one's organization. To accompany this style of leadership, affiliative and democratic styles are necessary for building strong working relationships among all stakeholders: it's difficult to collaborate and follow directions when communication is closed and the voices of others are not valued.
Over the course of my professional learning up to this point in time, Principal's Qualification Course included (with Part 2 on the horizon), I've also become much more aware of my strengths and areas for improvement in leadership. With respect to strengths, I have an affable nature when presenting to others and am invitational while facilitating professional learning opportunities. Turning attention to areas for improvement, I am focused on successfully blending and applying different leadership styles, as there will always be occasions where staff and other stakeholders will need me to be different--i.e., being responsive to their needs and working to creating conditions whereby they can uncover and express their leadership potential to its fullest.
School Administration Thriving through My Leadership
Who wants to follow the "lone nut"? Inspiration is a two-way street: as much as I have been inspired by others, I have been able to inspire others around me to open up and to try things that they may not have done without modelling and encouragement.
Over the last four years, I have had the awesome privilege of being able to help design and facilitate professional learning in the UCDSB through varied opportunities in Mathematics. During the course of this work, several professional educators have had the opportunity to experience more so what it means to teach mathematics through problem solving while maintaining a view to helping students develop their fluency with number. It was also modeled, beyond the Mathematics curriculum, what it means to have grand conversations in the classroom, creating a culture of discourse. Along the way, educators were encouraged to become more proficient with their mathematical content knowledge for teaching, to explore further by putting their learning into classroom practice, and to continuously take on the stance of a reflective practitioner. Further to the above and the positive impact that this work has had on educator practice and student learning, there's more work to be done moving forward. This has been evidenced by the current, Renewed Math Strategy (RMS) in Ontario, and this is where effective, school-level leadership is key to ensuring continuous school improvement in the teaching and learning of Mathematics. Effective school leadership has the potential to implement and sustain innovative and powerful professional learning that can empower students to becoming leaders of their own learning.
It goes beyond modelling and encouragement. As mentioned by former UCDSB Director of Education, Charlotte Patterson, we need to be keen observers, and we need to celebrate the profound strengths of individuals. Although a group of individuals' strengths vary, they can complement each other to set the stage for accomplishing great things. The actions of such a dynamic group of individuals, as coordinated by an effective leader, is what leads to building high-performance schools.
Thus, it will be very important that I draw on my experiences as a resource teacher and Learning Partner ("power of influence", Lucy West) and seek out ways and opportunities that I can help to create space for shared learning opportunities where others can 'see' themselves in the work and to feel secure in testing their innovations.
Reflecting upon Thriving as a School Administrator and its relationship to School Administration Thriving through My Leadership, we can begin to see how this is an example of being inspired and inspiring others. In fact, in his book, "Start with Why", Simon Sinek points out that "those who are able to inspire, give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained" (p6). And once we're inspired, we begin to develop a deep sense that we, too, can take action in service of those who inspire or to challenge ourselves by trying something new.
Over the last 15 years, I have found that I have been inspired frequently by exemplary leaders. What I found to be most rewarding was the opportunity to reflect upon the ideas they shared: through reflection, more ideas started to surface for me, and as a result I'm frequently innovating--innovations that do not solely pertain to my practice, but that can be shared with others with the hope of bringing about inspiration. Truly, these are non-mutually-exclusive positions: those who have found inspiration, can inspire others; those who can inspire, are also driven by inspiration.
Clearly, there is a strong connection between these two positions--one of which is the effective leader (e.g., principal). This leader is effective for many reasons, but those that I can readily identify with is the importance of candor and the value of transparency to one's organization. In their book, "Transparency: Creating a Culture of Candor," Goleman et al. explain that when there is transparency in an organization, everyone is more motivated to take charge in solving complex problems. Essentially, candor and transparency create the conditions for true collaboration. With respect to school-level leadership, we can think of the collaboration as the dynamic that exists between principal, other admin, teachers, and students as co-learners. It is within this 'space' that we, as leaders, can model what it means to be a learner--sharing and aligning our inquiries with that of others, owning what we know and do not know, asking questions and reaching out for support, assessing impact, reflecting upon processes, and using observations in determining next steps.
School-level Leadership as True North
By starting with your 'why', you can further see how this will result in growing your abilities to act effectively in various positions of leadership. In much of what you do, you can easily see 'what' you're doing and 'how' you would go about it, but it's a strong conceptual understanding of your 'why' that will help you to inspire others to grow their practice, school, etc.
My best thinking, at this moment, has led me to creating the following statement of 'Why'. I believe that it will apply to all future endeavors in my career in education. Along the way, and as the context of new problems vary from older ones, I can sense and appreciate how the statement will change, but will always retain its essential meaning.
Statement: The inspiration that I can create for others and that which I receive from others comes as a result of learning together through authentic relationships. These relationships are collaborative, as all stakeholders genuinely present and carry themselves as co-learners.
Thus, in all that I do as a leader in learning alongside others, I'm investing in building a stronger network of leaders in the UCDSB. As put by UCDSB Superintendent, Jeremy Hobbs, an important element of effective leadership is getting into an informal space with others--nurturing, in a non-threatening manner, their professional growth through coaching and reflection. As I look towards the future and following my "True North", I can see myself working with others to establish a culture of collaboration where walk-throughs, observations, feedback upon feedback, and a sense of actionable "co-…" are just part of the way that stakeholders interact to improve teaching and student learning.
Over the course of my career, I've found both passion and purpose in teaching and learning, and I've come to recognize that I will always be an educator and a lifelong learner. Up until the last few years, I have been coached and encouraged to seek out additional learning opportunities that have school-level leadership components. As I engaged in these opportunities, continuous reflection has revealed that my passions are growing, and I am actively exploring if my purpose will expand to impact education as a school- or system-level leader.
Some of the opportunities presented required that modelling and encouragement were offered up for fellow educators. More and more, I'm starting to recognize that leadership must go beyond this to create space for shared learning opportunities where others can 'see' themselves in the work. It is within this 'space' that we can model what it means to be a learner--sharing and aligning our inquiries with those of others. And as I, and others, enter this 'space', I can help to nurture their professional growth to becoming more than they might have thought possible of themselves.
Moving forward, I am excited to create and engage in opportunities that will support my learning about school-level leadership. Further to this, and to foster continuous improvement in education, I will continuously seek to inspire others (within and across families of schools and in my professional networks) and to, yes, continually seek out and create inspiration.