Leaders Must Be Learners


Cross filed at Education is My Life
In my work as an educational consultant, I spend a lot of time planning with folks from schools and districts. In the midst of our conversations, this question is invariably asked, “In all the work that you do, what signs do you look for that will tell you a change initiative will be successful?”

In short, it’s about leadership. If I conduct a workshop – no matter what the topic – if the superintendent or head of schools stays to participate as a learner … that is a key signal that there is a seriousness about the initiative and it is on the road to success. However, if the superintendent or head of schools introduces me and says, “Hey, have a great day everybody,” while scooting back to her office … well, you can guess what happens. That action speaks volumes. There is no misunderstanding it: that school leader might as well have said, “I want no part of this initiative. I’ve organized it and arranged to pay the presenter. Now it’s up to you folks in the room to make it happen.”

Much has been written about the characteristics of successful school leaders: they are dedicated and passionate, they embrace change rather than try to maintain the status quo, they have vision. There is no denying these are important characteristics … but you can have all of them and fall short in the most important area, and that is to model learning behavior.

That means that the superintendent, central office personnel, school building leaders … anyone in a position of authority within a learning organization, must consider themselves as learners and model that behavior. There is a difference between authority and power. While a school leader’s credentials may grant her authority over others, she will have no power without first winning the hearts and minds of those she supervises.

Take, for example, the muddy waters of teacher evaluation. Principals are expected to observe teachers and then conduct professional conversations about the practices observed. During those conversations, a principal might encourage a teacher to think deeply about student engagement and instructional design. But if a principal conducts faculty meetings or professional development sessions that are monologue lectures addressed to passive faculty audiences – this will undermine any power that principal might have to shift instructional practices of teachers. And why should a teacher listen to someone who cannot practice what she preaches?

It may be a hard thing to do, but it is a remarkably simple concept. To be an instructional leader means dedicating time and energy to improve the quality of teaching and learning for everyone in the community … starting with oneself.

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