Learning Oriented Leadership

This week my reading and thinking was focused by an article sent to me by Debra Jennings, a member of New Jersey’s State Professional Teaching Standard Board. I serve as a facilitator to the board and it is currently supporting a statewide initiative for every school to have a School-based Professional Development Committee which functions as a Professional Learning Community guiding teacher professional learning to increase student achievement.

The article, Helping Teachers Learn: Principals as Professional Development Leaders, by Eleanor Drago-Severson — 2007 was published in Teachers College Record.

The author explores how principals support teacher learning and highlights their creative responses to challenges. She describes four broad initiatives principals employ to support teacher learning.

#1 Teaming

Almost all principals used teaming to promote individual and organizational learning through various forms of partnering and adult collaboration. Many organize their schools for teamwork (e.g., curriculum teams, teaching teams, literacy teams, technology teams, and diversity teams) because they think that teaming opens communication, decreases isolation, encourages collaboration and joint inquiry, and creates interdependency.

Principals reported that teaming provides opportunities for individuals to articulate and become more aware of their own and other people’s thinking—and assumptions. Working with teachers in teams offers diverse points of view when considering important changes in the school, goals, and accountability for meeting them. Several principals, for instance, explained how teams sometimes challenged well-established school norms, which, in many cases, spurred these principals and their schools to reevaluate and collaborate to invent strategies for change (e.g., literacy programs, and technology initiatives). Thus, teaming holds the potential to be a context for growth and development both of team members and of the school.

My personal experiences as a teacher working on teams and as a consultant working with vertical teams, and professional learning communities supports the team as a driver of teacher learning. Sometimes teachers are learning from each other and at other times they are learning together. Teaming can increase risk taking and thus learning.

#2 Leadership Opportunities


Research shows that inviting teachers to assume leadership within their schools supports teacher learning. To support teachers in leadership roles, Blase and Blase (2001) maintain that principals need to develop teachers’ skills as data collectors, decision makers, and problem solvers; create opportunities for teachers to engage in dialog; build upon teachers’ expertise in their disciplines and pedagogy; and join teachers as colleagues in the educational process. Leadership roles are undeniably related to the practice of teaming because working in teams affords opportunities for individuals to assume leadership roles.

Just this week I had the opportunity to work with 12 high school teacher leaders who are the leadership team for restructuring their high school into Small Learning Communities. After working and learning with me throughout the day, these leaders facilitated groups of ten staff members exploring beliefs about teaching and learning that should influence the choices of design. The connection between their leadership role and the motivation of learning is clear.

#3 Collegial Inquiry

“Collegial inquiry” is an instance of reflective practice, which can occur in pairs or groups…a dialog that centers on reflecting on one’s assumptions and values as part of the learning process. It is widely accepted today that professional development must shift toward creating opportunities for teachers to reflect on their practice, their assumptions guiding practice, and how practice can be improved to better support learners’ success. Collegial inquiry provides opportunities to develop more complex perspectives by listening to and learning from others. The majority of the principals invite adults to engage in collegial inquiry, explaining that it encourages “self-analysis” and supports individual and organizational learning. Collegial inquiry takes different forms that include public discussion, private reflection, collaborative goal setting and evaluation, and engaging in conflict resolution.

Just this week I was part of a 3 4 5 vertical team meeting where teachers began discussing their view of using tangible rewards to students as motivation for practicing skills that were needed for mastery. There was sufficient difference in assumptions and beliefs to fuel conversation. It was obvious that teachers respect for each other’s practice promoted listening, considering, and self analysis.

#4 Mentoring

Mentoring is necessarily related to the practices of teaming, providing teachers with leadership roles and engaging in collegial inquiry; engaging as a mentor is a leadership role and mentoring relationships create opportunities for perspective broadening and examination of assumptions. However, mentoring is different in three ways. First, mentoring creates leadership roles that are less public and formal; it offers leadership opportunities to adults who might prefer a more private setting. Second, mentoring is often employed to introduce new community members to the school, to increase their sense of belonging and ownership of the mission in social settings. Third, mentoring most often operates in one-on-one relationships, though some programs have components of group mentoring. Working with mentors over time can offer a more personalized learning option. Mentoring helped teachers to broaden their perspectives, share expertise and leadership, and support their own learning. Many principals remarked that mentoring benefited mentees and mentors, who also grew as a result of the relationship. Mentoring enables adults to explore their own thinking and contradictions, enhancing self-development.

My experience with mentors of beginning teachers and teachers who work with student teachers supports the belief that both parties of the partnership learn. Mentors often find that their consciousness of their own practices increases often from the mentees questions. That consciousness often leads to improved practice.

This closing quote from Eleanor Drago-Severson illustrates school leaders important role in teacher development.

Principals who create professional learning opportunities that renew adults’ passion for learning while intentionally attending to how they make meaning of their experiences will support adult growth and enhance teaching. This is essential to student success, the health of our schools and our teachers, and the vitality of principals. Learning-oriented leadership focuses on the developmental aspects of adult learning and how principals and other school leaders can support them. It holds great promise for helping us achieve these goals as we strive to meet the new and complex challenges of education and leadership today.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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