Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2018 | TELjournal.ca
Leadership can take many forms. This paper outlines early lessons learned in a case study featuring a committed group of formal leaders embarking on a collaborative inquiry journey, organized and facilitated by a teacher-leader.
Recent research points to the value of ‘leading from the middle’ (Fullan & Munby, 2016), and meso-level leadership (networks, communities, initiatives) to transform systems and cultures (OECD, Innovative Learning Environments Handbook, 2017). In contrast to top-down leadership, leading from the middle represents a balance between autonomy and connectedness, and recognizes the potential of non-positional leadership to broker change. But, “for change to become part of a district’s culture, it needs to be taken up more widely by participants in their own ways and these ways have as much value because of their diversity” (McGregor, Halbert, & Kaser, 2017). In this paper, I will provide a case study that supports leading from the middle as a stance from which practical and localized organizational change is possible.
I work in a large, semi-rural school district in the interior of British Columbia. Twenty-four sites and 350 educators provide educational services for 4500 students in an area the size of New Brunswick with diverse geography and a diverse population. Aboriginal learners account for 30% of the student population and come predominantly from Secwepemc (Shuswap), Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) and Dakelh (Carrier) nations.
As in many jurisdictions, there are challenges and reasons to celebrate. For example, there are pockets of excellence and innovative practice that exist in all schools within the district, yet these are happening, in many cases, despite rather than because of intentional work on the district’s part. Our leadership challenge is to build trust and coherence among stakeholder groups so the culture becomes not only amenable to, but fosters and nurtures, excellence and innovation as the normal way of being educators in this district. Becoming a ‘Learning District’, in all senses of the word, and for all participants, would support this cultural change.
Leading from the Middle
Moving from mediocrity to excellence as a district will require untapping the potential in all our educators. In my current role as the district Professional Learning Communities (PLC) Coordinator, a Teacher-Leader position, I have developed the skills to support inquiry as a catalyst for growth and change. As a middle leader I can model to other middle leaders (School Leaders for example) the stance and skills that support action while retaining credibility with teachers. As part of my ongoing scanning, I observed that our School Leaders lacked intentional and structured district-organized opportunities for professional growth and development. Our district, like many others, has rarely provided School Leaders with the kinds of intensive supports that can help them lead for instructional improvement. Because of my formal district role and my own interest in distributed leadership, I recognized the opportunity to support stronger leadership (including my own development) in the district. “To be effective, leadership must be spread throughout the organization….Distributed leadership develops, grows and is sustained through collaboration, team work, and participation in professional learning communities and networks” (Kools & Stoll, 2016). After consulting with a principal friend and my supervisor (Director of Instruction), I designed and invited participation in a School Leaders PLC Inquiry group (SL-PLC).
Case Study Overview
School Leaders (principals, vice-principals, and senior management) were invited by email to participate in three full day sessions designed to lay the foundations for co-designed leadership inquiry work. Instead of waiting for strong leadership to ‘save the day’, we needed to build capacity in our current leaders to act, taking advantage of their collective, but often untapped, wisdom and experience. Sessions occurred in early March, mid-April, and mid-June. The intention was to permit relationship building among the cohort and to enable deep scanning through which impactful inquiry work could happen the following year. Four early- to mid-career principals and vice-principals accepted the invitation and committed to working together. Session work involved norm setting and review, sharing relevant content around leadership, providing space and time to confer about questions of practice, and time to plan and scan. While the design of the initial session and the three-session arc were mine, changes reflecting the needs and interests of participants occurred throughout, ensuring a co-constructed design.
Notions of Leadership
It is interesting, and potentially provocative, to propose leadership development for School Leaders facilitated by a Teacher Leader. The invitation to participate naturally self-selects those leaders interested in professional growth who see leadership with a less hierarchically defined lens. The SL-PLC group debated definitions of leadership and worked to come up with some shared notions about what leadership in a school context really means. The participants have a bias toward servant and relational leadership, with students (and their teachers) at the center, and believe in leading from a shared moral purpose. They believe that leadership should be shared, distributed, and developed in all community members. In addition, participants identified some personal characteristics they shared:
- Honesty, candor, open vulnerability, lack of judgment, genuine, humble, no hidden agendas
- Growth mindset-oriented
- Inspiring, passionate, positive
- Smart, thoughtful, challenging
Reflecting with participants about reasons for the success of our first three sessions brought insight into what they valued in leadership and how they viewed my unique role as facilitator, participant, and outsider (non-Principal). Participants appreciated my own relational leadership skills: “he is a vulnerable, authentic person that helps make our working environment safe and truthful” and “[it is] evident that relationships are key… [He] creates trust with ease.” In addition, they valued my experience as a facilitator: “you model excellent facilitation skills”; “great skill set in meeting facilitation” and “[he] can question our responses in a way that elicits more thought and discussion…keeps [the] big picture in mind so [we] feel direction is evident and relevant but [we] don’t feel directed.” Finally, there were personal relational qualities that were important to specific individuals: knowledgeable, engaging, sincere, tolerant, accepts input, passionate, has a positive attitude, inspiring, driven, enthusiastic, and experienced.
While there are potential advantages and disadvantages to the unique role I occupied, participants only saw the advantages. Specifically addressing the ‘outsider’ aspect, there were two main ideas expressed – as outsider, I was at an advantage since I was not part of the current difficult conversations and relations occurring between senior management and the local Administrators Association. “[His] outside perspective offers a broader view; not so wrapped up in the P/VP issues, so he can offer views to help us see opportunities.” The other view was summed up by one participant: “I’m not sure that being an ‘outsider’ matters at all. Brian is a master educator, highly experienced, highly engaging, thought provoking, and an inspiring facilitator, and the title above the door doesn’t matter one bit to me.”
As an ‘outsider’ I felt I was able to ask authentic questions of the group from a curiosity stance because I truly did not know about their previous leadership development experience and that this questioning allowed us to come to shared understanding/language about leadership topics and provided me with great scanning opportunities. In addition, my authentic questions built trust and credibility, as I modeled some of the leadership themes I was espousing (like curiosity, growth-mindset, safety, continuous learning, etc.). Killion, et al. (2016) suggest that teacher-leaders “use interpersonal skills to build trusting relationships and foster a sense of belonging among the members of the school community.” I believe this has also happened in our SL-PLC. LeFevre, Timperley, & Ell (2016) remind us that curiosity and questioning underpins ‘adaptive expertise’, where space is created “for wondering and challenging in an atmosphere of trust and recognition of the role of emotion in learning” (p. 11).
Networking and Relational Leadership
The value of networking as a problem-solving structure is well documented (Hallgarten, Hannon, & Beresford, 2016; Leithwood, 2013; McGregor, Halbert, & Kaser, 2017). Connecting a group of school leaders with the aim of developing leadership capacity has the potential to support learning and leadership practices among participants, but also to strengthen their influence and reach. Through our inquiry work at a district level, we have asked our teachers to ‘de-privatize’ their spaces and to open up their practices. This helps develop individual and collective ‘adaptive expertise’, so educators learn to use deep conceptual knowledge to understand and work effectively to problem solve in novel situations (LeFevre, Timperley, & Ell, 2016). Teachers are beginning to realize that they can use the collective shared wisdom of the group to better support increasingly diverse learners. Having school leaders do the same may provide similar benefits, along with the extra power of modeling the value for others – doing as I do and as I say.
The importance placed on relational leadership emerged frequently in this group. When asked to identify from a list of key leadership themes one which they felt was most important to emphasize, three of the four participants selected the same theme: ‘cultivating relationships/trust.’
When asked to reflect on what initially drew them to the SL-PLC, participants pointed to an existing relationship with me professionally or because of the networking/mentorship opportunity it offered. Working with others in a known and trusted process (inquiry/PLC) featured in two of the responses. Of the 20 specific and separate reasons identified, fully half were connected to relational features. We see that “relationally centered leaders create the dynamics of ‘catalytic affiliation’ – a process that builds an interpersonal connection through a shared commitment to professional inquiry focused on making a difference for learners” (McGregor, Halbert, & Kaser, 2017).
In terms of SL-PLC session design, it was clear that setting and following norms for our time together, attending to trust and relationship building, and designing flexibly to cater to emergent and personal stories, would be important and valuable. “The community focus in PLC emphasizes mutually supportive relationships and developing shared norms and values, which are strongly influenced by the presence and development of trust” (Kools & Stoll, 2016). At times when the agenda was ‘hi-jacked’ in favour of discussions about specific contextual situations, I intentionally saw these tangential moments as opportunities to build community and establish trust within the group. Interestingly, every tangential conversation was connected to leadership and the challenging work of building relationships. Personal narrative holds a valued place in our sessions – it anchors learning in our lived experience and sets the stage for developing adaptive expertise through specific, local examples.
Supporting Innovation in School Leadership
With a foundation of trust and ‘catalytic affiliation’ being laid and nurtured, we concurrently focused on the content for leadership development. Attending to the ‘what for’ of leadership and ensuring that sessions were grounded in research were important design considerations. By focusing on leadership development for something rather than ‘just’ being a better principal, a nuanced shift is possible. It requires us to envision what we want to co-create. The participants in the SL-PLC came away from a visioning exercise feeling hopeful, empowered, and committed to creating school communities that use inquiry and innovation to support all learners.
Education literature focusing on innovation is widespread (Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014; Hallgarten, Hannon, & Beresford, 2016; Kools & Stoll, 2016; and OECD, Innovative Learning Environments Handbook, 2017, for example). Resources like these provided a focus for conversation, exploration, and debate during our SL-PLC sessions. Models such as “Schools as Learning Organizations” (Kools & Stoll, 2016) from the OECD, “Spirals of Inquiry” (Kaser & Halbert, 2017), and “Visible Learning” from John Hattie provide useful frameworks which we draw on as we co-design our own innovative ecosystems. Providing time and space for continued investigation of these frameworks is part of our design for upcoming sessions next year.
Emphasizing an Action Orientation
Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert (2014, p. 18) remind us that professional learning in itself does not necessarily lead to action. We must avoid the temptation to ‘do’ professional learning without acting to make a difference for our students. Of course taking action began with the design and formation of this SL-PLC. We are taking action, through our sessions, to scan our environments, develop shared understanding of leadership themes, and build the trusting relationships that will sustain us. However, this is not enough – we are not yet directly making a difference for our learners. We have committed, as a PLC, to emphasizing the role of School Leader as the ‘Lead Learner’ who “engages seriously in their own learning – alone and with colleagues, is exposed to the best theories and practices on school leadership for learning and teaching to thrive and participates with teachers in learning how to move the school forward” (Kools & Stoll, 2016, p. 37).
At our final session, I asked the simple question, “Do we want to continue together next year?” I wanted there to be a real re-commitment by members so they are opting in, rather than ‘defaulting in’. The response from participants was overwhelmingly positive: they wanted to continue and were eager to co-design our next year together. The following provides some examples of participant feedback.
Highlights of Our Sessions:
Participant A: “I feel a part of a group and respected for my ideas and experience; being new and busy in my own school world the last 2 years, I haven’t connected much with others and felt intimidated by more experienced admin people; to be included and feel like I belong is a highlight.”
Participant B: “Connection/venting/working together.”
Participant C: “Looking at my own professional growth; being able to identify verbally and get feedback from this group.”
Participant D: “Being able to voice my thoughts/ideas about school/leadership/education without being judged – no resistance from staff, no questions from parents or board office people. Just the ability to ask “What if…?” and have intelligent conversations about it. Awesome.”
Summary: The relational aspects of the design led to trust building and the development of a sense of belonging.
Change in Your Thinking/Action as a Result of Participation:
Participant A: “Power from the middle is doable rather than complaining about lack of leadership and alienation attempts from ‘top-down’.”
Participant B: “Clarity of purpose, getting closer to what is really important to me as a lead learner.”
Participant C: “I think I have been able to narrow my vision into a workable action.”
Participant D: “My questions about my school and myself as a leader have become much deeper and more powerful. My original inquiry is something that will be put aside to be replaced by a bigger question to be answered. The first one is not unimportant, it is just unworthy of an inquiry. This new ‘stuff’ is!!”
Summary: Participants have a clearer sense of purpose and direction and a shift from passive to active.
Impact on Learners
Participant A: “Many ways-my mindset shift is all encompassing keeping vision and purpose front-of-mind guiding practice impacts all areas of student learning.”
Participant B: “It’s impacted me, which changes my focus/thinking/actions.”
Participant C: “I think that students will have a better opportunity to explore learning because of the relationships and trust that has been (and will be) built.”
Participant D: “It has reminded me to be more mindful of all learners and make sure they are supported; it has reminded me to keep myself and staff accountable.”
Summary: After just four months, it would be difficult to identify our impact on learners, however, keeping the learners at the center will provide focus for ongoing inquiry work.
Impact on Teachers
Participant A: “Ideas shared help me with specific staff situations; knowing experienced admin struggle to juggle relationships/personalities and implementation as well, is empowering and inspiring.”
Participant B: “I liked when we set group norms; I’m going to do that with staff meetings.”
Participant C: “It would be great to have time for a group of staff to meet and build a trusting sharing group.”
Participant D: “Continue with relationships; we try things, we fail, we try again, repeat; continuously exploring options for them to try – let’s get them comfortable with something that works for them and then let’s grow from there.”
Summary: Participants could name specific actions, or at least intentions as an outcome of participation. Being mindful of impact will feature prominently in future sessions.
Through a criteria setting exercise, participants in the SL-PLC worked through what was important to them and what components they wanted to see in next year’s iteration of the group. Using a third point of reference (criteria list) as a design tool allowed us to focus on important features and limit the potential inclusion of unsuitable components.
Participants identified several criteria against which they would judge any proposed component. Any inclusions in the next year would involve…
- An action orientation
- An inquiry focus
- An interrogation of practice
- Forward movement
- Making learning visible
- Sharing out
- Holding us accountable
- Flexibility in design (honors tangents)
- A network orientation
Against these criteria, participants proposed components for future sessions:
- An exploration of scenarios and cases (sharing localized stories)
- Digging deeply into ‘Schools as Learning Organizations’ or ‘Visible Learning’ (‘big picture’ oriented research base)
- An inquiry check-in and feedback (each participant has a question of interest that has emerged after our first three sessions of scanning)
- Utilizing Fresh Grade (as a platform for sharing out our learning and making it and our process visible; models our own learning related to technology)
- Bringing/sharing a good article or book connected to own inquiry or ‘big picture’ topics
- School visits (as appropriate; virtual or face-to-face) – hosted by a participating School Leader, to enable building from leadership strengths
The group intends to re-commit before the first session to allow for an honorable exit if desired. Following re-commitment, participants proposed to meet six times during the year. All in all, it is my intention that this next year will be much more co-created and co-facilitated, as School Leaders take on more of the design and ‘flow’ of the group. Despite initially being divided on the level of co-leadership, participants agreed to take on as much of the design and facilitation as each was comfortable with. This compromise allows each participant to meet their own learning needs.
From other networks of School Leaders (for example, Knudson & Garibaldi, 2015), we understand that our sessions must:
- Create time and space for relationships to develop
- Expect consistent participation
- Identify shared goals and problems of practice
- Expect commitments to one another (value/need for communication)
“Our strong belief is that all schools, 100%, should be involved in focused, productive networks within which leaders, teachers and students challenge, support, innovate and learn from one another in ways that measurably improve outcomes” (Fullan & Munby, 2016, p. 5). My participation in the School Leaders’ PLC has provided me with focus, optimism, and resolve in my own practice. The case study outlined in this paper shows but one example of the potential power of middle leadership to influence and transform the culture and direction of a district. It is my intention to continue this work with my colleagues in a joint effort to learn our way to supporting all learners so they can cross the stage with dignity, purpose and options (Kaser & Halbert, 2017, p. 18).
Board of Education, School District 27. (2016). Strategic Plan 2016-2019.
Fullan, M., & Munby, S. (2016). Inside-out and Downside-up: How Leading from the Middle has the Power to Transform Education Systems. Education Development Trust.
Hallgarten, J., Hannon, V., & Beresford, T. (2016). Creative Public Leadership: How School System Leaders Can Create the Conditions for System-wide Innovation. World Innovation Summit for Education.
Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2017). The Spiral Playbook:Leading with an Inquiring Mindset in School Systems and Schools. C21 Canada.
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