Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: November 2019In this article, Rob Laing describes how beginning his principalship while teachers were on strike helped him build relationships through three core practices. Over his four and a half years at this school, these practices significantly impacted the staff’s ability to move from the picket line toward collaboration and change. By Rob Laing
I began my first principalship in the fall of 2014, meeting teachers for the first time as they walked the picket line.To say that my first-time-principal-nerves were heightened is an understatement. I remember those early days in my office, looking out at the collection of teachers in front of the school building, huddled under their umbrellas and likely wondering how this new principal might impact the upcoming school year. I too had many wonderings. My leadership style up until that point was driven by the engine of connection and relationship. I wondered how I would connect and build relationships with teachers in the context of job action. I knew that we needed to find some common ground and decided that literal common ground was probably the best place to start. I chose to walk out and enter into conversation with them multiple times each day, introducing myself and learning as much as I could about them, their summer, and their lives. I approached with curiosity and kindness. I listened. Amy Jen Su, in a Harvard Business Review (2008), speaks about the voice of connection as one of the five leadership voices that should be cultivated. Leaders who hone their voice of connection find ways to build relationship and make time for rapport-building. When teacher contracts were finalized and school resumed, the work of turning our thoughts and efforts back to student learning was on the forefront of my mind even though I knew that it may take some time for teachers to return to the same focus. Many of them were coming back from the collective bargaining process feeling unsettled. Over my ensuing four and a half years at this school, three core practices significantly impacted our ability to move from the picket line toward collaboration and change.
Setting Vision through Yearly ThemesIn the summer of 2014, I had the good fortune of meeting Sheila Hammond, an experienced principal from Surrey and the facilitator of my small group in the BCPVPA Short Course. She shared her experience of organizing the school year around a particular theme. This idea resonated with me and inspired me to follow suit. The theme for our first year – the one that began on the picket line – was Reconnecting with our Roots. Throughout that year, we engaged in many discussions during staff meetings, educational facilitator meetings and professional days about why we chose education as a career; what inspired us as educators; and how our moral purpose as educators could be enacted. In an educational context, moral purpose is the intention to make a positive difference in the lives of our students, and ultimately, to influence society as a whole (Fullan, 2001). The theme in that first year provided the figurative common ground that took us from the concrete of the picket line to some concrete action. With our common purpose articulated, we realized that our shared sense of alignment enabled us to create goals around building connections in our school community with the ultimate goal of improving student learning. In that first year, we used an appreciative inquiry approach to identify what we believed were our core assets and to acknowledge the various ways in which we were already supporting student learning. What were our strong roots? Over the next few years, we identified themes to continue our journey of transformation. Each year-long theme became part of a multi-year inquiry process based on the Spiral of Inquiry (Halbert & Kaser, 2013). Each theme proved:
- relevant to the context of our school;
- consistently used as a framework for our collective work; and
- tightly connected to enhancing student learning.
Listening to Student VoicesIf our vision was to enhance student learning, we made time and space to listen to and act upon student voices. Making space for students to share their successes and challenges through focus groups and surveys created shared ownership and purpose, student engagement, and feelings of mutual reciprocity. For teachers, it took the focus away from what could have been viewed as a top-down push for change toward the common goal of hearing from and responding to our primary stakeholder. Fullan and Quinn (2016), in their Coherence Model, suggest that this type of collaborative work is effective in propogating whole system change. It also established a culture where teachers were able to engage in ongoing examination of their practice in light of student feedback. “Research is unequivocal that teachers learn best when they are working on a problem of practice with colleagues, that relates to their students” (Mehta & Fine, 2015). As Principal, I actively participated in these focus groups and supported teachers by providing release time during which we could visit classrooms, divide students into small groups and facilitate discussion and reflection. Each focus group facilitator followed the same structure and asked the same questions. All the responses were recorded and then compiled together into one large document. The facilitators then worked to collate common answers and sort the responses for each question in numerical order, starting with the most common responses. This method used to summarize our student focus group responses clearly highlighted common themes. The collated responses were shared with staff for reflection and discussion; determining and refining our focus; and reflecting on our progress. Many new ideas grew out of the valuable information that we gleaned from students. In the 2017-2018 school year theme of Raising the Bar, one of these ideas was the implementation of Flextime, which we dubbed Personal Learning Time. This action step was taken in order to address real student-centred challenges that we became aware of after listening to the voices of our students. As an extension of listening to student voices, we also engaged our parent community through the facilitation of the same focus groups at our Parent Advisory Council (PAC) meetings and online surveys sent to all guardians.
Building Relationships: What that really meansIn my early years as a classroom teacher, I held tight to my conviction that students would be less likely to learn from me until I had built a connection with them and they trusted me. Years later as a new Principal, my picket line nerves were connected directly to my strong belief that transformational leadership would not occur in the absence of good relationships. School transformation requires a group of people to come together with the belief that they are truly in this together, all pulling in the same direction. Donohoo, Hattie and Eeells (2018) cite collective teacher efficacy as the most powerful predictor of student achievement. Throughout this multi-year inquiry process, we asked questions, reflected on our practice and had the courage to ask how we were contributing to particular realities for our students. This learning stance required the establishment of a safe environment in which all staff could take risks and were readily given permission to fail. It meant that I had to trust so they could trust me; that I had to be transparent about my intentions so they also felt freedom to be honest; that we needed to have strong relationships, strong enough to withstand the messy and oft-unsettling nature of change. Practically, this orientation necessitated leaving my office door open despite the risk that my to-do list would grow longer. I had to ask myself what would create more mileage in the long run: completing the items on my to-do list or empowering others to become leaders within the school in an attempt to move toward more distributed leadership over time? Building relationships also meant that I had to be proactive and intentional about regularly standing at the doorways and hallways and in our large central rotunda, and visiting classrooms in order to interact with staff, students and parents. I readily volunteered when Teachers on Call were not available and had a standing offer to cover classes if teachers wanted to collaborate or co-teach. Other relationship building practices I found beneficial were establishing clear and thorough communication routines such as the parent and teacher editions of the Week at a Glance sent out every Sunday night.
Saying GoodbyeIn February of 2019, I left this school to move into a new position. Thankfully and kindly, my colleagues took this opportunity to share their reflections about our shared journey. As I read their farewell cards and listened to their heartfelt goodbyes, I was reminded of the power of relationship-building as a first step in pursuing school transformation. Although I know they appreciated many of our themes and the changes that were borne out of them as well as the ways in which we engaged our students, their final sentiments were almost always related to their appreciation of being heard, respected, supported, challenged, inspired, encouraged and served.
Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., & Eells, R. (2018). The Power Of Collective Efficacy. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar18/vol75/num06/The-Power-of-Collective-Efficacy.aspx.
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fullan, M. & Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Books.
Jen Su, A. (2019). You don’t just need one leadership voice – you need many. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/01/you-dont-just-need-one-leadership-voice-you-need-many.
Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2013). Spirals of inquiry: For equity and quality. Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Principals’ & Vice-Principals’ Association.
Mehta, J. & Fine, S. (2015). The why, what, where and how of deeper learning in American secondary schools. Jobs for the Future: www.jff.org/deeperlearning
OECD Brief. (2016). What makes a school a learning organisation? A guide for policy makers, school leaders and teachers. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.