I knew when I was 10 years old I wanted to teach children. It was my calling and fortunately, my luck was good. When I graduated university in the early 80’s there was a teacher shortage and I immediately got a job teaching high school students Biology. I fully attribute this first job to great timing and networking. I am certain I didn’t secure the position based on my expertise. In fact, I would like to return and apologize to those students because as I look back on my first decade of teaching I was operating on passion and muscle, not knowledge and intentionality. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I hit my stride. The timing isn’t a coincidence. This was about the same time I developed some very important professional relationships that still thrive today. These critical friends ignited my desire to hone my craft and the fire still burns in me today.
As a building leader, I have often wondered how I can stoke the desire in teachers to commit to their own professional reflection and learning. Although the desire develops for different people at different times and for different reasons, there seem to be some common influences that teacher learners share. The work of an instructional leader is to construct experiences that lead each professional to those influences and as instructional leaders, consider the factors that prime a professional to make a commitment to his/her own learning, despite grueling classroom day-to-day demands.
Connection. In every devoted learner’s life, there is a connection with a child or loved one who doesn’t learn easily or whose learning needs are not being met. Sometimes it is a professional’s own child, sometimes a friend’s child, sometimes a student in the professional’s classroom. Regardless of how the child comes into the teacher’s life, It is empathy for this learner’s lack of success which forces educators to examine their own thinking and to be relentless in seeking out answers to support the learner. The challenge as an instructional leader is to recognize when a colleague has made a connection. And, to follow up the recognition with the ability to ask the right question. Questions like, “What does your student do well?” “Who does this student remind you of?” “What is a time in your life where you struggled to learn something new?” “How can I support you or share responsibilities so that you might have time to get to know this student better?”
Collegiality. Nearly every teacher I know has empathy. Identifying the student who requires support is just the first step. One of the experienced teachers at our building recently said that the most valuable professional development happens collaboratively and with colleagues who are willing to question her thinking and her decision making about instruction. This kind of conversation doesn’t happen without a strong level of trust. Thoughtful consideration on the makeup of teaching teams as well as being intentional about providing time for teachers to collaborate during their workday nurtures a culture of professional learning and collegiality. I’ve also noticed that the most productive collaboration happens when teachers own the conversation. There is so much expertise in a teaching faculty and tapping into that talent and asking the right question to collaborative groups supports them as they build trust within their team and as they consider sharing their expertise with those outside their team. Questions like, “What did you notice about your students’ thinking that helped you decide to use ________ strategy?” “Would you be willing to share how you implemented…..?” “What do you need so that you can be available to model these teaching strategies with your grade level colleagues?”
Curiosity. Real learning results from personal curiosity and a desire to solve a problem. Real learning can be expedited with access to the right resources, including time, money, access to expertise, and materials. Instructional leaders listen to what teachers need to quench their learning desires and they do what is necessary to provide. They ask questions like, “What do you need to make this happen?” “What data did you use to make that instructional decision?” “What did you learn in today’s practice that will drive the focus of your subsequent lessons?”
My work as an instructional leader is to expect the best out of each member of my staff and to model being a good listener. My work as an instructional leader is to provide opportunity for teachers to nurture relationships during their school day so they develop a sense of interdependence which will lead to deep collegiality. This is the work of all instructional leaders, not just principals. As we wind down this school year, I encourage each of us- principal, academic coach, teacher, learner- to seek out connections with your students and colleagues and be curious about the challenges that remain. For many teaching professionals, it is in our nature, ourDNA, to teach. Instructional leaders nurture passion to get better at their practice every day. I pledge to stoke my own desire to learn and to provide the necessary fuel that will result in connection, collegiality, and curiosity for each professional I lead. I hope you do too.