As 'Above,' So 'Below': Leadership as Learning at #EdLeader21's PLC Event

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Reflections on EdLeader21’s 3rd Annual Event in Chicago, October 2-4, 2013


Chris Thinnes


Not half an hour after my return from another amazing gathering of EdLeader21’s professional learning community in Chicago, my wife and I are discussing our own leadership challenges in our respective schools. In this case, she – the Dean of Students and Dean of Faculty at a Catholic high school – is exploring the ways authentic relationships are essential to the service and support she provides to each of her constituencies. Charged with creating new protocols for faculty evaluation and supervision this year, she has decided that her primary goal is to create constructive and productive relationships with those teachers who may ‘report’ to her from one point view, but whom she considers colleagues first and foremost as co-participants in a collective inquiry about effective teaching and learning in their school. I happen, as I recently explained, to feel the same way.

About a particular situation in a which a teacher seemed threatened by her presence in the classroom and by early feedback about her teaching practice – more as a reflex, than as resistance per se — we note the ways in which many folks consider teaching practice, and leadership strategy, to be driven by distinctly different principles and goals. In those ‘testy’ cases where one runs up against the other, we realize that we – not just she and I, but all of us – have probably been more effective leaders in helping our schools to deconstruct and redefine power dynamics between students and teachers in the classroom, than in joining with our colleagues to deconstruct and redefine power dynamics between teachers and administrators in our schools. It seems that more of us agree, than ever, on certain principles that drive the most authentic, democratic, empowering, and engaging learning among the children in our care. But do those same principles frame our pursuit of effective management and leadership strategies—or do we (teachers and school leaders) resort in our professional relationships to the same outdated notions of accountability, authority, compliance, and hierarchy we have struggled to dismantle in our classrooms?

This conversation about our challenges and opportunities in our smaller schools resonates with a series of extraordinary and unique experiences I’ve had this week, in the company of (larger) school and (giant) district leaders at EdLeader21’s third annual event in Chicago: in many ways, I feel like I’ve just participated, seminar style, in a master class on leadership and learning with hundreds of educators (superintendents, assistant superintendents, heads of school, principals, instructional coaches, and more) similarly devoted to implementing the 4Cs and deeper learning not ‘only’ throughout their schools and systems, but also in their individual professional strategies for leadership and learning among the students, teachers, and parents with whom they interact in a shared culture of continuous improvement every day.

Before the first official session, EdLeader21 staff forwarded a set of “In Search Of” slides with information submitted by all participants in advance, citing areas of ‘Best Practice’ in their schools or districts, and goals for continued improvement for which they were ‘In Search Of’ possible solutions. Thus we had the opportunity, before and during the event, to seek out on our own initiative both those education leaders who might be able to help us achieve our goals, and those to whom we might be able to provide some support. This simple but highly effective example acknowledged the PLC’s understanding that effective leadership, like learning, is both relational and rooted in solving problems in authentic, ‘real world’ contexts.

In a breakout session I attended that afternoon, I learned about the Lovett School’s active efforts in “Redesigning Student Learning Experiences towards Authentic Engagement,” from Laura Deisley, Marsha Little, and Erin Dixon, in a room jam-packed with public and private school leaders actively invested in similar pursuits. I was inspired several of their initiatives (here’s a great idea, for example: their Atlanta 2.0 project pairs students in academic collaborative projects, from schools that are athletic rivals), but most deeply impacted by the ethos of their presentation: Deisley and her colleagues openly acknowledged that theirs were programs in a state of continued evolution; shared video testimony from teachers about their ongoing goals and challenges; and openly invited input and suggestions about how they might continue to improve their model. No peacocky showcases of self-styled ‘best practice,’ as we sometimes see at national conferences. No presumptions of transcendent authority or expertise, but an authentic effort to document and share their evolving prototypes. From picking the participle ‘Redesigning’ to title their workshop, to inviting participants’ input on their ideas, the Lovett team honored another crucial principle: effective leadership, like learning, emerges from authentic goal-setting and sustains a culture of continuou improvement.

The next morning, I had the opportunity to participate in a “Fishbowl Session” in which EdLeader21 members followed the draft protocols of an evolving peer review process called ‘Step21.’ As Valerie Greenhill, EdLeader21’s Chief Learning Officer explained to observers beforehand, the goal was to collect input on these draft protocols before “overbuilding them,” by having some of us practice their use as presenters and reviewers, and having others of us provide feedback on the protocols’ value after observing the simulation. For several days before the event, I joined Jim Hogeboom (Superintendent of the Lucia Mar USD) and Marinel McGrath, (Superintendent of Andover Public Schools) as peer reviewers of outstanding curriculum documentation from Albemarle County Public Schools. Our task was to review this evidence through the lens of draft Step21 protocols, in order to frame driving questions for a conversation with ACPS district leaders Billy Haun (Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning), Debbie Collins (Executive Director of preK-12 Instruction), and Tony Borash (Lead Instructional Coach) that might lead to shared insights on points of pride and goals for future growth. At every level, I appreciated that this process honored the important principle that effective leadership, like learning, takes place in highly collaborative contexts that invite a variety of perspectives in joint inquiry. What I found personally most amazing was the manner in which, and extent to which, I was invited to participate: these are good and wise people with much more experience, and many more stripes on their sleeves, than me—and yet my facilitation efforts and insights weren’t just indulged, but invited in an a spirit of genuine inclusion and respect that exploded any traditional notions of authority and hierarchy to which I sometimes cling.

Ironically, perhaps, the task to which Jim, Marinel, and I were set as reviewers had an intriguing resonance with the evidence that was the subject of our review. ACPS’s vision and systems to promote deeper learning district-wide feature performance tasks that have been designed by teachers in highly collaborative summer institutes, and implemented system-wide this year from K to 12. One of the performance tasks we were examining asks students in small groups to analyze several primary sources pertaining to the potential use of the atomic bomb in World War II, and then individually to compose a memorandum to President Truman, citing at least two of those primary sources, and advocating for or against the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. Meanwhile, we three peer reviewers were asked in a small group to analyze several primary sources pertaining to Albemarle County’s performance task design and implementation, and then to draft driving questions (also drawing on at least two primary sources) to provide helpful feedback on strengths and challenges to district leaders. In each case, clear protocols for collaboration, analysis, and further inquiry were provided to guide our efforts that both anchored our inquiry as learners in a shared enterprise, but invited our choice and voice as individuals. I found this a startling reflection of collaborative learning practices in collaborative leadership strategy: as Debbie Collins tweeted later that day, effective leadership, like learning, is anchored in “protocols [that] provide safe, equitable, focused, productive ways of working together.”

Later that afternoon, as a prelude to gathering input from PLC members on EdLeader21’s developing performance task bank project, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in one of Marc Chun’s highly regarded workshops on performance tasks, assessments, and assessment systems: “Performance Assessment Myth Busting.” Marc, who is known to many folks in school and district leadership from his earlier work with the CWRA and CLA, used any number of highly effective facilitation strategies to invite workshop participants in an active deconstruction of several myths about performance task assessments and their potential to improve education. Partners were asked to make the case for and against the value of performance tasks. Groups were asked to explore one of six prevailing myths about performance tasks. Feedback was reported back to the broader group to share and explore insights and discoveries. I felt far more like an engaged student in an active classroom, pursuing a learning goal that was explicit and shared, than an attendee at a traditional education conference digesting an interpretation of ‘best practice’ or ‘leading research’. Immediately following these activities, Valerie Green invited groups to mind-map their thoughts about two potential directions for the performance task bank project, based on the value our schools and districts might derive from each. At our table, two of us from independent school leadership teams, and five of us from public school district leadership teams, explored and developed pros, cons, and suggestions for the potential future direction of this project for the PLC. All of our design ideas were grounded in our shared examination of the value, purpose, and use of performance tasks and assessment systems in our schools through which Marc had just led us. Marc and Valerie’s design decisions for this session honored another vital principle: effective leadership, like learning, helps us not only to identify what we know and what we value but also, and perhaps more importantly, to leverage that understanding in the design of solutions to problems we have identified together.

I could go on for days – and perhaps, figuratively speaking, I already have – so let me end on one last experience. In a final PLC session to provide an opportunity for members to plan next steps in their schools and districts, Stacey Caillier from High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education joined us to lead school and district team members through High Tech High’s ‘Next Steps’ protocols. As part of that exercise, team members were asked visually to mind-map their important takeaways, and to design a less-than-three-minute performative presentation, in order to process their goals, internalize them, and share them with other school and district teams. I joined Ken Kay and Valerie from EdLeader21, as well as a few EdLeader21 advisors, to follow these protocols with EdLeader21’s PLC, rather than our schools or districts per se, in mind.

As we drew near a shared plan for how best to ‘act out’ our discoveries and our goals, Stacey asked if we’d be willing to share our presentation on stage in order to model an approach for the full group of PLC participants. Regardless of our sincerity and conviction, our presentation was going to be silly (and potentially embarrassing): you go ahead and try to do a performance art piece on inputs, outputs, impacts, and protocols if you think otherwise. But here’s the point: up we went, standing in front of a crowd of veteran school and district leaders, and around we spun, acting out the ‘parts’ of the design principles we wanted to honor and leverage in the months to come. As I stood there, holding up a paper sign that read ‘Inputs,’ I realized I couldn’t even conceive of something like this taking place among school or district leaders at most of the conferences we attend. Half-baked, half-finished, perhaps half-witted, but totally invested, we did our best to honor another important principle: effective leadership, like learning, must sometimes be messy, imperfect, and personally revealing of our vulnerabilities.

In an orientation session on the first day of the gathering, a few of us had the opportunity, as advisors, to offer some comments to new members about our experience of the PLC. When it came to be my turn, I referred to a question a district leader had asked a few minutes beforehand about how we might best invite, include, and integrate teachers in school- and district-wide implementation of the four Cs. I suggested that our experience was this: unless teachers have had the opportunity and experience to think critically, create, communicate, and collaborate in their own professional learning and growth, it would be absurd to ask them to help create such a culture in their classrooms.

Just as teachers deserve and need that personal experience to leverage as they support the learning of the students in their care, we too, as school and district leaders, must not only promote these principles of learning in our schools, but pursue them in our own leadership and service. Great PD programs and PLCs in our schools anchor teachers’ professional development in what we know about effective learning for our students. EdLeader21’s PLC takes that one step further still, in my experience, by using what we know about authentic learning to inspire, support, and promote authentic leadership at the school and district level. As I continue in my journey of “Learning to Lead Learning” (to steal the title of Tony Borash’s blog), I know I’ll more purposefully strive to recognize, to honor, and to promote these principles of leadership as learning as a direct result of these experiences with colleagues in EdLeader21.

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Jennie Snyder

    Thank you for your thoughtful post on the #EdLeader21 conference. You’ve hit the nail on the head: “…unless teachers have had the opportunity and experience to think critically, create, communicate, and collaborate in their own professional learning and growth, it would be absurd to ask them to help create such a culture in their classrooms.” And, as you articulate so well, we must “pursue them in our own leadership and service.” Learning at its best challenges us to think more deeply, to consider multiple perspectives and to apply our best thinking and meaningful action to relevant, real-world problems in collaboration with others.
    It was great to meet you. I look forward to learning with you!

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks Jennie for your thoughtful comment. Thanks for modeling these principles in your own leadership! It was great to see you outside the avatar in Chicago 🙂

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