Recently I was giving a training around the work of instructional coach Jim Knight. It was a fairly large number of school leaders in the room. Some wanted to be there, and some not so much. I asked whether the leaders believed teachers should have a voice in professional development. A number of participants shook their head yes, others grumbled a bit and rolled their eyes at the words “Professional development.”
And then, a leader said that when teachers needed PD they would send them out to get it.
They missed the point or I wasn’t clear in my delivery. I clarified by saying that I meant whether teachers should be encouraged to offer suggestions of what PD should look like, and whether they were actively involved in the process of bringing it into their school.
It was clear from the reaction...that teachers were not encouraged to have a voice.
As we moved on through the dialogue, I figured I would poke the hornet’s nest a bit more, and ask whether teachers should have a voice in their faculty meetings. I was corrected after the question left my lips. “It’s my faculty meeting,” a leader said.
Many leaders do not encourage teacher voice in their faculty meetings, and then they complain that all they hear from teachers during faculty meetings are complaints. If that is the only venue where teachers can share their thoughts, and if the structure of the building does not allow teachers to offer suggestions on making the environment better, only complaints will come out.
Jim Knight says,
When leaders do not honor teachers’ voices, telling them to implement step-by-step programs or practices without asking for their thoughts or suggestions, they communicate the message that they do not trust teachers to think for themselves” (Knight. Unmistakable Impact. P. 35).
If leaders run their buildings which puts them in the managerial position only, and do not take the time to have dialogue with teachers about curriculum, instruction and learning, then all they will hear are complaints. And they should not be surprised that if they set a tone of only hearing complaints, that that is all they end up hearing.
Autonomy and Accountability?
Autonomy is something many teachers believe they do not get enough of, and in some cases it is absolutely true. Accountability has become like a 4-letter word in education circles because it is often attributed to high stakes testing and teacher evaluation. In our own understandings we have often gone from one end of the spectrum with both, and not tried to find some common ground.
Viviane Robinson has written a great deal about instructional leadership, and being the lead learner. In that role, leaders foster an environment where collaboration is key, and find a balance between accountability and autonomy. Surprisingly, this does not mean that teachers get too much autonomy with their practices (Yes, I did just write that!). Robinson and Knight both believe that there needs to be a balanced approach of accountability and autonomy. In Student-Centered Leadership (2011), Robinson provides some important reasons that too much autonomy is a bad thing.
“Increased autonomy means less sharing because wide variation in teaching practice makes it difficult to identify which teachers need help and which teachers have relevant expertise.” The issue here becomes that with too much autonomy, teachers will be more likely to go to their rooms, close the door become silos. That is not healthy for a learning environment, because we know that true expertise comes when staff share ideas and feedback with one another.
Robinson goes on to say,
Teachers need sufficient autonomy to exercise their professional judgment about how to use the framework (curriculum) and to contribute to evaluative discussions about its adequacy. But that autonomy should be constrained by the need to ensure effective teaching practice-that is, practice under which all students achieve to a high level" (p. 87).
Collaboration is key, and the faculty meeting can be the place to share those ideas. Faculty meetings should be places where staff can dissect, debate and discuss learning, teaching and curriculum. And it is the leader’s job to provide that environment. Richard Elmore has written, “For every increment of performance I require of you, I have a responsibility to provide you with the additional capacity to produce that performance” (p. 89.).
In the End
Schools should be places that foster collaboration, and too often they do not. It’s not easy for leaders to let go of control, in the same way it’s not easy for all teachers to let go of control of the learning that goes on in their classroom, but they must.
Leaders can do the following:
Principal’s Advisory Council (PAC) - Set up a structure in your school that puts two teachers in the co-chair position of running a meeting. During PAC, come up with a list of areas teachers would like to learn more about. Attach those items to monthly faculty meetings, and ask teachers to contribute by bringing resources or offering suggestions to improve practice during the meeting.
Flip your Leadership - Send out resources ahead of meetings. The internet is vast and there are so many resources out there in cyberspace. Find blogs, Youtube, Teaching Channel videos or create your own that focus on the topics discussed at PAC. The point is to dive down deeper into those areas when the faculty is together.
Yes, this means that the leader will have to do some prep work, and the staff will have to watch or read something ahead of time, but remember that everything is based on what the staff wanted to learn about. Teachers cannot complain about meetings if they are given the opportunity to contribute to them and then choose to do nothing in the process.
A Learning Environment - Talk about learning! John Hattie (2012) says that schools focus too much on the politics of distraction, which are all of the adult issues that happen in education. Hattie believes we do not talk about learning enough. Everyday, leaders need to focus on learning, and make sure that they are listening, really listening to teachers and students. Take that...listening data and use it for faculty discussions.
Walk the Talk - If leaders want faculty to talk about students and learning, they must model what they want to see in others. If leaders complain about their staff or treat teachers disrespectfully, then they should not be surprised that they get it back from their staff. You get what you give. If leaders want respect and professionalism, then they should model it.
Connect with Peter on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.