Exercising Our Personal Learning Networks for Professional Growth:
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ontario’s own Michael Fullan late last summer. He responded to an invitation I sent politely asking for some time to share his ideas and thoughts with a group of Principals in our district at the annual conference Vision to Practice. The Principals are engaging in a Professional Learning Network using Motion Leadership as our mentor text and PD360, from The School Improvement Network, as our online environment. After some initial scheduling challenges, he was flying to and from Finland, I was elated that Michael (as he asked me to call him) accepted and answered my questions regarding the role of the Principal in our learning institutions. Michael and I had a great conversation. I felt like I was sharing a coffee with him at a Starbuck’s while discussing some of the intricacies of the change process. He was off the cuff, candid and as pleasant as he always is. Using Adobe Connect I was able to record our entire conversation. The following is a paraphrased version of that conversation shared with you with his kind permission.
Q: 21st Century Principal, leading learner or learning leader? What are your insights?
A: There is one factor that is twice as important as any other factor that the Principal can do to impact teachers’ and student learning and that is the degree to which the Principal participates as a learner in moving the school forward. This phrase means that the principal is the lead learner, that is the way I would express it but both of the connotations of the phrase you are using are applicable. The principal must participate as a learner, be at the workshops, isn’t the best teacher in the building but has to be the pivotal person that is there, knows what is going on and what’s happening, has great insights, should not be dominating the conversation but instead helping the group focus.
Q: Time is always an issue. What are some of the solutions of time, as you see it, in order to stretch our networks and our reach?
A: One of the partial solutions to time is to focus on a small number of priorities and keep at them consistently, stay the course so to speak. So at the elementary level that is typically literacy and numeracy and in high school that is the student success work that all of us have been working on. So it helps to alleviate the time problem when we aren’t focusing on 12 or more priorities equally intensely. The second thing we are finding is when broadening the 21st century social network using technology we must make sure the work is focused. Douglas Reeves, in his latest work Finding Your Focus, talks about the importance of avoiding innovation fatigue. He further more says we must focus on a small number of goals, the data about what students are learning and the instructional practises that will promote better learning. Any exchange using technology has to avoid the general talk of just using technology and instead has to use it for particular purposes. This means that we have to be working on specific things in between sessions and then when people come together there is structure to the exchange. Application is done and the focus is on particular things when there is an exchange. From my work Motion Leadership the emphasis is on practise driving practise. So, instead of going to the research right away to find the answer we want to go to each other and see who is doing what, who is getting good results and learn from that. Consequently we would use the research to firm it up, test it out and get additional ideas. Practice first, theory and research second is the emphasis.
Q: Using your earlier work The 6 Secrets of Change we learn of love, trust and resistance in the school-house. How can we respond to resistance to change as a learning leader?
A: Motion Leadership has morphed from The Six Secrets for the particular reason that has to do with your question around loving your employees. I think of Motion Leadership in three chunks: One– ready, fire, aim or understanding the change dynamic and getting to action sooner that is. Two–the instructional core, which are also represented by the four middle secrets in The 6 Secrets of Change. And three– love, trust and resistance. In reference to love, trust and resistance instructional leaders have three priorities. Number one they need to give people respect before people have earned it. Number two is to create working conditions that you do everything to make people more lovable. Number three is to deal firmly with the left over resistance. Let me try to be succinct here. We have done some work in looking at “turnaround schools.” Usually a school that is not doing well has a lot of conflict, low morale or even a toxic culture. Put another way, people are often not acting in respectful ways. In order to break that cycle the Principal has to be giving respect to teachers, the same applies to students, before the teachers have earned it. This is theory “Y” in my book, similar to McGregor’s theory about the assumptions you make about people before you meet them so to speak. A habit of respect must be built into the way you relate to people. Success becomes more possible in conditions of a pleasant working environment, when we invest in professional learning communities and when we invest in peoples’ capacity to get better. Teachers then become more satisfied with the impact they have in working together on the things that matter the most like moral purpose. When these two things are done well most of the resistance gets preempted or incorporated. Principals then can be much more assertive. They have earned the right to because of the previous two habits they have been employing. The number of people who are not on board becomes quite small. Be patient and persistent, do the right things and be prepared to act assertive when you need to. Put colloquially, you need to be as assertive as you can get away with. The conditions required for this assertiveness are to have earned trust, to participate as a learner bringing good ideas to the team and empowering people in the process. These conditions give people the legitimacy to be assertive as leaders.
Q: Do you have any other insights for Principals as they engage in professional learning networks outside of the school-house or professional learning communities inside the school-house?
A: Yes I have been working on two specific insights for school leaders and I would like to share them with you. Number one, what really motivates educators is realized moral purpose with emphasis on the word realized. This is not the huge moral exhortation or research data that shows it can be done but actually experiencing success. It is the Principal’s job to promote this success as it is the energizer that motivates people to go further. The second point has to do with the collaborative work of schools. We noticed that two good things happen when schools or individuals collaborate. Mutual allegiance is created across the district for starters and then a sense of collaborative competition begins. This seems to be a new phenomena. People start to say I can be better than I was last year, inside a family atmosphere it turns into a “moral olympics” of sorts. Playing off of each other helps the whole system get better, district and province wide. In the provincial context the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat and the Premier continue to promote strategies that recognize what is happening that get partnerships going and schools and Principals working together.