Iowa Writing Project

Closing an Institute on Teacher Leadership: A Charge

Posted on Monday, November 14th, 2016

Closing an Institute on Teacher Leadership: A Charge (6/23/2016)

Introduction: This charge to teachers in an Iowa Writing Project Advanced Institute, two-thirds of them in a UNI MA: Teaching English in Secondary Schools program, builds upon two book reviews, shared with participants shortly before the comments were made: “On Atul Gawande’s Better,” which explores the difficulty of improving, especially when changing engrained habit is necessary in order to do so; “On Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence,” which explores the challenges and the necessity of cultivating an ethic and self-concept grounded in doing quality work. (The reviews were carried from the workshop as recommendations for continued/extended reading and reflection.)

Peter Block’s assertion, It is a misuse of our power to take responsibility for solving problems that belong to others. (Stewardship, 1993) blended with some attributes of leaders (Empathy, Compassion, Humility, Wonder) posited by Peter Senge (Don’t they work in combination? Does humility make empathy possible? Isn’t wonder the basis of curiosity?), underscored by occasions during the institute (Qualities like humility matter most when they are most difficult to practice. Leadership Freak), suggested an initial element in a charge might be to reflect on one’s persona as an emerging/developing teacher leader. A TL is what we continually become, not a position, or title, or even role, but an array of functions – engaged actions – whose success often depends on how we “come off” to others. As with our responses to writing, one’s persona is substantially a function of receipt by others, not just of one’s intentions, and hierarchies in education can make it difficult to project and sustain the persona one intends. Credibility is a perceptual factor, perhaps part of persona, which must be earned and often through work…a reason for TLs to have a foot solidly in their classrooms. (I accepted the “title” of IWP Director in 1978 and have so served for nearly 40 yrs. of a 50+ yr. career; many things had to be “done right,” whether I wanted to do them or not, in order for IWP to get to do “right things.”)

One’s persona is intimately related to one’s stance – perhaps a sustained combination of position and persona.  In An Ethic of Excellence, I am impressed by Berger’s core stance: “things” are subject to constructive change through sustained effort! Despite impediments, TLs who want to transform school cultures rather than tinker with the status quo, must strive for such a stance, and support each other in sustaining it. Where to invest, where and how to put the shoulder to the wheel, remains a crucial choice, thus a second element of a charge: one’s passions. A Rich Harwood line I cherish reads: You can’t do everything, so do something that matters.

I believe both students and teachers work and learn better when their passions are involved.  English teachers, writers, facile with language, might be especially helpful applying their capacities in a district/building to:

  • influence the very concept/focus of change, effecting a choice of transformation (culture) over reform (system/program), for example (McREL’s  the road less traveled suggests attention to culture (inside out and generative) is emerging as a more robust approach to change than reform (often outside in and replicative));
  • interpret and challenge metaphors & analogies, the thinking involved in the work of transforming school cultures (English teachers can advocate organic, natural, “growth-oriented” metaphors in learning and teaching);
  • explore through language the complexity of cultures, using knowledge of story to understand facets of existing cultures and to author alternative possibilities (See “Abundance theory in the workplace”;
  • exemplify professional interaction as a thinker, reader, writer talking with peers and parties of interest (Ideally one TESS result?);
  • function as an agent for deliberative democracy in the system within which the culture must be transformed and as a means of doing so.

TLs must choose where and how to invest finite time & energy, perhaps on problems, a third element of this charge, preferably in line with passions, which offer possibilities. For example, English TLs might:

  • foster powerful uses of story, especially as data and to interpret data in ways that nurture students (See “A tale of 2 stories,” smartbrief);
  • cultivate constructive interaction with colleagues about practice – initiate as well as respond to PAR inquiry cycles and other avenues for reflective practice (See “Having Other Teachers’ Eyes…” NPR);
  • Cultivate group conversations, perhaps by suggesting titles for book groups, posting links for shared viewing/discussion, distributing articles or studies of special relevance, etc. (See “What’s a book for…” Literacy & NCTE);

Some special “book group” shared reads: to expand passions/interests –
Close to our English teaching craft – 
Book Love, Penny Kittle
The Art of Slow Reading, Tom Newkirk
Write What Matters: For Yourself & Others, Tom Romano
Somewhat more encompassing –
Teaching for the Students: Habits of Heart, Mind & Practice in the Engaged Classroom, Fecho
In the Best Interests of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, Gallagher
Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, Tom Newkirk
More fully system encompassing – 
An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger
The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande
Teachers in Professional Communities: Improving Teaching and Learning, Lieberman & Miller
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas & John Seerly Brown

  • Perhaps focus on selected issues, causes, such as:
    • Beginning teachers, retention (teacher and student), etc.
      • See: “Stay Interviews,” SmartBlog on Leadership, and “Why Do Teachers Quit?” Atlantic
    • Current pressures on teaching writing, or on kinds of writing (narrative, expressive, reflective…
      • See “Support Is Lacking,” edweek, and “A Powerful Tool,” Am. Educator
    • Local history, community service needs, etc.
      • See “Amazing Race,” MPBN.NET; search schools & museums
    • Collaborative teaching for social justice
      • See Field Notes…
    • Re-examining and enhancing the functions of high school, especially the senior year
      • See: “High schools try to make better use…” Hechinger Report
  • Engage local issues of social justice/inequality, such as:
    • School cafeteria – waste – quality
      • See “5 Fast Ways to Save…” Scholastic
    • School gardens (vegetable, herb, flower/landscape, etc.)
      • See “As More Gardens Sprout,” Boston Globe
    • Parent engagement/home visits
      • See “Could Parents be Allies…” or “Is Your Parent Engagement Authentic…”
    • Poverty/homeless students
      • See “The Simple Solution,” Huffington Post and “Hidden in Plain Sight,” Civic Enterprises
  • Support displays of student work – walls of excellence as ways of
    • Celebrating exemplary work
    • Communicating high expectations
    • Creating a shared vision of quality & promoting reflection (student, teacher, others?)
    • Gathering student perception of a local problem, like drug use.

*We communicate what we value by the attention we give…displays of learning work merit thoughtful attention not just to the content but also to the aesthetics…”

A final element of the charge is to facilitate use of a particularly promising practice: protocols. In “Big Med” (Annals of Health Care) Atul Gawande starts learning about uses of “protocols” in restaurant chains, and considers adaptations to medicine as “chains” of hospitals develop in his field. He learns of experiments in “standardizing” medical procedures (95% of a procedure so great focus can go to the essential 5% customization), driven by urgency to control quality and cost. Protocols can be developed from “big picture” data so practitioners can better use local, deep knowledge to serve individual patients. While not conceding that protocols – checklists – can address all problems, he gathers evidence (The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right 2009) of diverse and powerful applications to clarify, specify, the routine for the sake of intense focus on the idiosyncratic and the art it requires. IF professionals (teachers) can break down barriers and have constructive conversations, perhaps some matters (procedures) CAN become systematic without becoming prescriptive, scripted recipes and let teachers better attend to essential local and personalized exigencies. Might TLs be key to such conversations? Must not professionals OWN the protocols of their craft, as well as their creative, artistic tailoring to individuals? How might doing so, individually and collectively, change our cultures? We have used and shared protocols in this institute (4 ‘A’s Text Protocol; Plan, Act, Reflect (PAR) Inquiry Cycle); the more powerful ones remain for you to create in and for your own settings.

Finally, a quote with which I am working, a “piece in progress”:

One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak. Gloria Steinem from My Life on the Road

Of course, we must define powerful, and self-situate our power in any given context. I expect to ask college students to do so as, prompted by this quote, they reflect on and discuss their class participation habits and choices, and consider the implications for their stance as learners. But in our profession, amid current interest in teacher leadership, we might well discuss distribution of “oxygen” in the room, of space in the conversations, when school change is considered, and whether it must be distributed differently, from the inside out, if we are to transform school cultures.

Sources Cited in “A Charge”

Book reviews - JSD:

Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. New York, NY: Picador/ Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co. 2007
Ron Berger. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann 2003.                                                                     

Articles/posts: aligned with “passions, problems becoming possibilities, protocols”

“Change from the Inside Out” (models and principles), Goodwin (2015) The Road Less Travelled. McRel
“Abundance theory in the workplace,” smartblogs on leadership 12/9/15
"A tale of two stories” smartbrief 6/15/16
“Having Other Teachers’ Eyes Means Also Having Their Ideas” NPR 6/18/16
“What’s a Book For? Some Things to Consider When Planning for Conversations” Literacy and NCTE 6/18/16
“For Maine Students, ‘Amazing Race’ Brings History to Life” MPBN.NET 6/21/16
“Field Notes: Textured Teaching for Social Justice” ASCD 6/13/16
“High schools try to make better use of something often wasted: Senior year,” Hechinger Report 5/11/16
“Why 10th Grade Should Be the New Senior Year,” edweek 5/17/16
“As more gardens sprout…” Boston Globe 6/20/16
“Could Parents Be Allies in…Growth Mindsets” edweek 6/15/15
“Executive Summary: Hidden in Plain Sight – Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools” Civic Enterprises & Hart Research Associates

Mentioned: (or meant to be)

“As Teachers Tackle New Student-Writing Expectations, Support is Lacking” edweek 6/20/16
“A Powerful Tool: Writing Based on Knowledge and Understanding” American Educator Summer 2016
“Teaching Historical Inquiry with Objects” Smithsonian course announcement
“5 Fast Ways to Save Your School Cafeteria” Scholastic 6/20/16
“The Simple Solution that’s Helping Homeless Kids Graduate HS” Huffington Post 12/22/15
“Why Do Teachers Quit?” Atlantic 10/18/13
“Developing Leaders: Turning Life into Learning” SmartBlog on Leadership 9/11/14
“#1 Way to retain great employees: Stay interviews” SmartBlog on Ldrshp. 2/16/15

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