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Instructional Leadership With a Soft Touch

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Live From NSDC, St. Louis-- I didn't get to attend the Michael Fullan session yesterday, but a lot of people were talking about it, and I was interested to read Nancy's description of his emphasis on "broad goals" and cultural change as opposed to a fixation on detailed outcomes. Variations on this idea have popped up in several sessions I've attended--often enough that I think it could be designated as one theme of the conference.

At a session I attended yesterday on instructional leadership, for example, author and University of Minnesota professor Karen Seashore Louis emphasized the importance of making "soft improvements" in a school's culture. By this, she meant attending to relationships within a school, helping staff understand the forces and conditions shaping learning and curriculum goals, creating an environment of trust and collaboration, and "consistently checking that aspirations for change are understood." Louis said that her research--which involved a study of (I think) 36 districts--shows that principals who create these kinds of changes in schools (alas, they are few in number) actually have the greatest impact on instruction and (ultimately) student achievement. Improving school culture, she said, "affects how people feel, but also student learning." It's not just Kumbaya stuff, in other words.

As food for thought, Louis also played the following video, asking attendees to consider what, in their own institutions, is standing in the way of the sort instructional change envisioned:

4 Comments

Anthony -- nice connecting between Fullan and Louis. Her comments are brilliant and far too "soft" for a reform culture that can't let go of the punishment paradigm. But what a great path for educators to travel on their own. If 'change gon come' it will need to come from within.

I agree with John--there are significant overlaps in what Fullan is saying about leadership and what Louis is saying about soft improvements. We've all seen this video--or one of the dozens like it. Why are educators paralyzed and unable to act on these convictions?

Schooling has always been a very left-brain enterprise: linear, boxed, checklisted, measurable, predictable, even traditional. When reformers look at our schools, they see chaos in need of more structure. What Fullan and (I think) Louis are suggesting is looking at the kids we're teaching, the schooling context we're familiar with and the need for change. The work is messy, unsettling and unpredictable.

In an earlier post on Web Watch ("Leaders of the Pack") I wrote about caring, action, meaning and structure as dimensions of leadership. Much of the reform discussion (RTTT, for example) is around structure. Fullan and Louis are pushing us to think about caring and meaning.

Building relationships with my students is one of the highlights of my day. However, in response to Louis' question asking attendees to consider what is standing in the way of the sort instructional change envisioned, I would have to say that my students' attitudes toward learning is what stands primarily in my way. My supervisor is very supportive of innovative teaching strategies and engaging students through the use of personal technology, but when I give my students such learning opportunities, which tend to rely heavily on students' internal motivation, the results consistently fall flat. The students produce shoddy work, complain that they can't understand the material, and ask, in so many words, to be spoon fed the material.

So, upon watching the video, I ask myself again, "How do you teach someone, not just to think, but to care? ... to try? ... to engage?"

One approach that I am trying this year is espoused by an organization called SENCER. In my mind it involves using social issues in the "real world" to engage students in the mandatory learning set to us by our school districts and curricula. We'll see if this approach brings a change to the can't-we-just-talk-with-our-friends-for-the-rest-of-class mindset.

School climate is everything in the area of real change. School personnel need to feel valued. They need to be supported. If this happens, they will buy in to the change that needs to happen. Remember that it takes time to turn a school around.

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  • Dianne T. Owens: School climate is everything in the area of real read more
  • Eric Jones: Building relationships with my students is one of the highlights read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: I agree with John--there are significant overlaps in what Fullan read more
  • John Norton: Anthony -- nice connecting between Fullan and Louis. Her comments read more

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