Finding a Firm Foundation for Myself as Professional

When I taught, though it was for few years, I felt sure of myself.  Not necessarily as a superstar teacher, though my students performed well on standardized tests and such, but I felt sure of my decisions and actions.  I knew when I walked into the building in the morning that I was there to care about kids and to use my knowledge and love of literature and writing to help them become well-rounded humans.  I knew that my personal issues were moot from 7:00-3:30 because those kids needed my undivided attention, and I made it my mission to know and notice each of them.  When I left the building each day, I knew I had fulfilled my mission–I had made the best possible decisions (all 1500+ split-second decisions teachers make each day!) given the information I had available to me, and if I had messed up (i.e. used a too-quick, snarky response with a student, or gotten too emotional in handling a situation), I would apologize and return anew the following day.  I had solid footing as a teacher in my practice, purpose, and profession.

Since my move into leadership, though, my foundation has been shaky.  I do feel like I’m navigating various terrains, pulled in many different directions–some of which leave me in a place of ethical dissonance, while I try to figure out how to find flexibility in seemingly inflexible situations–through many models of what it means to be a leader.  There are managerial leader models, coaching models, aesthetically-distanced from teaching leadership models, deeply-involved models.  I have struggled to find the kind of leadership style that allows me to feel purposeful and fulfilled at the end of the day.  I have struggled to find my own answers to many questions:  What does it mean to be a curriculum worker?  How does one influence curriculum without replicating top-down models?  If curriculum is best when it’s a shared understanding, how does one practically put into place structures that enable this kind of curriculum building to take place?  What are the expectations of curriculum workers within public school districts from teachers, other administrators, the community?  And how can I align the expectations OF ME with my expectations OF MYSELF?  And finally, how can I fulfill the responsibilities of my position (both other- and self-created) while being true to principles of leadership to which I inherently adhere?

Big, HUGE questions that permeate every moment I’m at work as well as my greater existence as a person with a compelling need to offer something back to public education.

In my studies, I found my way to a certain research method called self-study (feel free to read this recent paper summarizing the methodology, if you’re interested).  In essence, the researcher is the subject, data collection element, data analyzer, and presentation tool for the research.  It sounds like a completely neurotic form of research, but there’s this collaborative piece through which the research (myself) actively seeks other perspectives to help triangulate what the data is saying.  What I like about self-study is it enables you to focus your bigger questions on a single area of practice (or “problem of practice”), and what I like even more is that engaging in the self-study process is something any professional can do (teachers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, etc.).

I was recently accepted to present my proposed current self-study at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in Chicago in April, 2015.  I can share with you the purpose of this accepted study:

The purpose of my study is two-fold: (1) to engage in a self-study that promotes professional and personal growth as an educational leader, and (2) to contribute to research that seeks to understand issues of teacher empowerment through efficacy and critical reflection.

I believe that teachers are, as Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) describe, “legitimate knowers and knowledge generators, not just implementers of others’ knowledge” (p. 89), who operate in a political climate seemingly opposed to this idea.  Instead of cultivating curriculum leadership in the teaching profession, professional development for teachers is most often aimed at implementing one-size-fits-all, top-down efforts.  These development programs pay little attention to the expertise of teachers and leave teachers feeling disempowered and inefficacious.

As an administrator, it is important to me to empower teachers in this climate of opposition and injustice toward the teaching profession.  I believe it is my role as a generative leader (Klimek, et al., 2008) to create climates for teachers in which their expertise and knowledge is honored.  To do this, I want to help teachers develop as curriculum leaders through critical self-reflection.  I aim to make use of my leadership role and responsibilities to empower teachers, to recognize the “collective intelligence and energy within [the profession] to generate productive growth and effective solutions” (Klimek, et al., 2008).

Through this self-study, I want to understand how well I am fulfilling the mission I envision as my fundamental role in educational leadership.  My research question is: “How am I, as an educational leader, helping secondary teachers develop their voices through critical reflection and curriculum leadership?”

What you should notice, based on what I said above, is my focus is an attempt to answer those big, HUGE questions for myself–to be better at what I do, to be more informed about my role and what I’m offering to public education.

I’m almost through a semester of data collection, and I wanted to share some of the preliminary thoughts I have about what I’ve learned for district leadership, specifically in a curriculum worker capacity:

  • Information dissemination is a bittersweet cornerstone of leadership positions.  The bitter side of always being the bearer of news (legislation, mandates, PD based on new assessments, policy-specific information) is playing the messenger role itself.  I have joked that I would like the Darth Vader song played every time I walk into a room because it seems I almost always have something stress-inducing to pass along.  But the sweet element of this role is becoming a credible point of reference for people and knowing that the people I work with / for are informed.  The more informed I am, the better I feel able to help our teachers / districts find the “wiggle room” within educational policy to keep teaching through and beyond.  Information is truly power.  I recently tweeted that I was sad to hear teachers asking questions at conferences about the new tests because there was so much mis- and lacking information.  This, to me, is a failure on leadership.  Because…..
  • Information allows teachers and schools to make informed curriculum decisions.  Having correct information in a timely fashion allows 1) teachers to make informed decisions in choosing what and how to teach, and 2) schools and districts to make informed decisions about what’s important.  What I have heard a LOT of recently are requests for teaching resources.  Everyone is struggling to find the right tools, lessons, instructional strategies to meet CCSS and new assessments.  What I think I am hearing (and what I’m working to process through my data) is not so much that everyone wants to be told what to do (via a set curriculum program or prescriptive directive), but more so they want enough information to be able to disseminate “good” stuff from “bad” stuff.  I have often made the argument that it is the role of teacher to advocate for him/herself as a professional and to reach out for precisely this kind of information, but what I am learning is there is so much CRAP out there, how can a single teacher have the time (while also teaching and caring about so many kids) to weed through and find the truth?  I am learning it is a cornerstone of leadership to have the right information and filter through the CRAP to disseminate this right information in ways that make it understandable for the classroom teacher (and also to provide vehicles through which teachers can get this information from credible / timely resources, such as the ODE Social Studies Signal, or signing up for any / all of ODE’s updates!).
  • To enable communication and collaboration among teachers and principals, the leader must create structures for this to happen.  So long as I’ve been a professional in public education, I have heard how poor communication is within districts.  Whether I was subbing, teaching, or now, in my current capacity, a central complaint in organizations the sizes of school districts is communication.  What I am learning through my self-study research is a leader has to make it a priority to set up and foster communication structures.  By foster, I mean, it is not possible just to create a discussion board or blog and expect people to keep it alive untended.  A leader, must set up the structures and feed them to keep them going, give them purpose, allow them to fulfill a need.  What I have learned this year is that the fewest possible channels through which to pass information, the less chance that information lose its original intent or meaning.  Teachers (at least in my district) want to meet with each other–especially between buildings.  My data is showing a complete divide in how teachers approach this kind of work: half want directives and specific goals to accomplish when given meeting time, and the other half want unstructured time to talk about what they teach and how they approach their contents.  Perhaps semi-structured meetings would help keep everyone feeling purposeful and fulfilled.
  • A leader cannot function on assumptions alone.  It is easier and more timely to make assumptions about what people need/want based on perception or hear-say, but I have learned that sometimes the loudest voices do not represent the voices of everyone.  Sometimes it is difficult to hear past the few and engage the many, and sometimes it’s even more difficult to find the method through which all of those voices can be heard (survey, surveys, surveys).  But ultimately, for myself as a leader, I have learned to check my perceptions at the door and ask myself: How do you know this is what needs to happen?  How do you know this is a need/want in the buildings?  I can honestly say this has been a difficult lesson for me, and it’s one I continue to struggle with because it is so much easier to make assumptions than to have to do the work / time to investigate.
  • A leader is bound by the ethical responsibility to model the actions and dispositions s/he expects of his/her colleagues.  
  • A leader must, ultimately, make decisions.  Despite all the wonderful communication and collaboration, and despite submitting whole-heartedly into all of the previous principles I’ve discussed, there comes a time when a leader must lead.  Whether that means orchestrating the collaboration into an effective decision or using all of the information presently available to make what s/he believes is the best decision of the moment, the leader must make decisions in which s/he feels confident.  To myself, I say….there is a reason I do what I do, and it’s because I have a specialized set of knowledge that comes from a specialized set of passions in a certain area…that is what I bring to the table, and it is what ultimately tempers my dispositions as a professional.  I am learning that I have to learn how and when it’s ok to make decisions and how to best try and lead toward collaborative decision making.
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