“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a garden. I’ll meet you there.”
– Jelaluddin Rumi
There are only 12 school days before the school year ends, and it’s a time for celebrations of learning. One of the things I am most grateful for this school year is the opportunity to watch the growth of professional capacity through teacher inquiries. Traversing change through the ecotone of moving from what’s familiar to a new learning ecosystem is not an easy task for teachers.
This year, the faculty I’ve been privileged to serve for the past three years embarked on a journey through new territory. We sailed last March into new waters, similar to the moonshot: as a community we knew what we wanted to be as a school, and we did not really know how to get there.
We knew that we had to take some big steps into the unknown. To start with, we took risks, and to help us climb out of the learning pit into the space of understanding, we chose personally-relevant professional inquiries which small groups undertook to climb out of ambiguity for what the ecosystem looked like and approach learning from a new vision.
We shared our learning with one another recently. Each time I experience the culmination of professional learning in practice, it takes my breath away. I am awed at the capacity of teachers to become resourceful from within.
It’s a challenge to directly impact student learning as a principal, and the teachers in your care are the ones on the ground, who in their daily work with students shape the culture of care for students, the culture of nurturing students’ personal expertise in their learning, and investing in opportunities to rehearse the competencies and dispositions that a student must necessarily draw upon in their own journeys. Indirectly, the principal’s work is to do her best in creating conditions for learning to happen.
And, drawing a community around learning is a big, open-ended task. In the international school, each person brings his or her own mental models of how best to use time and space to huddle around the learning flame and keep it burning. Creating the conditions in which to prosper as learners is a challenge.
As the time I have with my colleagues draws to a close, with a significant transition in sight, I am mindful and grateful for the lessons learned in our time together.
It’s about people
Change is difficult. We have to let go of ways in which we have succeeded in the past. We have to find the resourcefulness to count on one another in the times when we are groping for shared purpose and meaning. We have to be resilient, depending on each other to hoist ourselves onto the next step of evolution in the practice we are re-visioning into enactment.
We grow our consciousness, our awareness of self and others in this journey. Paying close attention to self allows us to become metacognitive spectators of the changes we’ve put in place.
Metacognition allows for adjustments as learning takes shape. In collegial learning, we depend upon the vigilance and care of colleagues in times when we have had to use cognitive conflict to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about learning, to find the essence of our purpose.
In our growing consciousness, we gain a shared sense of what is good. When we piloted flexible, student-driven use of time in the school timetable, it felt uncomfortable at the start. What will the students do? Will they take breaks and shoot baskets for a whole block? It was uncomfortable at first, but we learned to trust our students. And we learned that as we gave students personal ownership of their time, as we taught them ways to use data to learn about their learning, our students gained personal motivation. “My students started coming after school to work on their skills,” one teacher shared, “after they learned how to use data for improvement. They even come on Friday afternoons!”
Learning matters when it’s personal. And our students taught us that when we provided them ways to become more conscious of what they gained in becoming aware of self and others, our students used their new consciousness to take control of time and opportunity.
It’s about process
We have had to trust the process of inquiry, an ambiguous, open-ended process in which we loop around, back again, and across. In implementing change to pedagogy and practice, process is key. Learning to create new ways of doing, monitoring the process as we approach these new ways, and gaining a sense of autonomy and purpose was a source of efficacy.
The professional inquiries are one way to gain autonomy and purpose. When we choose our professional focus for the year, we are able to design our learning around it; think about the indicators of success; find approaches or strategies to pursue our goal; gain personal learning from the experience; and embrace growth.
It’s about humility
The professional inquiries gave us data with which we are able to change our minds about practice. What we learn allows us to stop doing some things, start doing other things, and continue to do things that work.
Professional development is not about deficit. Long has the education world suffered from the assumption that professional development is provided because schools think teachers have some kind of deficiency. Far from this misconception, when we approach professional learning as a way to hone practice, it becomes a process of building personal capacity and group capacity. From professional development, we enter professional learning.
We begin to model the kind of intellectual life we want for our students. “Before I tried connecting with the department [colleagues], I always thought they didn’t take me seriously. I mean, I’m a teacher too, why should they do what I suggested? But when I communicated how we wanted our department to be, pooling resources together, and asking how could we make that happen, it was like needing them to help really made them aware that we were in this together. We’re working well now, we’re getting better at making things work.”
It’s about relationships
And, the greatest resource we have for our schools is relationships. In our minds, if we can count on one another, we can accomplish a lot. Learning to become a team player is like the skills of collaboration. Skills of cooperation are easier because they are delegated, distinct skills that are specialized and then combined into a whole process. The skills of collaboration are slightly different because they involve cognitive conflict: the ability to put ideas on the table and the openness to understand others’ perspectives to arrive at understanding that may not be possible without others. In our first faculty meeting back in 2015, I invited the faculty to enter into cognitive conflict as a way to massage ideas and create something greater than we could create alone. They have honored this invitation, and for that I am grateful.
Strong, trusting relationships are at the heart of effective collaboration.
It’s about trust
Change is difficult, and when a faculty follows the steps to a place previously unknown at your school, you must be thankful for that trust. Because stepping into a new terrain is an act of trust.
The act of following a vision into something not previously imagined was possible is a great act of trust. And, when a faculty follow a leader’s leap, the leader must realize that the trust it takes to make that leap is a resource beyond imagination.
So, we took some risks this year. What we gained was insight into how our reimagined learning ecosystem might work for ourselves and our students. The journey is just begun, and from these first steps into the new, I hope we have learned that together, we can travel far.
Meeting each other in the middle
I have great faith in schools; we are in this profession because we are eternal optimists. Even as education faces pressurized challenges, the resilience and resourcefulness of humans create optimism for the future of schools. What I’ve learned from these past years is that when we allow ourselves to meet in a place where we are unafraid, our common goal of re-imagining education for the future is a place of growth.
When we trust one another to be humble, to be interdependent, flexible and compassionate as we traverse the terrain of change, we can endure and triumph. We need to continue to summon faith in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.