Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Principals' Short Course: Part 1 - Vision for Instructional Leadership

At the beginning of July, I had a chance to both participate in and present at the 51st Annual Saskatchewan Principals' Short Course in Saskatoon. Presented by The Department of Educational Administration and conducted by the Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit (SELU), this intensive four day day course is sponsored by those with a vested interest in supporting the growth and development of principals including: the Ministry of Education, LEADS (League of Educational Administrators), Saskatchewan School Boards Association, and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.

As someone who is entering the world of educational administration, I have a lot to learn about what it means to be a leader in a school, and in particular the leader of a K-12 online school. So despite the fact that many of my colleagues were heading out to begin enjoying the summer break, I joined many teachers from across the province in Saskatoon to learn, to connect, to engage in conversations about schools and leadership.

After four days of learning, 26 pages of handwritten notes, a binder full of handouts, a list of online and print resources, and a full Twitter feed (#spsc2015 and @eadmspsc), I realized that I was going to have to let this information percolate before I could make sense of it and apply it to my own principalship! So, I've decided to reflect on the course through a series of blog posts where I think through my big "take-aways" and make some plans for implementing them into the Sun West Distance Learning Centre

Part 1 - A Vision for Instructional Leadership
As a former learning coach and consultant in the Sun West School Division, instructional leadership is not new to  me. In fact, it has formed the basis of my work for the past seven years. But moving that leadership into the principal's role and trying to figure out what that might "look like" in a busy school with over 40 teachers is definitely new. 

Lori Jeschke's opening keynote on instructional leadership proved to be the ideal starting point. " 'You cannot NOT model!' (McGuey, 2007). If, in order to lead, we need to be learning, what does that look and sound like?" As a Learning Superintendent in the Prairie Spirit School Division, Lori's advice was both practical and inspiring. Here are my top five "take-aways" from her presentation:
1.     You Cannot NOT Model
2.     Ask Yourself "Why"
3.     Focus on Your "Get-Tos"
4.     Lead the Learning
5.     Be Your Team's Talent Scout

1. You Cannot NOT Model
Modelling as a school-based principal involves having a vision of what quality looks like and bringing that to practice each and every day. And it means walking the talk so that our actions and words are one in the same. So, how does a school administrator ensure that he or she is walking on the right path? 

Prior to starting in my role as principal, I sent teachers five questions and asked that everyone respond to the questions via email. The purpose of those questions was to: identify the strengths of the school and the work as an online educator; list the number one challenge and area that needed improving in the upcoming school year; and develop a list of criteria for the ideal principal. Then, I took some time to sit down with each of the teachers in my new school to listen. I used teacher feedback to create a vision of the ideal principal which I plan to use to form the foundation of my own modelling this year.

Lori raised an interesting question about monitoring our progress and growth in this area. I have been listening to a number of podcasts about staying on track with goals and am in the process of creating a set of quick reflections about each of these areas to include in my daily habits. A quick check-in can certainly help ensure that I am moving towards the vision of an ideal principal. But I see that this could also be used to start my day. Here is a small sample of what that daily reflection might look like:

2. Ask Yourself "Why"
Simon Sinek's Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action challenges leaders to explore motivation before moving on to the how and the what. 

In much the same way, Lori asked principals to consider the following questions:
  • Why do I lead?
  • Why do I want to lead?
  • How will my purpose be evident to the entire learning community (how will they know)?

It's a powerful question that rests at the heart of leadership and principalship. Our table discussions revealed that we all had a common desire to lead and had skills that would help us in our roles as leaders and in supporting our staff. 

But the third question - how will my purpose be evident - led us to discussions around the vision for each of our schools. And so school leadership with a focus on the why means that vision, mission and goals must be at the forefront of all that we do. Point taken, Lori. Thank you.

3. Focus on Your "Get-Tos"
It is easy to see how the day-to-day operations of a school can be centred on dealing with the management-type tasks that arise. And over time, this work may become less stimulating and perhaps a little de-motivating for leaders. 

Lori suggests that we slightly refocus and ask ourselves, "What do we get to do today?" By re-framing the question, we are looking through a new lens, a lens that allows us to start the day with focus and purpose. In this way, even daily tasks of dealing with student and parent concerns can be understood as "I get to solve problems with others." Problem solving is a creative pursuit that can fill principals full of meaning.

She also referenced Principal Kafal his belief in the connection between vision, preparation and achievement. As principals, we get to not only envision success for students, we can help our school put the plans in place to make it happen. We get to change lives. Now that's powerful.

4. Lead the Learning
In his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Michael Fullen stresses that the role of the principal is to lead learning. Both modelling and providing the conditions for others to learn are important criteria for a principal in his or her role as instructional leader. 

In Lori's words, we need to "hold the line on learning because a person on a mission will not stop." That statement creates a powerful image of a principal doing whatever it takes to positively impact students. 
 As part of our commitment to learning, the administrator team at the Distance Learning Centre is going to be conducting a book study of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High as part of our PLT work next school year. Remember the question I asked teachers about the "ideal" principal? One of the qualities identified is the ability to give honest, meaningful feedback. Well, we are going to learn how to do that better and are turning to Twitter and our PLN to help us explore this topic. We will be tweeting out more information in the fall @SunWestDLC. We'd love to connect with you!

5. Be Your Team's Talent Scout
In addition to learning with staff, Lori also suggested that school leaders must act as talent scouts, finding the expertise on staff and showcasing the strengths of others. This, I must admit, is an easy one. There are so many great teachers at the Sun West Distance Learning Centre doing amazing things! One of the ways in which we hope to showcase our talent is by inviting teachers to contribute to our "Lunch and Learn" sessions and to share some of their tools during "Appy Hour."

SunWest School Division also has a fantastic support team including our Superintendents, Consultants, Learning Coaches, and Technology Coaches. As well, Saskatchewan is fortunate to have access to a number of resources from outside organizations such as the Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit (SPDU),  the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Education. We are going to definitely tap into others' expertise to help us grow and learn.

Instructional leadership is the foundation of my goal-setting for my work as a principal. Thanks, Lori Jeschke, for sharing your criteria for success and for inspiring me, and the other members of our administrator team, to create a vision for our school. 


  1. Thank you for sharing and recapturing Lori's empowering message in such a detailed way, connecting the DLC into your review. By approaching leadership with these gems in mind, student learning and staff development should be the result. Looking at our vision with what we get to do, certainly affects the lens and attitude of the tasks ahead. Thanks for sharing your lens.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Kim. There are so many "get tos" in our role as leader which is exciting. And focusing on our vision helps to ensure that student learning is at the heart of our decisions at the DLC :)