Monday, July 27, 2015

Principals' Short Course Reflections: Part 3 - Creating a School Culture of Learning

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 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 at the Saskatchewan Principal's Short Course at the beginning of July. 

I am reflecting 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. This is Part 3 of my series:

Part 3 - Creating a School Culture of Learning

There is little doubt that the actions of the school principal sets the tone for the school culture. School leadership carries an important responsibility for ensuring that learning happens at multiple levels - with students, with teachers and support staff, with Administration.

In the book, School Culture Rewired, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker identify five types of culture and the impact of those on student learning and staff interactions:
  • Toxic
  • Fragmented
  • Balkanized
  • Contrived
  • Comfortable
  • Collaborative

While the goal is certainly to develop a school culture that is collaborative, the question for new administrators like myself is, "How can this be achieved?"

A number of sessions and keynote presentations at the Saskatchewan Principals' Short Course focused on school culture, providing a variety of lenses through which to view the principals' role in shaping a culture of learning. Here are my Top 4 "take-aways" from the day:

1. Actions of a Learning Leader
2. Professional Learning Teams
3. Routines and Modelling
4. Setting Targets

 1. Actions of a Learning Leader

Dr. Michelle Prytula, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, shared some suggestions for the deliberate actions that leaders must take in order to set a positive tone throughout schools. She identified eight ways in which school principals can shape the culture:
  1. Take courage
  2. Look through the eyes of students and parents
  3. Articulate the vision and live it out
  4. Set clear goals
  5. Praise excellence
  6. Be ready and learn how to have tough conversations when needed
  7. Collaborate
  8. Walk the talk
As I shift into the new principal role in the fall, I have been thinking about how to adopt and subsequently reflect on these actions to ensure that they become a regular part of my routines and habits. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests that in order to make new habits automatic, we must undertake some deliberate planning to instill these changes in our lives. In the next few weeks, I will need to develop some routines so that these actions become automatically ingrained in the work we do at the Sun West Distance Learning Centre.

2. Professional Learning Teams

Keynote presenter, former principal of the Elrose School, Vicki Moore, a Sun West School Division colleague and mentor, shared the lessons she has learned as she has worked with her staff to establish a culture conducive to learning. Inspired by leadership books, including Jim Collin's, Good to Great, Vicki asked three important questions:
  1. What is essential to creating a culture of learning?
  2. What needs to be addressed?
  3. How will we get there?

The turning point for her school, according to Vicki, was the creation of some purposeful, well-functioning professional learning teams, or PLTs. By exploring the work of Richard DuFour and the role that learning communities can have on positively impacting student learning, Elrose School, began to make improvements in how they used their collaborative time, empowering teachers to learn together.

At Elrose School, teachers participate in collaboratively designed professional learning activities that support the school's vision and mission - particularly around the school's PBL action research and their 1:1 school-wide initiative. By finding ways to hear teachers and give them voice, Vicki was able to build strong working relationships with her staff, getting to know them and their needs, which also allowed her to support them in their learning journeys.

Community involvement is also an important factor in supporting a culture of learning. Regular communication with parents takes place through a weekly school newsletter which not only celebrates the learning of students and staff, but also provides an invitation to parents to be part of school activities.Teachers submit a weekly update for the newsletter to keep parents and community members informed about classroom activities and Vicki includes prompts for parents to help them have their own discussions about learning at home.

By shifting the focus to learning in her school and bringing the community into the conversation, Vicki exemplifies what it means to be a learning leader and a change agent and is one leader who clearly is walking the talk. Thanks for inspiring, Vicki! My next step in this area is to make a plan to bring teachers into the professional learning conversation for the next school year.

3. Routines and Modelling

Tracey Young of Prairie Spirit School Division is another school leader who set up some routines for professional learning that helped Hague Elementary School create a school culture of learning through professional development.

Like Vicki, Tracey believes in the importance of having a common vision. "If you have a target to hit, it makes it easier," she suggests. "Then you can ask, 'Is this the direction we are going?' " Through regular classroom walk-throughs, Tracey asks questions that focus on teachers' professional growth plans. She provides feedback that helps teachers focus on their learning and her role as principal is clearly defined. As an instructional leader, Tracey works with teachers to help them become reflective practitioners.

At the beginning of her principalship, Tracey co-constructed a list of qualities of what counts in a good staff meeting. Collaboratively, the staff developed meeting norms and determined the purpose of their time together. Here are the Hague Elementary School's meeting norms:

     "Be on time, be on task (no cross talk), be concise, no repetition; some decisions will be referred to committees; stick to the purpose of the staff meeting: to build relationships among staff, to focus on professional development, to solve problems and make decisions."

A great deal of the time at staff meetings are now regularly spent on collaborative learning, co-planning lessons, sharing nuggets from workshops and conferences, and discussing book club readings. Informational items are handled through a Sunday night "What's Up" email with upcoming events highlighted. Because of the focus on staff learning, these regular meeting times have become protected and are valued by all.

As the school leader, Tracey felt it was important to model the sort of risk-taking and vulnerability in her own practices she was encouraging others to embrace. Learning involves stepping outside our comfort zone and putting ourselves on the line, and Tracey admits that this can be challenging for some. So she asked teachers to provide anonymous feedback on her role as the staff meeting facilitator. In the survey, she asked for specific examples of situations so she could learn to improve her leadership. By reflecting on those improvements and making her own learning transparent, Tracey provides another great model of instructional leadership in schools. Thank you, Tracey! I am eager to work with teachers in co-constructing our norms and purposes for our school.

4. Setting Targets

What does a classroom where optimal learning is taking place "look like"? This is a question Waldheim principal, Chris Mason, asked his staff to consider as they developed their professional learning plan for the year. Using the school division's "My Prairie Spirit Classroom" framework which outlines big ideas connected to engaged learning, Chris guided the staff as they collaboratively co-constructed criteria for each of the following targets of engaged learning:
  • Relationships
  • Rigour
  • Relevancy
  • Quality Assessments
As a result of their discussions, staff now have a clearer picture of what engaged learning looks like from both the student and teacher perspective. For example, one of the targets for identified by Prairie Spirit for engaged learning is a focus on relationships. Waldheim teachers have identified the followed qualities of successful relationships:

  1. Risk Taking - "students feel safe to wonder and seek assistance"
  2. Student Voice and Teacher Voice - "teacher talk to the whole class is 10-15% of class time"
  3. Student Learning Goals - "students speak knowledgeably about the class learning goals they have helped to create"
  4. Learning Relationships beyond the classroom walls - "students are connecting with experts and peers in the classroom, the school, the local community, the global community".

In addition to providing a target ("relationships are thriving when ..."), teachers also brainstormed what this might "look like/sound like" in the classroom. This is particularly helpful for Chris as he does his walk-throughs. His feedback focuses on a particular target, such as rigour or relevancy, and he makes a brief note on specially designed cards.

Students also have a chance to share their voice. For each of the big ideas connected to engagement, teachers created a corresponding student survey. By selecting strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree to statements such as: "I feel safe to participate in class by asking questions and seeking help" and "All assignments and learning activities have value in my class.", students can provide valuable feedback to the teacher on the target areas.

A similar framework applies to the administrative feedback that Chris collects from his staff. Although the statements are different ("I am encouraged and supported to do the best work I can."), the target areas are the same for all.

Thank you, Chris, for providing a great example of how targets can be used in multiple ways to support a school culture of learning!

What's Next?

As I continue to percolate the information from the Principals' Short Course, my action items are becoming much more focused and purposeful. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts about the shift to principalship. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome!


  1. Some great ideas from very excellent leaders. As a school leader there are many different things that can pull you and demand attention. The one thing I noticed that ran through all of these is that each of these leaders did not adopt things carte blanche but adapted them to meet the needs of the people with whom they were working and collaborating. There are many great ideas that are used but whatever one decides to do, it's important, IMO, that it meets the needs of the people.
    As an administrator who has moved a number of times, my experience is that it's as important to get to know the people in the context of the work they are doing and build relationships as it is to have a vision and plan. You have some excellent resources, ideas and suggestions from very talented leaders that will definitely do you well as you transition to your new role.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and plans as you transition to this new role.

  2. Kelly - Thanks for sharing your perspectives and experiences. Relationships ARE key to holding this all together.

  3. I am enjoying how you are taking the themes that emerged in the course and intertwining the messages of different presenters as they helped to develop the theme. In this present example, the challenge of the school leader as providing the educational leadership for staff professional development unfolds in the presentations of three gifted leaders. This school learning culture will be key to moving the staff forward in the achievement of the vision of our school. It will be interesting to see the direction we take as we collaborative move towards our vision.

  4. I am enjoying how you are taking the themes that emerged in the course and intertwining the messages of different presenters as they helped to develop the theme. In this present example, the challenge of the school leader as providing the educational leadership for staff professional development unfolds in the presentations of three gifted leaders. This school learning culture will be key to moving the staff forward in the achievement of the vision of our school. It will be interesting to see the direction we take as we collaborative move towards our vision.