I am an unabashed super nerd. While most administrators I know roll their eyes and let out a heavy sigh at the mere mention of administrator meetings or mandated conferences, I actually get excited. I enjoy learning so much that I typically find a pearl of knowledge from the most mundane training.
While preparing to apply for recertification last year, I took a class called “Access for All.” Offered by my local educational agency, its main objective was to acquaint school leaders with the knowledge and understanding of accessibility supports in order to better address learner variability within their systems.
The foundation of the course is based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines. At the heart of UDL is a scientifically validated framework toward creating educational environments based on the notion that every student learns differently and that in order to provide the best educational programming, educators need to be more cognizant of issues of accessibility, technology, and personalization.
Although my inner geek would love to go on and on about UDL and the valuable information and perspectives I’ve learned, as I wrapped up the course and completed my final assignment, I had an epiphany. Regardless of the frameworks or guidelines we as school leaders use and implement into our systems, the most profound means of changing our educational environment involves the way in which we lead.
Leadership in 2020 is vastly different than it used to be. As I consider the next steps in my career, I’ve begun to contemplate how the leaders around me choose to lead. I have identified three key principles that I believe can lead to real change:
Teachers, like our students, exhibit learner variability. As school leaders, we need to demonstrate the importance of understanding this concept by ensuring that the ways in which we lead our staff recognizes and honors each staff members’ strengths and areas of growth. Some ways we can do that include:
- Creating a teacher profile. Just as UDL depends on creating a learner profile, we as building leaders should gather similar knowledge about our teachers and staff, including learning preferences, areas of strengths, and areas of growth.
- Don’t be afraid to ask what staff need from you as a school leader. An interesting example I read for the class involved starting the first day of school by asking students, “What kind of teacher do you need?” Think about the power of asking your staff, “What kind of school leader do you need?”
- Whenever possible, build professional learning opportunities that showcase teachers’ and staff members’ experiences and expertise. Teachers trust their colleagues far more than they do outsiders. In addition, as part of building a learning culture, teachers have to become comfortable sharing both their successes and failures. Only when we feel safe enough to fail are we able to make the greatest gains.
- Feedback, Feedback, Feedback
We all know that teaching is part science and part art. In many cases, teachers want their school administration to provide concrete feedback on their performance and not simply for evaluation purposes. You can do this in multiple ways:
- Leave a sticky note with a few comments while you conduct quick 5–10 minute walk-throughs.
- For longer, more rigorous walk-throughs, work with the teacher ahead of time to determine the specific feedback they want, such as student engagement, teacher movement, selected scripting, teacher questions or student questions, and student interviews, to name a few.
- Write personal notes to staff recognizing and/or thanking them for their work and efforts. In case you’re not as comfortable writing, other ideas include making personal treats or small gifts for staff, or even personally delivering a store-bought treat like donuts.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Be Vulnerable
Like learner variability, this will look different for each leader. For me, it involves letting people get to know me and not being afraid to be myself. For too many reasons, I’ve learned to respond very situationally to specific contexts, believing instead that sometimes it’s easier to simply go with the flow. However, in doing so, I sometime confuse others around me who leave the interaction not really feeling like they know who I am. Instead, I’m learning to better assert myself and feel comfortable in my own skin, even when I know the other person may not exactly like or agree with it. It may sound a little bit silly, but for me, that’s what vulnerability means. What does it mean to you?
Our system of education is at a crossroads as it recognizes that the achievement gap is one of its own creations. In order to stem the tide, each of us as leaders has to work to change our systems from within in order to create more opportunities and greater stability for the generations to come.
For more information about Universal Design for Learning, see here.
Valerie Nyberg has been assistant principal at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, IA, since 2013. She is the 2019 Iowa Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter at @vnnyberg.