When Principal Patty, a leader at a large, diverse, comprehensive high school in the San Francisco Bay area, saw numerous students come into her office at the start of the 2019–20 school year asking to transfer from one teacher’s AP classroom to another, she was puzzled. What was happening? Instead of jumping to conclusions or assumptions, Patty decided to take a learner’s stance and investigate.

All too often, we ask our leaders to know everything, fix every problem, and tell us what to do. This is an unrealistic standard. Our principals face a growing number of challenges, and it is impossible to know everything. It is no wonder that principal turnover is a challenge nationwide.

Patty’s district created a space for principals to engage in collaborative learning together. During the 2019–20 school year, her district began a partnership with Lead by Learning, a professional learning organization of Mills College School of Education in Oakland, CA, to develop a culture of public learning that supports adaptive leadership.

Using Data to Make the Learner’s Experience Visible

Each month, Lead by Learning supported Patty and her colleagues in grappling with leadership challenges and expanding their definition of data in an effort to learn more about their students’ experiences.

Patty began with quantitative data: grades and AP test scores. She noticed that Teacher Y, whose class students wanted to transfer into, awarded many As, but the grades did not correlate to skills mastery. Teacher X, whose class students wanted to transfer out of, gave very few As, but the grades and mastery levels correlated. This data illuminated an equity issue, piquing Patty’s curiosity. Instead of making assumptions about her teachers or their students, she decided to hold focal teacher interviews.

It is a common practice for teachers to have focal students. Zeroing in on a few students highlights complexities and ultimately supports everyone. This tool for being adaptive as a teacher applies to leaders as well.

After some thought partnership from Lead by Learning, Principal Patty shared the data with Teacher Y to better understand this teacher’s grading practices and see if they were aware of what Patty noticed in the grade data. Her questions were open-ended and created space for her teacher to share:

  • Tell me about a time when…
  • What usually happens for students when… ?
  • What are you noticing in this data?

Guided by questions, they looked at the data and made sense of it together. Patty learned that the teacher believed their grading policies were culturally responsive. The teacher wanted to support students so much that the teacher unknowingly lowered expectations, perpetuating what Pedro Noguera—dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education—refers to as “pobrecito syndrome,” which causes teachers to lower their standards for students of color, thus reducing the rigor of instruction and preventing students from reaching their full potential. Through this conversation, Principal Patty not only saw her teacher’s “good” intentions but all the misconceptions she, herself, needed to correct as a leader.

Practicing Public Learning

Effective principals collect data all the time; it is what they do with this data that supports learning and change. A key component of creating the conditions for adult learning is collaborative spaces that allow for multiple perspectives and voices. Lead by Learning creates these conditions through the practice of public learning, which asks educators to share data relating to a problem of practice to collaborate and envision change.

After examining data, Principal Patty was curious if her discovery with her two AP teachers was also true in other disciplines. What seemed like a small problem—students asking to transfer from one class to another—was revealing itself to be complex and rooted in equity. She brought the dilemma to her principal community of practice as a public learner and asked: How can I support my staff to be both culturally responsive and rigorous?

As a public learner, Principal Patty was given time to think aloud about what she was noticing. Afterward, her colleagues had an opportunity to review her data and reflect on what they were seeing and hearing. This was a key opportunity for Patty to invite in different perspectives and illuminate blind spots. After a collaborative learning discussion, Patty was able to bravely share next steps and takeaways that surfaced.

Leaders who practice public learning find that it:

  • Develops a culture of questioning assumptions and biases
  • Supports the vulnerability required to question what is or isn’t working in one’s practice
  • Deepens their knowledge about how a practice supports learning
  • Builds an asset-based stance toward students and adults

Making Sense of Goals Collectively

Research shows that collective efficacy is one of the key factors in student success. John Hattie, an education professor from New Zealand, defines collective efficacy as, “collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.” However, many of our schools run on a “compliance-​based approach” that “does not build the capacity for innovation and responsiveness, essential components of improvement and learning.”

Effective principals know that their ability to energize their educators around a larger vision will create long-lasting, effective results for students. After receiving support from colleagues, Principal Patty was ready to make sense of her equity goals around rigor alongside her teachers.

Patty sat down with the data and instructional leadership team and modeled being a public learner to help her teacher leaders offer up more questions and patterns. Together they determined next steps for the school through collective sense-making. She didn’t want her teachers to feel shame—but a collective purpose. No longer were her big questions about supporting “my” staff; now, it was about supporting “our” staff.

Leaders as Learners

Principal Patty is an effective principal not because she has all the answers, but because she holds a learner stance. According to “Supporting a Strong, Stable Principal Workforce: What Matters and What Can Be Done,” a report by the Learning Policy Institute, one of the top five ways to retain effective principals like Patty is by removing barriers to professional development. Through her school district’s partnership with Lead by Learning, Patty engaged in a monthly learning space that deepened her adaptive leadership and vision.

Setting Up the Conditions for Leaders to Be Learners

Improvement requires learning, but learning is complex. In professional development spaces centered on learning, one must “confront their implicit biases and build awareness of their effectiveness.”

When designing spaces for principals like Patty to deeply engage in learning, they must center around four key mindsets that create the conditions for adult learning:

  • Teaching is complex and uncertain work.
  • Equity requires questioning assumptions.
  • Agency and purpose drive curiosity and deep learning.
  • Learning is fundamentally social and emotional.

Effective principals are not always the ones who work the longest hours, have the most experience, or have an answer to everything. They are the ones who are forever learning. Effective principals in effective districts recognize that improving educational outcomes is not about just implementing a new curriculum or paying for a one-off professional development training. It is about creating the conditions for learning to happen at all levels of the system from leaders to students. Now is the time to create the conditions for our leaders to be learners.

Nina Portugal is a program associate with Lead by Learning in Oakland, CA, and facilitates collaborative inquiry for teachers and leaders around the San Francisco Bay area. Jennifer Ahn is the director of network partnerships at Lead by Learning.