Professing Education

 

Growing Leaders: An Approach to Educator Development

Lynne Miller and Cindy O'Shea

Maine, like many other states, has been experiencing a leadership crisis. Eight years ago, ten Southern Maine Partnership superintendents decided to do something about it. In the spirit of collaboration that the Partnership promotes, the ten district leaders co-constructed with university faculty a new approach to leadership development: the Leadership for Tomorrow's Schools program ( LTS). The idea for a new kind of leadership development had been germinating for some time among a subset of Southern Maine Partnership superintendents who had formed smaller regional alliances so they could collaborate more intensely on issues of curriculum, teaching, and assessment.

The notion of "growing our own leaders" was born of necessity. Maine is a resource-poor state; its districts are small and cannot afford the array of central office administrators that exist in other locales. But, Maine is rich in exceptional classroom teachers. And it is that resource that superintendents decided to harvest. Planning took place on an island in Casco Bay, where a group of public school educators, university faculty, and business leaders spent two rain-soaked days together. The agenda was clear: to agree on the kind of leadership that districts would require for the future and to develop design principles to guide the preparation of leaders for that future. Participants reviewed documents that described the conditions of schooling as they exist in the present and how they might appear in the desired future. The galvanizing idea was that each district would identify emerging leaders and invite them to participate in a program that would prepare them for new roles in their schools and district. There was agreement that the program should combine academic courses and real-life work in a seamless fabric of experiences.

The key elements in the program design were identified as:

- Building a program on the basis of desired futures for schools rather than a skill set.

- Developing a common language for and about teaching, learning, and assessment.

- Holding districts responsible for identifying and nurturing leaders, and making leadership development integral to their work.

- Engaging school districts and the university in a partnership where both entities are willing to forgo "business as usual" and create new ways to advance school leadership.

- Developing a professional community through a cohort group that stays together for two years.

- Having participants involved in the real work of the districts as well as university courses.

A cohort of 30 teachers completed LTS in the spring of 2001. They completed fifteen hours of graduate credit. Practical work in the districts was part of all course requirements; demonstrations of application to local issues and problems comprised a major portion of course assessments; and final exhibitions took the form of presentations to district leadership teams. Graduate credits that were earned as part of LTS can now be applied toward advanced degrees at the university _ in programs that have been especially designed to accommodate this unique experience.

LTS is now preparing for its fourth cohort, this one aimed at growing leaders in the middle and high schools of the region. Over time, the program has been refined to meet changing needs and to reflect new understandings. For instance, in the third cohort (2002-2004) there was a change in the sequence of courses. The original sequence began with the study of leadership and organizational behavior and followed with a focus on teaching, learning, and assessment. District work was initiated at the beginning of the two-year cycle and continued for the entire length of the cohort experience. Third cohort revisions reversed the order of courses, leading off with an emphasis on teaching, learning, and assessment_

areas more familiar to and resonant with the experience of classroom teachers. LTS participants not only studied theory and practice of teaching, learning, and assessment, but engaged with their district teammates in a cycle of three classroom observations. They formed partner groups and assumed the role of observer and observed. Each cycle consisted of goal-setting, observation, debriefing, written feedback and observations. The culminating activity for each group was to formulate a plan of action concerning teaching, learning, and assessment and to schedule a presentation for the following year to the school.

At the end of the first years, district teams formulated a plan of action concerning teaching, learning and assessment and presented it to the district leadership teams. Then, the teams were able to co-construct their district work for the next year. This new sequence proved to be very effective, connecting participants to the learning agenda of the school and providing opportunity to rehearse their ideas before they were asked to implement them. District work in the second year reflected the quality of preparation and planning that took place in the previous year.

Now, as LTS enters its fourth cycle, it is poised to engage its next cohort group in a program that is more sophisticated in both theory and practice. It is informed by the idea of "legitimate peripheral participation... the process by which newcomers become included in a community of practice" and learn how to become full participants in and practitioners of new roles. (Wenger, 1998, p.100) Key to the idea of legitimate peripheral practice are six practices: (1) having legitimate access to a community of school leaders, (2) engaging in the practice of leadership, first in peripheral ways and ultimately as full participants, (3) "performing " the practice of leadership, (4) fostering identity as leaders and the motivation to lead, and (5) helping district leadership to change (Lieberman & Miler, 2004).

Leadership for Tomorrow's Schools is a living example of a new kind of educator development where school districts and the university respond to the crisis in leadership by joining together to grow their own.


References

Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (1999). Teachers: Transforming their world and their work. New York: Teaches College press.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.