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Leading a Learning Vision

This article was originally published on Edvance Notice on November 14, 2022.


Pull, don’t push.


I was frustrated. It was a beautiful morning, and I was tasked with leading a group of ten six-year-old camp kids from inner city Toronto on a ‘nature’ hike through a hardwood forest on the camp property. It may well have looked like herding cats as I attempted to push the group along to the next observation checkpoint on our mini hike. Kids clung to my side, stayed engrossed in a frog, flower, or fancy rock they had just discovered, and were a challenge to keep moving on our prescribed adventure. An hour later, we arrived at the gathering point by the cabins, where the kids dispersed eagerly (and maybe even relieved!) to get changed into swimsuits for their next activity and to escape my scolding and pleading to keep moving. Exasperated, I asked Tim, my seasoned co-counsellor, what his ‘trick’ was in guiding what he claimed was his absolute favourite activity: the ‘Nature’ hike. I expected a detailed outline of how he had come to expertly and effortlessly guide his groups through the forest. Instead, he smiled at me and simply said: “Pull, don’t push.”


While leading a school isn’t as simple as conducting a 60-minute nature hike, Tim’s simple but encouraging words haven’t left me as I now work to guide a school community forward toward a vision for learning. I want to offer five lessons from those camp counselling days that parallel how our leadership team attempts to guide our crew of school staff.


1. Identify who to follow. I chose Tim, someone I knew could inspire a group of kids and adored his nature hikes. I watched as he ‘pulled’ his campers along, called out to them from down the path, and instilled in them not only curiosity but a hunger for what exciting things he was finding next. As a beautiful side-effect, he knew that these inner-city Toronto kids were just uncomfortable enough that they didn’t want to be left alone in the woods and would quickly scramble to keep up.


As a school leader, you benefit from working in an industry with hundreds of thousands of examples. There are schools everywhere. Who is ‘doing’ school well? Find out what’s working for them, and copy it. As a school leader, you may have lofty goals of being THE leader and starting new ways of educating students. Even if this is the case, and even if you are a leader in education, you are not likely the only pioneer. If you are bold enough to be a pioneer and have a community ready to trust and follow, you will also have pioneering companions in other schools whom you can watch, copy, share, collaborate with, celebrate achievements, and unpack challenges. Wherever you are on the school innovation continuum, be aware of your partners and exemplars, and be humble enough to learn from and with them.


2. Lead by example. Tim would not only tell our campers what to look for in the woods but would also demonstrate what it looked like to explore. Rounding the corner on the trail, it wasn’t uncommon to find him crouched down on the ground, rolling over a log or a stone to see what wonderful creepy-crawly things lay underneath. In leading, Tim would show us how it was done.

Steven and Joanna Levy are my favourite examples of this in leading our school staff. As we’ve learned new “Deeper Learning” ways of teaching from them in their Summer Institute, Steven and Joanna use the very tools they want us to employ in the classroom. We are the students, experiencing what our students will hopefully eventually experience as well. As school leaders, if we want our teachers to use learning targets in their classrooms, we should also use them in staff meetings. If we want our staff to use Restorative questions in dealing with conflict, we must also use them. If we want character learning to be central in our school culture, we identify that the same needs to flow from leadership, be evident in our staff and board meetings, and guide our interactions with students. As we lead a learning vision, we can’t simply expect that people will do what they are ‘told’ to do. We need to also regularly ‘show’ them how.


3. Consistency and perseverance. While Tim’s leadership in guiding kids on a hike was based on a simple ‘Pull, don’t push”, I also learned that he employed a consistent structure and then pushed to see it through. He explained where we would be going, what we should be looking for, and offered a hint at a surprise later in the hike. There was consistency that the campers could count on and expect. Tim could deliver on what he said we would find (as he knew what was possible and achievable), and he persevered in keeping our timeline (he knew we had to get back in time for swimming!)

School leaders are often accused of chasing the ‘Flavour of the month/year’. The ‘new’ thing is just another innovation that the staff will be required to pursue until there is another ‘new’ thing to adopt. A gift you can give your staff team is the experience of consistency and perseverance. We have found that repeating and continuing what we have adopted over the long term, in an almost relentless way, has alleviated this stated or perceived pursuit of fading initiatives. A staff that is assured that what they are working on and pouring resources, time, and energy into will last longer than the calendar year will more readily come along in pursuing your vision for learning. Even better, if they have been given a clear picture of what to expect and how long they are expected to live into that vision, your persistence in chasing that dream will hopefully be met with a similar desire not to be left behind.


4. Demonstrate passion, interest, imagination and joy. It was commonplace to hear Tim shout out in delight, “Hey, everybody!! Come and see what I just found!!!” Kids would come scrambling from all directions to see what he had discovered. Even in telling the story of what we would find in the woods, Tim would have a twinkle in his eye, something of an infectious excitement that was difficult not to share. Earlier, I mentioned surprises along the way. Tim was a master at planning something surprising. He may have hidden a surprise element by the path, identified a massive spider in a web earlier to show the kids, or even planned a practical joke on one of the campers or counsellors. It was obvious that Tim loved what he was doing, and being around him on one of these hikes was a sure guarantee that you would experience joy as well.

As a leader, do you love where you are leading? Is your vision for learning something that gets you up in the morning and that you are inclined to keep talking about with everyone on your staff and even with everyone you meet? Do others see your excitement and joy? Are you inviting your school community into a story packed with joy along the way? Following a leader that can’t get enough of the vision is easy. By becoming passionate about your vision, sharing that excitement, and even engineering delight for others along the way, you will be able to pull your school staff and community together down the path of learning far more effectively than any tried, tested, and prescribed plan could. Sharing your ‘Why,’ and especially how it ties in with the school’s pursuit of its vision, demonstrates the depth of your passion and commitment. Celebrate the small steps and successes, get excited about how your staff members make headway, and share your joy with your community.


5. Know your followers. Tim knew his campers. Some were confident, others anxious, and still others were self-proclaimed trouble-makers. Understanding what to pull the campers toward and how quickly was crucial to a successful walk in the woods. He knew who he needed to ask to lead others so they wouldn't cause trouble, and he knew who he had to take the time to listen to and reassure that we would be safe along the way. If you asked Tim if he always got 100% buy-in from all of his campers, he’d likely laugh at the prospect. Not everyone is in a state of ‘ready’ all the time, nor can you always anticipate where each person will be ‘at’ in their readiness to follow.

As you pursue your vision for learning, get to know where your community and your staff are with respect to following that path. Jim McKenzie shared a helpful exercise (the Four Rooms of Change) that has helped us listen to our staff as we lead them through change and in pursuit of our vision for learning. Who are your innovators who need to be trying something new? Who can teach others? Who will be anxious along the way and need time to see it unfold and read enough supplementary material to understand and commit? Who might be a bit of trouble coaxing out of the gate? Can you get 100% buy-in? I don’t think it’s likely, but knowing what your staff need (ask them!!) will go a long way in supporting them and valuing their experience of following. I’ve also been surprised (though I shouldn’t be) that outside life events will significantly influence who is following your vision and how. Keeping your eyes and ears open to the personal lives of your staff will help you to understand seemingly resistant behaviours that may be evidence of a full ‘stress’ bucket due to other things they may be dealing with.


Leading a learning vision can’t be reduced to a simple one-liner, and these five points of advice don’t do full justice to the complexities and nuances of pursuing a long-term goal that will bring continuous and beneficial change to your school. I don’t want to underestimate the wisdom of Tim's advice or experience, either, though. As you head into this week, month, or year, you will work with complex plans and experience inevitable moments of frustration as you herd your group of cats. Picture a friendly, empathetic, passionate camp counsellor telling you to ‘pull, don’t push’ with a twinkle in his eye. And perhaps allow yourself to be a bit nervous and excited about the surprises you will experience or even engineer along the way.


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