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Breaking Down Classroom Doors: The Role Leaders Play

Peer observation has long been seen as a pivot point for the improvement of teaching and learning, but seldom has the role of building leaders to get that started been examined.

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (1990) coined the term “public teaching” 35 years ago. It refers to teachers teaching in the presence of peers and having productive conversations afterward. Richard Elmore (2008) wrote some years ago that “it is virtually impossible for teachers to improve their practice if they can’t watch each other teach.” There are many echoes of that sentiment back over the decades. For example, Heibert, Gallimore and Stigler (Ed Week, Nov 6, 2003) wrote, “The process starts by learning to analyze the details of ordinary classroom instruction, with all its warts and foibles, and then learning to see more effective ways of teaching. But to do this, to even begin down this path, teachers must be willing to open their doors. They must be willing to allow others to use their lessons as data that can be examined and discussed . . . a professional activity open to collective observations, study, and improvement.”

There is evidence that when peer observation is frequent, student achievement rises beyond expectations (see the decades-long track record of Elmont Jr.-Sr. High school in Nassau County, N.Y. featured on The Education Trust website).

In order to support frequent peer observation, teachers must believe they can be vulnerable in front of their colleagues without being judged or disdained. Some lessons will not go as planned; that is inevitable. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, and surprises are routine! So, to create the conditions of basic trust for peer observation to be effective, leaders need to model vulnerability themselves.

Safety to be vulnerable is the liberator. To be sure, if my leader does not have basic competence to keep the wheels turning (student entry and dismissal, cafeteria behavior) then I won’t have trust, to say nothing of respect. The same goes for having my back with parent complaints. But if that leader also builds trust that it will be safe to be vulnerable in front of peers, then the pathway is open. Such trust building begins when the leader is willing to model it herself.

The take-off point for the improvement of teaching in a building is the willingness to be vulnerable in front of one another so that we can go deeply into problem-solving and the inventive thinking and sharing among staff that goes with it. In addition, the parallel job of leaders is to acknowledge the complexity of teaching and the huge range of knowledge and skills that are continually learned over one’s career. Learning is never done.

Case Studies in Great School Leadership: Brockton High School

Sue Szachowicz was a great school leader. When Brockton High School went from awful student test scores and graduation rates to national awards and a front-page story in the New York Times, analysts provided all kinds of explanations. This is a school, after all, of over 4,300 students that didn’t break itself up according to the “small high school movement.” It is composed of 77% students of color and 81% on Free and Reduced Lunch. The city of Brockton is as urban as you can find with all the problems of poverty and crime urban America has. So how come great results?

Analysts said: “They focused so intently on data.” “They adopted a laser-like focus faculty-wide on literacy skills, no matter what academic discipline you taught.” “They practiced distributed leadership with intense teacher participation.” “They did professional development from within.”

These statements are true; but they are not the core reason. Other turnaround stories have quite different lists. The core reason was due to a particular kind of leadership. Sue exhibited vulnerability and strength at the same time; she elevated others who had the same combination of characteristics; and together they mobilized meaningful collective action across the school.

They started small. At a faculty meeting of 300 staff members twelve years ago when the faculty was first presented with systematic data about how poorly their students were doing, a teacher said: “But what about the students’ right to fail?” Sue, who was the associate principal and not presenting at time, rose and took the mike. “You know, I just have to respond to that. NO THEY DON’T. They have no such right. I was a social studies teacher and I never saw that in any constitution I know of. They do not have a right to fail!”

In subsequent days, she single-handedly embarked on a campaign to focus on one very accessible and public aspect of low-performance – students tuning out with their heads down in class. “We weren’t very sophisticated at the time” she says, but it was the start of everything. When you listen to her tell the story, look for evidence of “vulnerable and strong at the same time.” (Read the Brockton High Turnaround Story)

Anyone reading more detailed accounts of the Phoenix-like rise of the Brockton High School and hearing about the literacy initiative and the “Restructuring Team” of eventually 25 teachers who met on Saturdays and made decisions for the whole school every year should look between the lines for leadership moves that came from being “vulnerable and strong at the same time.” (Read More about Brockton High in the Harvard Exemplary High Schools Report)

In future pieces, I will highlight other leaders who share these characteristics. Some are extroverted, energetic, and funny; some are quiet and introverted. Some are older; some are younger. The ability for a leader to be vulnerable and strong at the same time is independent of gender, race, age, or personality. However, I would argue it is fundamental to what our schools need to improve and be the best that they can be. It is something that any school leader can learn.

Lessons in Leadership: Be Vulnerable and Strong

Group Of Happy Coworkers Discussing In Conference RoomOver the last 40 years I have been working directly with principals, instructional coaches, and central office personnel who supervise principals on their roles in improving classroom teaching and learning. This has brought me into over six thousand K-12 classrooms in roughly a thousand schools from Alaska to Maine. Each year I form continuing relationships with certain districts, so I get to know the leaders there pretty well. Reflecting back over all of this experience, there is one lesson about leadership that rises above all the others: the best leaders are vulnerable and strong at the same time. In addition, they use those qualities to mobilize powerful collective action.

Vulnerable does not mean weak; and strong does not mean loud or necessarily charismatic. As Jim Collins found in Good to Great, I have also found leaders of many different personality types who are extraordinary. You can’t tell in the first meeting, or by the feel of the handshake, or the level of knowledge they display in their talk, who will turn out to one of these great educational leaders. You can only tell when you see them in action in a variety of settings.

“Vulnerable” means, as a leader, being open about what you don’t know and clear that you need to mobilize collective action because you can’t do it alone. You are willing to be seen as a learner; in fact, you plunge in with your faculty members to learn new strategies and programs. You try out with students whatever you expect your faculty to try, and share success and struggles openly with your staff. In this way, your learning stance and vulnerability make it safe for others to take risks, learn, and struggle. They can admit their mistakes, and acknowledge when they are not sure what to do.

“Strong” means, as a leader, you have core values and goals that drive all your behavior. You are public and persistent about these goals. Quietly or loudly, and ideally with the support of compelling data, you continually put the work in front of your staff and raise their sense of urgency. They know which goals need to be met, and they are up-front and persistent about working on these most important goals no matter what.

The Interpersonal Skills Leaders Use to Build Trust

“Trust” is the foundation that successful leaders build on to create strong Adult Professional Cultures. The following list of skills that successful leaders use to build trust. They are derived primarily from the book  Trust in Schools by Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider.

Group Of Business People Are Focused On The Job

A leader who strengthens Adult Professional Culture builds trust  by:

  • Being competent;
  • Always keeping his/her word;
  • Being considerate and polite;
  • Being visible frequently in halls and classrooms;
  • Listening actively and having productive conversations with teachers;
  • Respecting different points of view;
  • Being transparent and forthcoming with information about what is going on, how processes work, and how decisions are made;
  • Revealing his or her own vulnerability to make it safe for others to make mistakes;
  • Participating actively as a learner in professional development;
  • Demonstrating sincerity, reliability, and integrity;
  • Standing up consistently for important values and commitments;
  • Protecting staff from the destructive behavior of others.

In sum, great leaders show vulnerability and strength at the same time. They show vulnerability by acknowledging their mistakes, what they don’t know and need help with; and strength in consistently standing up for and pushing for core values and commitments that are most important for student success.

How Do Leaders Build the Norms of Strong Adult Professional Culture?

A district or school leader’s ability to build and maintain the norms of strong Adult Professional Culture is critical to the successful functioning of the organization. It requires that leaders do several things consistently as illustrated below:




Leaders need to articulate what the important norms are, model them, and make sure that the conditions are in place to facilitate them for everyone. Staff need reinforcement to change their behavior. Change is not easy; it needs time and sustained support to take hold. Once it does, the organization can expect to reap the benefits of collaboration, mutual respect, and collective effectiveness.