Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

Postcards from the Leading Edge

A one-week road trip to nine different schools offers a glimpse of leadership for learning, Canada style.

Road trips are the stuff of everyday life in British Columbia, a vast province on the west coast of Canada. You can travel by plane, but the many small communities along Canada's historic Gold Rush Trail that begins just south of Alaska and stretches as far south as Washington State are probably more easily reached on blacktop. As a longtime educator turned university researcher, I work with school leaders from across Canada who want to advance their thinking and their practice as school and district leaders. A recent road trip down the coast got me and Alison, a graduate student, out of the lecture hall and into the world where school leaders struggle every day to make a difference in children's lives. Seeing their work firsthand gave us a rich and meaningful context for thinking about how our university could better support their efforts.
Our goal for this trip was to learn more about how graduates of our Certificate in School Management and Leadership (CSML) program at the University of Victoria had taken up roles as lead learners and learning leaders. A focus of this program is distributing education leadership and helping principals and teacher leaders use "leadership mind sets" to make learning, not management, the central enterprise of their working lives.
Our road trip began in early April of 2009. We visited nine schools in three school districts in a week, driving long distances between each site. This travel diary is intended to give you a sense of what we saw at the stops we made along the way. Join me on my leadership learning journey!

April 3: Smithers, British Columbia

After a 14-hour day on the road and only five hours of sleep, 5:30 a.m. comes early! We needed to get up early so we could meet the two teachers we would be talking to before classes begin. As we drove toward the secondary school, we were surrounded by a vista of steep mountains, lush green forest, and snowy slopes. When we arrived, many teachers were already hard at work preparing for the day.
It was hard not to be impressed by the team spirit in this school. The principal, Jack, does whatever he can to support teacher learning. This year, he has provided release time for Sheila, a teacher from our program who is doing some innovative work in formative assessment. Jack spoke proudly about Sheila's work using formative assessment in her grade 12 English classes. He also gave her credit for the idea of redesigning the school's timetable for next year so that teachers can create team-teaching teams.
Sheila has devoted considerable effort to building relationships by hosting a monthly breakfast club at which she and her colleagues discuss books and articles about improving their approaches to teaching and learning. The breakfast club works, said Jack, because it respects the ways teachers want to engage and gives them space to take steps forward.
Nancy, one of Sheila's colleagues, described Sheila as a learning coach and a critical friend who always puts a positive vision of student learning at the center of her thinking. We also heard about her transformative work in refocusing the thinking of her peers, of parents, and of district administrators regarding formative assessment as a tool for creating active communities of learners.
Sheila herself put it this way: "I represent the movement of an ordinary teacher into the realm of extraordinary, not because I work harder or am smarter than the average teacher, but because I am making the mind set shift necessary to reform our schools by embracing a new definition of leading and learning." Her work inspires us.

April 4: Telkwa, British Columbia

And now off to an elementary school in a much smaller community. The principal, Bonnie, another former student, has been in this position for only eight months, although before becoming principal she taught in this same school. When Bonnie showed us around her school, we couldn't help but notice that custodians, secretarial staff, and parents are seen as important members of the team, and they take on lead roles in tasks that enable them to meet outcomes included in the school's improvement plan.
For example, after consulting with the aboriginal leaders in the community, one of the education assistants organized the school into clan groupings based on the region's Wet'seweten tribe clans. The clan system is based on reciprocity and supporting your clan members; the older members coach the younger members to be responsible citizens and take care of one another. Students gather with their clans for school events related to sports, school spirit, social responsibility, and leadership. It's part of the culture of the school.
For the past eight years, Bonnie has been involved in the Network of Performance Based Schools, a British-Columbia network devoted to the development of whole-school inquiry practices. As members of the network, teachers, staff, and parents at Bonnie's school consider their concerns about student learning and decide on a question that they will investigate throughout the school year.
For example, they explored the question, How might peer and parent coaching affect students' numeracy skills? They implemented a schoolwide peer-to-peer coaching strategy in which children and their parents learned to coach for enhanced numeracy using formative assessment practices. They also implemented a coaching partnership through which local high school students coach elementary students. This partnership is linked to an inquiry raised by parents: How can we improve the transition from elementary to secondary school?
Learning is integral to Bonnie's everyday activities as a school principal; it's a central component of her work day. "It's just what I do" she said, offering insight into the ways leaders must model their own devotion to the purpose of schooling: learning.

April 5: Prince George, British Columbia

It's been a long night and a day! We drove for 500 kilometers before arriving late in the city of Prince George, the near geographical center of British Columbia, even though it's sometimes called "B.C.'s Northern Capital." We were surprised by how much snow still remained on the ground. This morning, we sank to our knees in snow upon exiting the car at the school we'd come to visit.
We started our visit in a grade 1 and 2 classroom and saw our two former students, Diane and Joan, team teach a lesson on descriptive writing. Students had developed criteria for assessing descriptive writing and were now coaching their peers. As students looked at one another's work, they consulted a wall chart that set out the criteria. The sophistication of their vocabulary as they queried one another was remarkable. We were impressed with how well these students knew the purposes of their learning and engaged in self-monitoring strategies.
Later we sat in on a meeting of the teaching staff as they discussed an article about assessment and learning. These teachers were released from their regular teaching duties for the morning so they could hold this monthly professional learning community meeting.
The teachers referred to locally developed criterion-referenced measures and provincially mandated tests to illustrate areas of growth and successes as well as areas of need and new challenges. The principal, Dorothy, took notes as the teachers discussed their concerns and set new priorities for learning, and she reflected back to the group the next steps they had decided to take.
The frank conversation among colleagues showed strong trust among the staff members. Diane was clearly a leader in this group; she would frequently redirect or probe more deeply for information based on what a teacher reported. A third teacher chaired the meeting and kept the agenda moving, ensuring that all teachers had a chance to share. Lots of distributed leadership going on here!
Coaching is part of the culture in this school. It is envisioned as an approach that can work for alllearners—teachers, leaders, and students. As a coach for our program, Dorothy participated in a two-day coaching training and was then paired with one of our graduate students whom she coached throughout the academic year. Dorothy's coaching is not limited to this formal relationship. She has also taken up coaching as an individual practice, working with teacher leaders like Diane.
Dorothy confirmed the power of distributed leadership; she said Diane is "hugely influential. … She has an impact on the entire staff. The commitment, the dedication, the integrity is 100 percent." But Diane's ability to influence staff, while important, isn't the only reason Dorothy continues to coach this informal school leader. She recognizes the need to resist rushing in to "do" for others, but to instead respond by creating opportunities in which others can act. This understanding emerged from her own learning about what it means to be a distributive leader.
This leader-filled school was an inspiring place to visit and illustrated how practice among professionals can promote learning in schools.

April 6: Cache Creek, British Columbia

Today, we have moved down the coast. As we approached the smaller interior B.C. towns, we began to see a number of road signs marking the Gold Rush Trail: The signs featured a picture of a camel—the large, two-humped type—with an icon in its center. We puzzled on that as we drove—camels aren't native to this region, that's for sure. Later, we learned that the early pioneers had used camels to transport goods from the gold mines to the rivers; eventually, they released the camels into the desertlike ecosystem, where they wandered and foraged for many years. The region has taken up the image of the camel as a way of marking its distinctiveness. And like the region it represents, this school district can be distinguished from others in how it uses both a top-down and bottom-up approach to distributing leadership for learning.
We were keen to interview Loreen, not only because she had served as a coach in our program, but also because she was now the superintendent of schools for this diverse region. From the moment the interview began, I was impressed with her passion for education, particularly her understanding of how education could be a tool for community learning and success. Loreen draws on her experiences in community building and the inclusion of multiple cultures to engage leaders both inside and outside schools in designing plans focused on student learning.
Distributing leadership seems to come naturally to Loreen. She described the multiple roles that school principals take on, such as the management of key school district priorities for learning. For example, one school principal developed strategies for how the district would approach the early learning initiatives recently announced by Canada's Ministry of Education.
Additionally, each school leader must develop a professional growth plan. Loreen visits each of them yearly to discuss the principal's personal learning efforts, how the principal has focused on student learning, and the challenges and opportunities facing his or her school. In these conversations, she offers support for particular initiatives and helps to coach the school leaders through the barriers to their planning. Coaching is the operative word here. Loreen probes, listens, and questions instead of directing their thinking. She also models innovative practice. In particular, her work with local indigenous community leaders shows the formal and informal school leaders she works with the value of working with the community and embracing cultural and social diversities.
Not surprisingly, the two principal leaders we met were following Loreen's lead in applying coaching strategies to their own work with teachers in their schools. We also saw examples of these principals encouraging informal school leadership. A leadership culture thrives in this school district.

April 7: Home Again

What a rich and wonderful learning journey we've been on! Not unlike our pioneer ancestors, we've uncovered riches beyond our imaginations. The strength of distributed models of leadership were readily apparent. There was ample evidence of real transformation as school leaders creatively applied distributive leadership strategies. Their work goes beyond cookie-cutter approaches and offers insight into how our university-initiated work must continue to bridge theory and practice. We must situate ourselves not as experts but as practitioners and coaches, learning with and from one another.
The implications of this trip will offer us new vistas for thinking about our program as we move beyond the Gold Rush Trail, exploring new sites and practices for leadership with passion, purpose, and commitment to learning.
End Notes

1 Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2009). Leadership mind sets. Innovation and learning in the transformation of schools. Routledge: New York.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 110021.jpg
Developing School Leaders
Go To Publication