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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1
The Learning Zone

Seven Principles for True Partnership

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For deep professional learning, create the conditions for dialogue.

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Professional Learning
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When I started out as a professional developer, I wasn't very good. My biggest problem wasn't my large folder of overheads or my limited presentation skills, it was the way I approached my audience. I assumed teachers would see how compelling the research was that I presented and then simply do what I told them they should do. When they didn't embrace my ideas, I labeled them as resistant.
During my presentations, however, I couldn't shake my suspicion that I was the problem, not the teachers. To better understand why my workshops were failing, I read authors from a wide variety of fields—and I changed my approach to PD. Eventually I completely flipped my approach. Instead of telling teachers what they should do, I saw myself as a facilitator creating the conditions for dialogue. Instead of seeing myself as an expert, I saw myself as a partner.
I have summarized what I've learned about partnership in seven principles: equalitychoicevoicedialoguereflectionpraxis, and reciprocity. I've found that when I ground presentations in these principles, as opposed to a directive approach, teachers are more likely to be engaged, to learn, to enjoy learning, and to implement what they are learning.

Translating the Principles into Practice …

Those partnership principles [see sidebar below] are now a central part of the professional development my colleagues and I deliver and describe to educators. But we are finding that knowledge of the partnership principles doesn't inevitably translate into action. Most troubling for me, personally, is that even I fail to act consistently with the principles. Seeing the gap between what I believe and what I do has led me to think more deeply about what it means to truly approach others from the partnership perspective. To help me, and others, translate the partnership principles into action, I have developed questions anyone can ask themselves so that they can move closer to living out these principles.

… And Questions That Help

Equality: "Do I interrupt or moralistically judge others?" When we embrace the principle of equality, we recognize the value and dignity of others. One small but important way we live out this principle during conversation is that we let others speak without interrupting them. Speakers usually interrupt to take control, to put themselves in a superior position; interrupting is a power move. If I see others as equals, I need to let them speak.
When we moralistically judge others, we aren't just discerning a clear picture of reality (as we see it), we are implying or stating that others are bad people—"lazy," "selfish," "clueless," and so on. Moralistically judging others violates the principle of equality since judgment, by definition, comes from a place of superiority.

Seeing the gap between what I believe and what I do has led me to think more deeply about what it means to truly approach others from the partnership perspective.

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Choice: "Can I let go of control?" Let's stop talking about "buy-in." A partnership conversation is not one where I try to get you to do what I have decided you need to do. A partnership conversation is a free interchange between equals where each person's ideas, thoughts, and beliefs are valued, and where both partners have the courage to be shaped by each other.
Voice: "Do others know I think their opinions are important?" When we act on the principle of voice, others know that they have been heard. Internally, we need to focus on what others say, listening without assumptions. Externally, we need to put away our devices and communicate nonverbally, make eye contact, have an open stance, not complete someone's sentences, and so on, so that others know they have been heard. Honoring the principle of voice means respectfully communicating that we think their ideas are important.
Dialogue: "Do I see others' strengths? Do I want what's best for them and am I open to being shaped by them?" The best writing I've read about creating the conditions for dialogue is in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Dialogue, Freire writes, requires humility, faith, and love. By humility, he means that we open ourselves to others' opinions and let go of the need to be right. By faith, he means that we see others' strengths and competencies. By love, he means that we have others' best interests at heart. When these three conditions exist, trust will follow, and trust is necessary for any meaningful partnership.
Reflection: "Do I avoid giving advice?" Generating ideas and solving problems are very pleasurable experiences. Many of us love to do all that thinking, even if we're doing it for other people. We often find it a real struggle not to jump in and tell others exactly what we know is best for them. Unfortunately, when we gift others with our wisdom, we take away their opportunity to solve their own problems, thereby violating their opportunity to think for themselves.
Praxis: "Does our professional development allow sufficient time for necessary adaptations?" The term praxis, as I use it, describes learning experiences that involve real-life applications of learning. Professional development grounded in the principle of praxis is designed so that a learner learns new knowledge through applying that knowledge. Real learning happens in real life.
Reciprocity: "Do I want and expect to learn from others?" One of the rewards of the partnership approach is the chance to learn from others. However, to learn from others, we need, first, to believe that others have something to teach us and, second, to embrace the chance to learn from them. In some ways reciprocity is the quintessential partnership principle. When we open ourselves to others, our world gets bigger, and somehow, because we're open to learning, we often have more influence on others as well.

One More Question

In aiming for partnership relationships, we need to ask ourselves, "Am I treating myself like a partner?" We likely won't snap our fingers and completely change the way we interact with others. I haven't—and I've been writing about partnership for decades. The partnership principles provide a vision for interaction; and day to day, reflecting on our beliefs and actions, we will move closer to that vision. But we shouldn't feel devastated when we struggle as a partner. Treat yourself with self-compassion, the way you would treat a friend. If we are going to treat others as partners, we should do the same to ourselves.

The Partnership Principles

  • Equality: I don't believe any person or group is more valuable than any other. I recognize and honor the dignity of every individual.

  • Choice: I communicate in a way that acknowledges the professional discretion of others by positioning them as decision makers.

  • Voice: I want to hear what others have to say, and I communicate that clearly.

  • Dialogue: I believe conversations should consist of a back and forth exchange, with all parties hearing and responding to one another's opinions.

  • Reflection: I engage in conversations that look back, look at, and look ahead.

  • Praxis: I structure learning so that it's grounded in real life.

  • Reciprocity: I enter each conversation open and expecting to learn.

Knight, J. (2021). The definitive guide to instructional coaching: Seven factors for success. ASCD.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching

Jim Knight outlines a robust instructional coaching program that can ease teacher burnout and power academic success.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching
End Notes

1 Knight, J. (2021). The definitive guide to instructional coaching: Seven factors for success. ASCD.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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