Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
July 1, 2015
Vol. 57
No. 7

The Principal as Lead Learner

author avatar
For some, the title fulfills a vision; for others, it seems alienating.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Leadership
Follow #leadlearner on Twitter and you'll stumble across a connected and adamant community of principals who've adopted the title "lead learner." Perhaps one of the more vocal is Joe Mazza, former principal of Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pa.
After reading the blog post "Evolution of a Lead Learner" by Canadian principal George Couros in 2011, Mazza was inspired to use the title on his business cards and social media accounts and "weave it into any place" he could. Beyond semantics, Mazza made the change for two reasons: to shake off the baggage that the word "principal" evokes for some students and parents and to articulate what he values as his most important role—collaborating with a community of learners.
"When I grew up, like lots of kids, I had to go to the principal's office when I was in trouble," says Mazza. "Rarely was there a time when my parents encouraged me to go to the principal." He found that the lead learner term helped "break it down" for his youngest students, conveying that principals are more than disciplinarians and building managers.
Being a lead learner also means being connected—and making connections, explains Mazza. For instance, "If my staff doesn't have someone really strong in literacy, I need to be connected, at the click of a button on my phone, to the person who has researched the topic or led great lessons around it." It's "about building [up] the people around you to be constantly learning with you."
eu201507_pull2.gif

A Central Part

How well principals perform as "learning leaders" or lead learners of their schools can have a significant effect on teacher and student learning, explains Michael Fullan in The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. Research led by education professor Viviane Robinson found that of five leadership domains linked to student achievement, "leading teacher learning and development" yielded the greatest results.
As Fullan writes, principals should "direct their energies toward developing the group," building the capacity of teachers to "improve their teaching, while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn't."
This requires an intense focus on learning and instruction, Fullan explains, which can be fulfilled by "being a talent scout and social engineer, building a culture for learning, tapping others to colead, and, well, basically being a learning leader for all." Although Fullan's view is that the principal title "needs to stay," he believes the lead learner role should be prominent.
In practice, the role looks different for every administrator, explains Mazza, who now works for the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. To frame your identity as a lead learner, he suggests reflecting on questions such as, "What does my learning community need from me and how do I empower them?," "How do I expose them to resources that are physically and virtually available every day of the week?," and "How do I proactively seek out professional development?"
Joy Wright, lead learner of King Philip Middle School in West Hartford, Conn., started with transparency in her own learning. For instance, in the staff newsletter that goes out each Friday, Wright shares what she's reading, how she's connecting with her PLN on Twitter, what challenges she faced during the week, and how she overcame those challenges by leaning on her colleagues. "I don't have all the answers, but I have folks I can reach out to within and outside of my district," she often tells teachers. Wright hopes that by modeling the power of connectivity, teachers will feel comfortable expanding their own networks.
As Fullan emphasizes, learning alongside teachers is key. When Wright introduced teachers to the communication tool Voxer, she showed its applications for teaching, but then used it to provide feedback after walkthroughs. "It's showing teachers how I'm taking risks and sharing with them my learning process so that they can continuously be learners, too," she says.
Building a culture of learning extends to King Philip's students and families, as well. Wright reads the latest young adult books and chats with students about them in the hallways and lunchroom. She also leads a book study with parents, focusing most recently on It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd. In addition to hosting group discussions about the text, Wright shares related resources, book reviews, and links in the school's parent newsletter—encouraging others to keep the learning going.

Lost in Translation?

Despite even the best intentions, however, the title lead learner can be alienating for some educators. Pernille Ripp, a blogger and teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wis., maintains that by qualifying themselves as "lead" learners, these school leaders automatically push teachers out of the equation. "When you combine lead with learner, it changes the meaning of both those words, because all of a sudden no one else can lead the learning," she contends. Although principals may have a deep knowledge base in areas relating to leadership and administration, "they certainly can't be the lead learners in all curriculum areas."
Instead of being a "gentler phrase," lead learner ends up reinforcing the same power structure as principal; in fact, Ripp argues, "I would say it's more limiting because now you're also going to encroach on my learning [as a teacher]."
Classifying principals as simply "learners" would help satisfy Ripp's aversion. But better yet, she says, reframing the principalship would be a better option than renaming it. "As adults, we get so caught up in titles, [but] kids are much more focused on what you're doing rather than what they call you."
Mindful of the criticism a new title could raise, Mazza and Wright held open conversations with their students, teachers, and parents about the shift. More than principal or "instructional leader," they described how the title is in sync with the conviction that learning is at the core of their leadership.
"We're all learners," Wright emphasized to parents in an open house. Her goal is to simply "facilitate the process of learning and lead it forward."

More than a Name

Whether principals take on lead learner in title or adapt elements of it into their practice, being a lead learner is a mind-set, says Mazza. It reinforces the message that Michelangelo so infamously declared: "Ancora Imparo," or "I am still learning."
As Wright concludes, "If you're going to lead, no holds barred, then you have to lead with learning."

Sarah McKibben is the digital managing editor of Educational Leadership.

Learn More

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

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Leadership
The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Susan Moore Johnson
6 days ago

undefined
Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
6 days ago

undefined
Grasping for Less
Chase Mielke
6 days ago

undefined
The Power of Doing Less in Schools
Justin Reich
6 days ago

undefined
The Difficult Job of Schools Leaders
Educational Leadership Staff
6 days ago
Related Articles
The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Susan Moore Johnson
6 days ago

Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
6 days ago

Grasping for Less
Chase Mielke
6 days ago

The Power of Doing Less in Schools
Justin Reich
6 days ago

The Difficult Job of Schools Leaders
Educational Leadership Staff
6 days ago