In my last post about persisting with questions I focussed on problems and negative things.
What about exploring questions and actions to grow school capacity and thinking about change? As a leader are you being told what you want to hear or are you getting into the real world of your school’s interactions.
As a school leader use questions and inquiry to discover what the silent ones are thinking and doing. Across the staff there will be some who never say much during public forums and debates about issues. How do you get to learn more about their thinking and action?
Maintaining an open door policy as a school leader is all very well but there are likely to be inhibitions imposed on teachers, students and parents when they try to express their opinion and views in your office. Especially if those views differ from yours.
Assuming you are a great listener would you try this? Deliberately seek out teachers on their territory at times they are likely to be able to give you a few gems of understanding. Go to their classrooms after school and have a conversation where they set the agenda – this does not need to be formalised and if you engage in this regularly their agendas will produce new and interesting views of problems and possibilities. Simply asking for them to tell you about what is on top for them may well give you insights you did not expect. Once staff get to know you are exploring when visiting their territory their confidence in speaking up about issues of importance or even express criticism of you is likely to be enhanced – you are then into the rich veins of gold called “what do we really think around here?”
Visiting others on their territory can of course be a regular and quite casual process – if you regularly move around the school both adults and students will impart useful comments. This does of course depend on you the leader providing clear evidence you want to hear all sorts of view points and the good with the bad.
How would you start this process? Why not make the first visit to the teacher who in your opinion has the worst classroom (in terms of its physical quality)? May be they have never been visited before? (I had a principal who in 11 years never visited my classroom at any time I was there!) Maybe they will be very pleased you know the conditions they work under when it is too cold or too hot etc.
Why not visit the teacher who is always reluctant to accept new plans and direction? Really listening to her/him may well open your understanding of their educational values. Have you ever listened without interruption for three minutes or longer? You may be surprised what you hear!
Why not go round the school on the first wet and cold day of the year? Students and teachers alike will be happy to tell you about their learning and being in school conditions. Puddles and cold winds perhaps sharpen the mind!
Why not welcome complaints and criticism from anyone? Listening in-depth to the concerns can often grow your working relationships and over time that can lead to educational growth outcomes. Thanking someone for complaining alters the whole way they respond – the chances are they become less steamed up about the issues and then find it easier to explain what matters to them. In my experience parental and community complaints are a rich source of possibilities – they will have thought about complaining many times before making contact with a principal and may well have told others before they tell you. Welcoming that complaint and thoughtfully responding to it will help in the long run – perhaps you will gain a parent who starts to spread good news stories around and tells you first when he/she thinks things have gone wrong.
This photo gallery from Uncommon Schools in New York State captures many of the reflections I have noted above.
Exploring questions with an accompanying listening and open mind are leaders’ greatest assets!
George Couros, Four Questions to Lay the Foundation for a Culture of Innovation, helps sharpen our minds about the power of questions and how we ask them.