Beliefs are important. I recently gave an example of how my beliefs compelled me to confront a driver who used a stick to hit the children he was driving to school. I acted on my belief that adults should not harm children and should actively protect them from physical and psychological harm. While this is an example of beliefs influencing action, I’m not sure if I really had a choice.
Whether or not I had a choice, this incident did get me thinking about what I believe as a school leader, how these beliefs might influence my actions as a school leader, and how my actions might be interpreted by those that I work with.
I reflected on these three thoughts in the context of a challenge that I recently suggested to teachers in our school. Our early childhood teachers have been experimenting with their learning environments to support, celebrate and document student inquiry and learning. These teachers invited other teachers into their classrooms to share their philosophy and provide examples of how we all might support, celebrate and document student inquiry and learning.
At the end of the teacher workshop, I suggested that we all try to apply the principles shared and at the end of this term we can visit each other’s classrooms to share how our learning environments support, celebrate and document student inquiry and learning.
My beliefs around learning environments have really crystallized in the last couple of years around the Reggio Emilia Approach, particularly the focus on an environment as the ‘third teacher’ and the documentation of children’s thoughts as an integral part of a learning environment. What our early childhood teachers were sharing really resonated with me as a way to push teaching and learning forward in our school. In suggesting this environment challenge to teachers, I acted upon what I believed to be in the best interests of our students and the professional development of our teachers.
School leaders should always act upon what they believe to be in the best interests of students, teachers and the wider school community. So why are the actions of school leaders sometimes met with scepticism or resistance from those that they serve?
Not everyone in a school will share the same educational beliefs. Differences of perspective, opinion and belief are a necessary source of the cognitive conflict required to nurture innovation in a school. While differences in this sense are an asset to a school, school leaders must resign themselves to the fact that these differences mean that not all of their actions will be met with unanimous approval. But even actions that are not agreeable to all, may be supported by all if it is clear that the school leader’s intention is positive.
It is a lot easier to presume positive intentions in others if you know what they believe. If people know what a school leader believes and his or her actions are consistent with these beliefs, it is difficult to argue that his or her actions are not based upon a positive intention to do what is right.
My learning environment challenge is an example of an action that stems from a belief. But if our teachers are not aware of my belief that it is a child’s right to have his or her thinking valued and represented in the classroom, they may interpret my action negatively as just another box to tick, a reaction to an educational fad, or a veiled attack on learning environments around the school. If this challenge is not met with enthusiasm from our teachers, the first thing I will do is to clarify the belief upon which I set it.
It is impractical and inefficient for a school leader to preface or defend every action with a statement of belief but it is important for others to know what a school leader believes. A year ago I attended a Next Frontier Inclusion (NFI) conversation in Genoa, Italy. Kevin Bartlett, who was facilitating a workshop, said something that I wrote down and has stuck with me as a new school leader.
If you do things with a moral purpose, you can always redeem yourself as a leader.
Kevin suggested that rather than outlining the changes or decisions a leader new to a school intends to make, the leader should clearly outline the beliefs, principles or values upon which those decisions will be made. The new leader should then seek to provide opportunities for teachers to share the beliefs, principles and values upon which they make their own professional decisions. If we all have an understanding of the beliefs of those that we work with, we can presume positive intentions in their actions when we might otherwise have been unable to.
To be considered for a school leadership position, a written educational leadership philosophy is a must. I assume that in applying for my current principalship, my educational leadership philosophy was taken into account and my appointment was based upon my stated beliefs. I wrote my educational leadership philosophy with a view to securing a leadership role and did not think to share it with anyone other than those that asked for it.
At the beginning of the school year, I took Kevin’s advice and read my educational leadership philosophy to the teaching faculty. I wanted to give the teachers that I serve an insight into the beliefs and principles upon which I will endeavour to act in the best interests of students, teachers and the wider school community. My hope is that my actions will be interpreted in the light of my stated positive intentions and will enable others to support or positively inquire into my actions. I also hope that sharing my educational leadership philosophy will galvanize my resolve to act on my beliefs and encourage others to share their own.
Developing an understanding of the beliefs of others allows us to presume positive intentions in the actions of others and to reflect upon and revise the beliefs upon which we act. This is crucial in developing a collaborative culture that our students will ultimately benefit from.