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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Context and Leadership

Someone on the Co-op (and I apologize that I don’t remember who) wrote in a post a while back–a long while back–that “Teachers operate within a context they do not control. Absent the appropriate context and support, we often do not truly know how good those teachers are, or can be.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lack of control since I read that. There are so many things I’d like to try for my students. With many principals, I’ve been blessed to have support to scaffold my kids in different ways. In my first year of teaching in my county, my principal let me, as a second year teacher, teach an individualized math class—the kids worked through the book on their own and I helped as they asked for it, giving direct instruction to those who needed it, but allowing others who didn’t to work at their own pace. I still wonder what that ‘good ‘ol boy” network, old school principal saw in me that he let me try that.

I’ve always been what, in the research, is called a “vanguard” teacher—one who often leads the pack in trying new things and encourages others by example to do so. In June 2008 I did a county presentation on wikis and that got those going in our county.  In November 2008 I did one on Twitter, and that began our county journey into that. I could list 15-20 more examples like that—Robotics at the elementary school, a storytelling group, contests and challenges I introduced to others, being asked to facilitate the first laptop lab in our system, and on and on.  The bottom line is that the context in which I work—which is different from most teachers, I admit—has always been supported by leaders in my system—either my principal or at the county level, so that I could do the things that felt right to me for the kids I was teaching–whether that be as the SPED cluster teacher, a K-5 classroom teacher, a tech teacher or now, as the gifted resource teacher. The visionary thinking is not about me—or what I do–but about providing the very best opportunities for kids to learn and collaborate and think with tools they will use in their lives.

I’ve just finished my first year with yet another new principal. I guess I’m lucky–in the 37 years I’ve been teaching I’ve only done this 8 times. Principals can and do make the difference in a building—and I have to say I am not slow to switch schools if I find I am with a principal who doesn’t understand how crucial support and appropriate context is the success of both students and teachers. So it’s interesting to get a new principal, to see how they assess the culture of the school (or not) and what they do (or not) to support structures already in place and what they do (or not) to create new structures that support student learning in ways that matter.

Since much of what I do may be new or not be common practice in my school, and I am not a traditional teacher, it’s fascinating to see which leaders understand me and what I am trying to do with kids and which don’t get it. Conversations are crucial here—neither of us can assume anything. Just as I am trying figure out the way they work, so are they (hopefully) trying to figure me out–and either of us adopting a stance of unease, distrust or fear is stupid. Transparency is best.  If they, whomever and in whatever role they play, don’t buy into transparency, then the context is wrong for someone, and the support won’t be there for any of the parties involved.

I once had a principal look me square in the eye—in front of a colleague, no less–after the completion of a difficult task and say, “I really didn’t think you’d pull this off.” Does that communicate positive thinking or belief in a teacher’s skill and ability? How do you think most teachers would respond to that in their classrooms? I, frankly, see that comment as expecting failure–and if you can say that to a teacher, what will the teachers think you expect from the students? Looking back, I wish I had had the presence of mind to say, “That’s an incredibly hateful thing to say to someone” and get up and walk out.

And, I had another leader say to me, when I asked for support with a TRIAL project,  “We’re already doing that in another school.”  What does that imply–that we don’t need to try it in multiple settings? That nothing can be gained by different types of teachers doing it? That we can learn everything we need to by trying something once?  I see that as really inexperienced thinking–and shortsightedness. I frankly, see that limited understanding as not having a clue about technology use or design thinking and how it works differently for different clientele and leadership—and I see it as extremely narrow thinking.

I had yet another principal (who is now in our central office and who was the one who helped me facilitate the first and second laptop lab in our county) say she felt her job was to figure out how to say “yes’ when teachers asked to do something in their classrooms. Most leaders initially say no, and many see that to be their job.  Sadly, I have worked for some of those. What a different culture those two viewpoints establish! And, what a different feel for design thinking that also develops!

I guess I cite these incidents as examples to show we should always think about context and support. The context of the person asking or doing is crucial to their success–and that context is different for every adult, just as it is for students. If we don’t consider the context of our students’ learning, will we, as teachers, be successful helping them learn? I think not. If our leaders don’t support us in the context of our learning, will we be the teachers we could be?  I think not.

I’m circling round to the quote that began this post- “Absent the appropriate context and support, we often do not truly know how good those teachers are, or can be.” Context, support, relationships—all are important in scaffolding for success. Research is ripe with showing how crucial relationships are in education.

How are your leaders in the area of understanding support and context?


About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


10 thoughts on “Context and Leadership

  1. Paula, So glad you posted this. Not following directly on your last question (because, in terms of the literature, I am a “non-compliant” commenter), if you had to make a list of say 5-6 essential things you think a principal must know, or do, or embody to lead a vanguard teacher like you, what would they be? This seems like the next step in this post…

    How can a school system keep far-thinking teachers like you engaged and productive, and eager to bring your best to your job?

    Vanguardely yours,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 9, 2011, 9:49 am
  2. Cool question, Kirsten…

    1. Listen and be open is the first and foremost thing a leader can do for ANY teacher, in my mind. Provide time to talk and ask questions so both parties understand the context of the thinking of the other.

    The principal I mentioned in the post–the one who worked to say yes–had formerly been both a gifted supervisor and teacher. Yet as she mentored me in my first gifted position, she didn’t expect me to be like her. She didn’t judge me poorly for doing a similar activity she had done-or try to tell me how to do it- because I organized it differently. She watched, she asked questions and she probed my thinking for how and what I was thinking as I had set it up the way I did. So, I guess number 2 is to be open to very different ways of working and the classroom looking very different. Again, going back to #1–the leader must not assume s/he knows what is going on–but time must be provided to talk about context and ideas.

    3. Understand that the material needs of the vanguards are going to be different from traditional classes. My past principal gave me the $ made by the sale of the yearbook because I spent the time organizing children to do it–so she managed to increase the budget I had to buy “out-of-the-box” materials for my students to use. The yearbook was completely student created–in MS Word, so no commercial company was involved–so we made about $5 a yearbook and still only sold them for $9 our first year, getting them copied at Kinkos, in color! That money–which came out of no one’s budget–was a godsend to providing what the kids needed to follow their dreams.

    4. When I was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator way back in ’99, they said it was because I was already leading the thinking in edtech by what I was doing, and they wanted to help keep it that way. So, they provided the tools to allow that to happen–by giving us computers, video cameras (as iMovie was developed) and providing us access to programs as quickly as they came out. They also provided summer gatherings where we could share with one another as ADEs, recognizing the value of sharing, being able to learn from one another and the think tank idea. Vanguard teachers need access not only to “stuff” (#3) but also other forward thinking people, so access to that –whether it be through conferences or Skype, or whatever, needs to be encouraged as well.

    5. Support–when other teachers want the vanguard person to follow the rules everyone else does–not because they are required to, but because they think everyone should do the same thing and get the same stuff–help explain the forward thinking practice. Show the traditional teacher what is happening. Allow the vanguard time to share in a way that says this kind of thinking is supported and growth is expected in everyone. Encourage the traditional teacher to think out of the box. Don’t allow the vanguard to be persecuted or isolated. Find ways to support all vanguard thinking so that no one sees one person as getting exclusive treatment. Demonstrate that growth mindset in a way that shows inclusivity, NOT exclusivity. This practice goes back to # 1 and being able to understand and talk about what the vanguard is doing and why.

    6. Understand, celebrate and HONOR the uniqueness in all of us–and find places for the mermaids to be themselves.

    Posted by Paula White | July 9, 2011, 10:34 am
    • Paula, This is pretty much the best list of enlightened principal leadership I’ve read in a long while here. It touches on so many important things: the capacity to listen, be a learner, to “not know,” to recognize and encourage difference, to know there is no one right way. I think you might be a principal trainer.

      Can you pass this on to the powers that be?

      Appreciating your goddessy, make-a-fuss wisdom,


      Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 10, 2011, 10:04 am
  3. Not to make excuses for mean and hateful people, but perhaps he meant, “I didn’t think you could do it because I thought it was impossible.” He is no longer mean, but just stupid.

    Posted by Brendan Murphy | July 9, 2011, 10:48 am
    • I would like to believe the intention was not to be hateful, Brendan. However, it FELT hateful and that was my thought when I wrote what I wish I had said. It wasn’t an impossible task–but the statement clearly showed lack of faith in my ability to perform, and that’s what mattered. Hateful or stupid–when a principal clearly communicates to a teacher they do not believe they can perform at the level they have committed to, it damages their work together, don’t you think?

      Posted by Paula White | July 10, 2011, 9:29 am
  4. To work as a team, teachers and administrators must learn to communicate effectively to collaborate well. Bad experiences as you describe above, Paula, often trace back to a key miscommunication. Every relationship is based on mutual trust; the degree to which educators have confidence in each other, I think, often limits how much collaboration can be expected from that relationship. Fear is the enemy of trust. The current model of education perpetuates apprehension because it is not set up for collaboration; it is a factory model. Most public schools are set up to produce widgets we commonly call students, not foster collaborative working groups of educators designing the best lessons. I think we as a society must reexamine and challenge our assumptions about as my friend @gcouros tweeted this morning, “What is the purpose of a school?”
    Thanks, Paula.

    Posted by wackjacq | July 9, 2011, 10:58 am
    • Joe,
      I work in a system that has valued collaboration between admins and teachers for a long time. Certainly that is carried out in many different ways, as Chad’s response shows.

      ” the degree to which educators have confidence in each other, I think, often limits how much collaboration can be expected from that relationship” you say– I totally agree–and when admins are blatantly distrustful, that hurts what everyone can do.

      We certainly do need to re-examine all that we are doing and why. That’s the conversation folks who are having issues such as this must have, don’t you think?

      Thanks for joining in the conversation! Would you want to post here and share your ideas of the purpose of school?


      Posted by Paula White | July 10, 2011, 9:38 am
    • “What is the purpose of a school?”

      I’m down for a full-throttle discussion of this question here at the COOP.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 10, 2011, 10:05 am
  5. This is an important post, Paula, in that it asserts the uniqueness of each teacher and the special needs of teachers – including the vanguard – in different contexts. I am thankful for your list of best practices for administrators working with teachers on the bleeding edge of schooling and technology.

    To name a tension – and to follow in Kirsten’s footsteps in doing so – I am right in the middle of the conflict between solidarity and individuality in the teaching corps. I don’t yet know how to say what I need to say about it in a constructive way. I feel like I spent a significant part of my career in the “reform” vanguard, which is nothing at all like the vanguard you describe as evidenced by your work. Nevertheless, the work I did in pursuing test scores in hopes of reducing the Achievement Gap got me support from an audience in our division, as well as wary skepticism from another audience. To be fair, I did have a few good ideas about teaching and learning, and certainly some of my leaders appreciated and supported those ideas in addition to my test-driven work.

    When I “graduated” to pseudo-administrator land and that score-driven work didn’t pan out – when I failed at that in my context and began another kind of teaching – well, the landscape I knew shifted beneath me.

    There are certainly division and school-level leaders who get me and who have stuck with me for a long time; I have worked with principals who listened and let me try the most progressive ideas I had at each stage of my career; but something changed in how the system and I related to one another, and I think that made things different for me and for some people in the system. I am very clearly not who the system intended me to be.

    I don’t know how to interface with professional development and people currently focused on what I was focused on years ago.

    I am glad and thankful our division, my school, and I found each other at a new crossroads when we did, because it’s allowed us to keep walking together in service to our students. I’m glad and thankful that many leaders continue to support what I do, even though it’s changed. And, ultimately, I’m glad and grateful to be able to see so clearly that what I am trying to do in my work is different than what I once did.

    In solidarity,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 9, 2011, 10:15 pm


  1. Pingback: So You Want to Be A Principal? « coal cracker classroom - August 3, 2011

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