Thoughts on Principle 1: The Priority Principle
by Anthony McConnell
The First Priority
Last week I had the opportunity to attend and present at the Chicago Leader in Me Symposium in downtown Chicago. I love attending the Leader in Me Symposiums as it is a great chance to connect with old friends and make new friends that share a common vision of children and learning. This one was particularly special for me as I had the opportunity to thank Sean Covey in person for being an early endorser of our book The Principled Principal as he was one of the keynote speakers for the Chicago symposium.
Attendees at a Leader in Me symposium tend to be a mix of schools that are just starting to explore Leader in Me and some that are already well into the process. This is one of the things that make the symposiums so great. When you are with other educators that are at different points in a process it guarantees access to different perspectives and ensures there is always something to learn.
While at the symposium I participated in a principals panel where attendees could ask questions about the Leader in Me. No agenda, no topic, the 200 attendees could ask whatever they wanted. It was while participating in this panel that it occured to me how often in education we try to put the cart before the horse by trying to take actions before we define our beliefs.
At the symposium was a school that had been doing Leader in Me for 15 years and earlier in the day they had talked about how the school had implemented a mentoring program starting just this school year. It really was an amazing program as it paired each student in the school with a teacher and then they scheduled time during the week or month to meet one on one for a few minutes to chat and keep track of goals.
During the panel question after question was about either this mentoring program or some other very specific program or action at one of the other schools, like ours that were already in the Leader in Me process. I began to notice that these types of questions were all coming from schools that were not currently “Leader in Me” schools. In fact, one person stood up and said something along the lines of “I am not sure we can do any of the rest of this, but we like the idea of the mentoring program.” Now, if you know anything about the Leader in Me you understand how that statement lands like nails on a chalkboard.
At an opportune time on the panel I shared with the audience that instead of focusing on details of how this school or that school does a specific program they should first be asking the question “what do we believe about children” “what do we believe about learning and equity”. This is what the heart of The Leader in Me, or any effective school change process, is all about.
Any worthy journey or endeavor does not begin with a solution. It begins with true and honest self-reflection. In the case of The Leader in Me this is extremely important as it is based on an idea that you believe a certain paradigm about children, learning, and leadership. But it also got me thinking that the trends of the questions were exactly what takes so many schools down paths of frustration regardless of what initiative they are implementing. Whether it is Leader in Me, Standards Based Learning, a new reading program, or anything else we tend to want to jump right into the details without defining our “why”.
Stop Looking for Answers, Start Asking the Right Questions
In so many of our schools we think we know what we believe. Or we think we know our staffs, students, and families. Or we think we know what it is we need to do. But do we really?
If you challenged your staff to discuss the following questions the responses might be interesting, maybe even surprising.
Can all students learn? How do we know?
How do we make learning visible?
What do we believe about children?
How does our school provide equitable access to opportunities?
Try asking these questions at your next staff meeting and you may be amazed at the range of answers and statements that you receive and how inconsistent they are from one another. Also, do not be surprised to have few or no examples of how anyone knows or has actual evidence of what they believe.
What we have to understand about change, any change, is that answering these questions is the first and most important step of the process. This is true regardless of the initiative.
When we do not begin with defining our beliefs and realizing what our own attitudes, biases, and beliefs are and then take actions to address any gaps or shortcomings we are setting ourselves up for frustration when we implement new initiatives.
Why? Because we have no common basis or understanding for what success will look like. How can we when we are all starting from different understandings and beliefs.
The first priority of any district, school, classroom, principal or teacher should be to define what you believe and cite how you take actions to demonstrate that. If you say you believe all children can learn – but cannot find examples of how you ensure that statement, you’re not ready for the next step. Address the gaps in your beliefs first. They are the foundation for all success.