Ever been to a party and even though you were invited you didn’t feel welcome? Or, perhaps you were invited to the party but you did’t really know everyone? Or perhaps it was a sporting event and you didn’t feel like you had the skill level everyone else did? Or maybe you’ve been to a party that wasn’t well hosted and there were long periods of uncomfortable silence? And in these situations did you quietly move off to the edges of the gathering, not feeling like one of the gang?
It is the same thing in a learning organization at a school. Teachers who are seen to be resisters are often relegated to sitting on the edge. “Don’t water the rocks” is a common phrase. Administrators and superintendents who may feel that they don’t have sufficient curriculum knowledge to lead put themselves on the edge of the learning. Even central staff like consultants and coaches are often pushed away as they are seen as threatening; in such cases there is probably not a lot of learning going on and no one wants anyone else to know.
But in a true learning organization everyone is simply assumed to be “part of the gang”. Not only is everyone invited to join in but they are welcomed in, at their own starting point. The excitement of the learning carries everyone along. Schools as learning organizations is a term that is bandied about frequently in education but often seems to be a moving target. Everyone knows that is what we are striving for but how do you get there? I certainly don’t have all the answers but I do know it happens when everyone attached to the building feels like “one of the gang”.
This came to light the other day in a meeting with a school administration, consultants and coaches attached to the school, system staff and the superintendent. This particular school (low SES, low standardized scores, high needs) is becoming a learning organization. What was remarkable during this meeting?
- Everyone at the table could talk knowledgeably about the school. Everyone had specific examples to share.
- Both administrators clearly participated in the staff learning. Again, they could speak to specific examples of teacher learning and changes in student participation.
- The principal said that the system consultants were seen as part of the staff at the school level. It was not an “event” that they were in the building.
- The superintendent was as equally involved in the conversations as everyone else. He clearly saw himself as “one of the gang”.
- No one at the table had all the answers but everyone believed there were solutions.
- Monitoring and data were part of the conversation but it was not a meeting about data.
- There was a feeling of good will and excitement around the table. Things were happening and everyone was involved.
I meet with this group frequently. Although this feeling of “togetherness” has grown, it has not taken long. Often we hear that a learning organization takes time to develop; that the hard work of forming working relationships needs to be done before the culture can change. I don’t think so. Relationships grow fastest in a culture that honours the work, sets a purpose and creates a sense of “we are all in this together”. Relationships grow as a result of the shared work.
People tend to pay attention to the things that their supervisor is interested in. In schools, students pay attention to what their teacher values. We see this all the time; if the teacher values putting up your hand, students put up their hand; if the teacher values reading, the students love reading; and the list goes on. Teachers are similar. When their administrators value learning and are interested in their teaching practice, teachers also value it. And when superintendents lean into the nitty gritty specific work of a school and show interest, principals pay attention. This was what had happened at this particular school and some others with which I work.
But in many schools, with the same levels of system support available to them, there is not a feeling of togetherness. There is a feeling of good intentions and a desire to create a learning organization but it is just beyond grasp. Consultants and coaches are invited but not necessarily welcomed and sit on the edge. The administration cites the business of running the school as a barrier to learning. They sit on the edge. Some teachers on staff are identified as “resisters”. They sit on the edge. The superintendent does not participate fully in the conversation, sitting on the edge. When you have so many who are not part of the gang, there is not a learning organization.
So the administrators and the superintendent need to become part of the gang, not just the facilitator of the group. They need to pay attention to the learning, be excited about it, ask questions. But most importantly they need to feel like they are “part of the gang”. And this is hard because often those in the highest supervisory positions may feel they don’t have the specific curriculum knowledge to engage in the conversation. But those who take a learner’s stance, who ask questions, who are truly engaged in the conversation, who read the professional literature, who try to make connections between ideas – they are part of the learning organization, part of the gang.
So, who sits on the edges of your learning organization? Your learning organization might be your class, your division, your school, your area or your whole system. In any learning organization, it will only be successful when everyone joins in whether it is students in your class or teachers on your staff or schools in your system. It is hard work to create an organization where everyone belongs; not everyone is going to jump in with two feet and it is easier to dismiss them as disinterested or unable. But learning is about the what ifs and when you do create a learning organization, it really is just so much fun – like a good party.
What are the intentional and specific moves that you can make to invite everyone to the party, to feel part of the gang? What are the definitive actions that you can take so that you feel like part of the gang? Because if you feel like part of the gang, everyone else will want to join, too. Don’t leave anyone sitting on the edges.