Everyday Ways K12 Leaders Can Prioritize Continuous Learning
Leadership expert and author John C. Maxwell once said, “If you want to lead, you need to grow. Good leaders are always good learners.”
In our discussions with hundreds of principals each year through our training programs, workshops, and alumni community, we know that you take your professional development seriously. As school and district leaders, you know how critical feeding your own mind is—not only for your own personal benefit, but also for the success of the teachers, students, and schools you work with and lead everyday. And, it’s a quality that often motivates leaders to stay in their roles.
As school and district leaders, you know how critical feeding your own mind is—not only for your own personal benefit, but also for the success of the teachers, students, and schools you work with and lead everyday.
We also know that if there’s one thing you don’t have enough of, it’s time—especially in the face of an always-changing school landscape, where shifting and adapting has become the norm. That’s why we agree with author and speaker James Clear when he says the best way to learn—and use that knowledge to elevate our leadership—is to dedicate ourselves to continuous, consistent, and small changes every day, “with the expectation that those small improvements will add up to something significant.”
Small is often better. Here are four small-scale strategies that you can use to always make sure you’re exercising that continuous learning muscle—no matter how much time you have.
Focus on unlearning as much as learning
In his book Future Shock, writer and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
When we think of our own professional learning, we often think of it through the lens of acquiring knowledge and using that knowledge to elevate our own thinking and spark innovation. However, Toffler’s words remind us that it’s just as important to evolve not only in what we learn, but how we learn it.
What we unlearn—and how we unlearn it—can take many forms. It might be taking the time to recognize your own implicit biases, not just the ones you might not realize you have about student achievement or your school community, but the ones you’ve unknowingly formed personally. Or, it might be surveying the systems and structures in place within your school, and actively working to change or discard the pieces that are hindering or limiting your teachers, staff, students, and parents.
In taking the time to do your own unlearning, you’re also signaling to the people you work with every day that it’s normal—and needed—to reexamine what you’ve learned and do the deep work to determine if it’s still the right way forward. That’s a key part of any continuous learning plan—and lifelong learning.
Create space for self-reflection
Self-reflection is an important springboard for continuous learning—the more you’re aware of your skill set, strengths and weaknesses, behavior patterns, values, and goals, the more you’re likely to fully embrace the continual learning journey you’re on. And, the better able you’ll be to move forward differently. This is often the secret sauce of transformational leaders.
Self-reflection is an important springboard for continuous learning—the more you’re aware of your skill set, strengths and weaknesses, behavior patterns, values, and goals, the more you’re likely to fully embrace the continual learning journey you’re on.
If you need a way to begin this self-reflection process, consider our guidance on evaluating your leadership actions and writing down your answers to see where your learning takes you next. Here are a few of those questions:
- Building Relationships: How do you typically build rapport with your team? Are there teachers and staff that you struggle to build relationships with? If so, why?
- Communication: How do you tailor your communication with staff, families, and other community members? Which of these efforts have been successful, and which could be stronger?
- Recognition: What actions do you take—or have you taken—to recognize staff members who’ve done a great job? In addition, what actions do you take to recognize when staff are struggling with work or with something in their personal lives?
- Change and Challenge: What actions do you take when there are changes on the horizon, or when things get challenging? Similarly, what actions do you encourage within your team that build and sustain them in challenging moments?
Prioritize peer collaboration and connection
Sometimes, the perspective shifts and knowledge you gain from simply interacting with other schools—and school leaders—can be the biggest boost to your ongoing learning.
While you might not be able take the 4,800-mile-long road trip this principal did in his quest to collaborate and connect with other school leaders, there are a variety of closer-to-home and virtual ideas you can implement to reach the same goal, including:
- Creating or joining a “PLC”: A professional learning community (PLC) can benefit school leaders just as much as teachers, so why not formalize a “principal learning community” with other leaders like you? Think about the peers you’ve met at conferences or leaders in neighboring districts and states, and invite them to a monthly Zoom call where they can share their challenges, get support, and explore bold ideas in the company of others who acutely understand the challenges of the role. If that’s a little too much to think about (which is understandable!) find other ways to connect with your peer community through social media or specific online platforms.
- Visiting other schools and observing peers: Spending time in other schools not only expands your peer network, but can often uncover new and innovative ideas for your own leadership that you may have not considered. Think of this peer observation as a form of collaborative professional development—similar to how your own teachers observe their peers in the classroom.
Consider working with a leadership coach
Not only does coaching offer the opportunity for the type of continuous, job-embedded learning that’s so critical for school leaders, it’s a way to help you deliberately and mindfully slow down, get curious, think about your challenges, and work through solutions with a trusted guide.
Coaching also helps you uncover and learn about new ways to lead. New Leaders alum and coach Karen Bryan-Chambers found that out when she began working with a coach a few years into her principalship. One day, her coach shared feedback from her teachers and staff that surprised her. “They think you do all the work yourself,” he said. At her next staff meeting, Chambers and her team reflected on why they became educators, and used that inspiration to co-create a shared vision of what student success looked like at their school. Not only did student achievement increase dramatically that year—teacher efficacy did, too.
Coaching does take time, and it’s time well-spent. Leadership isn’t a path that should be walked alone, and here’s where a skilled coach can help. A person who understands your context and helps you formulate a path to your goals can be invaluable in gaining perspective, deepening your learning and understanding of your school community, and improving how you accelerate student outcomes.
Coaching does take time, and it’s time well-spent. Leadership isn’t a path that should be walked alone, and here’s where a skilled coach can help.
Learning doesn’t have to be big to be impactful—or constant
The principal profession is evolving and has been for quite some time. As schools begin to play even more of a foundational role in educating the whole child—helping students become responsible citizens, develop a healthy sense of self, and prepare for a future outside of school—principals have the incredible opportunity to truly be the visionary leaders that they want to be—and their schools need.
And visionary leaders are always great learners. Continuous, everyday, evolving learners.