Aug 032013

School-wide leadership and professional development endeavors that set out to close the gap between what teachers know and what teachers actually do oftentimes fall short of expectations (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, 2008; Reeves, 2010; Reeves, 2009). During the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, President Barack Obama (2009) declared the following: [Lincoln] recognized that while each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can, and be as responsible as we can – although we are responsible for our own fates, in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do (as cited in Alvey & Robbins, 2010, p. 39). Stakeholders who cooperate and collaborate in an “open, diverse, autonomous, and interactive” (Downes, 2010) manner afford educators an equitable opportunity to cultivate their learning through the development of a personal learning network (PLN) that is maintained through iterative and reciprocal social relationships. Creating a connective community of educators provides the “social capital and relational trust” (Sergiovanni, 2005) required to help close the knowing-doing gap that ultimately leads to higher academic achievement for each student.

Like students, academic leaders (e.g., supervisors) and teachers have varying degrees of readiness with regard to personal knowledge, skill sets, and habits of mind. Academic leaders in particular also have the responsibility of fostering a learning organization through professional development endeavors that lead to closing the gap between the vision and reality of the school (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). Closing the gap between the vision of the school and reality necessitates working with each teacher – depending on individual readiness – based on the behaviors that emerge within the teacher-academic leader relationship, namely listening, negotiating, and problem solving.

Listening that Leads to Learning

Interaction between the AL and the educator requires careful listening in order to better understand the educator’s position with regard to a particular phenomenon. But the way in which listening becomes a part of the discourse between the AL and educator will depend on the type of interaction and the behaviors that follow. In the three-minute walkthrough (Downey, Steffy, Poston, & English, 2009), the type of reflective discourse that results between the AL and the teacher will depend on the type of interaction that transpires (e.g., direct, indirect, and collaborative). Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon (2007) suggested that the listening phase as part of the overall reflective discourse (i.e., listening, clarifying, encouraging, reflecting, presenting, problem solving, negotiating, directing, standardizing, and reinforcing) will occur depending on the type of supervisory intervention taking place: “directive control behaviors, directive informational behaviors, collaborative behaviors, and nondirective behaviors” (pp. 144-149). Understanding the perspective of the teacher will depend on the type of supervision that is established between the AL and the educator and how the ongoing supervision transforms the educator from being dependent to independent to ultimately interdependent. Active listening becomes an iterative and reciprocal process that allows for such transformation.

To understand the perspective of the teacher, ALs actively listen to both what the teacher says and the intention of the what the teacher is saying. Giving teachers the AL’s undivided attention, noticing the teacher’s verbal and nonverbal communication, and responding to the teacher’s message through dialog help build the relational trust required to be a good leader (Hoppe, 2006). According to J.L. Austin, the sender’s message can have both an intended meaning or illocutionary force and the actual meaning as interpreted by the interlocutor which is referred to as perlocutionary force (as cited in Lycan, 2008; Kaplan, 2010). Thus, listening becomes the precursor to understanding the intended meaning of the speaker which corresponds to an acceptance of diversity.

Diversity throughout a professional learning community demands active listening via open dialog. President Lincoln had a way “of bringing aboard individuals with diverse personalities, ideas, and ambitions sheds light on the value of separating person from practice and choosing competence over personality” (Alvy & Robbins, 2010). Actively listening to teachers leads to professional learning that focuses more on people and practices than on programs (Reeves, 2010). And listening to parents and the community establishes mutual trust and respect among stakeholders who have a direct interest in the achievement levels of the students (Voltz, Sims, & Nelson, 2010). Accepting and respecting others through active listening enables a professional learning community to lead and flourish as a result of purposeful dialectic. Engaging in a purposeful dialectic comprises of negotiating meaning in terms of closing the gap between current teaching practices (i.e., reality) and what teachers should be practicing or the vision statement of the school (i.e., ideal).

Negotiation of Meaning that is Navigational and Nurturing

Negotiating meaning between teacher and AL employs an iterative and reciprocal process of listening and responding. Extending the previous notion of active listening and illocutionary and perlocutionary forces, negotiation leads to meaning-making processes based on the ongoing interpretations that emerge between speakers during the conference. A Wittgensteinian view of language is that people converse by way of a “language game” and that there is no difference between the meaning and use of a speech act (Lycan, 2008). Similarly, distinguishing between analytical, synthetic, and emotive statements helps speakers to interpret what is logically to be true, what can be proven through the scientific method, and what are statements of emotion (Gutek, 2004). Indeed, language and meaning that transpires over the course of a teacher conference forms interpretations and understandings of not only certain behaviors and perspectives but also is representative of the power relationship that exists between the educator and AL.

Power relationships between AL and educators influence social identities. When teaching children, power relationships dictate how the teacher sees the student and how the student sees the teacher (Rogers, Kramer, & Mosley, 2005). How an educator and AL relate to each other depends on the type of help that is given: “dependency and autonomous-oriented and assumptive help” (Nadler, Halabi, Harapz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2010). The authors argue that dependency-oriented help (i.e., the recipient turns to rely on the helper) and autonomous-oriented help (i.e., tools are provided to the recipient to solve problems) actually lead to the formation of “high and low status groups” (p. 188), doing little to resolve the power relations that exist. In contrast, assumptive help results from a solicitation on the part of the recipient as is viewed as being more preservative of self-identity. The negotiation of meaning, therefore, overlaps between the meaning of understanding via a dialectic and the meaning of the type of help that is being implemented. Instead of viewing negotiation as solely dyadic, negotiation across a network creates the dynamic that empowers all members to develop self-identity while recognizing the power relationships that can best serve the entire connected community.

Negotiating meaning through networks dissolves the expert/novice dichotomy that can formulate into status groups. Downes (2010) promotes a “connective intelligence” through the creation of community via the “semantic principal” that applies to the following four domains: (a) “autonomy”, (b) “diversity”, (c) “openness”, and (d) “interaction”. In this way, the educator becomes a part of a network that relies on more than just the AL for professional advice, but rather learns from colleagues and outside experts as well. The learning process emerges through having a choice in one’s learning, a respect for diversity in opinions, maintaining transparency in one’s learning, and interacting with others by sharing experiences and perspectives. Thus, the expert/novice notion that is often associated with one’s role is substituted for an expert/novice distinction linked to a particular activity or event where any particular moment warrants experts and novices depending on personal understandings, skill sets, and dispositions. Hence, negotiating meaning between educators becomes more reliant on assuring the success of others throughout the network and less about power relations that stifle the network.

Problem Setting and Solving Through Action Research

Active listening and negotiation of meaning intertwines with problem setting and solving. Taking a pragmatic view of learning and doing through experience, the educator and AL can co-create a personal learning path based on the mission and vision statements of the school. For pragmatists, general questions related to one’s experience are of the utmost importance: “How do we know? What is the most accurate way of knowing? How do we know that our ideas and beliefs are true?” (Gutek, 2004, p. 73). And “experience is experimental, and all of our beliefs are fallible. Meanings, and hence the determination of truths within their structures, are never final, but are subject to revision” (Rosenthal, 2007, p. 5). Implementing a systematic approach to setting and solving problems (e.g., educators focusing on a personal weaknesses in their teaching practice) permits learning by doing and reflection in a way that is conductive to the semantic principle mentioned earlier.

Action research ties the practitioner to the problem. Within the education field, the term practitioner research has gained popularity “which implies that insiders to the setting are the researchers, whereas in other traditions of action research, the researcher is an outsider who collaborates to varying degrees with insider practitioners or community members” (Herr & Anderson, 2005). When comparing participatory action research (PAR) in particular with the pragmatic approach of experimentalism, “PAR adherents agree that is breaks from the positivist and empiricist science” (Reason & Bradbury, 2008, p. 31). Hence positionality (insider or outside) can vary in PAR, but nonetheless remains a “negotiated process” between educator and AL until favorable responses result. (Ravitch & Wirth, 2007).

Kemmis (1982) put forth the notion that the “spiral of action cycles” begins with the development of “a plan of action to improve what is already happening” (as cited in Herr and Anderston, 2005, p. 5). The AL and educator collaboratively sets a problem through negotiating meaning, which leads to understandings, and active listening. The type of reflective dialog that results from such collaboration will depend on whether the teacher is at the dependent, independent, or interdependent stage. What follows is a description of an action research proposal that is intended to develop improved teachers through a cyclical process that includes setting a problem, taking action, observing the results of the action, and reflecting on the final experience.

Academic Leadership in Practice

Academic leadership requires actively listening, negotiating meaning, and problem setting and solving. What follows is a plan that will explain how academic leadership emerges from a distributed entitlement that affords a learning community to be open, interactive, diverse, and autonomous (Downes, 2010) through a problem solving cycle of problem setting, action, observation, and reflection. The goal of the plan is to create the educational ecosystem necessary for educators to connect with others so that they might take on a more active role in their own professional development, a professional development endeavor that consequently all stakeholders are responsible.

Before describing the plan, a description of the educational context is necessary. The plan is meant for educators teaching English-as-a-foreign language (EFL) at the University of Aguascalientes (UAA) (Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes, 2011) located in the country of Mexico. Teachers’ ages range from 24-60 and although most teachers have a bachelor’s degree in English language training, others have varying degrees in medicine, business, and other degrees in the humanities. Years of experience range from one year to 12, and about half of the teachers hold a master’s degree. There are no EFL educators with doctorate degrees. The EFL educators teach general English in a program that consists of eight levels, each level constitutes 80 hours of study. EFL students can choose between classes during the week, Monday through Friday for one hour each day, or Saturday classes that run five hours each session. Teachers teach between one to four classes per semester and are paid monthly for their services. Teachers are responsible for attending various face-to-face meetings throughout the semester as well as certain online workshops that are held both synchronous and asynchronously, and their participation is considered as part of their evaluation that occurs each semester.

The Plan

Over the last year, the EFL educators at the UAA have participated in various online workshops (Stewart, 2010a; Stewart, 2010b) that were intended to promote more interaction and teacher autonomy. The objective of these two virtual workshops was to provide faculty the opportunities to interactive with not only themselves but with other EFL educators from around the world. At the same time, EFL educators learned about different technologies that could be used to not only promote their own learning but also as tools to be used in their own classroom teaching. During the semester a few face-to-face sessions were scheduled but the intention was that teachers would work through the modules of the workshop interdependently. The result of these efforts were less than stellar in that few teachers participated even though their participation was included in their teacher evaluation.

This semester – January-June of 2011 – a similar plan was implemented but with a slightly different focus. To promote more interaction between the EFL educators and the AL (i.e., coordinating department of the English program), the online workshop was centered around PAR (Stewart, 2011). Prior workshops lacked the collaborative participation among teachers and more importantly lacked the evidence of problem setting and solving capacities required to address improvements to current teaching practices. To resolve this, a student questionnaire (Stewart, 2010c) was administered to 65% of the student population (n=900) in order to gain insight on student perspective and current teaching practices. Some question items included topics such as teacher-to-student talk time, the use of English versus Spanish in the classroom, and the types of feedback teachers use to assess learners. The results of the questionnaire were shared with teachers shortly after the questionnaire was administered to allow teachers to reflect on the results and on their own practice in relation to a variety of topics. Thus the workshop began by having the faculty to develop an area to improve upon in any combination of the following domains: (a) communicator of the English language, (b) pedagogical skill set, and/or (c) knowledge of how languages are learned or applied linguistics (Bartels, 2005).

Once the teachers developed a problem, they were asked to create a Google Docs (2011) as a means for fostering a negotiation of meaning (and thus understandings) as well as active listening skills. The document was shared with at least one other colleague as well as the AL so to create at least a triadic discourse of shared experiences. The document includes the following three sections: (a) the problem or area the teacher feels needs the greatest improvement, (b) scheme of work that outlines content and language to be covered on a weekly basis, and (c) a personal reflection on how current thoughts, perspectives, and behavior have changed in terms of the initial problem that the teacher set. Since the document is shared with another colleague and the AL, the problem and the reflection can manifest itself in many different ways: (a) the educator can work alone, (b) groups of educators can work together, and (c) the educator and AL can work collaboratively. And the three types of manifestations can shift throughout the action research cycle as the EFL educator becomes more interdependent by gaining more confidence in making personal learning more transparent and participatory. The listening process and the negotiation of meaning indeed become an iterative and reciprocal process that all but eliminate the fixed expert and novice dichotomy often associated with traditional views of teacher supervision.

The final part of making learning more transparent is by sharing thoughts and experiences in an open forum. Since the distance English language training workshop is open to anyone, EFL educators working at the UAA have the chance to collaborate with other EFL educators from around the world. As they are expected to reflect and share thoughts in Google Docs (with a colleague or colleagues of their choice and their AL), they are also expected to share something in an open forum for everyone to see. The sharing between Google Docs and the open forum might be the same reflection but it does not have to be. The EFL educator can decide on how much or little to share in the open forum just as long as some amount of reflection is occurring. As with Google Docs, the open forum is designed to provide the means for EFL teachers to share more with others in the field of EFL education. The entire workshop is meant to be a place where teachers feel comfortable to take risks, reflect on their results, and share those results with others. Without interaction, diversity, autonomy, and openness (Downes, 2010), teachers will not be able to actively listen to each other, negotiate meaning that leads to understandings, and problem set and solve their way to improved classroom practice.

Challenges and Expectations

Planning a professional learning community around listening, negotiating meaning, and problem setting/solving behaviors renders a professional network that is open, diverse, autonomous, and interactive (Downes, 2010). The time and place for active listening between the EFL educator and the AL will depend on if the teacher is dependent, independent, or interdependent. The AL’s responsibility is to guide the teacher so that a personal transition can take place, moving the teacher from dependency to interdependency. Moreover, active listening is the ability to understand now only what an EFL educator says explicitly but the way in which statements are being expressed (i.e., tone, register, nonverbal communication) and what is not being said. Active listening thus becomes a precursor to negotiating meaning whereby speakers are giving and receiving illocutionary and perlocutionary forces that aid in the collaborative meaning-making process. Moreover, negotiation between individuals or groups can involve power relationships that can negatively influence one’s social identity. For this reason, creating a community based on the “semantic principal” yield educators who are more autonomous, diverse, open, and interactive (Downes, 2010) as the concept of negotiation extends through a more networked discourse as opposed to the typical dyadic discourse often associated with more traditional approaches. Through active listening and negotiating between faculty members themselves and the AL, problem setting and solving occurs at both the individual and group level such that the educational experience is viewed as “experimental” (Rosenthal, 2007, p.5).

The challenges of implementing a relationship between the AL and faculty that incorporates active listening, negotiation of meaning, and problem setting and solving constitute the creation of a professional learning network that emerges from a participative action research process that is daring, sharing, and caring. Specifically, teachers rely on relational trust and social capital (Sergiovanni, 2005) that extends throughout the network in order to achieve personal goals that are aligned with the mission and vision of the school. Although the expectations are that EFL educators are to share ideas and experiences openly, the learning ecosystem needs to exist beforehand in order to encourage faculty to take more risks and to learn from their successes and failures through ongoing and open discourse with others. By creating interdependent educators, accountability becomes a shared responsibility, commonly expresses as one for all and all for one while still maintaining autonomy and respecting the personal goals of each teacher.


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