LuAnn Shields is the Principal of the Prairie Children Preschool, Indian Prairie District #204, in Aurora, Illinois.
This blog post is a tribute to the work of very talented staff dedicated to improving the instructional outcomes for young children and their families. It is also a celebration of staff who embrace a service-oriented approach in their day-to-day work with young children and their families.
Additionally, this is an opportunity for me to pause and reflect on what structures and expectations have been put into place to ensure continuous improvement, as well as how we have evolved through the phases of implementing the structures and expectations that ultimately strengthen instructional practices.
Two questions come to mind when contemplating the preschool as a learning community:
1. How do you go about creating a culture of contentment and trust in the midst of uncertainty … moving through change processes?
2. What is necessary to ensure that all staff and/or service providers are making meaningful connections when it comes to classroom application of new learning, so that initiatives such as Response to Intervention (RtI) and problem solving take root?
Question 1: Let’s begin with creating the culture of contentment and trust in the midst of uncertainty around change processes. As leaders, this is what we all desire. We know that many hours of a leader’s time are devoted to moving initiatives forward that are part of the school improvement process. This culture of contentment and trust provides the cornerstone for a flourishing program of learning and activities.
From my own experience, this looks different for me today than it did 7 or 8 years ago. As part of an instructional change process, the RtI and Problem Solving initiative has influenced not only how we think about teaching and learning, but also how we define ourselves as instructional leaders within a collaborative team process.
During the early phases of our work, giving staff a voice was a positive first step in defining what we value as instructional leaders of young children. Engaging all stakeholders in a process of gathering input and feedback through surveys, meeting with individual teams, connecting on a regular basis with the building instructional leadership team, and developing smaller groups to address core issues around instruction is essential. Just telling staff “my door is always open” is not enough. Staff benefit from having time to meet—in small group settings outside of the larger group meetings—to participate in open and honest dialogue around student learning. In building the culture of contentment and trust, it’s essential to accept and/or consider this input and feedback from staff. Be mindful if you are using time and energy to gather staff perspectives with respect to student learning and staff’s own learning; then be genuine in your intention to honor the feedback and make needed changes.
Through a process of acknowledging the perspectives of staff members and pausing periodically to recognize the unique contributions of individuals, the movement from fear of the unknown to an increased comfort and willingness to engage in activities around new learning about evidenced-based instructional practices becomes a reality. Over time, as mechanisms for increased communication are put into motion and structures for expanding leadership capacity are established,staff will see themselves as valued in a process and begin to take ownership for not only their own professional learning, but also the learning outcomes of students.
Question 2: How do we ensure that all staff and/or service providers are making meaningful connections when it comes to the classroom application of learning, so that evidenced-based instructional practices are taking root?
Through the years, the professional learning of staff has shifted to a more comprehensive approach around research supporting the work of professional learning communities. Embracing the concepts that are grounded in a culture of collaboration, student learning, and a focus on results has been pivotal. These principles have guided us toward systems of communication that support staff in serving as “coaches” for one another. In addition, utilizing a problem-solving model to address building-level initiatives provides the foundation for overall decision making that is based on clearly defined targets, school-wide data, a focused plan for continuous school improvement, and ongoing evaluation of instructional practices.
By building on the collaborative team process within the structure of a professional learning community, we have been able to narrow the focus and closely monitor our progress with essential target skills for preschoolers. We needed consistency across the program with regard to instructional delivery. At this point, members of our instructional leadership team have taken the lead with various areas of focus, pulling in staff across the program to engage them in decision-making processes.
Through this progression of letting go, I have experienced firsthand the power of arousing the leadership capacity within the staff. I have learned that the “fingerprints” of leadership are rooted in the ability to find contentment by trusting and empowering those around you.
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