Why I Model Being a Reflective Learner

April 13, 2021

Why I Model Being a Reflective Learner

By: Bob Bohannon, Assistant Superintendent for Career Preparation, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

As a district administrator in Perry Township Schools in Indianapolis, I have supported and supervised principals for more than a decade. Over the course of those years, we made a change as a district that has transformed outcomes for students. We reorganized all of our efforts around great classroom teaching, and the development of leaders to support great teaching. My job as a supervisor of principals shifted to focus on coaching. I became a learner again myself, as I coached principals and their teams to stretch their instructional leadership knowledge and skills. The impact has been rapid growth in our students' levels of success, and the closing of achievement gaps.

Prioritize Instructional Leadership

The job of principal involves such a wide range of responsibilities that it is easy to get pulled away from instruction. I have learned that districts need to prioritize instructional leadership and make it the focus from the first conversation with a principal – starting with the job description, through the hiring and interview process. In my district, our interview questions are grounded in instructional leadership and the skills necessary to be a quality instructional leader. We ensure that new principals view this leadership opportunity through the lens of an instructional leader. 

We create professional learning opportunities for our principals, assistant principals, and other leaders in our schools to strengthen their instructional leadership skills − making that focus a part of our culture. Because our focus is on instruction, we are not going out and trying to find other things. We are not looking for the brand new “shiny penny” of a program. This focus has changed our principal pipeline as well. More and more we are finding that teacher leaders are stepping up to become assistant principals and then principals. The changes we made at the district level are impacting who sees themselves in the role of principal.

I learn something in every school leadership team meeting, every time I go into a classroom, and every time I sit down with my building principals and have conversations. I learn, and that learning allows me to better support the leaders in our buildings.
Bob Bohannon, Assistant Superintendent for Career Preparation, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

Coach Principals to Grow Their Team

I have discovered that some of the most valuable coaching and support I provide to principals is when I support them to grow the capacity of their team. I probably spend 70 or more percent of my time focused on supporting principals and their work, either visiting a classroom, professional learning meetings, or meeting with building principals. When I visit a school − and especially as I'm talking about instructional leadership – I will attend professional learning community meetings (we call them “clusters”). I have the opportunity to attend multiple cluster meetings a week. When I'm there I'm an active participant so that I become a new learner as well. I spend time after cluster with the master teachers and administrators to reflect on the cluster outcomes. These reflective coaching opportunities consist of talking with cluster leaders about areas that had the biggest impact on the new learning, and what might be developed further to ensure the new learning was better received or led to a deeper understanding.

Coach Principals in Classrooms

In addition to spending time in leadership team meetings and professional learning, I spend time in classrooms. My understanding of what's happening instructionally in that building allows me to provide coaching to the principal that is relevant to classroom teachers and consistent with the goals the principal is working to advance. I'll spend 10 to 15 minutes in a classroom and provide the teacher with a reflective response that reinforces a strength I observed. The most valuable time I spend with principals is when we meet biweekly. These 60-minute meetings are focused on specific building needs, school improvement plans, and how best to grow the leadership team. During these meetings I gather valuable information that assists me with the support I provide the principal and better informs me of the needs of the building. By visiting schools and spending time learning alongside others, I have been able to actively support the growth of leadership teams without being perceived as micromanaging. In fact, I can say with a high level of certainty that the principals welcome the opportunities I have to be a part of their leadership team.   

Create a Culture of Reflective Learning and Growth

As a district leader, I structure my coaching and collaborative professional development for building leaders to model and reinforce the same focus on growth and improvement that is expected of teachers and students. My approach is to model being a reflective learner, and clearly communicate that growth mindset. I learn something in every professional learning community experience. I learn something in every school leadership team meeting, every time I go into a classroom, and every time I sit down with my building principals and have conversations. I learn, and that learning allows me to better support the leaders in our buildings. There is absolutely no doubt that I am a better leader for this district and for those that I serve right now than I was last year, than I was the year before, etc. Every year in my 11 years in this position, I have been a better leader because of the time I have spent alongside great leaders in our buildings. 

I would encourage every district leader that gets the opportunity to spend as much time as they can embedding themselves in instructional leadership at the building level and modeling instructional leadership at the district level. This will improve their district and enhance their own experience as a leader.