A District of Learners
What if there were true symmetry of learning in a district – from students, to teachers, to leaders? What would it look like for principals and district administrators to engage as a community of learners? How could their professional learning advance the work of equity and continuous improvement?
These are the questions that West Contra Costa Unified Executive Directors Dr. Anne Shin and Julio Franco sought to answer when they partnered with Mills Teacher Scholars in 2019 to transform professional learning for their secondary principals. They wanted to build on pre-existing structures and to use inquiry as a method to enact their goals. WCCUSD asked Mills Teacher Scholars to cultivate the conditions and practices that lead to deep, ongoing learning that drives meaningful change.
Working with the executive directors and two principal partners, Summer Sigler and Jessica Petrilli, to constantly assess the district’s needs and vision, Mills Teacher Scholars facilitator, Jennifer Ahn, designs and facilitates a learning space that provides principals the opportunity to make sense of their complex work, particularly as it relates to understanding future vision and current reality.
In some cases, walkthroughs can be experienced as a disembodied activity that exists as a tracking or monitoring tool. However, Ahn reframed the walkthrough structure to support public learning and collective sense-making, and created space for district leaders to partner with those on the ground, opening honest, classroom observation-driven conversations about student and adult learning.
“We expect leaders to know what they’re doing and have all the answers,” says Jennifer Ahn, Director of Network Partnerships. “The truth is, they are so busy – responding to everyone’s needs, dealing with fires, meeting demands, leading meetings – they don’t have time to pause and make sense of their work. We’re creating a space for leaders to collaborate and get feedback on their goals, their understanding of what’s happening at their sites in relation to those goals so that they can return to their sites with renewed energy, a clarified vision, and a next step toward change.”
Each month in WCCUSD, 15 principals, 2 executive directors, and other district administrators gather at rotating secondary school sites to engage in professional learning together. Ahn starts the meeting by setting the purpose for the morning, drawing through-lines to previous sessions by surfacing the questions and insights that have emerged and then connecting the learning goals to the district’s larger vision. A host principal is the “public learner” for the day, surfacing a dilemma and seeking thought partnership from their colleagues. This host principal receives coaching from Ahn prior to the session to help them gather their thoughts and step into a true learning stance. In order to ground their conversation in data, the group walks through a series of classrooms in the host principal’s school, noticing the teaching and learning that is happening and generating questions. The leaders then meet to share what they notice in their walk-through and to connect back to the host principal’s dilemma and goals.
At each meeting, all of the leaders in this professional learning community have the opportunity to reflect on their own personal inquiry focus and talk in groups about the actions they are taking and the questions that linger. In this way, each leader experiences a learning path that is authentic to their context and real-time concerns.
Simultaneously, district leaders are learning from the principals. Ahn leads whole-group conversations, grounded in research or data, about emerging questions that connect to the district’s goals. District leaders listen while principals talk about questions like “What does rigorous, bell-to-bell instruction look like at your site?” and “What do grades reflect?” “What should grades reflect?” These conversations help district leaders uncover what is happening at school sites and understand the questions and needs that are surfacing on the ground. The district leaders use these conversations to clarify their goals and next steps.
As these WCCUSD leaders work to deepen their reflection through learning in community, the principals are considering how to bring this type of deep, ongoing learning to their teachers as well. Principals are encouraged to take their questions back to their department leads for collective sensemaking and calibration.
Now, halfway through their first year of partnership with Mills Teacher Scholars, the leaders reflected on their takeaways from the process so far. Here are just a couple of their responses:
“It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone and my struggles are similar to other sites.”
“I’m beginning to see the power of symmetry between adult learning and student learning and how transformative this can be.”