“Are We Who We Say We Are?” A Look Inside an ILT Partnership with Luther Burbank Middle School
Luther Burbank Middle School is located in Highland Park, a largely Latino and immigrant community nestled close to the arid hills of northeastern Los Angeles county. Christine Moore, the longtime Principal, continually asks herself as she walks the halls and steps into classrooms, “are we who we say we are?” By this she means: does our work as adults serve our students? Are we building a sense of community and safety on campus, as we also cultivate scholars who problem-solve and engage in the world with curiosity and joy?
Recovering from the mess that COVID wrought on our public schools and holding onto the vision she had initially brought to Luther Burbank, Christine decided to partner with Lead by Learning because she wanted to support her department heads in building their capacity to lead their departments, enact the vision of the school as learners themselves, and build collective efficacy so that leadership was distributed throughout the Burbank Instructional Lead Team (BILT).
Christine entered this partnership with the understanding that, “the adults on the campus and their learning will always be the most important data for student learning.” With this credo front and center, Lead by Learning worked with BILT to establish three key priorities for our Year One inquiry cycle:
- BILT members see themselves as Transformational Instructional Leaders who model reflection and risk-taking through many venues, including Public Learning.
- BILT members design and facilitate learning in collaboration with their department colleagues that is aligned with department, site-wide and district goals.
- BILT members routinely engage in inquiry practices (in the service of students) including gathering and reflecting on street data and supportively challenging assumptions and biases.
Christine had laid the groundwork years prior by creating the conditions for deep inquiry and vulnerability, grounded in the coaching approaches of Elena Aguilar and the concept of the Flywheel Effect, made popular by Jim Collins’ book From Good to Great. Lead by Learning built on that framework through our key practice of Public Learning: as a tool to build our equity lens as adults, as a key approach to culture change, and as a venue for furthering capacity and confidence as a leader.
When Lead by Learning initially asked BILT members to describe both their strengths and areas of growth as leaders, many described themselves as enthusiastic and approachable but lacking in confidence and comfort around risk-taking. Throughout our year-long collaborative inquiry process, these same teachers-leaders created a collective identity as BILT and also leveraged Public Learning to both model vulnerability in department meetings and use those sites of inquiry to delve further into what student needs were. In effect, all BILT department leads began asking, “are we who we say we are?”
In tandem with introducing Public Learning to BILT, Lead by Learning also introduced a second key practice, Making Sense of Goals Collectively. As a group, the BILT team reviewed and reflected on Luther Burbank’s Learning Targets – a mix of both site-specific and district-informed goals – engaging in a sorting activity that allowed each BILT member to prioritize which felt most relevant to their particular department. After thinking aloud with a small group, BILT members then began to design a similar activity that they would lead within their department. This pattern: of first practicing as a learner and then implementing as a leader, is key to Lead by Learning’s approach.
Throughout the year, BILT members experienced both challenges and joys, all the while leveraging the monthly Lead by Learning sessions (and 1:1 coaching) to continually refine their approach. One of the only ways to answer the question, “are we who we say we are?” was to create a department-level culture around collecting and reflecting on data – using Public Learning – to inform next steps. BILT members engaged with multiple “street-level” adult learning data streams, including ongoing surveys, listening sessions, and classroom visits.
A key indicator that the culture of BILT, and of Luther Burbank, as a learning community, was shifting even more deeply towards an affirmation of “are we who we say we are?” occurred in April 2023, during one of Lead by Learning’s final sessions of the year. Two BILT members requested time during the session to explore, using Public Learning, a structural change that would impact students: shifting school-wide how Advisory is implemented. Guiding Questions for this session included:
- How can we leverage Advisory to teach some skills that are important to the whole school and outside of any one content area?
- When we want to make a large change as a whole school, how do we ensure that teachers are excited to engage in the changes?
Members of the counseling team, who are not part of BILT, were honored guests who both listened and then actively reflected back to the Public Learners with their own questions and Supportive Challenge.
Feedback from the session included the following reflection from one of the BILT members who instigated the process, “I enjoyed having people push my thinking around the Advisory Change idea. I also enjoyed having time to reflect and think about the overall journey of the year from September until now.” Other members chimed in, affirming not only the process of the day “There are reoccurring themes of collective efficacy and rowing in the same direction” but of the school year as a whole, “Can’t believe we’re at this point in the school year already and I feel like we’ve accomplished so much!” The blending of both an actionable protocol and a deeper reflection on how far BILT has come, was key to the session. As a result, the new Advisory implementation became one of collective ownership, not because BILT members moved in lock-step, but because they were willing to explore, to be vulnerable, and to push themselves and each other.
By year’s end, teachers were giving valuable feedback on their growth both as the BILT collective, “I really value this space to connect with our ILT and think about big-picture moves at our school. It’s a way to break out of the day to day needs and to think at a more zoomed-out level” and individually, “I shifted from thinking of myself as the lead learner to feeling the capital letter L in leadership.”
Interested in learning more about how Lead by Learning supports systems change through building cultures of adult learning, reach out to Senior Director Sugar Sugarman at email@example.com. Read more about our ILT partnerships and creating the conditions for learning in our Lead by Learning playbook.