A Collaborative Post by:
Eric Skanson, Elementary Principal (MN) and MESPA President-Elect
LaQuita Outlaw, Middle School Principal (NY) and Scholastic Principal Advisory Board
Brad Gustafson, Elementary Principal (MN) and Scholastic Principal Advisory Board
Larger than Literacy
This post pertains to literacy leadership, but we think the leadership principles within apply to many different arenas - including leading from the classroom or supporting meaningful change.
You don’t have to be a principal to lead or illuminate literacy, but it sure helps when school leaders pull their own weight. A few years ago, I (Brad) had an aha moment - but it wasn’t the good kind of aha. I realized I wasn’t pulling my weight as a literacy leader in our school. I suppose I was doing a few things that felt right at the time, but something happened that made me realize our school needed something different from me.
I (Eric) believe all leaders have moments like Brad described, but before we go there I want us to take a step outside education. Let’s look at an example from the world of professional sports fandom.
Imagine being an ultimate sports rube for your hometown team. (Being from Minnesota, my team of choice is the Minnesota Vikings.) It’s always interesting to see the different levels of commitment fans have for their hometown team. Some people have no problem talking about all the great players - past and present, while other people struggle to mention a single player on their team’s current roster.
“Leaders are called to be ‘super fans’ of literacy in the schools they serve.”
There’s an interesting parallel between sports fandom and literacy leadership. It's not necessarily a bad thing to lead by honoring the classics (e.g. Boxcar Children, Call of the Wild, The Giving Tree), but we also need to keep current on the wide array of new, relevant texts that resonate with today’s learners.
I (LaQuita) had a similar experience to what Brad and Eric described. As a former ELA teacher, I understood the value of a literacy-focused culture, but I realized that I wasn’t actually pulling my own weight. I had assumed that my love of books was understood, and that talking with the ELA teachers in my building about reading was enough. I was wrong!
You see, like a dedicated sports fan, you may start to think that your years of devoted service to your favorite team speak for themselves. To continue the analogy, you may even feel you don’t need to wear that jersey as often.
“A passive passion is like not having passion at all.”
Before I truly understood what building a literacy-focused culture meant, I would visit classrooms and make it a point to compliment teachers on their literacy-centered displays. I even went out of my way to connect with students when I saw them carrying books in the hallways. But that was basically the extent of my literacy “leadership.” In retrospect, this could have been compared to bandwagon fandom.
Teams need more than cheerleaders...they need real leadership. By sharing four of our own missteps, we hope to help others reflect on ways they might provide more authentic literacy leadership for the teams they serve.
4 Leadership Fake-Outs:
1. You expect more from others than you’re willing to give.
I (Brad) knew my school needed something different from me when I realized the books I was reading aloud to students had not changed much over the past 15 years or so. Similar to what Eric shared, you could say my book roster featured many Hall-of-Fame books, but today’s current titles were riding the pines. If we expect students to have access to current titles, we need to be reading (and talking about) current titles too.
2. You advocate for student choice, but when it comes to staff book studies you are silent on the issue.
You’re a progressive leader; you’ve even led your staff in book studies that pushed their thinking, but who chose the books?! If the name of only one person emerges, then some additional reflection may be in order. Donalyn Miller said, “If we want children to see reading as anything more than a school job, we must give them the chance to choose their own books and develop personal connections to reading, or they never will.” The same holds true for adults. Collect ideas from staff for titles that support your school’s vision and empower staff to choose what they’d like to read.
3. You verbalize support of literacy initiatives, but your school’s budget tells a different story.
We spend thousands of dollars on the literacy programs and curriculum used in our buildings and hope all children will become passionate readers. That makes us champions of literacy, right?! Not exactly. To be literacy-focused leaders, we need to prioritize books in our budgets. Supporting classroom libraries and media collections cannot be an afterthought.
4. You talk about the importance of modeling, but nobody knows what you’re reading.
When I (Eric) was a kid, my favorite athletes adorned my walls. I was proud to display my loyalty via vibrant posters and sports memorabilia. Over the past few years, I have made a commitment to share this same level of pride with our school-wide team in the area of literacy.
We’re displaying book covers, quotes from books, and pictures of students caught reading. We’re also trying to extend storytelling beyond the walls of our school using Facebook storytime, booktalks, and other digital tools to spread the book love.
Schools need visible artifacts that show what we’re reading and support a culture of literacy. What do stakeholders notice when they walk into your classroom or school?
You don’t need to be the expert in everything, but you do need to be engaged in the work so you can support (and lead when appropriate) important conversations.
What did we miss? What do you notice about leaders who are championing literacy (or any other cause) in an authentic and helpful manner?