Sherry St. Clair, president of Reflective Learning, shares a few tactics that leaders can use to praise individual and shared goal progress to help cultivate a culture of learning.
hose of you familiar with my work know that I'm a deep believer in the power of the learning organization. In a learning organization, the entire system orients around maximizing ongoing learning and supporting everyone's growth. Such organizations can turn every person in the system, including students, into self-directed, lifelong learners.
When schools become learning organizations, leaders learn and support each other. In turn, leaders also support their teaching staff while they too learn and support each other. Finally, all adults in the building support the children as they learn. It's not only the learning that makes this kind of culture so impactful; it's also the fact that it builds in support and teamwork, which naturally fortifies relationships and trust across a school.
The learning organization
MIT professor Peter Senge introduced the concept of the learning organization. After studying organizations built to elicit constant learning from all employees, he identified five characteristics of a learning organization:
- Personal mastery: "A discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively."
- Mental models: "Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action."
- Building shared vision: The practice of "unearthing ‘shared pictures of the future' that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance."
- Team learning: "Starts with 'dialogue,' the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine 'thinking together.'"
- Systems thinking: This is the fifth discipline—the discipline that "integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice."
As stated in the fifth discipline, eventually, all the disciplines come together to create a learning and support system. In Coaching Redefined, I devote a chapter to the holistic implementation of a learning organization and expand upon all five disciplines. I also explain that the glue—the connective tissue—holding all five disciplines together is the creation of school-wide goals.
Establish school-wide goals
For schools that operate as learning organizations, shared goals always inform all learning, while progress towards goals is tracked and measured. An example of a shared school-wide goal might be:
“All teachers will operate as literacy teachers, and all students will learn literacy in all classes so that every student reads at grade level and develops the comprehensive literacy skills (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and writing) to support their learning in all subject areas."
Individuals and teams can have individual and team goals, respectively. However, they will usually relate to these shared school goals in some way.
In my experience, shared goals are only effective as long as they are continually restated. If they are stated once and not reiterated again and again, people tend to forget them. A positive way to keep shared goals at the forefront of everyone’s minds is to celebrate any and all progress toward them.
Publicize shared goals
In all the schools I coach, I encourage leaders to post signage that speaks to or captures shared goals throughout the school, so they are constantly seen and imprinted on people's minds. Signage can be formed of words, or it can simply comprise pictures of students and teachers in the act of working towards a goal. Include this signage in spaces where students congregate; in a true learning organization, students are also aware of school-wide goals—this provides an enormous opportunity for students to have a voice and choice in school growth.
Reiterate goals in staff meetings, and let them inform all professional learning. Identify early progress indicators towards meeting each goal and track progress, offering additional instructional support to teachers as needed.
From there, I encourage all instructional leaders to find creative and fun ways to keep goals at the forefront and offer praise on the path to meeting goals. Three ideas for this kind of celebration follow:
Name it, claim it, explain it
I learned this tactic from a school I worked with years ago. While doing a walk-through, the principal would snap a photo of outstanding practices that supported school-wide goals as she saw them happen. In the next staff meeting, she'd post the image on a screen. The teacher responsible for it would name the practice and claim it. Then the teacher would explain to colleagues how the practice works and its relationship to a goal.
This simple exercise packs a serious punch in terms of positive effects. It affirms for teachers that the instructional leader sees and values their efforts. It gives teachers opportunities to share a positive aspect of their teaching without feeling like they're bragging or forcing unsolicited advice on their colleagues.
And it also promotes a culture where teachers are welcome and comfortable sharing best practices with each other instead of relying on the instructional leader to do this.
"Greatest Lesson" Award 🏆
In a learning organization, even the students are aware of school-wide goals. Their feedback and inclusion in celebration are just as vital and wanted as the principal's.
Place a "Greatest Lesson Nominees" box in the cafeteria or someplace students routinely congregate in this tactic. Anytime students experience a lesson that excites them and is tied to a school-wide goal, they can jot it down with the teacher’s name on a paper and drop it in the nominations box.
At staff meetings, the instructional coach or leader can select the "Greatest Lesson Award" winner and offer congratulations to the teacher.
Send a "Celebrate Wins" Newsletter
An administrator or teacher leader might volunteer to compose a monthly newsletter to staff and families dedicated to celebration. If you really want to have fun with this, a different student or student team can volunteer every month to write the newsletter!
The editor can highlight teachers who’ve hit milestones towards goals in the preceding month. People can send tips of witnessed successes to the editor, or they could drop notes in a box outside the editor’s office or a shared space. Or perhaps students could interview classmates or teachers for wins they’ve witnessed.
Giving teachers the opportunity to publicly shine a light on their peers' growth is a strong trust- and relationship-builder. If students are involved, they get a unique insight into how hard their teachers work to grow in order to be better for students.
The ideas to celebrate progress towards shared goals are endless and limited only by imagination. No matter how you choose to celebrate wins in your school, trust that this is powerful work. Even in schools with strong cultures, celebration adds much more momentum to growth, positivity, and bonds.
And celebration can be especially potent in schools that have historically had low morale or weak teacher relationships. Through these strategies, educators will be motivated to tackle new and shared goals and persevere in the face of setbacks or moments of fatigue.
Celebration is simple, free, and fast. It can open lines of communication and support amongst teachers, tearing down dividing walls and building strong relationships with time, even where it was deemed impossible. Celebration pays dividends that lift the spirit of the entire school, especially students. Remember always to tie all celebrations back to shared goals and remind your school that everyone is in this together.
About our Guest Blogger
Sherry St. Clair, president of Reflective Learning LLC, is the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth. She coaches instructional leaders globally, with the aim of helping administrators, coaches, and teachers create the optimal learning environment for students. Additionally, Sherry serves as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education.
Be sure to connect with Sherry on Twitter @Sherrystclair!