Leaders of Relationship Building: Listening is a part of leading

[Note to readers: This column is part of an ongoing series for Iowa ASCD’sThe Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Relationship Building: Listening is a part of leading

What does it mean to be a curriculum lead? This is the fifth column in a series for Iowa administrators, teacher leaders and anyone else interested in enhancing curriculum leadership. So far, we’ve discussed the work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; data analysis, processes, and professional development. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of relationship building. Future columns will consider the remaining facets of curriculum leadership: performance, operations, and change.

According to the functions of our work, curriculum leads, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Listening matters! One way of thinking about this is that administrators ought to be the least vocal educators in the room. Sure, the central office and principals comes with a TON of positional authority, but this doesn’t mean administrators ought to be flexing their muscles with top-down conversations at every meeting. I am not suggesting grass-roots, plan-every detail during the meeting based upon a vote leadership is required either. In fact, I was advised early in my administrative career that time is limited, therefore it is more efficient to critique than create in most meetings. Some of the most effective administrators I have observed come to a meeting with a tentative plan for moving forward and ask those in attendance to provide their input. During the meeting, the team often revises, re-orders or re-prioritizes the next steps. Other times, administrators bring more than one option for the team to consider and seeks their input on the most feasible option. In both cases, listening to others is a high priority.

At one leadership team meeting comprised of administrators and teacher leaders at Solon, I brought what I thought was a timely plan for our upcoming professional learning day. Per the usual protocol, I asked the leadership team to provide additional guidance: “What were we missing?” and “What do teachers need right now?” As it turns out, the initial plan I presented was not in tune at all with the leadership team’s thinking, so we ended up scrapping the whole thing and starting from a blank slate! This was not very efficient at all! In fact, it took a lot more time to clean up the mess I had created through extra work following the planning meeting. On a good note, the team ended up facilitating a much better professional learning day. In addition, I was told by several teachers that administration earned even more trust with those in the planning meeting, because of the way the situation was handled.

Instructional coaches and others in curriculum leadership roles might model this practice, too, by asking a plethora of questions at planning meetings or in reflective conversations following classroom observations. For those of us who have completed Iowa evaluator approval coursework, ORID (PDF) questions is a possible framework to consider in conversations with colleagues in a meeting. Objective questions such as “Where does this next step fit into our district strategic plan?” can help a team stay focused on the right work. Reflective questions might sound something like: “How do we feel yesterday’s professional learning went?” Interpretive questions could include “What things could we do next week to increase teachers’ understanding of the writing workshop framework?” and “What other ways could we assess the sheltered instruction lessons we observed this morning?” Finally, curriculum leaders might use decisional questions such as “What supports do we need to continue to work on these areas of concern?” to encourage a group towards action. All of these questions are designed to facilitate conversation rather than monopolize it!

Our role as curriculum leaders is also to remember these wise words from Susan Scott (2004), author of Fierce Conversations, “the conversation is the relationship.” When we engage in dialogue with fellow educators, we can develop others’ ability to lead or we can micromanage them. As members of many teams, committees, and task forces, we can aim for collaboration whenever possible or we can be the first to be frustrated. When doing it right, our colleagues should describe our conversations are more often encouraging than demanding. Jim Knight (2015), author of Better Conversations, suggests authenticity and good communication work hand in hand. In other words, our aim should be to “walk the talk” of listening. If our end goal is to seek input frequently and do nothing with it, our motives will quickly be exposed. Knight (2015) encourages educators to know what we believe in and act consistently with those beliefs. May we strive to be known as leaders that listen and seek the input from those around us.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value relationship building seek first to understand and then to be understood, all the while understanding the conversation is the relationship.

Resources to further learning as a leader of relationship building:

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Our Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott (2004, Berkley)

The Art of Coaching, by Elena Aguilar (2013, Jossey-Bass)

QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, by John G. Miller (2004, TarcherPerigee)

Better Conversations, by Jim Knight (2015, Corwin)

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