“Set a compelling vision for your future and outline a path for getting there”: An interview with Stephanie Hirsh

Dennis Sparks

Stephanie Hirsh and I worked together for 20 years at the National Staff Development Council (now known as Learning Forward) where in 2007 she followed me as executive director.

Because I know Stephanie thinks deeply about improving the quality of professional learning in schools, and because I have deep respect for her views, I was eager to explore and share with readers her latest thinking about the issues I raise in the questions below.

In addition to her work at Learning Forward, Stephanie previously held a number of positions in the Richardson (Texas) Independent School District, including serving as a school board trustee. You can follow her on Twitter at @HirshLF.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Hirsh: The first year sets the tone for your tenure. Think about how you want people to perceive you and what kind of leader you want to be. Consider what you think you know and what you need to learn more about. Make it a priority to do a lot more listening than talking. It may sound trite but it is true — people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

As a new leader, you will want to demonstrate why you are in this position of responsibility, but at the same time you’ll need to temper the desires for immediate change — yours and others’ — with the need to practice listening and understanding your new context.

I suggest you use your time as a new leader to:

• Clarify your vision and values, including your values about children and your staff;

• Share your ideas for changes and for the future a bit at a time, and gauge peoples’ reactions carefully;

• Stand for significant ideas, engaging others in the process; and

• Stand for professional learning.

During your first year, be careful about drawing any lines in the sand. Make sure any lines are values driven and worth potential consequences. Be willing to let the small stuff slide.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work?

Hirsh: Leaders who I admire have several characteristics that I strive to develop and advocate.

First and foremost, they put student learning first. They are driven to do all they can in their sphere of responsibility and influence to advance it.

They are inspirational; they can clearly articulate their vision, beliefs, values, theory of action, and strategic priorities. They are consummate learners, which further advances their knowledge, insights, and actions.

The leaders I admire are people of integrity, they are authentic, and they practice what they preach.

Finally, these leaders treat people the way they want to be treated.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

Hirsh: I think if you are committed to being a great leader, one of your first steps to growth is to identify other leaders who have the qualities that you admire. Set out to learn more about these leaders, watch them as they work, and read what they write. If at all possible, see if you can engage them in a relationship to support your own growth.

Gain clarity and write your own vision statement for the kind of leader you aspire to be. From there, create a plan for becoming this person. Seek feedback along the way, and learn to respond to it with appreciation. Always look for opportunities where you can learn some of the skills you admire in others.

As I encourage for all educators, extend your learning and growth circle to colleagues, mentors, and coaches. Each brings a different perspective and will contribute to your growth in different ways.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders is that some teachers are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders

Hirsh: While educators are motivated by their commitment to their students, substantive and sustained change is really difficult. While educators must think big for the kinds of improvement schools need, I encourage them to start “small” in their actions. To do so, leaders can:

• Select those practices that are the highest leverage;

• Articulate your theory of action behind new practices;

• Provide opportunities for practice and feedback before educators use new strategies in front of students or in an evaluative context;

• Build a safe and supportive learning culture by being a model, encouraging team teaching, and engaging the use of coaches; and

• Reflect on changes openly and often, celebrating successes and encouraging revisions to advance further.

I encourage principals and teacher leaders to “work smart” – that is, to apply their energy to a small number of areas or activities in which they are likely to make the largest difference for students and the school community. From your experience, what are those few areas/activities in which school leaders would have the biggest impact on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?

Hirsh: For principals, I consider the following to be high-leverage areas for focus if their goal is to create a learning-focused culture in their schools:

• Align all professional learning decisions to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. This stance positions you to explain the decisions you are making and the outcomes you intend to achieve.

• Make sure every educator in the school is a member of at least one high-functioning learning community, including yourself. Be a model learner; find, and if necessary, create your own learning community that will give you honest feedback and hold you accountable for achieving your goals

• Be an advocate for continuous improvement with stakeholders in the district office and the community. Be prepared to explain professional learning’s critical role in your theory of action and tell others how you will assess its quality and ongoing impact.

For teacher leaders, I suggest these high-leverage activities:

• Be an expert in your field. Invest in your own learning to ensure your students get what they need. It is difficult to advocate for change when you aren’t continually – and visibly – improving your own practice.

• Find or build a great learning community, just as I urge principals to do. Surround yourself with people who you respect and who will learn with you, and meet with them regularly for feedback and support

• Set a compelling vision for your future and outline your path for getting there.

Likewise, I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work.

Hirsh: I believe my highest-leverage work is similar to what I suggest for principals and teacher leaders.

It is important to me to clarify my values and vision regularly and to articulate it within my sphere of responsibility.

I immerse myself in the field of professional learning to be a content expert.

I also stress the importance of continual learning, seeking opportunities for my growth, asking for feedback, and providing opportunities for my staff to do the same.

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