Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Proud To Be a Lead Learner

Pernille Ripp, an educator and individual who I respect and adore tremendously, recently wrote a post reflecting on the term "Lead Learner" (Can We Discuss the Title "Lead Learners" For A Moment?) that really got me thinking... a LOT! So much so that I felt compelled to reflect, respond and share my thoughts on the term Lead Learner, which is one I proudly use on a daily basis to describe the work that I do here at Cantiague Elementary. That's right, I am proud to be a Lead Learner here at Cantiague... not THE Lead Learner but A Lead Learner!

A couple of years ago my friend and mentor, Joe Mazza, tweeted something about the term Lead Learner and how he was using it to describe his work as an elementary principal. I started researching the term and came across quotes from people like Fullan, Marzano and others who repeatedly
stressed the importance of the principal being the instructional leader as someone who is specifically focused on learning... the learning of the staff... the learning of the students... and the learning of the community. The more I read, the more I realized that was where I was devoting the majority of my time and energy as the principal of our school - I was really focused on the learning of those around me. I am passionate about learning, teaching, curriculum and instruction so focusing on these aspects of my work as an instructional leader made the most sense. 

Somewhere along the way though, I realized that my own learning had become stagnant and I felt like I had not really grown nor had I enhanced my skill set as an educator and leader in a long time. I was pretty static as a learner and I came to the conclusion that if I were going to be an effective instructional leader, I had to focus on my own learning; I had to model for those around me what I was expecting - continuous learning and growth; I had to pause, reflect and learn. So, I enrolled in a doctoral program and got connected on Twitter and the learning literally exploded from that point forward. I was basically learning something new each day. Whether it was a from a reading for one of my classes or a link from a tweet that someone in my PLN shared, I was learning something new that I wanted to consider EVERY single day and the feeling was pretty awesome. Suddenly, my own learning was at the forefront and I was reinvigorated and excited about my daily work as an educator and leader. And that is when it clicked... I was a Lead Learner because I was modeling the importance of learning through my own daily actions and I was supporting and facilitating the learning of those around me. Again, I am not THE Lead Learner but the title Lead Learner captured two of the things that I most passionate about in my daily work... learning and leading within an educational organization. Yes, I am passionate about leading, which is great because that is my job. Although I am not a fan of titles, the term Lead Learner really resonated with me and captured what I believe are the most important aspects of my work.

So, somewhere along the line I re-branded myself as Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary. I stopped using the word principal because I didn't feel like it really captured my daily work. When you think of the word Principal, what comes to mind? Well, I have asked groups of people... staff, kids, other educators and the words that come up include: boss, disciplinarian, head of the school and paper pusher just to name a few. From my perspective, there was very little positive that came from the term "principal" - not many people saw it as a positive presence in the school. Then I asked about the term Lead Learner and the responses were completely different and they included focused on learning, instructional leader and life long learner just to name a few. Suddenly, it clicked. People responded much more positively to the term Lead Learner and the descriptors were a much closer match for my daily work than principal, which comes from the term Principal Teacher, which I do not see myself as in my current role. And thus, I started using Lead Learner.

But, let me be clear in communicating that I do not see myself as THE Lead Learner here at Cantiague... no, I am just ONE of a group of Lead Learners here at our school. I see our staff as Lead Learners based on their daily instructional work. I see our kids as Lead Learners at different points when they vacillate between the role of learner and teacher throughout the day. This is something that has increased this year with the integration of practices like Genius Hour and Passion/Project Based Learning opportunities where our kids take on the role of Lead Learner regularly. I see our family members as Lead Learners at different points in time because they share a lot to help us enhance our craft. The "position" of Lead Learner is not something I see as fixed and belonging to one person. I see it as a reflection of what matters most to me as an educator; I see it as a way to communicate the things I am most passionate about in my daily work; I see it as a way to really capture the essence of transformational instructional leader, which I am expected to be as the principal of our school (try that one on for size... not only the leader of all instruction but also transformative at the same time... WOOO... that is heavy stuff for a whole other blog post).

That is my take on the term Lead Learner... it is not about the title... it is not about the position... it is not about a singular person... it is about learning and leading. 

My name is Tony Sinanis and I am proud to be a Lead Learner!       


  1. Interesting stuff, Tony.

    I have ALWAYS balked at the term "instructional leader" and "lead learner" when they are used by principals to describe themselves simply because for crappy leaders, they become a power grab. "You need to do what I say because I am the instructional leader, dammit!" kind of stuff.

    And I think I've always been a fan of checking your title at the door -- especially in a profession where heirarchies have always been the primary organizational structure. Principals who WANT the respect of their teachers shouldn't rely on titles. Instead, they should rely on their actions.

    In fact, principals who HAVE the respect of their teachers probably don't think of themselves by their titles anyway -- there's a complete absence of title-centered-ness about them. It's not "I'm the instructional leader", "I'm the principal" or "I'm the lead learner" for them. It's "we're doing something cool here together. How can we help each other to get better at what we are doing?"

    Here's the quote that matters the most from your post:

    "Suddenly, my own learning was at the forefront and I was reinvigorated and excited about my daily work as an educator and leader. And that is when it clicked... I was a Lead Learner because I was modeling the importance of learning through my own daily actions and I was supporting and facilitating the learning of those around me."

    THAT's how principals gain influence: By actively modeling the kinds of reflective practices that define learners and learning; by increasing their own knowledge base so they can support and challenge everyone in their buildings; and by proving that everyone -- regardless of position -- can improve.

    But you didn't need -- or gain -- a title in order to do that. You simply needed to believe that learning mattered to everyone in the schoolhouse -- including the guy who was sitting at the top.

    Any of this make sense?

  2. I like it Tony. I like that you own it and that you live it. As I stated in the comment area of Pernille's, the title is not what I focus on, to me it is more about actions.

    I appreciate your post and I appreciate the opportunity to learn with you and from you on a regular basis.

    Warm Regards,

  3. Tony: Thank you for peeling back the many layers of the term lead learner to truly share its meaning. I couldn't agree with Ben more when he states "you own it and live it!" For me titles are just that "titles" or "words on a page," but without the support of your entire school community it doesn't matter which title one holds, as it would be for naught.

    In friendship, collaboration and "lead learning,"

  4. Great post, Tony and I appreciate the additional dialogue. What occurs to me is that it is difficult to maintain our focus on what we value most when we are so frequently inundated with negativity and mandates from outside of our schools. Keeping the focus on all members of a school community being leaders AND learners can help insulate us and keep our schools in a state of positive growth.