Deeper Learning Reflection: Chapter 12 “Ears to the Ground: School Leadership in the New Millennium”

Moment of truth: I wanted to like this chapter way more than I actually liked this chapter. Which probably means I’m missing something and need to re-read it and do a better job thinking about it in the context of my school.

There are a lot of C’s in this chapter; for someone with a tendency to have ‘achiever’ pop up on her strengths finder, the site of that letter can be alarming.

Esparza first introduces the 4Cs of instruction in the 21st century: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. Sound familiar?


She then takes it a step further to give us the 4Cs of 21st century leadership: context, culture, conditions, and competencies.


I appreciated Esparza’s acknowledgement that environments drive learning– meaning we must be keenly aware of the dynamic and ever-changing environments around us and especially our students. This reminded me of an article I read in grad school. In it, Bronfenbrenner (1979), heavily influenced by Piaget and others, set out to take their developmental theories one step further. Bronfenbrenner presented a theory of knowledge that takes into account environment at multiple levels. Rather than focus on what a person knows, Bronfenbrenner focuseed in on how they know it and the way in which they understand it.


Note where you see school– directly touching the individual. The school environment is as important to an individual’s development as his or her parents or siblings. Later in the chapter, Esparza actually shares that the influence of parents is key to community success because parents can either discredit what is happening at school or reinforce it (p.309). Look deeper at this system web and look at all the things that are working to influence an individual at any moment: media, parents’ work, income, social pressure, family, peers, history, where they live…it goes on and on. We must take time to understand where a student is coming from. We also have a responsibility to be an environment that shapes them for good.


I’ve already heard it a few times this pre-planning: culture eats strategy for breakfast. But what is culture? What does it look like in a school? How do get cultivate it? I imagine it looks like people who take pride in their craft, their students, their peers, and their work environment.

As Esparza notes (p.303), a shared vision is the most critical aspect of a healthy school culture. That makes me thankful for leaders like Dr. J who take the time to set the tone at the start of each year so that we are on the same page. Sometimes that clarity gets lost as we find ourselves in the weeds of the school year. Pre-planning is a great example: we are providing amazing opportunities to build relationships (our wildly important goal for the year) through expeditions, games, and get togethers. But what the teachers also need are the “guard rails” of the year: what are the classroom expectations? The evaluation guidelines, etc. As a school leadership, shouldn’t we provide the guard rails up front if they exist (and they always exist) if we expect teachers to be beholden to them? Limitless creativity is amazing if it can be honored– but we if know there are some non-negotiables, why not lead with them and avoid the situation of having to knock down great and imaginative ideas that can’t come to fruition? If we’re going to require PBL units of all teachers or ask that each teacher co-teaches at least one unit, I’d imagine teachers would want to know that upfront. Perhaps that sounds too harsh for a school that prides itself on innovation– but according to Esparza, the best way to set a strong school culture is to have incredibly transparent teaching and learning priorities.


Aligning resources with student growth sounds so obvious. All strong leaders know they have to put their money where their mouth is. But what isn’t talked about as openly (and something I think this section missed discussing) is that saying yes in some places means saying no in others. If we are going to have writable, moveable desks in classrooms so that we can have flexible learning spaces, it might mean that we have to make do with the Apple TVs for another year or two instead of getting those smartboards just yet. If we want to provide tremendous learning opportunities through conferences, workshops, and higher education it may mean that salaries can’t increase as much as some may like. Being a leader in a 21st century school means having the superpower of future vision: technology and resources are going in and out of vouge so quickly. What will be lasting? If both a smartTV and writable, moveable desks contribute to flexibility in learning, which do we install first? What will prove only a fad? How do know know the right things to spend money on?


For a school to transform, teachers need to have bought in entirely. That means the retention and development of team members should be critical components to any leader’s strategy. Professional learning opportunities are at the heart of buy-in: help team members understand the vision, give them opportunities to grow within the context of that vision, and empower them to apply and augment the vision in the context of their own sphere of influence. Do this and team members will feel supported, encouraged, and a part of something larger than themselves. If you think this sounds remarkably similar to the practice of distributed leadership, you’d be correct.

Measuring the four Cs can be harder than understanding them. I liked the idea of creating a chart with initiatives within those areas to understand if they fall in the areas of data collecting, accountability, or relationships. If we’re sticking with the idea of transparency, it seems like that’d be a great chart to share with the whole team…


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). Ecology of human development : Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.


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