Learner-centered leaders create culture grounded in the community’s vision, mission and beliefs about learning

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D

In Episode 8, we had a conversation with Dr. Suzanne Freeman, Superintendent of Pike Road Schools, and Ryan Kendall, a K-6 principal. We discussed developing a culture of learning grounded in the community’s vision.

Key Competency

Leaders create the conditions for those in the system to learn. They do this though a strong understanding of a vision, mission and beliefs about learning as articulated by the community.

In order to develop this vision as well as a shared understanding, leaders need to be open-minded and anchored in the school’s beliefs. What is right for the community? What is best for our students? Who are our students? Leaders need to ask, “Who is my ‘who’?  How do I design experiences that are both intellectual and for the heart?”

Leaders need to realize each other’s talents and leverage those talents for the greater good. Through openness and humility, the leader needs to engage in candid conversation to figure out what is best for students.

Key Takeaways

Leaders must engage the community when developing a vision and mission. Pike Road conducted eleven meetings with community members. During the meetings, leadership worked to help community members understand the possibilities. They asked, “What if…” questions. “What if your child experienced….?”  Teachers and leaders were also brought into the conversation, and they all worked together to breathe life into the vision.

Language matters. Pike Road Schools has changed its language to reflect a more learner-centered environment. Teachers are now lead learners, and classrooms are learning communities.

The school is developing lifelong learners where children own their learning. Students are encouraged to pursue their interests and passions and learn beyond their school community. A group of 6th grade students used donated sewing machines and learned how to sew. They used the sewing machines to make Bags of Love. Kindergarteners made homemade lip balm while they studied bees, and the lip balm was added to the Bags of Love.  The students then took the bags of love to a homeless shelter and helped serve a meal. Facebook posts and phone calls from parents to the school convey enthusiasm and excitement for these passion projects.

Learner-centered leaders acknowledge when things aren’t going so well. Dr. Freeman and Mr. Kendall shared that last year many classrooms were more teacher-driven, and this year there is more student voice. They have conversations about failure – everyone in the system is a learner. Leaders acknowledge that everyone has something to contribute and value. They celebrate both “mountaintop moments” – Wow! This is great! – and “valley moments” – This is messy, and not going right! Leaders have to keep each other going when things get tough through those valley moments. It’s not about being right – it’s about getting it right.

Conversations are characterized by candor with empathy.  While these conversations are often difficult, they are needed to determine what to do for the learners.

Connections to Practice

  • We are progressing along this journey. We need to affirm our successes and embrace our failures.
  • Visioning needs to occur with the full community (leaders, teachers, learners, parents, community members). We all need to be clear about direction and ensure everyone understands and embraces the beliefs.
  • Sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. We spent a year developing a vision, and a year building a shared understanding.  We now know we need another year to continue to build a shared understanding.
  •  While we know our learners, we need to better understand them so we can design experiences which will engage students’ hearts and minds. Learning more about personalized learning and understanding our learners will help us design more powerful experiences for our learners.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How often do our parents get excited enough to call the school or post about their child’s learning on Facebook/social media?
  • Do our teachers and learners discuss failure?
  • What is our language? How do we want to re-shape our language about teaching and learning?
  • Do we have learners who are “obsessed” with their learning?
  • How do we work together to find opportunities for our students?
  • Are we planning or designing?

Next Steps for Us

  • Engage in conversations about agency, student choice, and student voice with the leadership team.
  • During monthly principal meetings, participate in walk-throughs where the conversation centers on the learning beliefs and the concept of agency.
  • Engage in conversations about failure and progress with teachers, leaders and learners.
  • Encourage principals to talk to students during observations. “What are you learning?”



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