Learner-centered leaders create risk-friendly environments

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.

In Episode 17, we had a conversation with Bethlehem Elementary School’s  principal, Dr. Jessalyn Askew and teacher, Tiffany Early. Our conversation focused on the personalized learning efforts in Bethlehem Elementary and many interesting facets of learning and leadership: alternative assessments to demonstrate learning; shifting mindsets of learners, teachers and parents; providing space for teachers to take risks with instruction; ceding control; and cultivating and celebrating teachers.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders create risk-friendly environments. Teachers are encouraged by Jessalyn (and other teachers) to try new things and explore new ideas. Even when the learning is messy, teachers know Jessalyn will support their effort to take risks. Support comes in many forms: financial assistance, meaningful professional development, implementation of student-led conferences, and focused time. As the principal, Jessalyn gently nudges teachers out of their safety nets and supports their work so the teachers can “soar” and “fly.”


Jessalyn worked diligently to change the mindsets of learners, teachers, and parents. The school invites the parents into the classrooms to share what they are learning and doing regularly. Student-led conferences occur twice per year – once in the fall and once in the spring. During the student-led conferences, students share their work with their parents. Parents notice their students’ abilities in problem-solving and self-confidence increasing. As a result of this and the change in classroom instruction, parents are engaging in different conversations about school.

Cultivating learning beyond the school system is critical to the implementation of a new vision.  Jessalyn spoke about teachers opening their doors to other teachers in a model classroom approach. Model classrooms create an open door feel in the building, a culture of learning. In addition to learning from each other, teachers participate in site visits across the country to other systems to be able to see parts of their vision implemented elsewhere. This helps them bring the ideas alive in their own system.

Tiffany shared teachers in the sytem have had to relinquish control. Traditionally, the flow of knowledge comes from the teacher to the student. In this learning environment, the learning flows from everyone to everyone else. Teachers never know exactly where a lesson is going to go, and that can be scary. Students often come to classes with more knowledge than sometimes they get credit for, and that can cause fear.

One challenge of implementation was time. Because teachers do not have a set planning block, teachers receive two hour planning sessions twice a month to work on stations, playlists, and collaboration. Time is a commodity. During this two-hour block, students partiicpate in the makerspace for one hour and STEM for another hour.

Students’ voice changes everything. Students advocate for their choices and recognize themselves as peer teachers who get to decide what and how they learn.

Connection to Practice

We are supporting our building leaders and teachers in taking risks. Through the implementation of our Leading #YourSalisbury cohort, we are building capacity within our building teams to implement teacher-led professional learning and pilot a new idea through an independent professional learning project.

Time is often a challenge. We hear this from our teachers. Our teachers have nine professional learning days, but some of that time is consumed with specific initiatives or mandated trainings. How can we make the most effective use of our time? How can we create more time? Fortunately, all of our teachers have preparation time in their schedules.

Tiffany encourages us to think about our ideal learning environment, communicate that to the learners, and explain that there will be mistakes along the way. Do we talk about learning with our learners? Are we transparent about risk-taking?

Questions Based on Our Context:

  • How often do our learners want to continue their work on the weekends?
  • How do we promote professional learning beyond our building/district walls?
  • Do our teachers LOVE to facilitate discussions with our learners?
  • Are we allocating sufficient human and financial resources to support this transformation?

Next Steps for Us:

  • Ask our teachers, “What is learning?”  Encourage our teachers to talk with their learners about their ideas about learning.
  • Reflect on our work with our Leading #YourSalisbury team. Are we using the time effectively? Are we supporting our teachers and leaders effectively?

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