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Shift Your Paradigm: What Does Learner-Centered Leadership Look Like? (Part 1) [#ShiftYourParadigm]

This article first appeared at Education Reimagined as a part of Voyager, a publication sharing the stories and ideas shaping the future of education.

Written by Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D. and Lynn Fuini-Hetten

Both of us have been in education our entire lives. From young learners to career educators, we are the education system. We grew up and worked in educational systems that fit the mold of the school-centered paradigm—learning happens in school, learners travel through the system in age-related cohorts, and learners pass through a prescribed curriculum, often disconnected from their interests and passions.

We didn’t even realize we had beliefs rooted in the school-centered paradigm until we were given the opportunity to question and explore our assumptions. In 2015, as Superintendent and Associate Superintendent in the Salisbury Township School District, we had that opportunity with the publication of Education Reimagined’s A Transformational Vision for Education in the US.

We were unexpectedly exposed to the publication during a presentation by David Andrews at Lehigh University School Study Council. David is the former Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and one of the vision’s signatories.

Since then, Education Reimagined has challenged us to explore our assumptions about learning and education and shift our paradigm from one that was school-centered to one that is shifting more closely to learner-centered every day.

One of the most significant outcomes supporting our district transformation was the collaborative development and adoption of the Salisbury Profile of a Graduate. The beliefs about learning that led to the creation of this profile were grounded in the learner-centered paradigm. Rather than distinguish a successful learner as one who solely meets the systemic requirements of 13 years in education, we distinguish a successful learner as one who knows his or her strengths, challenges, and interests and is ready to personalize his or her life journey to meet a personalized definition of success.

Over the past three years, we have deepened our understanding of the five elements by reviewing resources from Education Reimagined, attending Learning Lab Trainings, and talking with other learning organizations. Our exploration has given us the tools necessary to positively shift the mindsets of our leaders, teachers, parents, and community.

Beginning Our Leadership Inquiry

In the early days of our transformation work, a leadership inquiry emerged:

If the transformation of education requires a paradigm shift accompanied by new learner-centered mindsets, how might leadership intentionally support the shift?

Like just about all of our colleagues, our ideas about educational leadership had been framed by the dominant, school-centered paradigm. We wanted to know if these mindsets were enough to lead in the new learner-centered paradigm. Or, might leaders need to transform their leadership mindset to best support systemic transformation?

In collaboration with Education Reimagined, we launched Shift Your Paradigm, a podcast series that explores this leadership inquiry in depth. The podcast invites young learners and leaders making the shift to learner-centered education to share their stories of transformation.

Since launching the podcast in May 2017, we have learned a great deal about learner-centered leadership and the underlying mindsets. Reflecting on over 50 published podcast episodes and accompanying blog posts, we want to illuminate four overarching outcomes to the question: How do learner-centered leaders lead differently from school-centered leaders?

Learner-centered leaders:

  1. Reframe transformation
  2. Support the development of the resources, people, and conditions for transformation
  3. Prioritize a culture of deep relationships.
  4. Prioritize learner voice.

Part one of our exploration is going to reflect on the first two outcomes. In a subsequent article, we’ll explore the final two outcomes we’ve identified and how they connect to our own work.

Learner-centered leaders reframe transformation

What better place to begin our exploration than distinguishing “transformation” itself. How can we be confident we’re engaging in transformational work if we don’t have the proper framing for it? Early in the podcast series, Allan Cohen, Program Leader and strategic consultant for Education Reimagined, framed transformation as

“…a kind of change that actually let’s go of the past and creates something entirely new. As a practical matter, that means breaking from or disrupting or interrupting the way things have been going, not simply improving it. But, imagining something that’s not constrained by where it’s been.” (Episode 2)

The leaders we’ve spoken to consistently work from a vision for learning where systems conform to learners, rather than learners conforming to systems. What better way to “imagine something that’s not constrained by where it’s been”?

As these leaders revealed their community-specific framing for transformation on our episodes, we began to hear many parts to a disruptive whole. Several of the strongest actions included reframing learner agency, redefining the role of the teacher, and being intentional about releasing or giving up conventional ways of “doing” school.

Reframing learner agency

Learner-centered education begins with the learner. Without a shift in mindset around agency, systems simply cannot become learner-centered. In Episode 5, Dr. Trace Pickering, Executive Director of Iowa BIG,put it bluntly,

“Essentially, what we have learned is that learner agency is that secret ingredient, that secret sauce that unlocks the other four elements. If you’re not serious about giving the learners agency and ownership of their learning, all of the other elements—open-walled, socially embedded, personalized—take on a “less than” kind of meaning. And so, I think if you were to sit and watch, observe at Iowa BIG, you would see teachers relentless about finding ways to make sure the students own their learning.” (Episode 5)

Redefining the role of teacher

Rethinking the role of teaching was a theme that emerged from many of our conversations. Learning environments often begin the redefinition of “teacher” with new language: learning experience designer, coach, advisor, or mentor. At One Stone, teachers are known as coaches—embracing the development of learner agency as a core component to their professional role. Bennett Huhn, a young learner from One Stone shared this analogy to illustrate the shifting role of the coaches at One Stone,

“If you’re in a bowling alley, and we’re the bowling ball, then the coaches are the bumpers on the side that are really kind of just guiding you towards your goal.” (Episode 37)

Big Picture Learning (BPL) Co-Executive Director, Dr. Andrew Frishman, spoke about how he as a learner-centered leader explicitly reframe the role of the teacher in a transformed learning environment.

“Advisor is a term that we use to redefine the role of a teacher because a teacher sort of implies [someone who] has the information and will deliver that content to the student. Whereas an adviser is working with the student to say, “Who are you? What is it that you are passionate and excited and interested about? How do you want to go out into the world, and how can I help work with you to create learning experiences that will help you advance in that way?”” (Episode 25)

Being intentional about releasing or giving up conventional ways of “doing” school

At Design39Campus, founding principal Sonya Wrisley shared her experience conducting intentional conversations with stakeholders about what to give up from the school-centered model.

“We really thought deeply about what we would need to let go. And in some ways, we may have let go of a lot.” (Episode 14)

What were some examples of what was given up in the transformational design of Design39Campus?


“I wanted to break down the isolation. I wanted to make sure that everybody would learn to collaborate and really work together all the time, not have their own classrooms. They are not teacher classrooms; they are learning spaces for our learners. And then, part of that was if teachers weren’t going to have their own classrooms, then I shouldn’t have my own office. I should model this for them. So, we had open collaboration areas, design studios is what we called them. So, that was one of the first big things we let go of, territory.” (Episode 14)

Individual ownership of classroom resources:

“We wanted to make sure that they didn’t come with all the trappings that then caused the classroom to become their storage place (teachers, or Learning Experience Designers—LEDs). Things like construction paper and markers and all that—we put those into what we call our makeries, places where kids can make things. Books were then donated, in a sense, to the classroom libraries, given to what we call our loft. This is where we house all those books, so kids can go and borrow a book. They don’t even have to check it out. So we were letting go of that type of stuff.” (Episode 14)


“The very biggest thing in my mind was letting go of control, allowing the students to learn how they want to learn and find what they’re passionate about. That was just a whole shift in thinking. Teachers, or LEDs in our case, were not going to control. We frame things, but overall, the kids are given a lot of choice and voice and student agency to really learn their content.” (Episode 14)

At the inception of every transformation is a group of community leaders, formal or informal, open and willing to think differently. They are challenged to think about the learner first. This reframing of transformation leads to reframing other leadership challenges within the learning environment.

Learner-centered leaders support the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation

Related to the idea of reframing transformation, the development of learning opportunities that stretch the organization beyond the edges of the status quo and into an entirely new paradigm of learning are a focus of learner-centered leaders. In the process of designing new opportunities, leaders provide support for developing the mindsets and skill sets of the organization’s stakeholders, creating the conditions for risk taking and unlocking time to maximize opportunities.

Providing powerful learning opportunities to develop the mindsets and skill sets of their people

In Episode 24, we were introduced to an innovative career development resource in the Cajon Valley Union School District, World of Work (WoW). WoW is an initiative designed and developed through a partnership between Cajon Valley, the University of San Diego, and Qualcomm. It aims to help every child discover their unique strengths, interests, and values through learning experiences directly tied to the world of work—ensuring every child knows there’s a place for them in the world. Ed Hidalgo, Cajon Valley’s Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer, shared how the resource was developed from a learner-centered lens,

“We’re integrating this (World of Work) into the classroom setting because we believe that career development is a human process. It’s something that the teacher really needs to unpack with the students…it is integrated into the curriculum. It’s part of bringing relevance into what the teachers are already doing.” (Episode 24)

Jenny Finn, Co-Founder and current Head of School at Springhouse Community School, recently supported her learning community in the development of a community internship program to support open-walled learning.

“At the end of the year, I did a listening session with almost every student in the school. In one of those sessions, I was interviewing one of our seniors. I knew that she needed more freedom, being a senior. And, I didn’t feel like what we were doing was offering her what she needed. Being in the four walls of a school, all day, every day, is frankly, unnatural. I feel it now more than ever. All of us were learning and gaining these skills, but we’re not making use of them in ways that helped us to grow. We don’t know how we’re doing with those skills unless we are out in the community and using them. It became very clear to me that we need our students to be going out into the community, learning from the community, offering their gifts to the community, and then coming back to the safe place that Springhouse is to reflect.” (Bonus Episode 6)

Create risk-friendly environments

In the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota, Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director, shared an example of how risk-taking is built on trust. Moving to a competency-based model, Harrisburg leadership ceded full control of the transformation to their teachers. Travis described,

“It has not been a top-down initiative. We took four facilitators to schools and said, “Just see what they’re doing. Do you believe in what they’re doing? And, if you do, how do we come back in and replicate this, or how do we make it ours?” It’s really been a different approach from the administration to say, “We’re going to support staff in this development, as well as come alongside them and learn with them.”” (Episode 41)

In Henry County, GA, Bethlehem Elementary School principal Dr. Jessalyn Askew described how she helps teachers feel safe to take calculated risks in the classroom.

“I would definitely say, as a leader, you have to create a risk-free environment. Teachers are always concerned about their evaluation, and they want to do their very best. When you’re asking them to think “out of the box,” and you’re asking them to try something different, something that is foreign to them in a lot of ways, that’s just not the norm. They have to feel comfortable that if it isn’t perfect, you’re not going to hold it against them. That’s a huge game changer, for teachers to know that they can try the new work, and it’s okay if it’s not perfect. We’ll give you the support and continue to help you grow. But surely, the teachers have to feel safe in trying new initiatives.” (Episode 17)

Dr. Askew’s risk-taking disposition has not only transferred to teachers in the classroom, but she has seen it embraced by learners as well.

“The feeling that I truly can take a risk, and I’m not going to be penalized by it, I’ve seen the teachers share that idea with the students, and let the students know that they, too, can be risk takers.” (Episode 17)

Unlock time to maximize opportunities

Transformational work is messy. That message comes through in all our conversations. Compounding the messiness is the fact that there is a finite amount of time teachers, leaders, and learners have to do the work. How do learner-centered leaders unlock time to maximize opportunities?

Wendy Little, Director of Intersession and Community Learning at d.Tech High School spoke to us about how they unlock time for learners through their intersession program.

“So at the end of each quarter, we have a two-week intersession. This allows students to go deep in terms of studying…different industries or professions or electives for two weeks at a time. It allows the students to choose highly personalized and high-interest classes, without the year-long commitment of being in a class, every day, for a whole school year.

I found in guiding and connecting with students that it’s a lot easier for me to sit down and say, “Have you thought about this? Would you give it a shot for ten days?” I have found students are much more comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone where there’s this shorter commitment to time. They often find that they really do love what they’re learning.” (Episode 40)

At North Star, described as an “alternative to school,” learners have a high level of agency over how they utilize time. Ken Danford, Executive Director of North Star shared how the use of time is transformed in the learning environment.

“The main thing about learning in North Star is that it’s schooling upside down. It’s where adults offer classes to teens who can choose whether or not to attend them. There’s a lot of one-on-one tutorials which students request from adults. There’s a lot of time to socialize or just be present without doing what schools would consider academic learning.

The model allows teens full control over how they spend their time in the building. Many of the teens have homeschooling curriculum or requirements or things from their parents. Some of this they work on at North Star, and some they do at home outside of North Star.” (Episode 43)

Do learner-centered leaders lead differently? Absolutely. And, the Shift Your Paradigm episodes have led us to reflect on all the possible ways. From reframing transformation and redefining the role of teachers to supporting the development of resources, people, and conditions for transformation, every community has the opportunity to adapt these insights for the specific needs of their young learners. As you await part two of this series, why not consider the inquiry that launched us down this path: If the transformation of education requires a paradigm shift accompanied by new learner-centered mindsets, how might leadership in your learning environment intentionally support the shift?


Learner-centered leaders help learners understand everyone’s journey is different

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 41, we spoke with Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director in Harrisburg School District (SD), Shana Wagers, Instructional Coach at Freedom Elementary School, and Landri, a young learner in the Freedom Elementary program.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders help all learners understand that everyone’s journey will be different.


A typical day in this public school starts with a morning meeting and includes reading, math, and content areas. Learners are grouped according to needs and not age. Groupings are labeled as Littles, Middles, Molders, Olders rather than second or fourth graders.

Learners may attend studios with students across multiple groupings. Learners flex based on where they are at in the learning continuum and what they need. Their learning journey starts where they are instead of with same-age level peers. This has allowed the flexibilty to move learners where they need to be during their school day.

This work started in the high school over 10 years ago. The educators looked at different schedules – blocks, modified, etc. But, they were looking for more of a college schedule with varying blocks of time to meet different learning needs. They developed a customized look for their learners.  For example, some learners might not need a whole year of Algebra 1. Through the early years, they determined they needed to rethink some ideas to make sure they were meeting all of the needs for all of their learners.

The high school now offers two paths – traditional and customized. In the customized path, learning is flexible. Learners control the pace – moving as quickly as works for them. Additionally, they can take more time.  Check points allow for the school to monitor progress.

Travis is thoughtful in sharing their learners express voice and choice. Learners use their creation devices – iPads – to determine how to communicate their learning. In the traditional path, learners may have more paper/pencil tests and move at the pace of the class. Teachers differentiate for learners.

In the elementary school, learners have set blocks of time. In the middle school, learners have greater opportunity to schedule their own courses. In a four block time, facilitators advertise their offerings. Middle school learners then schedule their day based on what they need. For example, students will advocate for themselves. If they have a conflict between a science lab and extra help for math, they work with the facilitators to solve the issues. The middle school use Personalized Learning Tools to facilitate this process. It takes six minutes for the process to occur.

The organization is making bold changes – such as implementing the tools to offer students opportunity to schedule their own day. The school also focuses on Habits of Mind and growth mindset. Learners recognize everyone’s journey will be different, and everyone is there to support each other. Learners work in mixed groups to learn the Habits of Mind.  Sometimes the best learning happens when one learner can explain it to another learner.

Landri shared how her voice contributes to learning. She reflects she and her classmate are working on different math tasks. While she is creating a Write About project after her Mastery Check, her classmate completes another task.  Learners choose how they want to show their understanding.  Learners are taught multiple productivity apps on their iPads.

What kind of leadership competencies do leaders need to have to do this work?  Leaders need to think differently about how they support staff and teachers. It is tough to tear down a system that has been built by others. This has not been a top-down initiative. A team observed other schools, identified strengths, and possible opportunities for change in their own system. Leaders and teachers are on the ground everyday. They have had to empower teachers to make decisions, even if those decisions don’t work. The leadership has to be flexible and feel the heartbeat of the facilitators to better support them.

As a result of that support, the teachers are encouraged to share their voices. Constant communication between leaders, facilitators, and learners is essential. Together, they figure out what can be put in place to improve. The leadership recognizes it is all a process to make sure it is done well.  Everyone in the organization has agency, and that is a big shift in terms of leadership. It can be uncomfortable for leadership as well as new staff members.

This learning environment puts differentiation on steroids. Facilitators learn quickly that in any one room, there could be learners across many standards. Faciltators need to better understand the standards across grade levels.

If teachers are not accepting the agency or invitation, how do you support and enroll them in the conversation? Engage in conversations, develop team norms and standard operating procedures. Facilitators may also need to support in content, math and reading, etc. The facilitators might have pacing and grouping questions or concerns. The leader needs to function as a go-to resource!

Is this shift systemic?  Starting to move forward. For example, Kindergarten has WIN – What I Need groups – 15 minutes, four times per day. Learners are grouped based on need in letter groups and math groups.

What advice would you give to other leaders? We did not get here alone. We encourage others to look at a lot of different models, and ask questions. Travis tells schools not to replicate Harrisburg’s program. Instead, schools need to look at their context critically.  Leaders also need to raise expectations because learners will meet them.  Travis also tells leaders to, “See it to believe it!”  Secondly, he tells leaders to engage in conversations with their your core team. Discuss what the team wants for learners when they leave. Systems are different. communities are different. And needs are different.

Leaders also need to know it is ok to make mistakes and fail. Struggles made this team better, even through the range of emotions – frustration and struggles. Reflect to make it better and the positive changes will keep growing.

Landri encourages learners to think flexibly if something doesn’t go your way. She also tells others to trust their facilitators because they know what they are doing.

The art of teaching and leading is being able to be fluid. This transformation is a long-term process which requires analysis of contextual factors. Learner-centered leadership shifts the agency and voice from the leader to those they are working within the organization. This process isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it is a messy curvy line with detours and failures along the way. Learners will understand every journey will be different. The norm is not that everyone gets the same and travels together. The norm is that everyone’s journey is different. As leaders, we need to be intentional about supporting our teachers, be on the ground with them, celebrate the positive/less productive risk-taking.

Connections to our Practice

  • Our elementary students learn success skills through the Leader in Me program.
  • We have a traditional path in our high school, even though students have options.
  • We have been working to support our teachers in our Project Wonder program at the middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Would two paths work in our system?
  • How would our learners feel about creating their own schedules?
  • How are we teaching Habits of Mind or growth mindset in our secondary schools?
  • Do our learners trust their teachers – that there learning experience is better because of them?
  • How could we scale Project Wonder?

Next Steps for Us

  • Take a look at the software scheduling tool. How could a tool like that support our work?
  • Consider running two paths simultaneously in middle school.

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback

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 this episode, we learned about Nautilus School with leader Milissa McClaire Gary and a young learner Andrew (AJ) from the Nautilus school located in Chicago.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback.


When asked what teaching and learning looks like in Nautilus School, Milissa shared there was significant collaboration to get their learning space ready for the learners. The curriculum, activities, and experiences are designed to meet what learners need academically and socially.

AJ described his day which begins with morning meeting and Daily 5. He participates in yoga twice a week, STEM challenges, geometry, enjoys recess and lunch in the dining room. and ends the day with wrap-up. AJ shared he has been learning about electric cars and will share what he has learned through an Animoto video at the school’s portfolio night.

Milissa was working with teacher teams in Chicago Public Schools, and worked to bring Nautilus to life. Through the work, observing classrooms and reviewing neuroscience research (including executive functions and mindfulness), Melissa determined the need to create a new school since current systems are not set up to support the most effective kind of learning and success. After planning with other community members, the school opened its doors in September 2018.

What is portfolio night?  Students developed two individual goals and learner-centered projects in the first couple of weeks of the trimester. The learners access their  neighborhood library and online classroom resources for their research. Portfolio Night is similar to parent conferences or report card pickup.

There are no letter grades at Nautilus, but there is a language that has been developed to indicate how the students are progressing towards their goals. Students then review their self-selected work in their portfolio. They present their videos also.

By the end of the year, the school hopes the students will be running their own conferences. To do this, Nautilus staff are working with learners on speaking and articulating their learning for parents.

The school is working to release agency in its learners. Students set goals for learning during morning meeting every day. Students use set processes to review their progress. Even on the parts of the day which are more free choice or play-based, learners determine what options work well in their space.  Learners complete self-checks and monitor how they are doing. Learners also use a free choice calendar, which was designed by the learners.

Nautilus is digging into open-walled experiences and shifting to a more learner-centered environment. They are currently thinking about assessment and how it will evolve. They are determining how they and the learners can articulate what they are learning.

Helping parents see school differently is important as Nautilus seeks to increase the number of students attending the school. Community members and parents are generating a buzz on social media. Word of mouth is spreading.

You cannot do this work by yourself; it has to be a collaborative effort. As a leader, Milissa does not hold all the responsibility of developing the school and generating all of the ideas. She uses her coaching background to engage the whole team in reflection while she learns alongside others. Leaders need to constantly have the eyes open for what lessons they are learning on a daily basis.

AJ reflects that Nautilus is a friendly time and place for kids to learn. He appreciates they have a class pet, a lemonade stand, yoga, and working with the teacher on Daily 5.  Some of the work is also different from his previous school. He notices there are fewer worksheets and more choice in his learning. AJ reflects on his learner-centered goal. He wants to learn more about electric cars, and has created an Animoto. AJ brainstormed about next goals, and pondered about learning more about his friends.

What advice do you have for learner-centered leaders? It is really important to partner with parents and  know kids deeply.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have done several surveys to seek input from learners, teachers, leaders, and parents.
  • We have elementary learners creating student-led conferences as an outcome of our Leader in Me process.
  • We struggle with deep parent engagement.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Do we know our learners deeply?
  • Are we open and responsive to feedback?
  • What is our attitude towards feedback? Do we seek it out, or do we only accept it when we receive it?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?

Learner-centered leaders place the agency in the hands of the learner and transform their learning 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 43, we learned about an innovative learning environment – North Star Teens in Hadley, MA. with Kenneth Danford and a 15 year old learner – Nolan Saito.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders place the agency in the hands of the learner and transform their learning environments.


Norh Star is not a school – instead it is a learning environment. Most teens do choose to go onto college after attending North Star.

Adults offer classes and students decide whether or not to attend. There is significant 1:1 time, and opportunities are provided for teens to control how they spend their time, while some classes may look like a typical school in which an adult is teaching in the front of the room. In addition to participating in North Star, many of the teens are homeschooled.  

Nolan reflected that a major difference between North Star and school is that students set their own pace. He can study what really interests him at the pace he needs to go in order to absorb what he needs to absorb. Nolan participates in tutorials to cover math, learn Spanish and cover science. He does school work online with Khan Academy and reads books to learn.  

For many of the North Star teens, their learning is fluid, and there is not a clear line between what counts for North Star and what counts for homeschool. Students under 16 are homeschooled.  The structure allows for pursuit of motivation and passion and complying with state requirements.

North Star has about 60 learners and serves local teens in western Massachusetts. There are other sites – Princeton, upstate NewYork, Leesberg VA, etc. – serving local teens through the Liberated Learners Network.

How does North Star represent a learner-centered environment? North Star was born out of shifting tables from requiring students to complete specific learning experiences to inviting students to participate in learning activities. Ken and his colleague wanted to get rid of the assignments which were created by the teachers and required of learners. Instead, they wanted to put the control in the hands of the learner.

North Star supports learners with all of their passions. For example, Nolan is a dancer who practices 3 hours a day. He has always gotten up early to practice violin before school. Attending a traditional school makes it difficult to pursue these passions.

Community and people who volunteer to teach at North Star are diverse. Nolan participates in a class on Tuesdays called Essential Shelter. It focuses on architectural history. He participates in a Monday class – Guitar, Spanish, making boats. Other classes include math, making bread, making lunch, and how to listen to classical music. North Star also has a band, a theater group, and even debate class. Nolan reflects that students can think about a class, and it will appear. Students participate in the classes only if they are interested.

What are some leadership competencies which are needed to lead in this type of a learning environment? Ken first identifies the leader needs to treat the small program like a business. Funding, keeping the doors open, is a challenge.  This is true for other small non-profits. Leaders need to have a team ready to tackle the challenges of starting this small business. Don’t underestimate the seriousness and need of a team to start a small business.

Ken shares you have to be willing to take “no” for answer. You might create a class and students have no interest in participating. You have to be able to accept the “no, thank you!” If that is going to frustrate you, then this isn’t for you.

When Ken can suspend his judgement and agenda, the good stuff – respecting kids, watching them blossom and challenge themselves, make friends, etc happens! Ken’s job is to make sure North Star is a safe place for the learners. He is not in charge of making sure Nolan learns fractions or the periodic table.

No one gets turned away for financial reasons. Many families get a fee reduction if needed.  Ken then works with the team to raise that money through special events and fundraisers.

The biggest piece of advice Nolan offers to other learners or educators is to not be afraid of what you don’t know. Nolan has a cousin who was considering homeschooling, but he had reasons why this wouldn’t work for him. For example, he thought he wouldn’t be able to go to college. Nolan argues homeschooled learners can go to college. Fear of the unknown can hold people back from leaving school and broadening their mindset in a different learning environment. Short answer – Don’t be afraid!

Ken shared you need to trust yourself, and everything counts. Ken doesn’t propose everyone leave traditional school. Instead, he hopes that everyone knows they could leave traditional school, and North Star would be there to support them. He offers he attended traditional school, his kids attended traditional school, and many North Star siblings attend traditional school. If school is working, great. If it isn’t working for you, there is another way.

What is next for Nolan? He anticipates taking the GED test, and eventually attending college, although he is not sure when he will go to college. He has goals and knows he wants to stay connected to the arts in the future.

Learner-centered leaders release agency, transform their schools, and create new options!

Connections to our Practice


  • We have an online academy – which does allow students flexibility in terms of time for completing course work. Students could participate in athletics in the morning, and complete their online work in the afternoon. In this case, we are still controlling the content.

Questions Based on Our Practice


  • How do we listen to our learners and create opportunities based on their interests?

  • How often do we take no for an answer?

  • How can students earn credit for outside learning?

Next Steps for Us


  • Engage in conversation with the learners to talk about their learning experiences.

Learner-centered leaders know change permeates the whole system

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 44 we spoke with Dr. Cory Steiner, superintendent in the Northern Cass School District in North Dakota. We learned about the audacious goals and vision, driven by their Profile of a Graduate, that are focused on creating a learner-centered school district. Northern Cass School District is a public school district located in Hunter, ND. It has 635 learners in grades PK-12 with a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.


Northern Cass has adopted audacious goals – including moving to a competency-based model by 2020. They offer big school opportunties in their small school system of 635 learners. They took  6-8 months to work with educators and learners on a 3-year transition which will eliminate grade levels, offer credit for learning beyond the day,  rethinking grading, and making sure kids move at a pace which works best for them.

Significant planning is in process to make this happen. They started several years ago with the Teacher Leadership Academy. Professional learning is a key compenent in this work. The District partnered with a local university to provide a masters degree aligned to the District’s vision. Administrators partnered with professors to teach courses related to District content. The school considered a school within a school model, but decided they wanted to do more for all learners.

Community engagement has been critical – using a personalized learning team (including learners) and a parent group. Engaging parents and community members in conversations around potential concerns (transcripts, credits, etc.) has helped build the vision and understanding while addressing various pieces.

Northern Cass recently developed a Portrait of a Graduate to guide this work- identifying eight areas (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, leadership, growth mindset, organization, accountability, and self-reflection.)  Every conversation focuses on how the work will support students being choice-ready to leave their school with the discreet skills and dispositions. Next year, the school will use the first 10 days at elementary and 6 days at the secondary level to directly teach the skills through activities designed to help students better understand the skills and ideas in the Portrait of a Graduate.  The POG is the guided pathway to getting to personalized learning.

Along the way, there have been high points and challenges. Cory shared about his Jaguar Academy – a school within a school – and how it really focused on pace.  Students quickly completed required courses and then moved to passion courses and internships. He reflected his kids are ready to own their own learning, and sometimes the adults need to get out of the way.  

The majority of the staff has embraced the idea of learner-centered, and believes they are doing the right things for their learners. Learner-centered is what is right, even though it is a heavy, heavy lift. Some educators have struggled with this change because the school district has to build its own system.  At times, there is stress because you have to build the system as you go and you don’t know what it will look like until you start doing it.  Also, there is always more work to do… revamp the curriculum, build in a learning management system, etc.  

Cory reflected on site visits to gain new ideas. While visiting and viewing these other learning environments, the educators could see what is possible. He knows Northern Cass’ learners are as capable as all other learners. He realized that the district has not given ownership to the learners. He realizes they have to do a better job of teaching the skills to the learners. While they have learned significantly from other districts such as Lindsay Unified and Harrisburg, Northern Cass has had to design its own original system.  Everyone’s context is different.  

Agency is at the core of this work. What does it look like in Northern Cass? How have the adults embraced the agency? Cory shared the teachers need to give up their control and know that it is going “to be ok.”  Controls such as tests, retests, etc. can be given up, and it will still be ok. Teachers are starting to let go some of those controls.

How have you as a superintendent reshaped the control? Cory has full trust that the people in the district will do what is right for their learners. He knows his staff truly care about the learners. The educators want their learners to have their best day every day. He trusts that teachers will work at a pace that works best for them. When teachers are not doing what it is needed, they may need more resources or time. Additionally, he has had to rethink his role in professional learning, reflecting on the best way to involve his own voice. Using teacher leaders for direct instruction on programs/initiatives and allowing time for professional conversation is often more important than leading the professional development.

Leaders need to be empathetic. We need to honor the work that our teachers do, and celebrate our successes. Leaders also need to focus on their why. What is your why and how does it drive your work every day and in every conversation? The why needs to become more than the a mission or vision.

Leaders need to find a medium area to let their runners run, and ensure every one makes an effort.

Leaders also need to be willing to fail. If you are going to try to do this work, you have to be willing to take the risks to do what is right for kids.  Don’t make excuses for doing what is right for kids.  People who are struggling in this system are people who don’t live in this system.

What advice would you give?  Stop waiting for things to be perfect before you start. Be willing to take small steps instead of waiting. Leaders also need to find a way to give up the excuse of not being able to afford it. Provide opportunities for teachers to see other people doing the work. When teachers believe it, they will do it. Let your runners go, and figure out what you need to do to support everybody else. The change permeates the whole system – teachers, leaders, clerical support, and parents.

To flip the system, we need to create agency throughout the entire system. Sometimes we may feel personal frustration, and we have to slow down and be empathetic. Trust and empathy are critical throughout the change process.  When we feel stress, it is important to have the conversation, be vulnerable and empathetic, and seek solutions.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have worked to build our Profile of a Graduate and learning beliefs.
  • We have provided two years to build a shared understanding – with runners and teachers who need more time.
  • We have developed a school-within-a-school model in our middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Does everyone understand our why statement?
  • How do we surface parent concerns?
  • How do we create action groups which include diverse stakeholders including learners?
  • Do our adults have agency?
  • Are our adults able and willing to give up control?
  • How can we better understand how others feel?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?
  • How can we organize some more site visits?

What are your traditions?

This post first appeared in the PASA Newsletter.

A family-run tree farm is nestled on a small hill less than a mile from my house. As I sit and work at my dining room table, I watch the cars travel our country road on their way to the tree farm. Kids bundled in bright coats run and play in the rows of evergreens searching for the perfect tree to adorn their homes. Once I step outside, I can hear the laughter and joy as families make their selections. Once making their choice, they leave the farm, with their tree tied, wrapped, or even bungee-corded to their car’s roof.

I smile as I think about the traditions of the holiday season. Visiting families and friends, volunteering to support those less fortunate, a family football game after a holiday lunch, a snowtubing outing, baking grandma’s secret chocolate chip cookies, reading a diary on Christmas Eve to reflect on the year, shopping for those perfect gifts, etc. Each of us has our own personal and family traditions.  What are your traditions? What do you look forward to in the holiday season?

Now think about your school or district. What kind of traditions exist in your organization? Do you take some time during the school year to celebrate those around you and build your own organizational traditions or rituals?  Do you have opportunities for staff members to connect and build shared experiences and memories with one another?  For example, my colleague and I treat our administrative team members to a catered lunch as we take a few minutes to connect with each other during this festive time of year.  Our second grade students walk up the hill behind their school to visit our administration building, sing carols to all of us, and take a quick tour of our offices. One of Salisbury’s elementary principals always makes and serves breakfast for her staff on the day which staff returns from holiday break.  This gives her staff a soft start to their return to work as they catch up with colleagues and share their stories of the season. We have many traditions at this time of year.

Hopefully, traditions transcend the holidays in our schools and across our districts. At opening convocation, we start the morning with a district-wide breakfast where all staff have the opportunity to connect with each other, share their summer adventures, and celebrate the upcoming year.  Recently, we started a tradition where our schools host Thanksgiving lunch for our parents and community members. In our office, we serve a treat and sing to celebrate staff members’ birthdays.

What are some of your traditions? Do you have a regular gathering for  team-building? Do you have an annual all staff event or celebration? Do you have a potluck meal? Do you celebrate with recognitions? For example, we have a local district who has an annual gala to recognize award recipients. Do you have any traditions for new employees?

Why are traditions important? Traditions affect culture. In an August 2018 article – Workplace Culture: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Define it – the author shares, “Culture is the character and personality of your organization. It’s what makes your business unique and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes.”

Does your organization have rituals and traditions? What are your school’s values and beliefs? Does everyone know and share the core beliefs? What do the interactions look like in your school or district? How do individuals behave in your organization?  How does everyone treat each other? What is the attitude of the faculty and staff in your organization? What would others say about your organization if they visited you and informally observed?

How do all of these factors – values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes – combine to create your workplace  culture? What data do you have which helps you and your team better understand your culture? What other data could you collect?

After we define our culture, we can reflect on our organization. Are you (and your faculty/staff)  satisfied with your culture? If not, what can you do in the new year to help build traditions and community and articulate values and beliefs?

Our families and professional staff really do look forward to these traditions with anticipation and excitement! I wish you an enjoyable holiday season rich with traditions and rituals, both personally and professionally.    


What kind of coach are you?

This post originally appeared in the PASA Newsletter.

Over the years, I have attended many of my son’s athletic events. At a recent game, I started to think about the value of our coaches and their distinctive leadership styles.  As I sat on the hard bleachers, I listened to the coach addressing his players. Watching him pace across the field, I pondered about how he was truly “on stage” for everyone – the players, parents, friends, other coaches. Throughout the game, the coach provided feedback, gave directions, celebrated successes, and also offered criticism.  It was all very public and at times very loud. That public performance can have both positive and negative effects on the participants. Fans and players celebrated when one team member made a great pass, scored a goal, etc. However, when a team member made a mistake, the criticism was also very public. At one point in this game, a parent visibly cringed as the coach loudly corrected her child.  

During the half-time sideline break, the players gathered around the coach as they caught their breath and drank some water.  From where I was sitting, I could see the back of the coach as he addressed the group. I watched the players’ body language while he was talking. What was he saying? How did it make those players feel about their talent and effort? How did the players feel about themselves individually and as a team?  What kind of relationships does the coach have with the individual players? Does he know the players’ personal strengths and opportunities for growth? Does he genuinely like this team and his work? During that short game, I made many inferences about this coach and his style.

As I was watching this game, I also made connections between myself as a leader and this coach.  What inferences are my stakeholders making about me? As leaders, we are almost always on stage. Our stakeholders notice when we show up, and when we don’t. They know when we support one activity/cause and fail to support another. They see when we are on our phones and when we are truly participating in a task such as professional learning, status meeting, etc.  They hear what we say, and what we don’t. They know when we are celebrating successes and when we are criticizing. When I talk with teachers or leaders in small groups, I am still on stage. What I say to them could be said to many others – much like a coach talking to his team on the field.

Not only are we on the physical stage, but we also have an on-stage social media presence. Am I being equitable in promotion of our students’ events? Am I sharing ideas to help others learn?  This adds another layer of visibility.

Thinking about how this coach celebrates his players’ successes…Are our celebrations public and private? Do our stakeholders have enough feedback on their work? Am I blatantly (or inadvertently) publicly criticizing their work, talent, or effort?

We meet with our teachers and leaders regularly…often providing the “half-time” motivational speech.  How do they feel about what I say to them? How do they feel about their efforts and talents? Am I motivating them? Am I celebrating their successes?  What would an onlooker say about their body language if they could view the interaction in the same way I viewed the coach at half-time?

What are my relationships like with our team members? Do I know their strengths and opportunities for growth? How can I develop stronger relationships with our stakeholders?  How do they feel about themselves, their contributions to the team, and the team as a whole?

I come back to an idea I have often considered.  It is not always what we say, but how we say it. How am I communicating with my stakeholders, both verbally and non-verbally in the physical and digital space?  How do they feel as a result of those communications? As others observe me in my role, what do they see? What kind of coach am I?


Back to School 2018

This article also appeared in the PASA newsletter.

August… Last minute hirings, new teacher orientation, board meetings, leadership retreats, building walkthroughs, etc. The slower pace of summer is over.

My 2018-19 calendar is quickly filling up with monthly supervision meetings, building visits, professional learning, networking opportunities, community meetings/presentations, visits with state representatives, evening board and committee meetings, sporting events, concerts, and much more. As the calendar fills up, the breathing space disintegrates.

In a Big Speak Talk, Juliet Funt (CEO of WhiteSpace at Work) jokes our time is under attack by email, meetings and ever-present smartphones. She believes opportunities for innovation and creativity are withering away due to how busy we are on a daily basis.

How do we build time into our busy days for intentional reflection and sustained thinking? How do we carve out time for innovation? How do we make time to create and implement action steps after professional learning or brainstorming session?

Enter… white space.

White space (as defined by WhiteSpace at Work) is “a strategic pause taken between activities. These thoughtful pauses laced through the busyness of the workday are the oxygen that allows everything else to catch fire. WhiteSpace can be recuperative; to reboot your exhausted brain and body. It can also be constructive; this is time spent on driving business results through introspection, strategy and big picture thinking.”

In Harvard Business Review article – The Space Intentionally Left White, Sabina Nawaz wrote,” A pause to breathe, some white space, gives you the opportunity to think beyond the current problems and issues.”

How can we better protect some of our time to ensure we have white space?

Sabina suggests several tips for finding white space.
Set aside two hours per week and block it out.
Turn off the noise – meaning avoid other distractions such as email
Find the space that is right for you. Is it in the office, but away from electronics? Do you need to take a walk? Do you use your computer, but without notifications?
Keep your white space dates just like you would keep other appointments.

Learn more by listening to Juliet Funt as she shares many ideas about productivity on an episode of Talent Grow podcast. Access the podcast at In the episode she defines whitespace, shares ideas about “thieves of productivity, practices and techniques for creating and using white space, and much more!

After I listened to the podcast and researched the WhiteSpace at Word site to learn about some of the core content, I registered for a free online course. You can access the course at

Don’t worry, I found time in my schedule to complete the course!

Summer 2018!

The school year is slowly coming to a close. Where did those 180 days go? Learners and teachers have gone home for the summer, and the halls are eerily quiet. Buses are parked until August, and our parking lots are almost empty. Evaluations are finished…well as finished as those 82-1s can be… for now. Vacant or new positions are posted, and interviews are scheduled.

Summer brings a different pace and many opportunities for us personally and professionally. How do you want to spend your summer? 

Will you vacation with family and/or friends? Summer is the perfect time to reconnect and nurture those relationships which sometimes get challenged with demanding job responsibilities and relentless evening schedules. I am looking forward to sharing thrills with my son at Universal and watching the sun set over the ocean at OBX this summer! Or, maybe your idea of a vacation is a staycation and you are just seeking some relaxation or time to grill at home!

Will you develop the culture within your school or district? We always kick off our summer with a breakfast, catered by our administrative team, for all 12-month staff. Having some time to relax and talk as we transition to our summer work can help us all focus on what is next while celebrating what we achieved this school year.

Will you learn something new? What is on your reading list for the summer? After a busy year with endless reading, maybe you are looking forward to learning through a different avenue. What would you like to learn about during these slower-paced months? Have you ever searched for podcasts related to your interests? There are so many diverse podcasts available online. Seriously, check them out! Listen in the car, while you are floating in the pool, or even as you check some items off your to-do list around the house.

Will you invest time in developing your personal and/or professional learning network? If you haven’t had the time to connect with others on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc, summer is the perfect time to learn a new tool! Don’t forget to follow @pasasupts  on Twitter. Or, maybe you are more of a face-to-face learner. Will you have time to connect with others at professional conferences? Don’t forget…PASA is partnering with many other professional organizations to offer the Leadership Summit in State College this July. So many learning experiences this summer! How can you share what you learn?

Will you focus your team on the upcoming work? Many of us engage in summer retreats with our teams. How will you engage your team in conversations which matter in your school/ district? What have been the characteristics of your most successful retreats? Outside speakers, brainstorming sessions, goal setting, celebrations?

The summer can fly by swiftly as we start to prepare for Opening Convocation and set our goals for the 2018-19 school year. Before we know it, our buildings will be cleaned, classrooms willbe painted, and floors will shine brightly! 


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?