Focus

To Infuse New Thinking, Try Book Discussions

by Gary M. Smit

School administrators have many professional growth opportunities available today. We can choose to attend local and statewide workshops as well as AASA's National Conference on Education to improve the skills we need on our job. Even with these excellent opportunities, it remains a challenge to stay current and remain a lifelong learner.

 

I have initiated a professional development experience that allows for members of our school district's leadership team to grow as educational leaders. About 15 administrators in Lombard School District 44 are involved in a book discussion group that we have titled "Leaders Are Readers."

The program started five years ago when we adapted the "Readers Are Leaders" slogan of a well-known publishing house. As superintendent, I select the books to read, based on how the topic might influence a current issue in our district. Recent selections included Stewardship by Peter Block; Leading With Soul by Terry Deal and Lee Bolman; Restructuring Our Schools by Patrick Dolan; What's Worth Fighting for in the Principalship? by Michael Fullan; Leading Change by John Kotter; Building Character in Schools by Kevin Ryan; Leadership for the Schoolhouse by Thomas Sergiovanni; and A Life-Time of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by John Wooden.

Three New R's

We have found that being exposed to a broad spectrum of reading material provides opportunities for us to review, reflect and renew.

Review. No matter what we read, similar questions are asked in preparing for our collective review of an assigned book: What have we learned? How do the ideas presented by the author affect us as leaders?

While we spend most of our sessions simply discussing the book, in a few cases we have had the privilege of hosting the author to answer questions and add to our understanding.

Reflect. Administrators are encouraged to reflect on what can be learned and how it applies to their specific leadership role as a principal or district administrator. Our district has been actively involved in promoting a character education initiative for our schools so the book by Kevin Ryan provided specific examples for how we might integrate character education into the daily way of life for students and staff.

We learned there is no escaping character education. It takes place everywhere-in the administration of tests, lesson plans, classroom rules, grading and homework policies, almost every aspect of curriculum and instruction. Our joint review of this book helped us share with teachers the view that character education is not an add-on to what we already teach.

Reading also provides a chance to consider a situation we previously faced. From the knowledge gained, we can analyze different approaches that could be taken if confronted with a similar situation.

Renew. The Leaders Are Readers program is an organized way to help us stay current with the latest thinking. The book discussions have helped us to become more assessment literate. Assessment issues often can make educators feel insecure. From our book readings have sprung ideas on how teachers can expand their use of assessment tools. We learned how other schools have collected and used data as an ongoing part of classroom learning. This has led to a more effective way to monitor how well our students are achieving over time.

We sometimes lose sight of the big picture when confronted daily by challenges that demand an immediate response. The book discussions give us a fresh perspective on who we are and what we can do to improve the teaching and learning process.

Lifelong Learning

Does our Leaders Are Readers program make a difference? Yes, it helps in many ways. Obviously, we gain a broader understanding of contemporary educational issues. But as lifelong learners, we also are viewed in a different light by teachers and students.

Prior to winter break, I visited an intermediate grade classroom to read a story. I asked students if they were going to read a book over their two-week vacation period. Most students indicated that reading was not a high priority during their break.

The principal, who was in the room at the time, informed the class that he was assigned to read a book over break. He explained how he had questions to answer about the book to prepare for a discussion with other administrators that would take place on the day after the break ended. The students were surprised to hear their principal was required to read and even do homework when school was not in session. He promised he would share with them what he had learned from reading the book and how it could be applied to what was happening at their school.

To the teacher and these students, the example of leaders reading and then discussing what was read provides a model of best practices that can be replicated throughout the district.

School board members also take part in some of our book readings. They too discuss what they have read and how it has an impact on their understanding of our effort to be better tomorrow than we are today.

Minimal Cost

Book discussions now have become a part of the improvement process at each school. The cost to the district is minimal-only the bulk purchase of the books. Although the commitment of time is substantial, everyone involved says the results far outweigh the extra effort.

When in pursuit of new ideas to reach students or in need of a professional challenge, our staff now turns to book reading as one way to commit to continuous improvement.

Gary Smit is superintendent of Lombard School District 44, 150 W. Madison St., Lombard, IL 60148. E-mail: gsmit@district44.dupage.k12.il.us