Learning for All: Leadership is Courage in Action

The following is a guest post by Dr. Chris Weber, expert in instruction and intervention systems and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).


The demands of educational leadership have never been more challenging and the stakes have never been higher. Ensuring high levels of learning—particularly for our most vulnerable students—is the most critical task education leaders face today. Of all the characteristics of leadership, the most crucial and difficult is courage—courage to have progressive conversations with stakeholders and courage to challenge the status quo and transform the way teachers teach and students learn.

Fortunately, there is a research-based set of principles and practices that will ensure that we deliver on this mission: Response to Intervention (RTI), also known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).

Serving ALL Students
We can predict that students will bring different learning styles, interests, and readiness levels to core learning environments. We can predict that some students will need more time to master core priorities and that other students will benefit from enrichment. We can predict that some students will have significant deficits in foundational skills. If we can predict it, we can prepare for it. Delivering on the promise of RTI requires the courage to proactively and systematically prepare supports for students.

We must also courageously challenge the traditional practice of grouping students based on ability and label. Students aren’t in tiers; needs and supports are in tiers. We must support students based on their needs, not a label. Equally important, we must have the courage to insist that staff support students based on their availability and expertise, not their job title or funding source.

It also takes courage—and a leap of faith—for leaders and staff to prove to themselves that students will learn more (and perform better on end-of-course tests) when we teach less. And yet, it’s true. The quantity of content threatens the mastery of critical skills and concepts.

Delivering on the moral imperative of high levels of learning for all requires courage. All means all; if a student will be expected to live a happy and productive adult life without accommodations and modifications (which is the case for 99% of students, including the majority of students with IEPs), then they are in the ALL category.

The actions of school leaders speak louder than words. Leaders that talk about their professional respect for teachers, but then micromanage teaching and learning with rigid pacing guides quickly lose credibility. High expectations for all combined with tracking and the marginalization of students with IEPs violates the verbally expressed moral imperative of a growth mindset and high levels of learning for all. Leaders’ actions must match their words; a school’s actions must match its mission statement.

Courage in Action
The first way that leaders can behave in courageous ways is to embrace continuous improvement and change. Change frightens many. Leaders must manage the change process respectfully and sensitively. They must also positively and willingly model the reality that learning organizations accept constant, evidence-informed revisions to practice as a professional obligation.

When initiatives are selected and commitments are made, school leaders must lead from the front. It takes courage for leaders to roll up their sleeves and do the work, often because the leader may not imminently qualified. If a new pedagogy is determined to be necessary, school leaders must practice new lessons with students. If the school commits to monitoring student progress more frequently, then leaders must administer the assessments one-on-one with students. Vulnerability and humility require courage; leaders never ask students or staff to do something that they are not willing and ready to do first.

Just as school leaders must monitor how much they say, and place a priority on listening, they also must avoid the temptation to do too much, or to ask their staffs to do too much. Trying to push too hard too quickly will not result in more rapid gains of staff performance or student achievement. The key is patient persistence—and patience requires its own special brand of courage. There is a temptation to engage in many simultaneous projects, and there is often external pressure to do so.

There is no more appropriate or important “project” on which to focus than RTI/MTSS. By modeling necessary transformative actions, leaders can and must exercise the courage to ensure that all students learn at high levels.

RTI Health Check

Are you and your staff proactively and systematically preparing supports for students? Take our RTI Health Check to see where you are, and where you need to go. 


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