Reflective Storytelling as Professional Development: Through Storytelling, School Administrators Can Make Sense of the Many Challenges They Face and Become More Effective in the Art and Science of School Leadership

Article excerpt

"The master gave his teaching in parables and stories - which his disciples listened to with pleasure- and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper. The master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, 'You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story'" (DeMello, 1985).

Principals tend to be passionate individuals who are hungry to learn and grow and improve their practice. They understand that education is not only crucial for the students they serve, but essential for their very survival as school leaders. While many a leader would relish the opportunity to reflect on a prickly decision or contemplate how to work through a complex personnel issue, different stakeholders expect leaders to have the right answers and take appropriate actions immediately: Implement! Execute! Decide! But, how and when do school administrators make sense of the many challenges they face? How do they become more effective in the art and science of school leadership?

It is well accepted that a school leader is integral to a school's success. As Gonzalez (1997) asserts: "Whenever one finds an effective school, there exists an effective principal as its leader." Indeed, the principalship is one of the most exciting and rewarding roles in the world of education. It is the position at the epicenter of school reform and site-level decisionmaking. Principals are charged with cultivating an effective learning community for students, teachers and parents, and developing strong relationships with individuals across stakeholder groups. The principal is the conduit, the connection, the spark, the stick and the carrot, ensuring that effective teaching and learning is taking place for every student, in every classroom, every day.

The current state of affairs

New school leaders are expected to burst out of the cloistered phone booth of an administrative credentialing program, take to the air, and effectively meet the needs of all students, teachers, parents and higher-level administrators. Unfortunately, administrative training programs are not generally structured or organized in such a way that prospective leaders are prepared to address the challenges they will face or the various roles they will be expected to play in the school setting.

In a typical workday, few principals are afforded the opportunity to reflect on their practice, the decisions they make or the actions they take. Sadly, there is little collaboration in most school communities. Schools generally maintain environments where educators engage in a form of parallel play. Child psychologists describe this behavior in preschoolers when similar activities are taking place in different corners of a sandbox, with nary a word of interaction flowing between them.

Yet, regular reflection on practice is imperative for professional growth and development. School leaders are calling for structured opportunities to serve as co-researchers and co-learners who base their learning on actual challenges faced in the field.

PLCs: A space for reflective storytelling

Professional learning communities can do much more than provide emotional support and encouragement. Under the proper conditions, participants will take risks and share genuine challenges they are confronting in the field. Structured opportunities for reflective storytelling can ensure relevance and immediacy to adult learning as group members hold each other responsible for examining and acquiring essential bodies of skills and knowledge (DuFour and Laker, 1998). With proper training, colleagues can learn to prod and support one another toward growth and development.

Adult learning theory suggests that professionals learn not only from their own practice, a form of trial-and-error type of learning, but they also learn through interactions--formal and informal conversations--with other professionals (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2000). …