If you could describe the optimal organization of any kind, what characteristics would stand out to you? Is it its financial standing, its branding or its stated mission? At what height would you rank how it stays fluid, how it adapts to the forces that shape our society while staying true to its mission? Any organized group of people that attains what Peter Senge describes as the “learning organization” creates a space where ideas are free to spread and infect others, where these ideas are seen not as a threat by leaders but are indeed the air it breathes. Where some might find this a little unnerving, others see this as the only way to fuel the innovation needed to keep schools relevant and grow learners who truly live our schools’ missions.
At the American International School – Chennai, our leaders embraced the idea of a school with innovation in its DNA. This came about one year into our transformative Strategic Plan, when the excitement of the planning and action teams had subsided and the risks of stalling became evident. It was clear that we needed new mechanisms to create sustainable momentum toward our goals. What if we could capture the passion, the free flow of ideas, and the visionary experience of that planning experience every year and build a culture of innovation at AISC? Would that not resemble the adaptive, mission-driven school described above? It was worth a shot and with that, the Teaching and Learning Committee (TLC) was born.
With a name that admittedly sounds like just another committee, the TLC does indeed retain some traits of the tried and true while emphasizing three key qualities that have made it so effective: ongoing teacher leadership development, focused strategic conversations, and a commitment to innovation to move ideas forward.
Ongoing Teacher Leadership
What does embedded PD look like where you are? What do you mean when you say “teacher leaders”? We grappled with this very question and ultimately rested on the idea that there are many different kinds of teacher leaders, but very few willing to do the difficult work of actually leading. Identifying faculty who are willing to take risks, stand out from their peers, and move ideas upward from the roots is step one, but coaching them through the process is the most important piece. Many teachers have the best of intentions but get lost in the mire of putting great ideas into action and inspiring and mobilizing their peers. Every TLC meeting is designed to help our teacher leaders learn and apply useful leadership skills that they can use with their teams.
Focused Strategic Conversations
What happens after your strategic planning sessions are done and you roll up your sleeves to do the work? Who is steering you through the many interpretations and incorporating the new ideas that arise along the way? No organization can flourish anymore when strategic conversations happen only once every five years, or when only your leadership team is having them. These are some of the most energizing moments your school will ever have, so why not have them more often, with more people? The TLC at AISC serves this purpose. We model and practice facilitating these conversations to keep the vision from faltering. Each TLC member then facilitates similar conversations with their teams around focused problems or questions related to one of our end results. These conversations help spread the vision among the faculty and staff by drawing attention to our end results and even generating new ones.
A Commitment to Innovation
Call it what it is. Year one of the TLC was muddy without a clear understanding of how we defined the work of its members and their teams. There was no better word to describe the many phases and functions of the teams that had formed than “innovation”. Once we were able to explain how we bring new ideas to life in our school and move them through critical stages in their development, we gained an identity and credibility that was lacking before. An innovation team is a group of committed self-selecting faculty who ask important questions about areas of learning that need improvement, vision, or breakthrough ideas. This team – led by one or more members of the TLC – researches and develops action plans towards end results that will help keep the organization responsive and focused on its mission.
If you’d like to learn more about the structure of our TLC and how we describe the type of innovation we pursue, I’ll be writing more in a follow-up post.