06 Jan Review of Bill Sterrett’s Book, “Insights into Action”
IF you listen to too much of the rhetoric about school reform these days, you may be led to believe that schooling is about achievement, first and foremost. However, for those on the ground floor, achievement is a byproduct of something more profound and simple — Learning. Life long learning. For most educators it is the Holy Grail of “schooling.”
However, cultivating a body of students who have the ability, dedication, and desire to learn both inside and outside of school is an objective worthy of a Mission Impossible background score. For educational leaders, the obstacles mount daily and relentlessly, often compounding on one another, until principals are fried and burned out.
Managing this simingly impossible mission necessitates school leaders embrace learning themselves. They must be dedicated students in the heady parlance of school leadership and tenacious practitioners at applying those teachings on the ground floor. For the busy leader (and which one isn’t, really?) distilling theory down to applied action can be a monumental task in itself. As Yogi Berra poignantly quipped, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Dr. William Sterrett‘s new book, Insights into Action, bridges this gap confidently and insightfully. Through interviews, research and anecdotes, Sterrett provides readers with a scope of ideas and pragmatic suggestions that are both academic and applicable.
In this fast paced volume, Sterrett makes a compelling (though perhaps unintentional) argument for rethinking how we think about school. It is clear throughout the book that he cares about two things — students and learning. These two elements are the red thread that tie the chapters together. Even as other trends emerge — increasing communication channels, cultivating diverse leadership, and mission driven action — it is the students and learning that are ever-present.
In each chapter, Sterrett weaves personal stories of transformative leadership together with action items backed by research. He grounds these in the day to day undertakings and practicality of running a school, a district, or even a classroom. The lessons and ideas are general enough to be applicable in multiple disciplines and at a range of leadership levels, yet specific enough to offer action items that can be differentiated to each person’s precise needs.
For instance, in Section 1, “Learning to Lead,” he lays out numerous concepts that provide the broad brush strokes of effective leadership in a school setting. Sterrett outlines Rick DuFour’s model of a “learning leader” by highlighting the four principles school leaders would be wise to embrace:
- Believe That “Learning Is Fun.”
- Be a Servant Leader.
- Apply External Leadership Principles.
- Insist on Relevance and Authenticity.
- Build a collaborative schedule
- Schare a common format for minutes
- Involve staff in schoolwide progress reviews
- Conduct peer observations for leaders and teachers
While Sterrett doesn’t offer a recipe for how to accomplish each of these tasks, he does finish each chapter with a more developed set of “In-the-Field Activities.” (Click the image on the left for a readable sample.) These help point the proactive leader toward implementation with some simple exercises. It is herein that the book demonstrates its utility for both new and veteran leaders.
As a volume, it is relatively short and can leave the reader feeling that Sterrett has 500 pages of material he’s trying to distill to 120 pages. Additionally, the breadth and scope come across as more as a survey than an in-depth analysis. However, it seems that that is part of the point. School leaders are beset with fires that need putting out, immediately and constantly. This book is meant to be read quickly, and then used as a tool to help stimulate and spur initiatives over the course of a year, two years, or a career.
Ambitious leaders eager to implement each and every suggestion will find themselves overwhelmed with projects too numerous to keep track of. And it is in this way that the book can be unintentionally beguiling. While the book itself read’s easily and quickly, the reader must remember that the ideas, comments and suggestions span years and take consistent stoking to bring to maturity. In many ways, this counter balance of the minutiae with the long view is one of the text’s strengths.
The leaders Sterrett interviews have dedicated many years of their lives to making an impact in the lives of students. No one made it into this book because she/he was a one hit wonder. Each has overcome challenges, faced daunting odds, and remained resolute at times and have learned to listen and reflect and adapt at other times. It is, ultimately, a book of culled wisdom, punctuated with practical suggestions for standing on the shoulders of the giants herein. It is from the vantage point of their experiences and their stories that we are able to see through the occasional (and probable) tempests to the other side in which an innovative change has become a norm. Or, to envision what might be.
For example, in the chapter titled, “Turning Technology into Engaged Learning,” Sterrett focuses on Dr. Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, who has steadfastly worked to ingrate technology into all levels of the school district. She candidly shares some of the obstacles and speed bumps she has navigated over the years in being a technology advocate and leader. In speaking about a centralized online server to “consolidate data and curriculum,” Sterrett reports:
Although, Moran concedes, the work was “messy” for the first few years, as teachers and administrators learned to navigate through the new software, it has continually improved the accessibility of the data and the curriculum and fostered understanding collaboration in the learning community.
It is a reminder that leadership is not accomplished in a day, a week, or even a year. It is however, sown in the minutes and moments that accumulate over time. What’s more, the harvest is not in the professional accolades amassed over the course of our careers, but in the attitudes, ambitions, and successes of our students. The secondary harvest is in the legacy of “Dispersed Leadership” that we leave behind that ensures a school or district maintains a high quality of professionalism dedicated to a pervasive culture of learning far beyond any one person’s tenure.
This idea takes shape right out of the gate. In the first chapter, Sterrett focuses on award-winning principal Baruti Kafele. Kafele’s approach to leadership is to BE the leader, the tone setter for the whole school. He advocates “living the vision.” The force of his energy is evident even in script, and it is clear he channels it to improve those around him, including the students and teachers.
The threads of the book — purposeful work, intentional communication, top to bottom learning, inspired and shared leadership, and most importantly, student success — offer the reader numerous insights into action, just as the title suggests. It is a handy, and important, volume to read, dog ear, highlight, and refer to throughout the years.
The bottom line: Bill Sterrett has crafted a condensed volume of action insights that bridge the gap between theory and practice. By layering lessons and anecdotes from successful school leaders with action items and applicable activities, he constructs a series of eminently readable chapters that satisfy thinkers, pragmatists, and those of us in-between. Leaders, be they aspiring, novice, or veteran, will all find valuable tricks, tips and theories to spur innovation and improve efficiency, while cultivating a culture of learning in the process. His red thread — making a difference in lives of our students — ensures that we finish the book well aware of what matters most in our schools and armed with some strategies to do something about it.