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Education Leaders, Are Your Teachers Great Learners or Just Great Mates?

While it is lovely to have a harmonious hum in a school staff culture – it may not be getting the results you are after.  Being friends with colleagues is hugely important to many teachers and plays a big part in building the social capital of a school.  If it doesn't go beyond 'just friends', we've got problems.   There is a litmus test for a truly thriving school learning culture:  do our teachers get joy and professional fulfilment from learning and growing their teaching practice? Then we can really get stuck into the work.

Scratching the surface below the hum gives a good indicator as to whether our teams have the foundational requirements for looking rigorously at teaching practice.   To do this, teams need a strong belief in sharing successes and failures, relentlessly putting their work under the spotlight and pulling it apart.  They use data as a springboard for analysis and collaborate on action.  Commitment to professional trust and learning provides the drivers for behaviours creating the required environment and dialogue. This elevates the hum to a buzz.
Cracks can quickly appear in a team where everyone ‘gets along well’ but is not skilled or experienced with discussing their individual practice or challenges. Distrust and a bunker down approach then swiftly overtake a seemingly strong team when the focus is on what is actually happening in the classroom.  People feel exposed and vulnerable.  Fear of judgment from others cripples dialogue and our desire to be seen as competent unravels any attempts to share what isn’t going so well.  Any sense of ‘I have nothing to learn from my colleagues’  can also put the kibosh on collaboration and co-creation.
From a neuroscience perspective, if we haven’t created a safe place within our teams for robust debate and learning, our brains feel in threat, and retreat from the prefrontal cortex – the ‘executive function’ part of the brain.   The prefrontal cortex is responsible for learning, analysis, connection and collaboration.  The way to get it working brilliantly for us is to create an environment where we get joy, value and fulfilment from our work.
Bridging the strong connection teachers have with each other socially, to a connection to each other as learners is the a key to building a thriving learning culture.  When investing in creating an atmosphere of fearless collaborative learning, clearly signal what it looks like.  As a leader, encouraging an environment of learning is about modeling it ourselves and working collaboratively with staff to have dialogue based on learning – not just student learning but also staff learning.
Michael Fullan in his William Walker Oration at the ACEL conference 2015 highlighted his Lead Learner concept as one of three keys to maximizing change in schools. (the other two being Change Agent and System Player). The principal as Lead Learner builds collaborative cultures and mechanisms for teachers to learn from each other – and crucially, they participate in this learning as well.
Symbolically, school leaders who are never seen at the learning table collaborating and contributing are sending incongruent messages to staff.  The importance of learning together and seizing opportunities to discuss the real work of the classroom is realised in actions not words.  Leaders who are either absent, or who imprint their presence through giving their opinions as gospel truths and then leave, undermine the good work being done to build a collaborative learning culture.

  • Do I show my commitment to collaborative learning by participating in discussion and professional learning with my staff whenever possible?  ie. Do I participate or delegate this activity to others?
  • What curious questions do I ask to increase my own learning?
  • How do I co-create with my staff rather than creating for?
  • Do I show JOY and EXCITEMENT in my own learning?
  • Am I transparent about my own learning – successes and failures, exploration, testing, reflection?
  • Do I create an environment where mistakes are REALLY seen as learning opportunities?  Does the rhetoric of mistakes being critical to learning translate to behaviours?
  • What are my own learning goals for this year?                                               


Feel free to download the Leaner or Learner infographic and use it as a reflection tool for yourself, or with your team. It is being used by many educators to reflect on their own learning behaviours. It provides a continuum from Leaner (leaning on the way we’ve always done things) to Learner.
Click HERE for a copy.
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I love to hear great ways leaders are building the buzz in their staff culture around 'the work'.  Feel free to email me with your strategies, insights or feedback at

The Michael Fullan William Walker Oration is available from the ACEL website HERE.