Talking the Talk: Part 2

This two-part series features real-life ways principals have learned from one another and leaned on each other in an often isolating world.

This two-part series features real-life ways principals have learned from one another and leaned on each other in an often isolating world.
By Thomas Van Soelen
May 2019, Volume 42, Issue 9

Editor’s Note: In this two-part series, Thomas Van Soelen highlights the value of principals learning from each other in a world that’s often isolating. This is Part 2. We featured Walking the Walk: Part 1 in the April 2019 Communicator.

No principal is an island, though it can feel like it at times. That’s why a school district in Gwinnett County (Georgia) designed learning communities within the district. From that came a bigger idea—principals realized even with the most dynamic and thoughtful school leadership teams, they never could replicate learning with other principals.

So they scheduled a voluntary gathering after school of interested principals and me as an external coach. Their takeaways led to five themes; tight on time and facilitator of adult learning were covered in Part 1 of this series. Now we’ll dive into the themes of relevance, ownership, and risk-taking.


“It amazes me every single time – the work, no matter who brings it, is always relevant to my own journey. I am glad I came because I was able to help someone else in the journey while learning myself. Best of both worlds.”

As instructional leaders, principals persist for rigor and relevance in each of their school’s classrooms. They design professional development (PD) suitable for the adults who desire engaging and applicable experiences. But it is rare for principals to be involved in their own PD meeting those two criteria.

Our intentional learning community did exactly that. Agendas are determined by the needs of individuals as we used these monthly meetings to gather feedback about what matters most to us. Structured conversations, called protocols, from the School Reform Initiative are used to create efficient and effective experiences modeling equity and excellence. A sample agenda looks like this:

  1. Opening: Connections
  2. Written reflections snippets from last time
  3. Text Study on a text brought by Tonya
  4. Feedback Session presented by Christine, facilitated by Angie
  5. Closing: Written Reflections


“Talking in this way really made the data come to life. We were talking about the cluster’s kids – our kids.”

The Mill Creek cluster schools in Gwinnett County Public Schools wanted to work more coherently as a cluster. Principals from the six elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school agreed to consistently meet to better coordinate and improve the experience of their 12,000 students.

Jason Lane, the high school principal, brought graduation and dropout data. His disaggregation included each elementary and middle school these students had attended. Each of his colleagues received a folder with the overall data as well as data personalized for their school.

The process was new to many. The protocol asked participants to not immediately talk but instead to first just look. It’s harder than it seems.

Then a bigger learning emerged: ownership. The group identified next steps at each campus to truly build a collective responsibility for the post-high school success of their cluster’s students.


“I think there is a direct correlation between the amount of SQUIRM I feel to the amount of learning I am having.”

Collaborative leadership practices yield important dividends in schools. An important feature of these professional communities is risk-taking. Principals often are the leaders of collaborative groups where they are ex officio members. They don’t have their own group with which to practice the same risk they are expecting from their teaching staff.

Paul Willis, principal of Fort Daniel Elementary School in Dacula, Georgia, brought to his intentional learning community a dilemma that featured a tangled web of assumptions, past practices, and current beliefs. He needed insight from outside his school.

A series of steps gave his colleagues deeper and deeper insights into the dilemma. We pushed and prodded Willis’ thinking. His own words indicated our performance: “I think there is a direct correlation between the amount of SQUIRM I feel to the amount of learning I am having.” Probing questions were used to offer other perspectives. A particularly poignant question was, “In what ways might this dilemma be indicative of other processes or procedures at your school that also have gaps?”

Risk was evident in multiple ways. Clearly Willis risked his status with his colleagues by bringing an issue where his school wasn’t meeting his expectations.

Our Norms

“We prioritize our learning, risking and challenging ourselves as we:

  • present (bring work that matters to us);
  • facilitate (hone our skills); and
  • participate (listen deeply and openly and give and receive purposeful and constructive feedback), all the while, being trustworthy with what we discuss as we grow as leaders.”

These were the norms for one intentional learning community. They were not aspirational; rather, they were our chosen accountability, for we knew through them we grew. Our time together allowed us to model the very expectations we have the teachers we support.

Thomas Van Soelen is president of Van Soelen and Associates in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

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