April 25, 2018

A personal leap

In our quest for better schools, a significant system we strive for is a sound professional growth model. Schools have spent an extraordinary amount of time engaging in supervision of teachers in pursuit of becoming places where the adult learner models the learner profile traits and deconstructs this state of being into approaches to becoming for the younger learners in the building.

For years, I’ve been thinking of how to acknowledge the discomfort that teachers feel in school expectations for professional development and agency in school improvement, and simultaneously pondering the big task of leading adult growth so that adult learners can mirror and model growth for their students. As a teacher, I’ve been fortunate to have the mentorship and support of savvy school leadership; I’ve also experienced transformational learning through the mentorship: I’ve asked people whom I trust to help me learn.

Naturally, in a leadership function, it’s an important goal to help colleagues navigate a safe passage through growth. Early in my career as a school leader, I’ve also spent hours and hours evaluating teachers because that was the model available in supervision.

Increasingly, the question surfaces: Is teacher evaluation really the best thing we could engage in, spending hours and hours on observations, assuming that our one-sided communication process can help other educators grow? And, is mono-directional feedback about growth the model that will nudge adult learners into the self-directed and collaborative growth models we aim for in our schools?

Why are we doing the same thing, and expecting different results?

In their book, Teacher self-supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it (John Catt, 2015)Bill and Ochan Powell take us through a protracted provocation of how we can bring self-direction into our schools, enacting professional growth models which capitalise on the self-direction of teachers, and re-invigorate the academy as a living system which learns to respond to the complexity of our profession.


Bill and Ochan address the assumptions that have shaped teacher evaluation in our schools.

The authors’ discussion around the need to transform supervision in schools begins with the assumptions that schools might have within the current model of how teacher evaluation is conducted.

Assumptions of the Evaluative Model of Teacher Supervision

I’ve known schools which spend loads of resources on professional development yet have students in graduating classes who struggle to put together a substantial thesis or body of work with coherence, organisation and critical thinking. There is a disconnect between the adult learning and the student learning in this scenario. Given that the school has spent lots on PD and supervising administrators spend lots of time observing and giving evaluations, what are our hunches why feedback has not improved student learning? An assumption in the evaluative system is that external feedback improves pedagogy and consequently, learning. Teacher self-supervision addresses this assumption and shows that this type of supervision system actually “inhibits self-assessment, creates dependency relationships and infantilises teachers” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2016, p. 11).

Assumption 2 is, Helping students learn is a mechanistic process and hence we can produce teachers who are carbon copies of the ‘ideal teacher’ and our school is all set. This assumption distills learning into a recipe or a script. It doesn’t take into account the human endeavor that is teaching. And, this assumption leads to another, which is that We can treat school like a factory. Because teaching is mechanistic, learning is also, and we can batch process people through a system in uniform treatment and get the results we want. Ken Robinson’s TED talk on the paradigm shift in education cites a similar assumption which is increasingly challenged by research and awareness that in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, a cookie-cutter education really doesn’t cut it.

Other assumptions which create barriers to teacher self-directedness in the book can be listed as:

  • Assumption 4: Trust is a marshmallow: it’s nice and comfortable, but it’s not that important.
  • Assumption 5: We can force teachers to be effective.
  • Assumption 6: Teachers are affirmation addicts.
  • Assumption 7: A supervisor is the oracle of effective teaching.
  • Assumption 8: One principal can enact growth in 40-50 teachers.
  • Assumption 9: Compliance is more important than personal responsibility.
  • Assumption 10: What cannot be quantified does not exist.
  • Assumption 11: Only struggling teachers need improvement plans.

Self directed professional learning

These assumptions are unpacked from a teacher appraisal system whose main assumption is to reduce the complexity of teaching into a technical fix to an adaptive situation (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013). That judgments (evaluation reports) can provoke learning, growth and subsequent passion to get better. “The distressing truth is that no one can compel learning in another person” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2016, p. 11). An adult, like a child, like the living organism, “chooses what to notice and then decides how it will respond to what it just chose to pay attention to” (Wheatley, 2017, Kindle location 1926). Maturana and Varela say that “You can disturb a living system; you can never direct it.” (in Wheatley, 2017, Kindle location 1926).

In a conversation with Bill Powell in 2014, I paraphrased what he said, “So an assumption that you hold is that everyone wants to get better at what they do.” And Bill’s lengthy and impassioned response to that paraphrase taught me that this is the assumption that propelled the Powells’ work on teacher self-supervision: the belief that all teachers want to refine their craft.

Enter self-direction

Rather than assume that teacher growth is something that is done to a teacher, we begin with the assumption that someone who professes to be a teacher is someone who is on a life “process in becoming self-disciplined and self-confident in the pursuit of an interest or goal” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2015, p. 35). It’s about “developing our own strengths and interests, maintaining a sense of optimism and being future-oriented, constantly asking ourselves, who is it that I want to become?” (p. 37).

This journey toward becoming the aspirational self is the fulcrum of a self-directed individual. Self-directed people are not forced to learn through the mandate of an evaluation of performance. They are not mechanical in their response to students’ learning needs. They are craftspeople, always honing the craft of teaching through emotionally-intelligent responses to the day to day events in their classrooms.

The handing over of growth to the teacher might cause discomfort. It’s an awesome responsibility, to direct a personal journey and find one’s way through a terrain of change in response to change in the profession.

The terrain of becoming self-directed might bring a plunge into an implementation dip, or a scary first step into an ecotone, a vast space of uncertainty and open-ended problems.

We need to be intentional about creating culture

So teacher self-supervision requires that the environment in which the teacher pursues growth need some environmental features. Trust has to be present. Without trust, there can be limited positive presuppositions. Without positive presuppositions, a colleague sharing practices might be viewed with suspicion borne from a negative presupposition that he or she is sharing thinking because the audience has a deficit, and there might be then no stance toward intellectual humility. And since humility is needed for a person to come to learning, learning might be limited, resentful, crushed by the weight of ego.

The lack of trust also leads to silos in a school. If a teacher thinks that there is nothing he can learn from colleagues, why would he ‘waste time’ collaborating? He could just tell them what to think. So collaborative time is shunned, perhaps treated with disdain, and wasted. Self-supervision requires a de-privatized practice, an environment which utilises collaborative time and space to learn from colleagues. This is a lifelong inquiry for me. My hunch is that the true work of leading learning in schools is to create the environment and then to get out of the teacher’s way. And, in the teacher’s journey, to give each one the support he or she needs along the way. Because, as Bill wrote many years ago, “For many people learning is an anxiety producing activity.  At the simplest level it requires us to admit (perhaps only to ourselves) what we don’t know.  At more complex levels learning can involve shifts in values, beliefs and even identity.  In order to embrace transformational learning, people (children and adults) need to feel psychologically safe — not comfortable, but free from threat” (Powell, personal communication, November 2013).

We can be intentional about connection.The book presents the potential for conversations as vehicles for growth, as a cognitive space shared between two people for the purpose of re-visioning reality (Buber, 2004 in Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2015, p. 80). Learning is a social event, and the conversation is the space where change in thinking can occur. “All change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about. Simple conversations held at kitchen tables, or seated on the ground, or leaning against doorways are powerful means to start influencing and changing the world” (Wheatley, 2002, p. 9 in Powell and Kusuma Powell, 2015, p. 79).

Conversations have gained prominence as a way for schools to enact visions of moving toward becoming adaptive schools, using the expertise of colleagues to power growth. Canadian Academy in Kobe has teacher inquiry groups; so does UWC in Singapore; HKA in Hong Kong has conversations using instructional rounds, a collaborative learning system that is teacher-driven. These collegial conversations have taken these schools to cultures of self-directedness, where teacher dialog approaches the envisioned school culture and where interdependent teachers use one another’s expertise to grow capacity.

Through the shared meaning created via these conversations, the organisation may increase coherence, a clarity about who we are, why we do this, and why we do this, this way (Garmston and Wellman, 2016).

An important feature of teacher self supervision systems is differentiation. Honoring the growth pathways of each individual professional, schools can use models of adult development like Kegan’s (Drago-Severson, 2009 in Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2016, p. 123) to provide a continuum of support based on teacher self-identified launch points. Personalising learning is respectful; it values teacher identity and aspirational goals and individualises support so that traversing the personal ecotone of becoming is a meaningful journey.

Assuming that we as leaders can tell someone something and he or she then becomes impassioned about professional growth seems foolish, and to ignore the rich tapestry of human wisdom in our organisations, seems absurd.

Teacher self-supervision affirms the assumption that all teachers want to get better at their craft. It also affirms that our identities as teachers, given an environment and behaviors founded on trust, can lead us to learning. And, that each one of us can lead our own learning in our schools.



Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your schools organizational intelligence. Suffolk: John Catt Educational.
Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2015). Teacher self-supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational.
Wheatley, M. J. (2017). Who do we choose to be? facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity (1). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Wheatley, M. J. (2014). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Photo credit: Featured photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash
















Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. […] professional inquiries are one way to gain autonomy and purpose. When we choose our professional focus for the year, we are able to design our learning around it; […]


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About alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Blogger at http://myptoolbox.com.




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