I have the sincere privilege of working with schools and districts internationally, most frequently in the roles of professional learning facilitator and leadership coach. My day job requires that I present, nudge, and even push others to implement more effective practices in the interest of improved student learning outcomes. I reflect almost every day on what learner voice truly means - both as a student and an educator.
Too often, we equate the concept of voice with "amplification." How loud is my presence in a crowded room? How much weight does my opinion carry? Who bears the decision-making power?
This past weekend at the ASCD Empower Conference in Chicago, Illinois, I had the distinct honor of taking on a presentation role - as a pre-conference facilitator, panel speaker, Ignite presenter, and concurrent session facilitator. By all traditional measures, in this space, I had "voice," and I was extremely grateful to share my learning experiences with the participants who attended my sessions.
However, my deepest learning from the weekend - the opportunities which truly left me empowered - came from quieter times. It came from the moments during which I took on the role of listener rather than facilitator or presenter. I had drinks with Bena Kallick and discussed the books we were currently reading. I connected with Mike Fisher and Jill Thompson about innovative projects that are exciting them. I spoke with Charlotte Danielson about where we might go next in teacher development, and I listened humbly in awe as Jay McTighe sought Charlotte Danielson as a thought partner himself. I absorbed the insight of my long-term mentor Allison Zmuda, and I opened myself to newer leaders in the field such as Brandon Johnson who offer fresh perspective on how we connect with the education community as whole.
In all of these interactions, I listened more than I spoke. The time was about note-taking and processing rather than business card exchanges and selfies. I dug in deep, showed my own hand of ongoing development, and sought some of the most brilliant players in the game to improve my daily work. In the words of Priya Parker from The Art of Gathering, I focused more on my "sprout speech" than my "stump speech."
During this time, I came to value even more what I refer to in my book as the "gray space" between professional learning sessions. We tend to focus on the scheduled blocks of time we have at conferences, workshops, and professional learning communities rather than tending to the powerful space in between.
How are we making room to process the content, have the real conversations, and collectively troubleshoot through potential obstacles?
Who are we connecting with in the quiet moments - the ones when we aren't in presentation mode (with students or adults) - to show our hand, honestly reflect, and support one another at getting better each and every day?
What passions drive us out of bed in the morning? How are we surrounding ourselves with meaningful and authentic thought partners who hold us accountable to our true north - even amidst the whirlwind of daily events that feel exceptionally urgent, but in hindsight, not particularly important?
Look to the "gray space." Push yourself outside the box of scheduled sessions and panels and processes to the meaningful learning experiences that occur in the "in between" time. Embrace these moments, listen intently to those with whom we are lucky enough to share them with, and look for opportunities to create more quiet collaborative space in your own learning journey.