Using a Tri-Level Approach for the Professional
Growth of Learning Leaders
Sandy Cameli, EdD, Educational Specialist • Hawaii Dept. of Education
So what does Tri-Level Professional Growth of leadership look like? Consider professional learning not as a one-size-fits-all model, but rather a fluid series of steps that any individual travels through to explore resources, set and reach goals, and move from independence to interdependence in order to impact effective change on a greater scale. Based on a colleague's story of her childhood years - the analogy parallels professional growth and embodies the stages of independence, interchange and interdependence in a comparable format:
Growing up in a boisterous household, it never occurred to me that the tri-level dwelling was built intentionally for our individual and collective growth, as well as accommodating space needed for the large tribe. Now looking back, I realized the first floor was where much of our exploration occurred (and most of the noise lived!) Between siblings, cousins & friends, we were experimenting with science projects, make-up tutorials, unsupervised wrestling matches and spin-the-bottle with the cute boy next door (oops - TMI?) Due to the excessive TV-watching, ping-pong tournaments and slumber parties, insulation of the walls was not a nicety but a necessity! This ground level was less structured and offered a wide-variety of opportunities for us as individuals to develop our likes, dislikes and personalities.
The middle level was where the kitchen and living room were located - and although the rooms invited conversation - we (as kids) certainly learned the difference between indoor and outdoor voices when utilizing these spaces. It was where cooking with Grandma became a lesson in love, as well as the fine art of meal preparation; It was where presents were wrapped and unwrapped as family celebrated birthdays, babies, book clubs and bad hair days! And, it was the level of the house we exchanged ideas, experiences and opportunities as a group.
Finally, the upstairs is where the bedrooms were located. Whether we were telling secrets in the dark with our cousins, having a heated disagreement behind closed doors, or being comforted by a parent after a bad dream or break-up, the top level of our home was the safe zone with a calming tone associated with its location. The uppermost tier wasn’t just where noise decreased, but where trust was magnified. We were allowed to be scared and vulnerable. It’s where we knew others showed empathy, consistency and support when we most needed it - whether it be one-to-one confidential conversation, or a cluster of us on the bed mourning the loss of a pet. It was the part of the house we felt most connected to one another - it felt like home.
Not unlike the scenario described above, the Tri-Level Approach to Professional Growth is based on three levels of learning experiences - independence, interchange and interdependence - and, provides support and resources as a leader moves through roles, situations and opportunities. And, although the professional connections may not be as intimate as family ties, similarities do align.
Independence if often associated with “going solo” or being self-sufficient. As an independent leader, learning often occurs in isolation and with self-selected resources. An individual may be more comfortable with risk-taking when parameters have been predetermined, and moving outside of one’s comfort zone is relatively minimal. Self-directed learning is based on interests, needs and goals; while interaction and collaboration with peers is typically absent at this stage. Based on a book, a favorite TED talk, a subscription to a preferred podcast or attendance at a favored breakout sessions are all various ways independent leaders grow professionally.
The term Interchange can be defined as “..to give and receive things reciprocally…”. Many professional learning networks (PLNs) use the model of interchange in order to share resources, best practices and ideas in collaboration with team members. Often loosely structured to build collegiality, interchange-type arrangements favor harmony over truth and can be short-lived or long-term based on the needs of the group. Leaders who engage in and model interchange strategies set the tone for a learning culture throughout their schools/organizations. Group norms help establish parameters in order for learners to explore opportunities and risks within range of their own comfort zones.
The practice of Interdependence tends to be the least utilized level, yet the most beneficial when employed by learning leaders. Not only do colleagues learn to depend upon one another, accountability comes into play for leaders moving effective practices forward. Structures like “problems of practice” or “collegial inquiry” allow peers to delve into common challenges and from there unpack systemic assets and obstacles, which promote or prevent initiatives from moving forward. Since the “truth over harmony” mantra often applies to interdependent opportunities, it is crucial for Working Agreements - such as confidentiality, risk-taking and trust - to be honored as essential pillars of interdependent leadership. Interdependent exchanges are not quick-fixes, nor do outcomes satisfy all needs. Breakout conversations and tangent partnerships may arise from an initial group, and should not be considered in discord with an original plan or discussion, but rather another avenue to problem solving or action-oriented tasks.
Learning leaders are constantly seeking ways to strengthen their knowledge base while also expanding perspectives. The opportunity to facilitate strategies through the independence, interchange and interdependence stages invites participation from colleagues and stakeholders alike. Additionally, learning leaders effectively illustrate for student learners systems and structures for building collaboration and critical thinking skills necessary in current and future endeavors!
Whether a leader was raised in single room apartment or multi-level house, the opportunity to reflect on one’s own family structures and interpersonal dynamics can set the tone for how lifelong learning is modeled by effective leaders. Volume levels will fluctuate, tears may be shed and conflicts are likely to arise, but when autonomy is encouraged and relationships are established, then growth is inevitable for those involved.