Re-Imagining Educational Leadership: Beginning With Coffee

I recently participated in a seminar on “student engagement” with new and experienced teachers, principals, vice-principals, and district-level educational leaders. We started with a basic icebreaker activity. We were asked to introduce ourselves by giving our names and sharing one word that reflects a central aspect of our educational philosophy.

My chosen word led to a lot of blank stares and more than a few confused looks.

“Hi, I’m Gillian Judson. My word is perfinker.”

Most people nodded hesitantly, taking on a quizzical look that said …Rrrriiight. And that means? One person I met looked at me skeptically and said, “That’s not a real word, Gillian.”

Actually, it is.

Psychologist David Kresch coined the term “perfinker.” He argues that human beings never just think. They perceive, feel, and think at the same time. They perfink. Recent research in affective neuroscience also indicates this to be true. (And, of course, many people simply know this to be true.) Emotion is — as Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (2105) describes it — the mind’s rudder.

Emotion, therefore, is at the helm. What a lovely metaphor for learning. Emotion directs what is meaningful to us. Put another way, the things that we most remember, the things we understand affect us. We are all emotional and imaginative beings. And so, I explained to my skeptical colleague that I’m a perfinker. And, the thing is… he is, too.

A few weeks later, I had the chance for a deeper conversation with that skeptical, stickler-for-English colleague. I’m glad I ordered the large coffee because what started out as superficial discussion about the notion of “perfinking” and what it means for teaching, turned into a much deeper examination of how imagination supports effective leadership.

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With caffeine coursing through our veins, we considered the following questions: What if educational leaders saw the people in their schools/districts/communities as perfinkers? How would this realization influence the ways in which they shaped their interactions with their teachers/staff? How would this realization affect the kinds of professional development experiences offered to teachers? How would this realization impact policy decisions made in the name of student success/achievement?

We agreed that while effective educational leaders may not know the term “perfinker,” at some deeper level they do understand the importance of emotional and imaginative engagement for their leadership practice. They know that imagination is as important for student learning as it is for teacher learning, community-building, and educational change. We decided that effective educational leaders are storytellers.

Now, my colleague and I spent a long time talking about “story” and “storyteller” — I did say a large coffee. Much like the notion of “imagination” itself, “story” is often misunderstood. The ability to envision the possible — the work of the imagination — lies at the heart of all human invention and understanding. It is one of the great workhorses of learning. It is not a childish practice of make-believe or fantasy nor is it a capacity of great artists alone. All human beings envision the possible. All human beings employ “cognitive tools” to make sense of the world — cognitive tools like powerful theories, vivid mental images, metaphor, humour and, of course, the story-form (Egan & Judson, 2015).

Like imagination, we agreed that the concept of “story” is often misunderstood too. The idea that effective educational leaders are storytellers does not mean they make up fictions, endlessly drone on and on, or exist in a world of make-believe. As storytellers, they shape their leadership practices in ways that reveal the emotional significance of what they are doing. They engage the perfinkers that they work with by evoking their emotions. This is storytelling. There’s a reason why the story-form is one of the most powerful teaching tools — it engages human emotion and ignites imagination.

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We ended with the following questions and made another date to have coffee: How aware are educational leaders of the imaginative needs/interests of their teachers? How often do these tools influence how principals introduce new ideas to their teachers or how school communities welcome and engage the parent community? What role does imagination play in the “brand” of schools or districts? Is the freedom to envision the possible part of their brand?

It’s one thing to say “Yes! We value imagination and creativity in our students. We support it in our classrooms!” — it’s another thing for school leaders to enact imaginative practices themselves.

Read other leadership stories like this one in: Griffiths, D. & Lowry, S. (Eds.).The Leader Reader: Narratives of Experience – An International Collection.(Word & Deed Publishing).Available Spring 2018.

References

Egan, K., & Judson, G. (2015). Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Immordino-Yang, M. (2015). Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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