being me, discussion

Can We Discuss the Title “Lead Learners” for A Moment?

Those who know me may know how long I have been mulling over this post.  How long these thoughts have been percolating, simply based on how many times I have brought it up in conversation.  You see, it’s been bugging me for a while, yet I know so many amazing principals that call themselves “Lead learner” that I have been afraid to say anything because I am not here to hurt, nor here to make others feel bad.  But the whole lead learner title, can we discuss it for a moment?  And perhaps rethink the use of it?

Before people get upset or chalk it up to me not understanding, hear me out.  I know what the title “lead learner” is supposed to signify, I have had many conversations with people who have explained their intent, and for that I am grateful, because those conversations have helped me understand the title more.    What I have found is that most who use the title use it to show that they are role models of learning within their community.  They use the title to show staff that they are still learning, that their job is to lead the learning, that the learning doesn’t stop just because someone becomes a principal.  They call themselves the lead learner so that others can see how serious they take the position and the enormous task it is to be an incredible principal.  There, though, lies my problem.

You see when we give ourselves titles, and let’s be honest, the title of “lead learner” is usually bestowed upon a person by themselves, we shut others out.  When we say that we are in the lead, whether it be in learning or other ventures, then others can never lead for more than a short period of time  When we say that we are the ones that lead the learning, then we have fully cemented the power structure within a school; the principal is completely in the lead and everyone else follows behind.  Teachers will never be leaders within their learning, because that position has already been taken.  Yet that power structure is what so many of us are hoping to change so that we can have empowered schools; learning community where everyone’s voice matters and it doesn’t matter what title someone holds, their words still hold power.

So when someone calls themselves a lead learner that message of wanting an empowered staff gets muddled, and I don’t think that is the intent.  In fact, I would ask anyone who uses this title to ask their staff and anyone else what that title signifies to them.  I asked my husband tonight, who is not in education, and his response was eye opening; a lead learner is someone who makes the final decision and brings the learning back for others to then pursue.  His interpretation is not what I think most principals want to be viewed as.  So although, I may know why someone has chosen to call themselves the “Lead learner”  I wonder if others that haven’t asked the meaning behind it do?  I don’t see an asterisk next to the title nor an explanation every time it is used.  So those deeper intentions of a symbolic title do not come across as meaningful, they seem to come across as limiting or in the very least unnecessary, which I know is not the intention.

As always though, don’t take my word for it.  I am, after all, just one teacher with one opinion.  Ask your staff; ask them how they feel about the title.  Ask them what it means to them that you are the lead learner.  I told you what it means to me, but I may be wrong, that has happened many times before. Know though, that when an email signature states someone as the lead learner within a school, a Twitter profile, or whichever public platform being used, that it may say things about that person that are not intentional and not always for the better.  We live within a society that thrives on titles and their meanings, so when we give ourselves titles that cannot be shared with others, then we are in fact creating ranks within our schools and telling the world about it.

While I don’t have a better title that would symbolize what it means to be a principal,  I am not so sure we even need one.  I think that title “principal”, within itself, holds so many connotations of what it means to be a great leader that I don’t think more are needed. Or perhaps just drop the “lead,” just be a learner, just like the rest of us.  Doesn’t being a learner mean that you know when to take the lead and when to let others?  What do you think?

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

27 thoughts on “Can We Discuss the Title “Lead Learners” for A Moment?”

  1. I think how you define leadership makes a huge difference. For me effective leadership is helping to grow other leaders, it’s being servant to needs of the people in the building. However I conceed the reality is often more hierarchical which brings up the issues you talk about in this post. How do we grow leaders in schools?

  2. I remember when I first came upon the term, I actually thought that it referred to ‘the teacher’. Then I discovered that it was meant for the principal. I apologised for this error to Peter DeWitt and he actually informed me Vivian Robinson has made the suggestion that it does or should actually refer to all teachers. Have yet to find the exact reference, but think that she discusses it in Student-Centred Leadership.

  3. Pernille, a very interesting post! I’ll share my initial thoughts, with the disclaimer that in Australia I’ve only seen the ‘Lead Learner’ badge shared online, not used in practice.

    I like your point that being a learner means knowing when to lead and when to let others lead, but I can also see the reason why a Principal might want to rebrand themselves a Lead Learner. As you say, I imagine the intention is to redefine their role as one of a leader who learns, a learner who leads, and a leader of learners, rather than ‘Principal’ or ‘Head’ which connotes an authoritative role: the head of a school as ruler and commander at the apex of power.

    ‘Lead Learner’ (adopted or embraced, perhaps, rather than self-bestowed) seems an attempt to distribute leadership and focus on learning, to break down hierarchal notions of school leadership rather than to reinforce them.

    My thinking is influenced by my own experiences in middle leadership, my belief in the importance of words as an English teacher, my PhD interviews of a variety of school leaders and some cool discussions like the one I had with Ellie Drago-Severson around adult learning in schools (reflections here: ).

    I have found that, even when leadership is distributed and shared in an organisation, there IS a strategic element of leading (adult or young) learners. Leaders do actually ‘take the lead’ in the learning culture of the school. A leader develops their school through visioning and by putting the structures and processes in place to grow the organisation and its individuals. Principals have big picture understandings and responsibilities which require them to … lead. If they foreground the ‘learning’ part of their role by being transparent about their intentions and leadership, perhaps it will strengthen our schools and keep us focused on our core business of facilitating learning, growth, cognition and leadership for all.

    My experience of teachers is that they don’t need a title to lead or to learn. And my experience of leaders is that their title doesn’t define their leadership; their actions and relationships do.

    Yes we (teachers, students, administrators) are all learners and we are all leaders, but I don’t know that a titleless edu-world of equal learnerdom is the answer. Thank you for starting the conversation!


    1. ‘My experience of teachers is that they don’t need a title to lead or to learn. And my experience of leaders is that their title doesn’t define their leadership; their actions and relationships do.’
      Amen. If a principal wants to demonstrate leadership in learning, share something they’ve learned with students during announcements, be visible in their learning. The title is thought-provoking, but I agree with Pernille: “lead” doesn’t belong in it.

    2. Well expressed Deb. Agree that schools do require leadership. Leaders who makes a difference to all aspects of school life, who encourage:
      – One and all to become better students and teachers.
      – Sudents and teachers to follow their passions.
      -Students and teachers to learn from one another.
      -Sudents and teachers to trust and respect one another.
      A HUGE job description!

  4. One of the first things I did upon becoming a principal was to rip down the “lead learner” sign on my door. That was over fifteen years ago- didn’t like the term then, and don’t like it now. We’re all in this together, and the person/group taking the lead on something should be based on knowledge and passion, not titles and position.

  5. Titles are irrelevant outside of resumes and prospective head hunters looking for candidates that might break the traditional mold when searching for prospective hires. The way you conduct yourself is key; you could be the janitor and still be an amazing leader for students and teachers.

    However, the “Lead Learner” title does convey a sense of what your husband was taking about; when working in groups, especially larger ones that require someone to balance the needs of many (like a teacher), there are many times when someone “needs to make the call” and move forward. In fact, there are often time when, as you described, the “Lead Learner” needs to help students, teachers, etc. understand that there are only so many paths we can follow at any given time and still maintain the integrity of learning; the lead person should be there to help provide structure when needed, but step away when learners are making progress.

    I dislike the term as well, but I see why do many bestow it upon themselves; it helps them stays focused on the nothing that they’re allowed to make mistakes (hence the learner part), but that they have to take ownership of those mistakes and correct them as they are the leader of their respective educational communities. To be an effective service oriented leader, you must make decisions that will not always benefit all, or make decisions that make everyone happy. You can do that without the title, but I suspect it helps many freshly minted administrators feel a bit more at ease when making those decisions. Because as much as we might want to break down hierarchal roles in our schools, we face pressure from our society, culture, and human needs that still demand some semblance of a leadership structure to push through difficult decisions and opportunities.

  6. This is my question Pernille, why do schools have to operate with a plethora of titles and positions? Can you imagine if students came to school and didn’t really knew who was in charge? What if all the students knew is that all of the education staff in that building was devoted to just teaching and learning? We waste so much time categorizing who does what in education that it becomes a disservice to our students. Categorizing and building gaps between staff with special titles creates isolating fear among staff. We are all in this together and we should not be operating like islands.

  7. The semantics of the titles we inherit and/or give ourselves are very powerful. I have as much of a problem with “lead learner” as I do with “teacher.” “Teacher” implies a one-way dynamic – “I teach, you learn” – so the bigger point I think is that education as a whole needs to look carefully at its language. “Principal” as a term is such a mess: the 1st post I ever wrote in fact tackles the problem of titles!

    I like Aaron’s point above – Lead Learner should apply to all of us that work with students in the realm of learning, however as long as “Lead” is in there there will be an unconscious association with the “administrative head” of the school.

    I also resonate with what Deb is saying – formal leaders DO in fact set the tone and climate of learning (for better or for infinitely worse!!) so I think it is critical that we continue to define “leadership” as the efforts to generate collective commitment to how we support all students in their learning and facilitate (not unilaterally control) the adult learning space. In fact, just the act of referring to ALL of us as learners may be the boldest and most radical thing a leader can do – because, sadly, there are some educators who reject that notion as patronizing. Many thanks Pernille for your probing thoughts! Eric

  8. In our Primary school in Australia ( Melbourne) each level consisting of 4 teachers has an LTL. Leader Teacher Learner. Their job description is to co- ordinate the level, discuss curriculum, and encourage team members to share their teaching and learning. In no way at all do I feel that our Year 5 LTL makes final decisions or brings the learning to us.

  9. Pernille, your post made me think about Choice Words by Peter Johnston. Words have power. Self-named leaders are rarely that. A discerning staff member can find leadership in each person on the staff as we each bring our talents to our roles in education. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I am revisiting Choice Words as a result.

  10. Pernille, this is a post that has remained with me today, from 5:30 am when I first read it to when I returned to it at 9:30 pm. In fact, I’m considering expanding upon this, adding it to my list of “things to reflect upon and blog about”.

    Is that ok with you?

    I was an elementary school teacher for a decade, and proud of it. In my time in the classroom, I evolved into someone seen as having leadership-like qualities, by my teacher colleagues, parents of my students, and administrators above me (if you will). I was given responsibilities and graciously accepted them. But at the beginning and end of each day, I was 100% invested in my students and doing my best to create conditions to promote their success, self-confidence, and autonomy as learners.

    I spent tons of time (like any dedicated teacher does) planning, reflecting, researching, revising, reading, and trying new lesson designs. I did this every day, every week, every month, and every year. And, as all great teachers know, cookie-cutter lessons can’t be transferred from class-to-class, let alone, year-to-year. I loved the challenge of making each year unlike any in the years prior.

    Then I was recruited and hired as an assistant principal, in the building where I taught for 10 years. In fact, I for joke that I was harassed into taking the admin classes and dragged out of the classroom where I loved to be.

    The three years I spent in that role were unique and amazing. Maybe it was because I was continuing on a path, watching the students whom I taught grow into spirited adolescents, or maybe it was because I remained in a school that I loved, with colleagues whom I trusted and collaborated with for so many years before.

    Then something amazing…actually serendipitous happened. A state-of-the-art middle school was build from the ground up, on nearly the exact place where my first classroom was (a class held in a portable classroom). And I was selected to be the principal of that building (by the founding Principal, who became our Superintendent).

    This is the middle school where I have been principal for the last five years. For the first two of those years, I saw my last third grade classes go through seventh and eighth grade, and then they moved on to the high school. That was a truly special experience, and a culmination of my teaching career as well. I got to see how “my kids” turned out.

    So here’s the thing – I am not THE Lead Learner.

    In fact, I often joke (with confidence and self-deprecation) that if I am the smartest person in the room, we’re all in trouble. I make sure to surround myself with the sharpest, most well-rounded, collaborative, innovative, and loyal people (mostly classroom teachers) I can find, to join our team. And I spend a lot of time, leading “from the middle” of the pack. I will jump in front of any moving train I need to, to protect our kids, my team, and our mission. But I will stay “in the middle” because teachers need to be empowered and entrusted to lead – their classrooms, and, when appropriate, their grade levels, departments, and teams.

    But I AM a LEARNING LEADER – one of many. And as my blog indicates, I am “Learning Leadership”. And… I have to believe we are members of a “Learning Organization”.

    What do I like about these terms? They do not apply only to me, or to our school. We can all be learning leaders in learning organizations. In fact, I think we need to be, now more than ever.

    You’re one, right? And aren’t you investing in growing learning leaders, in your classroom, your school, and, through your writing and blogging, a global community? I’d say so, because when I read your stuff, I know I benefit. And I’m one of countless others (learning leaders) who feel this way.

    Maybe it all comes down to semantics. And maybe we need to find the perfect terms to define what we mean. But maybe not?

    Thanks for pushing my thinking, Pernille.

    You always do. And I appreciate it.


  11. Pernille, very interesting reflection here. I’m guilty of using the term for myself although I think I introduced the term to my district as I have had many teachers comment to me that they appreciated the term as a co-learner with them and the students. I have also had parents say they liked the change in title……but maybe that’s because they don’t overthink the title and appreciate the change from the authoritative and historically feared title of principal. While I’m guilty of assigning myself the term I’m not sure I’m embracing the concerns you have with it. I do see what I think you’re trying to say but I also hate to assume I know what you mean and exactly why you are…… Um….. Flustered with the term. Well……maybe just concerned or at least wanting clarification for the term.

    I agree with many of the responses above that any leader, no matter the title, is defined by their actions and the culture they create. When you get right down to it, my contract says I am the principal of the three buildings I am responsible for leading and managing. I used to loathe the term manager, but after intriguing debates and discussions with leaders (if I can use that term without upsetting other people that are “leaders” but without the “official” title) like Curt Rees, Tim Lauer, and Joe Sanfelippo. They convinced me of the importance of that role within the role of leader and I had to admit it was an intricate and important role within my daily duties. I learned to embrace the term and accept that manager and management were respectable and needed roles and duties and decided to let go of my feelings for a word that I had connected ill feelings toward.

    I would hope that we have come to a point in time where don’t get overly concerned with titles and roles and for that reason I may go back to just being a principal, because when you get right down to it, the title doesn’t define me but rather the position and duties I’ve been hired to perform. How I choose to carry out those duties defines my character and my style of leadership. I think many “Lead Learners” have given themselves this title to put out as a signal to others, “this is how I choose to define my role.” Yes, we are the leaders of our buildings, I have a contract with my job description and the responsibilities pretty well define where my responsibilities lie, and educator effectiveness here in Wisconsin has helped support that as well. I would also not argue the fact that a teacher is the leader of their classroom. They have many responsibilities within and they are the climate setter and leader within that domain. They may have other leadership roles as well, and they may develop the leadership skills of their students, but while I may empower my teachers to have ownership in our decision making processes, and let them personalize their own professional development, by no means am I allowed to hand off the responsibilities I have and am accountable for when it comes down to it. That is why I claim and embrace the title of Leader. And whether it’s given to me (or any other descriptive terms of endearment that are mumbled behind my back) or just what I choose to call myself……whether it is liked or misconstrued that is the term I will use.

    Yep….. Building Leader…….I like that. It’s what I do. For three buildings. Learning…’s what takes place there. By students, by teachers and by me……every day. What was the issue again?

  12. There’s a great deal of good thoughts here. I agree that as a principal it is somewhat pompous, arrogant, etc to think of myself as the lead learner. However, in BC at least and I’m sure its the case elsewhere the other half of that coin is that many classroom teachers stop thinking of their colleague as a teacher when they become a principal. The mindset of the principal as a lead learner might not be a good paradigm but neither is the vision of a principal not being a teacher either.

  13. Interesting post Pernille. I, as others above, agree that it is not about the title it is about the actions of the individual.

    A year or two ago I began hearing the phrase “Lead Learner”. I understood that over time things change. Personally, I don’t have an issue with Lead Learner or Principal, but I’ll be sure to have conversations with others and listen to their opinions on the terminology.

    Warm Regards,


  14. Pernille: Thank you for taking the time to honestly reflect on an issue that you may have struggled with in your heart and mind. Your respectful reflection has allowed you to share your own thoughts on the subject, but has also allowed others to internalize the meaning of the term lead learner for themselves. I, like some of the people in the abovementioned comments, have chosen to utilize the term Lead Learner, especially over the past year. While your reflection is certainly clear as to why a Principal may want to see such a shift in titles I felt I could contribute one additional thought.
    I am sure there are plenty of Principals out there who have made the shift in titles, but have not changed their leadership styles and practices to fit the true meaning behind the title Lead Learner. While I know we have not had the opportunity to meet face to face, I believe you would see in me, like many others, that we do not embrace the use of titles, let alone the use of “I” or even talking in first person. For me that has always been difficult, because I would not be able to do my job if it wasn’t for the staff, parents and students successfully completing theirs. No matter what my role I personally feel that we are all educators first. Just like any good teacher should embrace the knowledge they obtain from their students or parents, as lead learners we feel the same holds true as we learn from within our school community on a daily basis. I get the sense that the struggle may lie with the term “lead,” and I can certainly understand why. However, I would offer that is what any great learner does; leads. My expectations of my students would be to lead both in and out of the classroom, and I would expect nothing less of my staff. Ultimately, for me the term lead learner is about embracing a shift in the culture and climate within my school and to model such a change. My goal is to see a school of lead learners; however their leadership, and learning for that matter, should be in an effort to serve a purpose for their own growth and the growth of others. Not because a hierarchy is needed, but because everyone has a role to play that ultimately leads to the success of an entire school community. Even though I cannot stand titles, perhaps that is why I sign my name as follows: Stephen P. Santilli, Lead Learner (Principal).
    I realize this was not an easy post for you to develop, due to many of the relationships you have forged over the years, but I want to thank you for once again helping to stretch my thinking.


  15. Hey Pernille, thanks for this reflection. First, let me say that I believe the best type of school structure is one of distributed leadership, where all stakeholders (students, teachers, staff, and parents/community) have a voice in learning and leading.

    Yet, I’ve been around long enough to see that many Principals consider themselves managers…and don’t do as much learning as they should or could. I think this is where the term “Lead Learner” came out of…a need for Principals to step up and do more than just manage a school.

    The “lead learner” title can seem self-serving at times, but I do think it at least implies as sense of “leading by learning” type of role…instead of a “leading by managing” role.

    As a former English teacher, I’d also agree that semantics matter in these types of titles..and how connected teachers view this title, versus teachers in my school, versus parents etc — they’ll all see it a bit different.

    Without having these kinds of discussions we’ll never know how everyone feels about it – so thanks for raising a great point once again 😉

  16. This post and thread of comments is a reminder of what education and being an educator is all about: intentional, considered approaches to our core business of learning.

    Thanks, Pernille and everyone else for such a great, thoughtful discussion.


  17. I have hesitated to reply to comments here because I have so thoroughly enjoyed all of the conversation happening and all of the extra thoughts being added. Thank you so much to everyone who is reading, thinking, and pushing the conversation!

  18. As a home-schooling parent I am so glad to see this conversation unfold, because it is the very lack of evident discussion along these lines that fails the students at the schools from which we have withdrawn our children, as well as many that, perhaps undeservedly, have become stigmatized by the split between administration and practice.

    I would draw a loose parallel to the healthcare industry, as students of medicine go through several stages of development before we accept them as practitioners, yet even then is is critical that development continue after the badge is earned. But the business side of medicine is distinct and separate. The CEO is not by extension the “lead healer”.

    The term “lead learner” itself strikes me as more of a slogan and honestly I think it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I mean, we really shouldn’t want a technocratic managerial class to dictate policy to the classroom teachers, but a collaborative relationship still has some boundaries, even if the principal is also heading up a class or two.

    For those of us who have struck out on their own to educate their own, the dynamic is completely different, but the “lead learner” term actually applies quite nicely, as the kids are likely to teach us as much about how to learn (and re-learn) as we develop our skills as educators as well as homemakers.

  19. I did not immediately think of principal when I started reading your post, but rather classroom teacher as being the “lead learner” in the room. Does this have the same problems as a principal using the term?

    I struggle a bit with this because ultimately there is a hierarchy in schools. I have an amazing principal and almost all of our decisions are made as a team, but there are times when she makes a decision that is “forced” on teachers. Usually these things come from her bosses that are forced on her. In my student-centered classroom students have tons of voice and choice in process, content, and products. But again ultimately I am in charge and I “force” them to study the standards for my classroom.

    So while I agree that we should lead by serving, the truth is that there is authority and hierarchy in schools and they are not democracies.

    I am called a facilitator at my school and I think it is a bit hokey like lead learner can be. Why can’t I just be called a teacher?

  20. Lead teachers… department chairs… principals… headmasters… team leaders…. yeah. Every school has its share of titles, both for those in classroom positions and for those in administrative ones. In short, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a principal choosing to use the term “lead learner” to describe her role in the organization. Of course, as others have shared here, it means very little without action. A principal’s life is filled with far too many managerial duties. It drains the soul, and on some days, it makes it nearly impossible to spend quality time leading in classrooms and working with teachers. This is why I believe so many principals have chosen to think of themselves as lead learners. It’s not to seem elitist, it’s not to seem like they are “in charge” of all of the learning that happens in a school or that they don’t want to learn side-by-side with parents and teachers and students. It’s to remind themselves that, despite the pressures of the managerial and the mandates and the things that steer them from classrooms and make them want to cry, there are real opportunities to lead and learn together with the wonderful staff and kids in their schools. It helps them remember that, when the position seems most defeating, there are people who need their inspiration and their leadership and that they can take pride in the fact that they work diligently to bring that to their schools.

    1. Beautifully expressed Lyn. When I see what our ‘ heads of campus’ have to do to manage a highly successful school, ( because of what they do) I happily retreat to my classroom to learn with and around my kids all day! What a treat!

  21. Thanks so much for sharing your thinking, Pernille. This post has stuck with me for the last week, and it’s been so interesting to see the continuing thread of interest in wrestling with the idea of “lead learners”.

    In September 2012, I changed the title of my blog to “Learning to Lead Learning,” and this post explains why: It’s the closest I’ve been able to come to naming what “lead learner” means to me. Here’s a short excerpt:

    “Continuous learning is leading. In order to lead, I believe that one must approach leadership from the position of learner (and not necessarily that of knower). I must listen before I speak. I must listen for people’s current state of readiness to learn. I must hear the needs of those around me. Even if I have my own agenda, I must respond in ways that meet the needs of those around me, and not necessarily in the ways that meet mine. I must find a common language. I must understand what is heard, and not just know what I said. I must recognize that every context is different, and I likely do not know the whole story. I must study before I act, and not react based on what I think is happening. Learning is contagious. I must continue to learn – personally, professionally, organizationally – as continuous learning is the only way to lead.”

    In other words, I think that learning causes learning. If our goal is to create communities of learners and learning, then I think it’s imperative that leaders spend their time learning- not only about educational content, but also about their schools, their staff, and their students.

    I think that a nugget of Ben Rimes’ comment above is also sticking with me: “…when working in groups, especially larger ones that require someone to balance the needs of many…” Ultimately, any school leadership role means putting the needs of many at the forefront. By default, the role carries with it direct connections with dozens (or even hundreds) of classrooms, and I find that using the term “lead learner” is a helpful one to remember that the goal is to learn about these people, about these classrooms. When the leader’s role is conceptualized as “the decider”, I believe it does everyone a disservice.

    Thanks again for the post- looking forward to learning more from you.

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