Ladders, leaders, students and storytellers

Stairway to Heaven by Steffe on Flickr
"Stairway to Heaven" by Steffe on Flickr

I had to move to China to see the ‘ladder walk’. A man, standing on an ‘A’ frame ladder, painting a ceiling of an outdoor entrance cover had finished the section he was working on. Instead of stepping down to move the ladder, he stepped up and put one foot over to the other side of the ladder, straddling the ‘A’. Then he quickly but methodically ‘walked’ the ladder to a new location, like a man walking sideways on connected stilts. He then stepped back over to one side of the ladder and resumed painting. I have no idea how many codes that would have broken in ‘The Bubble Wrapped West’ but I’m certain workers’ compensation would have issues with this process. That said, from my perspective it was an effective way to move.

And that’s exactly what teachers are trying to do at this time of year. They look at their past years and think, how can I make this better, more efficient, easier, and meaningful? They are hungry for different, more effective approaches to things. Recently I’ve had a few people contact me, looking for resources regarding student leadership. I wrote my Masters in Educational Leadership final paper on the topic of developing an effective student leadership program and created a rather large appendix of resources to share, (I link to this later in the post). Today I took some resources I only had stashed away online due to a computer crash and put a number of them on the document sharing site Scribd, so that I can share them easily with anyone interested. This got me to open up my Master’s Paper again and I came across the actual ladder that this post is really about.

Taken from: A Guide to Meaningful Student Involvement, Adam Fletcher, 2003.

I really like this Ladder of Student Involvement, and the focus it has on “Degrees of Participation”. True participation is based on shared leadership and empowering students. There are real parallels here to what we are seeing today with meaningful technology integration. (Ideally) real participation involves students being initiators of what needs to be learned and then working with their teacher to determine ways to demonstrate and assess the learning.

At both the classroom and the school levels, how much do we empower students and how much do we limit their participation in their own learning?

This got me thinking about our adult leaders in a school. How much of our leadership do we really share? Am I helping my staff climb the ladder of participation or am I doing a “ladder walk” moving us along where I think we should all go? What things should I just decide, doing the whole staff a favour, and what things should go through a slower, but far more powerful, shared decision-making process?

The reality is that there is no simple answer to these questions and I think that the staff at two different schools would need to be worked with in different ways. Switch the word ‘Adult’ on the participation ladder to ‘Administrator’ and the word ‘Student’ to ‘Teacher’. How truly empowered are our staff? I think the answer to that question is a strong determining factor to ‘how truly empowered are our students’? The answers to these questions significantly influence our school culture and our school community.

“Good leadership consists of motivating people to their

highest levels by offering them opportunities, not obligations.”

John Heider, The Tao of Leadership

So now I’ll head back to the idea that this time of year teachers (and administrators) are looking for new and different ways of doing things. I’ve had the privilege of joining a group of Connected Principals and learning from them. One of the most impressive things about this group so far has been their willingness to share ideas and to learn from one another. There is an exchange of ideas, and stories, that we all gain from. It is in that spirit that I share the following resources.

First I’ll share my master’s paper, Developing an Effective Middle School Leadership Program, downloadable from Slideshare or Scribd. The appendix is designed to be a resource for others… so skip the the paper itself and just head to the table of contents for the appendix on page 54, and you’ll have access to many resources. Two more resources, both on Scribd, are a collection of Leadership Lesson Plans and a collection of stories or rather Metaphors to Learn By.

It’s a subject of a whole other post, but I strongly believe that storytelling is a powerful and underused tool in teaching and learning, as well as in inspiring a common vision. That’s why I started this post with a story. A short story of a man doing something simple in a way I’ve never seen it done before. From my cultural context it wasn’t something I would have thought of doing, but his ‘ladder walk’ was an effective approach to completing the man’s task. I hope that my resources can help others find different, hopefully better, approaches to their student leadership programs and I look forward to the new approaches in many areas of leadership that the Connected Principals will lead me to.

(Cross-posted on Pair-a-Dimes)


  1. Lyn Hilt said:

    David, thank you for your willingness to share your expertise with us! I love this graphic and shared it with my staff today. What a powerful reminder that we need to give our students more ownership in their learning experiences!

    September 9, 2010
  2. Brian Kuhn said:

    Dave – great post. I like how the ladder construct maps well to a team of employees. I think I will reflect on that in my context and see how I might use it as a gage in how well I’m doing as a leader with my team.

    Recently my two managers and I took time to retreat and develop a set of shared goals. We came up with six but our #1 goal is notable. Goal 1: Culture “Create a new culture within the Information Services Department” where IS staff enjoy coming to work, communicate freely with one another, feel supported and work to support and help one another, see the importance of the work they do for each other, schools, and the District, and collaborate with each other.

    Your ladder construct may serve us in working through some of our strategies for this goal.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    September 9, 2010
  3. David Truss said:

    Lyn & Brian,
    In reading your comments, I must admit with a bit of embarrassment that I have not shown this ladder to my own staff. Yet now doesn’t seem the time. We are dealing with some issues in our new building that pose challenges beyond our control, (cafeteria size, limited use of outdoor facilities and still waiting for a gym… to name a few). We’ve strategized and worked together to come up with some acceptable (yet temporary) solutions but ultimately we are in limbo until we can find out more (still) unknown information. It is difficult to talk about empowerment to a group of teachers that are feeling un-empowered. I know changes are coming that will improve things, but I have not been given concrete dates for anything, and am thus feeling un-empowered myself. How do you talk to teachers about shared decision-making when they aren’t in a frame of mind where they feel they can share in legitimate decision-making?
    A situation like this really makes me wonder about how un-empowered students must feel when they are given the illusion of being student leaders but are not truly given any power to make things happen.

    September 11, 2010

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