Winter 2021

Supports for Support Staff: Using Generative Dialogue to Enhance Efficacy

ABSTRACT Research regarding the positive impact of reflective practices on teacher growth and efficacy abounds. However, the engagement of these practices with support staff remains largely unexplored. This article details the use of generative dialogue as an effective framework for increasing self- and collective efficacy within a school’s support staff.

Support staff are valuable, yet often unrecognized, assets in schools. Not only do they collaborate with classroom teachers, they work directly with students, supporting learning in a wide variety of ways to increase student growth. Hence, it is imperative to support these invaluable individuals throughout this pandemic. These educators can play critical roles as relationship builders, problem solvers, collaborators, and innovators; yet purposeful and sustained attention to their professional growth is an often-overlooked responsibility of school leadership. Yet, building the capacity of support staff can be an investment that contributes to collective efficacy and, ultimately, student success. 

It is common for professional learning opportunities to be provided for certificated staff in a plethora of ways (Timperley, 2020). Comparable opportunities are not so common for support staff, particularly for educational assistants. If a system is striving for interdependent success across all members of its organization in order to create a sense of collective efficacy (Fullan, 2005), increased attention is required into how educational assistants might best be supported. One strategy for doing so, the facilitation of reflective practice, is the focus of this article.

Inception

Formal school leaders are often tasked with supervision and professional growth of support staff (Government of Alberta, 2018). The action research study described here sought to explore how a vice principal might influence the reflective practice, professional growth, and efficacy of 15 educational assistants. This work was undertaken with the assumption that, although specific responsibilities of support staff members vary greatly, if support is provided to increase their individual growth and efficacy, they would be better equipped to support students. 

In the past, educational assistants had been provided opportunities to participate in episodic professional learning: workshops, speakers, discussions, presentations, community supports, materials, and readings were embedded into their schedules. However, these events did not appear to engender them taking ownership of their own professional growth. If this expectation was to be met, a different approach was required that would shift from accountability to responsibility and from a disposition that was externally mandated to one where they assumed an internal locus of control. These characteristics had been identified decades ago by Donald Schön (1983) as comprising cycles of reflective practice. 

The first phase of this process, reflecting-for-action (Townsend & Adams, 2009) relies on dialogue to explore curiosities, conundrums, challenges, and front-of-mind problems of practice. Next, reflecting-in-action, occurs as an event transpires, using the strategies, theories, and frameworks necessary for reflection. Reflecting-on-action entails reflecting after the event has taken place for the purpose of reviewing, analyzing, and evaluating.

Implementing these cycles of reflective practice require a culture of trust. Bryk and Schneider (2003) identified four elements necessary to create this environment: respect, personal regard, competence in core responsibilities, and personal integrity. Likewise, Knight (2011) identified seven principles necessary to develop reflective practice: equality, choice, voice, reflection, dialogue, praxis, and reciprocity. Specifically, dialogue is an extension of reflection that involves exploring ideas collaboratively (Knight, 2011). Furthermore, effective dialogue requires five essential interconnected components: humility, faith, love, critical thinking, and hope (Freire, 1970). 

The complexity and importance of dialogue as identified by Knight and Freire was confirmed through the work of Canadian researchers Adams, Mombourquette, and Townsend (2019). They refer to the reflective practice of generative dialogue as “The adoption of a specific, rigorous set of skills that shifts how we converse with each other about professional practice for the purpose of clarifying and bringing into existence new ideas and thoughts that lead to more purposeful action” (p. 139). Additionally, their framework for generative dialogue involves a person-centered perspective underpinned by three practices: assumed professional competence, authentic engagement, and empathetic listening (Adams, Mombourquette, & Townsend, 2019). Consequently, reflective practice facilitated through generative dialogue is instrumental in developing personal self-growth (Adams, Mombourquette, & Townsend, 2019).

The potential of the generative dialogue in guiding the reflective practice of educational assistants appears to be a sparsely documented area of inquiry. Accordingly, we asked the question: In what ways and to what extent does facilitating reflective practice in educational assistants increase their efficacy?

Educational assistants were introduced to this framework at the first professional development day of the year in August. Novel to them was the introduction of a professional growth plan to guide their work for the upcoming year. Over the next two weeks, they engaged individually with their professional growth document, including a self-reflection inventory to help guide their inquiry. Collaboratively, we explored their curiosities through generative dialogue and developed a question to guide their inquiry. By the end of September, each member of the support staff had a guiding question and had shared it with the teacher(s) with whom they worked.

Throughout the school year, each educational assistant participated in five generative dialogue sessions with the vice principal. These sessions consistently included five main questions: What have you done since the last time we met? What are you learning? What are you going to do between now and our next generative dialogue? How can I support you?, and What do you want me to ask you about next time? A review of the former session, in addition to the answer to the fifth question, provided the platform for initiating the next generative dialogue session discussion. Consequently, the enquiry of: How can I support you?, extended beyond professional growth to personal wellness as staff transitioned into the prolonged journey of providing education through COVID. 

In addition to the individual meetings, educational assistants met as a team with the vice principal to share their professional growth goals with the group and work in simple Professional Learning Communities  based on common growth goals. At one PLC meeting, the divisional Director of Inclusive Education attended; all educational assistants shared their inquiry questions, which lead to some additional inquiry from the group. Similarly, at the conclusion of our school year, the PLC met again to share journeys and celebrate our growth. Once again, discussion around the learning took precedence. 

Impact

Qualitative data was gathered during the final generative dialogue session in June, when educational assistants were asked to respond to three questions: How has your professional growth increased your confidence this year? In what ways has this impacted your work with students? How has reflective practice helped you grow? 

Responses to the first question included “I feel like I have what I need to be successful in my work”, “I realize that this about growing, not checking something off my list”, and “I have felt more successful in meeting the needs of students”. The impact of working with students was supported by “I give them more time to think before answering”, “I ask them more questions”, “I am more curious about what they need”, and “I am more invested in their learning. Finally, reflective practice was identified as a means to growth in areas such as, “I had time to pause and think about what I was doing”, “It made me think – deeper and longer, before I responded to a question”, and “Even though I was supported, I had to come to my own conclusions”. 

Responses to these questions affirmed personal growth and augmented self-efficacy in each of the support staff. Furthermore, all educational assistants could identify specific examples of increased student success. Additional evidence of growth included individuals voluntarily presenting valuable learning which had contributed to their own professional growth. 

Unanticipated Outcomes

Although a culture of trust existed within the school, it deepened significantly as a result of an investment into the growth of the support staff. The blend of collective opportunities with individual generative dialogue sessions provided balance with opportunities to learn together and time to individually delve deeper. Due to increased self-efficacy within the support staff, they were more willing to be vulnerable and take risks, even if the potential outcome was not guaranteed. Additionally, collaboration and collegiality among the entire school staff increased as they observe educational assistants engaging in deep reflection: self-efficacy improved, resulting in stronger collective efficacy and a shift from an overall fixed mindset to one of growth.  

Due to budget restraints, providing release time for generative dialogue sessions was challenging. Time was limited to 15 – 20 minutes per session, making it challenging to invest in deeper conversation. Further challenges included a lack of professional growth investment by two support staff members. Despite diligent efforts to work with them in exploring various options and support their professional growth, evidence of growth was minimal. Rather than pursue an area of interest, both were content to maintain the status quo. Although subtle, their lack of effort cast a shadow on those who were committed to their growth and worked conscientiously to increase their self-efficacy. Yet, both referred to growth in their year-end reflection.

Inspirations

The reflective practice and generative dialogue experienced by educational assistants extended to several considering post-secondary education to pursue new opportunities. Throughout the months of COVID, these staff members continued to pursue answers to their guiding questions, developed new inquiry questions, and acquired new insights, skills, and understandings. Their increased self- and collective efficacy extended into their confidence to move forward despite new challenges and contexts. Evidence of this included enrolment in on-line courses, reading multiple books pertaining to their curiosity, initiating new directives in the area of student supports, and volunteering to co-lead small group or full-staff PL activities.

Furthermore, there was an evident sense of purpose in the work they did. Their desire to explore curiosities enabled them to dig beneath the surface as they looked for attainable solutions. The process was valued just as much or more so than the product. For some, the process merged with a product as they explored various subsidiary and supportive foci. Likewise, spontaneous conversations that included undertones of self-reflection could be heard in the staff room and hallways of the building. 

As leaders, many lessons were learned through this journey. First, it was necessary to establish realistic expectations. This included being mindful of the contexts and needs of staff members rather than forcing timelines and agendas. Balance is necessary as one needs to respect such components while proceeding with necessary directives, mandates, and priorities. 

Second, despite various demands and responsibilities, priority must be given to conversations with others. This included honouring each person by being fully present and engaged. In this context, it involved being a better listener and intentionally asking questions rather than providing opinions or answers. Refining these necessary skills is an ongoing process which requires patience with all stakeholders.

Third, an extension of these communication skills included the need to address difficult conversations as opposed to avoidance. Conflict is inevitable but it needn’t be avoided, rather, it can be a means to growth and change. Honest and specific feedback delivered with tact and professionalism was more effective than vague and indirect ambiguities. 

Conclusion

Investing in the growth of others is never wasted time. Rather, it affirms the value placed on each member of a school team. The reward of generative dialogue is reciprocal due to the parameters of the framework embedded in a culture of trust where reflection is valued and growth is celebrated. In the case of the work described here with educational assistants, it was metamorphic as transformed individuals emerged from their cocoons to develop a vibrant kaleidoscope of collective efficacy. Consequently, as the COVD pandemic continues, maintaining such levels of self- and collective efficacy is viable due to the established practice of generative dialogue which provides opportunity to support ongoing guidance for direction and professional growth. 

References
Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Townsend, D. (2019). Leadership in education: The power of generative dialogue. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York, NY: Random
Bryk, A. S. & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40-45.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury Press.
Fullan, M., (2005). Professional learning communities writ large. In DuFour, R, Eaker, R., & DuFour, R. (Eds). On common ground (pp. 208-223). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Government of Alberta. (2018). Leadership quality standard.
Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable impact. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books.


AUTHOR BIOS:
Barbi Wall, MEd Leadership, Principal, Immanuel Christian Elementary School
Barbi Wall is a school administrator with a passion for relationship building. She highly values the reflective practice of generative dialogue and has adopted this framework to invest in the professional growth of support and teaching staff.
Pamela Adams, Ph.D., Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge
Dr. Adams is a professor of Educational Leadership who researches themes of school and organizational leadership, teaching effectiveness, school improvement, inquiry-based professional growth, and essential conditions for professional learning. Her recent book with authors Drs. Carmen Mombourquette and David Townsend is entitled Leadership in Education: The Power of Generative Dialogue (2019).