The number-one factor when it comes to the success of students is the teacher. Yet, teacher quality doesn’t operate alone to help a school and community reach their potential. Leadership matters. A school system’s success—or lack thereof—rests on the shoulders of its leaders. But the school superintendent or CEO occupies the most isolating seat in America’s education system.
Much has been written about the challenges teachers endured due to the disruption from COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Teachers deserve our praise and sympathy as they continue to navigate the impact of the dramatic instructional shift when all students were sent home in early 2020. Now teachers are confronting the social and emotional strain students and their families endured, as well as the effects of missing focused instructional and social time together and with their teachers.
I have led schools and districts through some difficult situations, but I have never managed challenges like those in 2020 and 2021. Even with my insights into leading school systems, small and large, I resist playing “Monday morning quarterback.” Nonetheless, it’s disappointing to watch how politics has influenced school-related decisions since early 2020. Much of the pressure that leaders experience goes far beyond the academic success and students’ physical and social/emotional safety. In the U.S., leaders’ attention and time have been hijacked by political pressure that comes at them at every turn.
Take a step back and scan the country. Even where leaders are philosophically in alignment with how their district, region, and state are handling educational decisions related to COVID, we can see that their decisions have a direct correlation to state politics, teacher union pressures, and local influence of school boards. Of course, leaders claim that their decisions are made on behalf of students—which holds truth—yet it is undeniable that our children are far from the only consideration leaders must consider.
This is not a criticism of today’s leaders. On the contrary, we must acknowledge the unfortunate pickle they find themselves in. To make matters worse, they can’t publicly, or even privately, admit that politics are influencing or dictating what they decide for their students. Now imagine if they decided one day to ignore political pressures. While that may sound refreshing, it would lead to a crash-and-burn scenario. Such leaders would either sacrifice their employment, or find themselves without followers.
Leading in Isolation
Leading a school system, regardless of its location and size, has always been a lonely role. Unfortunately, it’s historically, politically, and conventionally set up to be that way. The leader’s only choice in this matter is simply to say the Serenity Prayer—control what he or she can, and let the rest go and move on. If one carefully analyzes the support systems we have in place for leaders in education, we find that tradition reigns. Top education leaders receive far less collaboration and guidance than leaders in business and industry, a situation we should all consider a sad and pervasive problem.
Like all complex problems, it’s not solved with a silver-bullet. Yet, it must be addressed. Education leaders and decision makers whose decisions affect thousands of students deserve a creative, responsive, and collaborative support structure. It’s naive of us to think that models and actions of the past are sufficient to help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of the future. New complexities are emerging, and emerging too rapidly, for leaders to rely on recycled strategies.
We Need New Supports for Leaders
One traditional model for leadership support is attending conferences—and there’s nothing wrong with leaders attending a good conference. However, the sit-and-get method is not the best form of learning for anyone—children or adults. This is especially the case during this unprecedented time when yesterday’s roadmap has no indicators to help us navigate the future. Moving forward depends on successful trial and some error. But leaders rarely have the time or freedom to experiment and fail.
Leaders have limited opportunities to transparently collaborate for multiple reasons, but three reasons top the list.
- Education leaders are conditioned to “own” every room they walk into. We often expect top education leaders to know answers and always be able to keep the mammoth ship of public education pointed in the right direction. Under this expectation, it’s difficult to acknowledge uncertainty or ask for help.
- Local collaboration and relationships are easiest to establish and may be helpful, but they limit open dialogue due to shared political climate, and they limit perspective because of the similarity of experience.
- Leaders simply do not have the time and capacity to arrange and manage opportunities for discourse with peers.
So, how can leaders get this kind of learning? They need access to other leaders and the space and means to help one another.
Circle up with peers. Don’t lead alone.
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Creating Community and Solutions for Leaders
At Cognia, we have established a “Leadership Circle.” For the past several years, we have been supporting a group of superintendents and their executive team members and creating structures to support our belief that leaders learn best from other leaders. We’ve expanded on that belief through our experience, and now offer several critical elements that leaders need amid the isolation, pressure, and politics they must deal with.
Honest and efficient collaboration: We call our meetings “Solution Circles.” They provide a space for a leader to bring a problem to the table and get honest advice, ideas, and strategy from peers beyond their local region.
Round-table sessions for problem solving: We refer to our problem solving sessions as “Think Tanks.” We set the table for our leaders to think out loud with one another, to describe their efforts and ideas with one another.
Digestible and pragmatic content: Unfortunately, education leaders today do not have the time or capacity to search for white papers or research pertinent to a particular challenge—much less to read or digest them. Besides, new paradigms demand new thinking and strategy that may not yet be developed. Therefore, content needs to be timely, easily accessible, and aligned to the daily challenges leaders face. We produce weekly “Leader Chats,” 35 minute online interviews of top leaders, authors, and content experts; and make the recordings available to our member leaders.
At-hand community: Although public social media platforms are very effective for educators and leaders, they also include significant noise and ongoing advertisements. Our “Cognia Learning Community” is a closed and safe environment for our Leadership Circle members to access content and communicate with one another, 24/7.
Face-to-face opportunities: We believe that “circles are better than rows.” As mentioned, good conferences can be worthwhile, but what motivates leaders to travel is the ability to network and learn from other leaders, not to sit in ballrooms listening to hours of presentations. Our in-person events—what we call “Gatherings” and “Unconferences”—provide powerful content, but we don’t “talk at” our leaders. Instead, roughly 85% of the time is devoted to group discourse, to discuss fresh solutions to leaders’ ongoing challenges.
I have committed my life to education. Over the last several years, I have shifted my attention and passion from working directly in schools and districts to supporting education leaders, as I believe this is the most powerful way to have a positive impact on schools and communities. Widespread impact can’t be achieved through an individual working independently, but rather through a community working collectively. Our Leadership Circle powerfully connects leaders to one another. I have found a home at Cognia and feel honored and blessed to help launch our Leadership Circle.
When you hand good people possibility, they do great things.
—Biz Stone, Twitter Co-founder
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