I am deeply worried about educational leaders. I am not a pessimist. In fact, I have been accused of being naïve, which is a trait that I carry with pride. It’s better than being jaded. However, for those that believe in the power of leadership, what I am witnessing is cause for concern.
As a former classroom teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and a superintendent in three very different districts on both sides of the country, I have a solid handle on typical professional development strategies we tend to employ for educators. My knowledge and experience have been my motivation to change the model of support for district leaders, one founded in collaboration and leveraging the power of community. This was prior to the onset and challenge that COVID brought to our lives. Subsequently, for the last two years I have observed, supported, and engaged leaders, so I have had incredible sympathy for the difficult positions they have had to lead through.
Still, as a light at the end of the proverbial COVID tunnel has revealed itself, I am saddened to watch us sink backward in relation to how we support our leaders and the trap of comfort that many are falling victim to. Over the past number of months, I have attended a handful of state and national conferences. Can you guess what I see? My short answer . . . 2005, or any year prior or since for that matter. Other than more efficient registration systems, the conference model has not changed and, unfortunately, is apparently alive and well.
Keep in mind, I have been to some great conferences. Listening to impressive speakers is inspiring and being exposed to remarkable content and research is important. Still, we know enough about teaching and learning to realize that the sit-and-get method for students, let alone adults and leaders, is not the most effective form of pedagogy.
My knowledge and experience have been my motivation to change the model of support for district leaders, one founded in collaboration and leveraging the power of community.
Identifying the Challenges
In consideration of leadership development and learning, I notice three predominant challenges that must be overcome.
- Tradition and Comfort. Attending a conference is easy and familiar. One can expect keynote speakers and a series of voluntary sessions taught by practitioners or peers often aligned to a particular theme. The quality of each session is a crapshoot, ranging from subpar to extremely interesting. Attendees either listen intently or use the time to catch up on email. In the meantime, conference goers often look forward to time outside of the learning sessions when they can chat with colleagues over a meal or a beverage. While the therapeutic nature of being with peers is a need, the conference itself is not a format that truly supports the complexity and challenge our leaders navigate daily.
- Tyranny of the Urgent. Charles Hummel published his book in 1967 (Tyranny of the Urgent) with quotes such as, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” I could argue that this premise is more relevant now than it was then. The nature of leading school systems has become more political, volatile, and fast-paced than ever in our history. Everything feels urgent, and seemingly requires immediate action. Leaders are working at a frenetic speed to react to the difficult-to-anticipate challenges that come across their desks. Putting out these daily fires has simply become part of the job. Leaders have little time, or capacity, to determine what is urgent versus important. This often results in deprioritizing their own learning and development. Taking on the role of leading and serving translates to ‘doing’ and ignoring the need to set aside time and energy for themselves.
- Backyard Bonds. Clearly, the last two years in education have been extremely challenging. Leaders have had to help, and rely on, one another for support. They have formed coalitions regarding decisions to create safety for themselves and their systems. Teams have had to rely on one another more than ever. These are good things. The unintended consequence of this, however, is that leaders have often missed out on the strategies and ideas that they cannot see. Their sole focus understandably being on their local community creates an insular perspective that limits their ability to ‘see the forest through the trees’.
It’s time to shift the paradigm of how educational leaders receive support. If we want, and hope for, different and improved results for students, leadership will matter.
Time to Make a Shift
It’s time to shift the paradigm of how educational leaders receive support. If we want, and hope for, different and improved results for students, leadership will matter. Honing our efforts to support leadership is a strategic concept with a strong return on investment. If leadership is stagnant or becomes less effective, we can confidently anticipate the outcomes for schools. Most notable efforts and changes are complex, but let’s consider the following:
From Proficiency to Vulnerability. Being a leader of an educational system a superintendent, for example, is the loneliest position there is. I am biased, but I believe this to be true. People’s expectations are often unrealistic and driven by individual and political perspectives. Community at large, and even team members, make broad judgements without knowing the competing nuances to decisions and efforts. Leaders are expected to own most rooms they walk into. Everyone wants their leader to be better than proficient in everything. Outside of education we are seeing a shift in leadership values. Leaders are being encouraged to be honest and open, even when they don’t know the answer or strategy to deploy. We are seeing an increasing value in leaders showing vulnerability and intentionally being transparently ‘human’. I think educational leaders deserve the space to do the same, and I think it will bridge more trust with their communities.
From Receiving to Creating. One thing I appreciate about our day and age is the amount, and accessibility, of content. However, we know that good teaching is much more than delivering content and information. We hope our students can create meaning and demonstrate knowledge of their skills and information in our valued disciplines, not just regurgitate what they hear. Let’s have the same standards and hopes for leaders. School systems are complex, and solutions can’t be found with a simple google search or a webinar. Leaders need the time, capacity, and structure to tap the collective wisdom of one another. Leaders need a system that allows them to bring challenges to the table and protocols for them to work toward innovative and contextual solutions.
From Coordinating to Collaborating. From the early work and research about Professional Learning Communities, we know that some of the best professional development comes from teams working toward a common goal. We have learned about effective structures for educators to work individually and collectively in a transparent culture. Industry professionals outside of education know the same. True collaboration is challenging, and it goes far beyond cooperation and coordination. Collaboration entails a level of discourse that impacts individual and collective understanding, and therefore practice. One challenge that is very leader-specific is the impact of politics. While relationships are important, sometimes the proximity of leaders inhibits their ability to be completely open and honest. I argue that an educational leader’s community needs to extend beyond their local backyard. They need a way to work with peers who can relate to shared challenges, and yet have no attachment to the local political spheres of one another.
There are incredible innovations that happen in education. While schools are an easy target for criticisms and complaints, the lives of children are often positively impacted due to the effort and care of educators. Still, we also know that education can be steeped in the traditional and difficult to change. It’s not a big ship. Its thousands of fleets of ships we are trying to direct as the public watches and weighs in.
Therefore, honing our efforts on changing and improving the support systems for educational leaders will prove to be fruitful and noble work. They deserve more. They need a responsive community that embodies the quote I first heard from my pastor . . . “Circles are better than rows.”
© Cognia Inc.
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