Over the past few months I have been working with school leaders in a variety of capacities. It has been a rewarding and rich summer of learning.
A Westminster colleague, Thad Persons, and I ran a 3-day institute on leadership for about 15 educators who were either in new leadership roles or who wanted to engage in conversation about leadership in their schools. It was part of our Summer Institute at the Center for Teaching. I participated in a Vertical Leadership Incubator, sponsored by Adeption, and organized by Nick Petrie and Carl Sanders-Edwards. Read about Nick’s lessons learned from leading the Vertical Incubator. For me, it was a wonderful learning experience that allowed me to think more deeply about the leadership work I am doing at Westminster School in Atlanta, GA. The incubator was designed to learn some new ideas from Nick and Carl’s work with leadership teams around the world, as well as get feedback from them and other participants about a leadership development program we are working on at Westminster School. The experience was structured to give us time to iterate our design, plan out our program and get feedback from the group.
Another experience I had was working with a New York City independent school leadership team at their summer retreat. I helped them organize the retreat and facilitated part of their work over two days. We spent time fine tuning their vision statement, developing action plans tied to vision elements, looking at some of the research about building an effective teams, and applying our collective understanding to the strategy for implementing the vision work. It was a rewarding two days of learning with this vibrant and engaged team of 15 school leaders.
From these different experiences I am thinking about four elements related to leading and shaping leadership conversations in schools.
First, school leaders need to focus their attention on identifying, understanding and grappling with adaptive challenges in their schools, not merely the technical ones. Ronald Heifetz, in his seminal book, Practice of Adaptive Leadership, explains that adaptive challenges require a completely different leadership skill that relies on understanding the complexities of the organization. See his 6 minutes You Tube Video for a short explanation of this idea.
Second, school leadership teams need to reframe conversations about the value of building effective teams and a strong sense of school community. I have taken a particular interest in the idea of a community of practice, a slightly different way of thinking about faculty working in teams to advance the culture of teaching and learning. See the work of Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner on communities of practice. Many schools use the professional learning community model, which is a particularly impactful way to collaborate. One isn’t better than the other. In fact, they have much in common. Regardless of the model a school decides to use, it is important to adopt a research-based model that gives faculty a foothold in the how and what to collaborate on.
Third, school leaders need to encourage and help faculty focus attention on aligning learning and assessment so that they utilize authentic experiences that prepare students to engage in real world issues. Project-based learning, challenge-based learning, experiential learning or problem-based learning are instructional strategies that can be employed to design more authentic, inquiry-based learning experiences for students. When learning is authentic or “real world,” students are more likely to see their way into the experience, engage with it, and apply the skills and knowledge they learn to other problems they encounter.
Finally, school leaders should consider creating space for a conversation about the purpose of school. As Simon Sinek points out so clearly in his work, Start with Why, organizations and their leaders need to understand their WHY, their purpose. With a clear sense of purpose, leaders are better positioned to inspire action within their stakeholder communities.
Patrick Lencioni explores a similar idea in his work on building strong teams. He explains that for a leadership team to be highly effective all team members have to be clear and aligned on their answers to six essential questions. The first question has to do with the purpose or the why. Why do we exist? Here are his six questions.
- Why do we exist?
- How do we behave?
- What do we do?
- How will we succeed?
- What is most important–right now?
- Who must do what?
In closing, I come back to the first element, school leaders being able to differentiate between adaptive versus the technical challenges. This is really about understanding the complexity of school as a system. In my work with school leaders, I find considerable conversation is focused on technical aspects of leading schools, fixing this and fixing that. Of course, the day-to-day work of school needs to be managed quite well. That goes without question! Technical challenges need to be addressed, but there are a wealth of qualified people within a school to handle most of them. However, the adaptive challenges, such as building a growth mindset within the faculty, require the leadership and involvement of the senior leaders. It is these individuals that have the background, capacity, and credibility to lead the work.
Let’s work on identifying the adaptive challenges we face and developing the leadership skills to lead our way through their complexity.