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Cage-Busting: Hybrid Leadership

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Shannah Varón, Executive Director of Boston Collegiate Charter School (BCCS) in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a school ranked first in the state for the math MCAS exam, with 100% of 10th grade students scoring Advanced on the test. For nine consecutive years, BCCS graduates have posted 100% college acceptance results. Shannah is an Education Pioneers Graduate School Fellowship Alumna from the 2009 Boston cohort.

In Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick Hess writes that "high-performing schools and systems are uncompromising when it comes to seeking talent," and I know that incredible teachers are why Boston Collegiate Charter School (BCCS) has realized tremendous success with our students. In fact, one of our three operational pillars is that without great teachers, nothing else matters.

The reason why I can ensure that within our school students are focused on learning, teachers are focused on teaching, and the walls sing with the enthusiasm of teachers and students all working towards a common goal, is because of the many management lessons that I've learned along my meandering career path (including how to get out of the way and let talent flourish!). When my team and I successfully manage the "stuff" of running a school, we can ensure that teachers' valuable time is spent working with students.

My own time in the classroom made me realize how crucial good management is to create thriving schools. I began my career as a teacher in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas through Teach For America, where my days were filled with trying to better understand and give life opportunities to my students, all of whom had special needs. I now also have an MBA from Harvard Business School and work experience with The Parthenon Group, a strategy consulting firm in Boston. As a teacher, I came to believe that the biggest driver of success in schools was management: the capacity of a school leader to build, deploy, and inspire a high-performing team of teachers who are driven to do their best work. And so, as I moved through my career, I sought lenses on management, believing that business/management perspectives would make me a better, more thoughtful leader in education.

In my three short years as a teacher, I had three different principals. All were passionate, committed leaders, yet each struggled in her own way. I couldn't help but shake the feeling that there were pieces of the puzzle about running a school that no one had told them about, pieces that had to do with what was being said in the teacher's lounge, which ultimately boiled down to the management of adults: Setting an inspiring vision. Communicating effectively. Running tight operations so teachers can focus on teaching. Allocating resources effectively. Recognizing and rewarding strong performance.

I pursued an MBA specifically to take my "wonderings" and figure out what good leadership actually looks like. What, exactly, do we call those things that work? I was a fish out of water in some business school classes, yet I never doubted that I had made the right choice. Every case study protagonist, across every industry, had a leadership lesson to impart--like how to really think about what a Return on Investment is and how to make decisions with that in mind.

Though I went into my MBA program as a teacher, I came out a bit more complicated. To former fellow teachers, I was now a "business person." To my peers from the finance world, I would always be an educator. Because of this shift, after graduating from HBS and before starting my work with The Parthenon Group, I became an Education Pioneer. I own my identity as a "hybrid" leader, with a business mind and an instructional heart, so Education Pioneers are "my people."

The reach of Education Pioneers' program both nationally and locally is incredible: in Boston, three of my Education Pioneers colleagues are chiefs of staff for game-changing organizations--two for large national education non-profits, and one for one of the city's most important foundations. Others serve as directors of operations for charter networks, or policymakers in education at the state level. Education Pioneers has created a tie that binds us all together: we love moving the needle for students, and we love doing so by making organizations more effective.

After my Education Pioneers Fellowship and then an incredible set of education reform projects with Parthenon, I found myself itching to put my leadership lessons into practice to make a tangible, immediate impact for kids. At BCCS my team and I work hard to ensure our students are prepared for and accepted into college, and that they ultimately walk across the stage to graduate from college. We believe in creativity and also structure, and we have high expectations for student behavior and results. We also know that without great teachers who have the time, tools, and resources to do their jobs effectively, nothing else matters.

When I came to BCCS two years ago, I was fortunate to inherit a strong school with an excellent foundation built by talented leaders who came before me. During my tenure, I've worked hard to be the school leader who I wanted to see leading my school when I was a teacher. We run operations as tightly as we can to free up teachers' time to focus on teaching, since time on teaching is the biggest lever for success.

I ensure that we do everything we can to "reward our stars" and get them to stay at BCCS: our principal team is relentless in making sure that teachers are growing, whether they are in their first year with us or their fourteenth, and I try to access resources and think creatively to re-envision roles that would be inspiring to teachers. I try (hard!) to manage the chaos that has been imposed on one-school systems like mine by policy shifts in education, recognizing, that, as Hess states, "Policy is not a tool for promoting excellence." And I work with my team to rethink our approach to the basics, such as scheduling, in order to optimize outcomes with kids.

Hess says that fundamentally, "Cage-busters find ways to build teams that will promote a culture of great teaching and learning." At BCCS that is my ultimate goal. It's the only way we can ensure our students' success in our school, in college, and in life.

- Shannah Varón

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