Some Practical Advice for School Leaders Facing Familiar Challenges
Over the decades, I've been struck at how often advice for school leaders is heavy on banalities and light on specifics. Anyway, when Kristyn Klei Borrero, a former principal and assistant supe and now CEO of the professional development outfit CT3, reached out to see if I'd be interested in having her pen something on what she'd learned as a school and system leader, I said I'd be up for a piece which offered some concrete lessons learned. This is what she sent along and I thought it worth sharing. I'd welcome your thoughts and reactions.
I spent more than a decade leading turnaround initiatives for underperforming schools in Oakland and East Palo Alto, California. While I had a lot of formal education under my belt, there were many things I needed to learn to support my team. I hope the list below will help leaders avoid some common pitfalls.
- Challenge: Prioritizing likability over mindset
- Solution: Hire for a growth mindset
When interviewing candidates, leaders often fall for extroverted candidates who interview well, rather than looking past likability to determine a candidate's mindset. While personality could be important, it is more important to hire candidates who want to grow, can take feedback, and who have ambition to learn.
Here's an example: I interviewed Ms. Lucy for a second-grade position for one of the schools I led in Oakland. Though the hiring team experienced her as "awkward" and felt she would not fit in, she scored well on our hiring rubric. Trusting our rubric, we brought her in to teach a demonstration lesson. Her lesson was strong, and she impressed the team with her ability to engage in a reflective conversation, take feedback, and immediately discuss how she would do better next time to meet the needs of her students. We hired Ms. Lucy. She was an amazing teacher for our young people and was recognized as a colleague "favorite" because of her ability to work collaboratively.
- Challenge: Only coaching "struggling" teachers (or new hires)
- Solution: Embrace coaching for everyone, including yourself
In other professions, everyone in the organization, especially those "at the top," receives coaching. Everyone receiving and expecting feedback helps to create a culture of coaching, feedback, trust, and high expectations that ultimately drives success for the adults and students in the building.
Several years ago, I coached an especially tenacious principal in Ohio, Mr. Guiles, who was responsible for implementing coaching to a team of educators that was nervous about it. Mr. Guiles was friendly, visible—and highly distractible, a quality he wanted to improve. We made his coaching goals transparent to the entire staff. I would often sit in leadership team meetings or full staff meetings and coach him in real time, so the team could experience how he was working to become a more focused leader. As educators experienced Mr. Guiles as less distractible and better focused, they requested coaching and feedback on their practice. By the end of year two, every team member had a coaching plan in place, and teachers were eagerly working to support one another in their practice.
You needn't be perfect to hold others to a high standard. Owning your mistakes, apologizing when necessary, and naming new behaviors will grow your leadership and help you build trust and accountability.
- Challenge: Spraying and praying
- Solution: Aim for the bullseye
The difference between subpar and successful leaders is their focus. A resilient leader can handle change because they have a well-defined vision and goals. Challenge yourself to create two or three measurable goals each month to six weeks that are aligned to your organization's mission and vision. Post the goals for you and others to see and read them several times a day.
Here's how yours could look:
My vision: Increase the rigor of culturally relevant pedagogy in all classrooms.
Goal: I will observe ten classrooms each day for eight minutes each to provide feedback on pedagogy—for each teacher. I will affirm the highlights of their delivery, note the impact of the pedagogy on student performance, and provide one challenge for the teacher on how to improve their delivery to increase rigor and/or relevance.
- Challenge: Weak relationships with your team
- Solution: Check-in frequently
We all become educators because of our love for students. As a leader, much of your focus and care needs to shift to the adults who support your students. When you take care of the team by modeling strong relationships, support, and high expectations, they will do the same for your students.
Check in frequently with team members. It's so easy to get stuck at your desk focusing on plans, emails, and paperwork. The gratification of crossing items off your "to do" list can make some folks feel productive. But nothing replaces the productivity you get when walking the school, checking in with teachers, saying hello to family members, or asking the custodial staff if there is something you can do to make their job easier. Two to three minute check-ins with your team members, several times a week, remind them of their value and that you care about them.
Being an effective school leader is a tough job. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and isolated. But I've learned that authority can too often make leaders feel like they're supposed to know every answer and avoid ever showing weakness. This is exactly backwards. The best advice I can offer is that leaders be willing to change their mindset and seek out coaching exactly the way they hope their teachers would.
Is Klei Borrero right on all of this? That's for you to judge. But the larger point is that too many advocates and analysts have offered curiously abstract notions of school improvement, while too many focused on educational leadership have offered up friction-free aspirations in lieu of advice. All of this has too often left real school leaders without practical, concrete guidance on how to help schools improve. What I like most here is the attempt to offer just that kind of assistance to struggling school leaders.