Five Steps for Leading Schools With Emotional Intelligence and Accountability
By David Nitkin, the chief of staff at Two Rivers Public Charter School
Think of the best boss you've ever had. Did they hold you to a high standard and push you to grow? I'll bet they did. Did they make you feel cared for and supported? I'm sure of it. But how did they strike this masterful balance of leading with love and holding incredibly high standards? And more importantly, how can we teach others to do the same?
This is the question that we set out to answer last year at Two Rivers, a network of socio-economically and racially diverse public charter schools in the District of Columbia. When our highly successful single-site school replicated and became a network in 2015, we anticipated that our increased scale might lead to challenges. We also knew that these challenges would require that we master new skills and habits to prevent our strong and accountable culture from fraying at the edges.
We've worked hard to build those skills in the subsequent years, and as we entered the 2017-18 academic year, we decided that we wanted to specifically focus on strengthening a culture of accountability across our multiple campuses. Issues with accountability weren't unique to us, and we were committed to learning from those who had gone before. However, we also knew that our solutions would need to reflect our unique core values as a mission-driven organization. One core value we felt to be particularly salient was our commitment to nurturing relationships, which we define as "we make connections, build trust, have honest conversations, and care for each other." This core value informed the way we approached our big, adaptive question: How do we strengthen a culture of emotionally intelligent accountability: a warm, caring, collaborative culture that's also strong in follow-through and execution?
We dug into this question at our summer leadership retreat and deepened our learning through expert texts like Crucial Accountability and Radical Candor. We also partnered with Matt Taylor from The Noble Story Group to adapt a five-square framework for driving accountability in a way that not just improves results but also strengthens relationships.
Emotional Intelligence Five-Square
We were excited by the ways that this framework, which The Noble Story Group built to operationalize Goleman's (1995) work on emotional intelligence, aligned with our own Two Rivers Scholarly Habits, the character skills that we teach all of our students and expect them to master before graduating in 8th grade. These scholarly habits, which also align with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies for social-emotional learning, include:
I know myself. This scholarly habit describes the ability to accurately recognize one's emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior, as well as the ability to accurately assess one's strengths and limitations. This is aligned with the top-left quadrant of the emotional intelligence five-square: What biases, triggers, and issues do we bring to peer interactions that may prevent us from connecting deeply or challenging honestly?
I am independent and resilient. This scholarly habit is focused on self-management: the ability to successfully regulate one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations—effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. This is aligned with the bottom-left quadrant of the five-square, in which we work to manage our own "stuff" so that we can bring our best selves to our interactions with teammates.
I show compassion and embrace diversity. This scholarly habit describes the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. This is aligned with the top-right quadrant of the five-square, which focuses on deeply understanding the perspective of our teammates and approaching them with empathy and respect.
I can connect and collaborate. This scholarly habit describes the ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed. These are the skills that we leverage in the bottom-right section of the five-square, in which we actively navigate accountability conversations related to gaps between a teammate's actions and our shared, high expectations as a school community.
I act with integrity. Our final scholarly habit is defined as the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. When teaching this scholarly habit to students, we often define it as "I do the right thing even when nobody is watching." In the context of the emotional-intelligence five-square, acting with integrity is aligned with the center rectangle, which reminds us of the power we gain when we tap into our most deeply held values.
We were excited to have a schema that encompassed our core values, the scholarly habits that we teach our students, and research and best practices from outside experts. But our true growth only came when we got our hands dirty and started leveraging these ideas in our day-to-day work. To accelerate our learning, we utilized a structure of peer "running buddies" who met every six to eight weeks across the year to plan and reflect on difficult conversations and help one another tap into our authentic leadership voices.
We also allocated two of our leadership retreats to facilitate role plays in which we acted out "accountability conversations" that were intentionally designed to match the real pain points we were experiencing as an organization. For example, one role play called upon us to confront a teammate who repeatedly missed important deadlines. Using the five-square framework, we worked to show our teammates care by affirming their good intentions and empathizing with their workloads, while also challenging them to understand the impact of their missed deadlines on the rest of the team. By balancing care and challenge, we learned to not only address the accountability gap but also leave our relationships stronger and deeper than had we avoided the conversation in the first place.
When we launched this focus on emotionally intelligent accountability, many of our leaders were apprehensive, and some felt uncomfortable with being pushed outside of their comfort zone. But as the year went on, our confidence grew as we deepened our expertise and experienced an increasing amount of success. Most encouragingly, a year after beginning this work, we have seen significant increases in our staff culture survey results, including some of our best outcomes since replicating from a single school into a network four years ago.
Building a strong culture is truly forever work, and we know that we still have much more growth and learning ahead of us. But we're emboldened by these initial results and mindful of the fact that achieving them required both seeking expertise from outside our team and recommitting to the core values that have guided us since our founding.