New Sup? You should lead radically differently (Opinion)

Thirteen percent of school systems across the country — and up to a quarter of urban districts — welcomed new or acting superintendents this school year. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the departure of the previous superintendent, the next leader faces the daunting task of leading a community that, to say the least, is experiencing loss and change.

This begs a big question: What leadership dispositions, skills, and knowledge do superintendents need to lead their communities today, at this critical time?

The Leadership Academy has supported hundreds of district leaders during the COVID pandemic and the nation’s race and culture wars, and we’ve identified a few essential skills and leadership qualities that have helped leaders lead their communities in radically different ways:

  • Know how to build and maintain a strong team made up of people who do not think alike;
  • Position communities at the center of district operations and decision-making in an intentional and transparent manner;
  • Understand how to cultivate a culture that elevates historically marginalized voices to support system-wide transformation.

Build a strong team of system-level leaders who think differently. The highest position in a school system is not to go it alone. I can’t think of a time in my career as a school and system administrator when it’s been more critical for district leaders to take ownership of decision-making, distribute leadership, and explicitly break organizational silos that prevent people from meaningfully collaborating. . That doesn’t mean creating a mini-me team. Each adult has their own ideas, identities and life experiences. If you value and cultivate these unique and diverse strengths and perspectives, your team will be stronger and better able to navigate through complexity and achieve your shared vision.

Engage your team in exploring approaches that challenge the status quo and identify solutions to new and persistent challenges and inequalities, while allowing for failure, disagreement and debate, vulnerability, reflective practice and short learning cycles. In Kentwood, Michigan, Superintendent Kevin Polston brought his team together for a retreat in July to align executive cabinet goals around district priorities: strong and authentic relationships, excellence, equity, and data-driven research. . The retreat was about sharing ideas, asking for help and offering critical feedback to improve the collective. For Superintendent Polston, building a strong team requires creating processes to overcome the mess of cross-functional and cross-departmental partnerships.

Place communities at the center of district operations and decision-making. If it wasn’t clear before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear how critical strong community-school partnerships are to supporting student learning. Schools that had these strong ties before 2020 were better able to meet student needs. Consider how you can put systems in place to learn from families about their children’s learning preferences, interests, and values, information that teachers can use to connect with students and improve their teaching. Make home visits and phone calls to families to check in, discuss the program, and highlight their child’s accomplishments and challenges. Let families know the role their school plays as the center of the community.

You will be more successful if you… communicate and move in ways that help bring the voices of those not traditionally heard.

This year, the New York City Department of Education prioritized the development of 45 community-centered superintendents by launching a citywide effort to “listen and learn.” Inspired by Chancellor David Banks’ vision of building partnerships with families and communities that cultivate trust and participatory decision-making, these learning tours have been designed for leaders to engage with a cross-section of stakeholders on the issues that matter most to them, building the partnerships that seek suggests helping improve school and community outcomes.

Superintendents asked:

  • what is and is not works well here?
  • What changes do you think that would make the biggest difference?
  • What do you need to hear or live for heal of what was difficult?
  • What hope do you have for our district and our community?
  • What does mean a meaningful partnership looks like you ?

Cultivate a culture that elevates historically marginalized voices to support system-wide transformation. Whether you lead a school or a district, you will be more successful if you are strategic and communicate and evolve in ways that help make the voices of those not traditionally heard heard, intentionally creating systems and processes that bridge a wide range of differences between people and the system.

But you can’t separate strategy from building a strong culture. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Mark Moore’s “strategic triangle”rests on what Moore calls the “authorizing environment,” the formal and informal authority required to provide public value. The people authorizing the work you hope to do often don’t have an official role. To determine the most strategic entry points and leadership moves, understand your context around three key levers:

  • Understand the public value you and your organization seek to do.
  • Identify the sources of legitimacy and support necessary for your organization to act and continue the effort.
  • Understand the operational capabilities that your organization will need to build on or develop to achieve the desired results.

When Dr. Tauheedah Baker-Jones became the Atlanta Public Schools Equity and Social Justice Manager, the staff had little to no explicit conversations about racial disparities and race.

“People knew what the root causes of the problems were, but no one named them,” she said. Ever since her office engaged the district in a fairness audit, “people are talking about fairness throughout the organization,” she said. She added that the audit design team, made up of a cross-section of stakeholders, helped people dialogue about the deficit mindsets and inequalities that black and brown students experience than she had. never seen before.

By strategically partnering with formal and informal enablers, listening and building consensus between staff and the community, Baker-Jones has been able to advance equity-focused work in support of the vision of Superintendent Lisa Herring.

As leaders, let’s set goals for our schools around what should be versus what has been. And give ourselves and our colleagues the love and support we need to transform practice in the service of system-wide change. Let’s each learn to lead in radically different ways than we are used to. Because if we don’t lead with intention, we will simply recreate what always has been.

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