Two schools have had a major influence on my personal experiences of school leadership, and therefore my thinking about leadership capacity: Bell Junior High School in Golden, Colorado, and San Jose Middle School in Novato, California. I taught at Bell during the 1970–71 school year, just before moving to California. Bell was based on strong teacher leadership and the principles of open communication, problem solving, shared decision making, and accountability. It worked well for everyone in the school community.
A decade later, from 1980 to 1984, I was principal of San Jose Middle School. Since 1984, every principal and assistant principal at San Jose has been chosen from among the teacher leaders within the school. One assistant principal became principal and then superintendent, and other teacher leaders became district administrators. Since leaving San Jose, I have deepened my understanding of (and sharpened my questions about) leadership capacity through experiences at the school, district, county, regional, and international levels. No question lingers more vividly in my imagination than, “How do we bring about sustainable school improvement?”
Jennifer's View of Sustainability
In Chapter 1, I noted that the district superintendent asked Jennifer how she would work with others to sustain high leadership capacity at Belvedere Middle School. This is how Jennifer replied:
The major aim of leadership capacity development is sustained school improvement. Focused, professional conversation about student learning is the primary catalyst for improving schools, but it's not enough. Also necessary are an understanding of participation (i.e., leadership as expressed by teachers, administrators, students, parents, and community members), collaborative roles and collective responsibilities, and reflection and inquiry; a passionate commitment to student learning; and outrage at unsatisfactory student achievement. I believe that I have the knowledge and skills necessary to lead this continuing journey with others. There will be uncertainties, surprises, and setbacks, to be sure, but I firmly believe we can weather them. As long as we keep the big picture in mind and commit to each other, our improvements will be sustained.
What Jennifer Learned About Sustainability
Jennifer's acknowledgment of uncertainty and the need for flexibility is perhaps the deepest insight she has garnered about leadership to date. If a school's capacity is built entirely on relationships, the fabric may be too soft or fluid unless the necessary structures are present. If, on the other hand, the essential structures—such as governance, teams, learning cycles, shared decision-making models, and accountability processes—are too rigid, they can become brittle and break under pressure. Because social systems are uncertain by their very nature, schools are fragile places.
Besides solid relationships and flexible structures, the development of leadership requires adults to practice synergy and self-organization. If relationships enable us to care, trust, and risk, structures are the media through which we do so. When we interact, synergy gives us the will to succeed together (“we have the capacity and the determination to make it happen”), and self-organization provides us with alternative means to success (“given the new challenges, let's reorganize ourselves in another way”).
Jennifer found that engagement leads to synergy, which taps into our imaginations and allows us to visualize possible organizational changes. The process might be depicted like this:
Engagement → Synergy → Self-Organization
Because of this causal relationship, Jennifer learned to stay in the conversation even if the going was rough at first. When self-organization is achieved, you will notice that
- Completing the work necessary to achieve goals is more important than the length of a meeting;
- If there is more work to be done when a meeting adjourns, a teacher will suggest another time to get together;
- The principal doesn't need to convene all meetings;
- Many people participate in the discussion;
- Participants ask one another challenging questions;
- The energy levels of all involved rise; and
- Teachers, students, and parents initiate new ways of accomplishing the school's aims.
In Chapters 8 and 9, I described the Clayton, Missouri, experiment in self-organization. The district allowed teachers the discretion to plan their own learning, as long as the plans were aligned with district goals; the teachers answered by forming 35 district goal-centered study teams. As long as self-organization is accompanied by responsibility and authority, schools will sustain momentum and shared commitment.
Conditions for Sustainability
Senge and colleagues (1999) describe sustainability as a function of shared vision and personal mastery, team learning, and systems thinking (pp. 530–534). Each of these ideas is central to the work of leadership capacity—especially the fact that the critical features of such work are systemically interconnected. Other conditions for maintaining a school's capacity for leadership include
- A sustained sense of purpose,
- Succession planning and selection,
- A rhythm of development, and
- Conversion of practice into policy.
Sustained Sense of Purpose
Sustaining a sense of purpose requires that we continually use the language of our school and district visions and that we formally revisit the vision at least once a quarter. It also means using the language of leadership capacity by asking questions about our work, such as the following:
- How are we doing with participation? Is anyone feeling left out?
- Are our skills sufficient? What else do we need to know?
- Are we hearing everybody's voices, and particularly those of students?
- How are our teams working?
- What evidence do we have that a given assumption is true?
- Who is responsible for what tasks?
- Are the student successes to date enough?
- What added value are we bringing to students' lives?
By focusing our questions in this manner, we turn the vision and conceptual framework of the school into daily touchstones that guide our professional conversations about student learning.
Succession Planning and Selection
Succession planning and selection, which are characteristics of Quadrant 3 and 4 districts, requires that we select administrators who can hit the road running and respect the school's purposes and progress. I recently met a university professor who was working with an urban Quadrant 1 school. The school's directive principal was retiring, which sounded like good news. The professor, however, was wary. “My fear is that the school staff and district will choose a principal just like the one who is leaving,” he said. “They will seek to continue their current relationship with authority, which allows the staff to blame and avoid responsibility.” This is a justifiable concern, and one of the reasons that Quadrant 1 and 2 schools need more district guidance in principal selection than Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 schools.
Enculturation of new personnel enables new educators, parents, and students to enter mid-course and not feel alienated or confused. Such support—which should include orientation, mentoring, coaching, and the generous sharing of information and resources—increases the chances that the leadership culture will be seamless. Enculturation is everyone's responsibility.
Rhythm of Development
A rhythm of development—a personal and collective ebb and flow—is necessary for staff members to sustain their energy. Even under the best conditions, some individuals burn out—not out of frustration and disappointment, necessarily, but out of exhaustion. By anticipating the possibility of burnout, school community members can intervene before they begin to feel a sense of failure for letting go of the process and outcomes. School community members need to orchestrate energy by
- Guarding against low-priority initiatives that draw attention away from the essential work of the school;
- “Gliding,” during which time we consolidate and deepen our efforts;
- Rotating major responsibilities so that no one person carries a major task for too long;
- Letting individuals opt out of tasks occasionally when external or personal demands make it important to do so;
- Keeping reflection at the center of practice (remember that whenever you're tempted to cut reflection time because of other demands, it is actually time to increase it);
- Celebrating successes frequently; and
- Learning to occasionally say “no.”
Your personal rhythm depends on context and begins with developing strategies to anticipate and address demands on your community.
Practice as Policy
School practices last longer when they are enacted into policy. It is important, however, to distinguish between policies that facilitate the development of leadership capacity and those that compound bureaucratization. See Appendix F for a good example of the former.
The superintendent of Jennifer's district was intrigued and satisfied by what he had learned from Jennifer about her leadership skills, the leadership capacity of the school, and the principles of sustainability. After their conversation, he launched the process for selecting the new principal of Belvedere. The process was democratic, with broad participation from the school community. As we learned in Chapter 5, Jennifer ultimately got the job. She doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.
The work of leadership is characterized by several interdependent features. Involving teachers, administrators, students, parents, and community members in skillful ways promotes collective commitment to learning for all students. Launching such a shared and visionary journey into school improvement unites us as travelers on the journey toward school improvement that is challenging and deeply satisfying, and which leads to remarkable results for all learners. My hope is that this book has demystified the prospects of such a journey.
Questions and Activities
- In small groups or teams in a staff meeting, ask participants to sincerely state how well they believe they are attending to their energy levels. As a whole group, discuss what you are doing to help each other sustain energy as well as what is draining you of it. Brainstorm strategies for addressing this ever-present issue.
- When interviewing people new to the school (students included), leadership-team members can ask whether newcomers feel supported by the school community and, if so, what in particular has made them feel that way.
- In a staff meeting, conduct a dialogue on the meaning of self-organization. Discuss in pairs to ensure a shared understanding of the concept. Ask the entire group: “What evidence is there that we are self-organizing? What additional evidence would we like to see?”
- Celebrate your successes often. At the beginning of each staff meeting, have everyone state in a quick-write what they specifically and the school in general are doing especially well.
- In a staff meeting, ask how well the school is developing and sustaining leadership capacity. Hand out the results of old surveys or assessment questions (see Chapter 3) as a reminder of where you used to be. Discuss in small groups, then in the whole group. What else needs to be done?