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September 11, 2023
ASCD Blog

Embracing Criticism for Growth

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In this highly critical education landscape, how can leaders effectively enact change?
Leadership
Embracing Criticism for Growth Header
Credit: Julia Senkevich / Shutterstock
In November 2016, fires ravaged the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, leaving remains of charred trees, burnt soil, and a decimated wildlife population. Yet, in a local news story, Andrew Miller, a mycologist from the University of Illinois working in conjunction with the University of Tennessee and Savannah State University, stated, “It’s only been a few months, but we can already see fungi are growing back again. They’ve basically been sitting in the soil as spores waiting for the fires to come along, and as soon as that happens, they fruit in abundance.” 
This image of regrowth after adversity can serve as a reminder of a leader’s impact when put through “fire.” Education today is filled with tension around academics, health and well-being, school funding, and political divisions at the local and national level. For example, leaders may be navigating the social-emotional supports for students within a community that’s divided on how its members perceive the curriculum and need for SEL in that curriculum. As leaders navigate conflict in this landscape, taking a grounded, consistent approach as they respond to challenges can help them withstand the fire long enough to bring about better outcomes for their students. Instead of fleeing from these inevitable fires, leaders can view them as opportunities for recovery, rebirth, and regrowth in two ways: by understanding and analyzing the impact of critical voices and by staying anchored through adversity. 

Vetting the Voices

As a basic function of schools, teachers lead change efforts to ensure students are reaching their academic and social-emotional potential. School and district leaders lead change efforts to ensure staff and systems have the resources to support those teachers. Whichever our position, when our leadership is criticized, it seemingly invalidates the time, energy, and effort we’ve put toward change efforts. Advice like “the tallest trees endure the harshest winds” doesn’t provide practical help for navigating criticism; however, this credo can provide an important perspective that leaders can leverage for self-improvement: roots need to run deep in the soil to prepare for the winds

When criticized, it’s crucial to view the value of criticism along a continuum.

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When criticized, it’s crucial to view the value of criticism along a continuum. Criticism from an incessant complainer carries far less value than the rare criticism from a strong, respected voice in our organization. It’s important to know the difference based on the voice of the person.  A few reflective questions can help you distinguish between the two:  
  • Do the core values and beliefs of this person match the mission of the school? 
  • Does the person care about the whole child? 
  • Is the person a champion for all students? 
Professionally, while it is our duty to actively listen to all stakeholders, we should take that listening as an opportunity to pause and consider the value of different perspectives, identify key areas to address, and seek alternatives that may inform change. When chronic complainers attack problems that are natural to our work, we should resist explaining, defending, or justifying ourselves. Doing so allows us to soar above an unnecessary debate and stay in a space where we can vet the value of the criticism and then move forward with our work as leaders.   However, criticism from a key, inner-circle teammate could be the secret weapon to launching a change effort. When a trusted teacher or a loyal stakeholder speaks, it’s time to listen, as the critical feedback that he or she is sharing is often accurate. It’s still hard to hear and even more difficult to accept; however, usually within that criticism is growth-promoting wisdom. Leaning into this criticism helps us navigate blind spots and recognize what is holding us back. 

Staying Anchored Through the Adversity

Leaders need to build endurance and perseverance, especially in times of uncertainty and chaos.  During this time, it may feel natural for leaders to isolate themselves for protection. Yet, this is a time to connect and collaborate with other leaders who can offer empathy and encouragement, providing stability that lets one forge ahead. Another approach is staying anchored in the identification of non-negotiables, a list of values that won’t change regardless of the situation. Liu and coauthors (2021) shared how effective higher education leaders responded to the COVID-19 crisis by recalling and acting from their core values rather than relying on existing crisis plans. Through 55 interviews with U.S. higher education leaders, these researchers discovered that school crisis plans created prior to the pandemic were largely ineffective. Leaders instead had to apply their guiding principles to make decisions, suggesting that infusing shared values into crisis plans is a more effective anchor and guide for school leaders.  

Infusing shared values into crisis plans is a more effective anchor and guide for school leaders.

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It’s important for leaders to have their core values and beliefs identified—and written down and shared with others so they can be an anchor and guide—before finding themselves in the midst of a crisis. Some leaders include core values at the top of agendas and review them in team meetings before agenda items are considered to ground the dialogue and discussion. 

Growing Through Criticism

As the educational landscape continues to evolve and become more polarized at local and national levels, leaders need to not just withstand but embrace tension by proactively vetting critics’ voices and staying anchored to core values. While some leaders may rate their effectiveness on how often people agree with them, true leaders understand there is a greater sense of accomplishment in supporting students, a deeper sense of fulfillment, and more opportunity to build a strong team when leaders can lean into the ambiguity and confrontation to do what’s best for students. When things start getting warm, it’s important to keep this frame of reference; it helps a leader endure the heat a little longer to witness a beautiful outcome on the other side.

Neil Gupta serves as superintendent for Oakwood City Schools, Ohio. With more than 16 years of experience as a district administrator in rural and suburban settings, he has a passion for leadership, building culture, and coaching leaders. Gupta presents at the state and national level, and consults building and district leaders and teams in developing and monitoring improvement plans. Gupta also serves as an associate with Creative Leadership Solutions.

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