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June 14, 2022

Robyn Jackson on Building Better School Leadership

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Creating a vision for schools that adapts to unexpected changes and invites teachers to collaborate has never been more important.
LeadershipProfessional Learning
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Reimagining leaders as “builders” strengthens their resiliency and helps them enlist the support of teachers as key players in school improvement processes, says author and education consultant Robyn Jackson. Jackson, who will lead the ASCD virtual bootcamp “From Leadership to Buildership” on July 18, outlines key points to her vision of successful school leadership below.  
How do you define “buildership”?  
What I realized early on was that the leadership strategies I was being taught were not moving the needle—they were fine for maintaining the status quo, but they weren't moving the school forward. I realized that what the world needs are people who are going to build something better than what they walked into.  
Harvard Business Review columnist Umair Haque said something that has stuck with me: Bosses say “go.” Leaders say, “let's go.” And builders say “come.” The idea here is that you're not trying to drag people towards a goal, but that you are stepping away from what currently is, so you can build something much better. And I think that's why buildership is more powerful than leadership. When you're truly a visionary, you go out and you start building towards a vision. And then instead of driving people towards that vision, you're inviting people to join you in building that vision together. 
The buildership model has four parts: purpose, people, pathway, and plan. What makes each of those components important?  
When you're trained as a leader, you're trained to create a plan and then impose that plan on the people that you lead. And that’s what you’re told good leadership is. But oftentimes, when you do that, people feel like they are not a part of building that plan. What buildership asserts is that that’s an inefficient way of making change happen. Instead, our purpose is where we say, “This is what we're building, this is why it's important, and this is the role that we all play in building it.” Everything revolves around that purpose.  
Then, the people component is about building the will and skill with all the people who will be involved so that they are able and willing to step into that purpose.  
The next thing is the pathway. People often jump straight to the plan and say, for example, “Oh, we have a literacy problem, let's do this literacy program.” They never really stop to think about why that problem exists. But the pathway says, “This is where we're headed. These are the obstacles in our way. How do we start removing some of these obstacles?”  
Then the plan portion is not your typical plan. Builders should remember that as you start executing your plan, things will change. You're going to face pushback, but how do you plan for that? You're going to hit setbacks, but how do you recover from those setbacks? 
Why is buildership so important right now, especially given the challenges schools are facing with educator turnover? 
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Warren Buffett, says, “When the tide goes out, you realize who's been swimming naked.” The pandemic revealed that the leadership strategies most of us were using left us swimming naked. You can no longer just maintain the status quo. If you’re not creating that purpose, if you're not building the people that you work with so that they have the will and skill, if you're not constantly scanning and looking for the right pathway right now, if you're not building a plan that can withstand the change process, then you are not going to be able to navigate what has become an increasingly rocky environment. 
The reason that teachers are leaving is because we are asking them to deal with untenable circumstances that are keeping them in crisis mode. Our leadership models lack the imagination to conceive of a school where teachers and leaders aren't sacrificing themselves. But we can take care of our teachers and take care of our students. When you're a builder, one of the things you do is build other builders, and you invite people to step into your vision. You can be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details to create space for teachers to buy into that vision. That way, teachers feel that their work is meaningful and makes a difference. They're seeing results, and they're doing it in a climate where they feel supported, rather than imposed upon. That's how you retain teachers. 
You have written about the “school improvement hamster wheel” that keeps educators spinning through new initiatives without making real change. How can they avoid getting stuck in that cycle? 
The reason it is a hamster wheel is because when you're working really hard, you're not thinking. And it's not even your fault, it's how we were all trained, right? You do the school improvement plan at the beginning of the year, you submit it to the state, you start pursuing it around October, and you get to what I call the “October surprise,” where you look up and realize this isn't working. Then you start trying to make adjustments and the plan falls by the wayside in December. And then in January you try to get back to it but then something happens in March, and then maybe you're just trying to get to the end of the year.  
One of the ways you get off the hamster wheel is shortening the planning cycle. Rather than writing a year-long plan that is doomed to fail, why not focus on 90 days at a time, because that is short enough to make reasonable predictions about what needs to happen at work. Shorten the planning cycle, make sure that you're focused on the most important thing rather than 25 different things, and then take time to let the data inform the work that you're doing so that you can make sure you're staying on the right track. 
How can leaders take advantage of the summer as they prepare for the coming school year?  
I’m going to go back to the question you asked me before. I call it a hamster wheel because when you put a hamster in a wheel, the purpose is for it to just run as hard as it can. When you have a clear vision, mission, and core values, the purpose is not to just run, the purpose is to achieve something. A lot of principals have gotten caught up in that school-year cycle and never take time to reflect and anchor the vision, mission, and core values of their organization. The summer is a great opportunity to just stop running, set a destination, and start moving towards that destination. Take the summer to really think about what you are building. And frankly, the hardest work I do is helping principals to figure that out, because they know it in their hearts, but they have a hard time integrating it into their work. What does success look like for 100 percent of your students? Getting clear on that part changes everything. 
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for space.  

From Leadership to Buildership

During this virtual bootcamp on July 18, Robyn Jackson will walk you through strategies that will help you get off the "school improvement hamster wheel."

From Leadership to Buildership

Noble Ingram is the Associate Online Editor of Educational Leadership magazine.

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