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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
Reader's Guide

Leading Without Bulldozing

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    Leadership
    Leading Without Bulldozing Header Image
    Credit: MagioreStock/Shutterstock
      Less than a week after Elon Musk sent his first email to Twitter employees, ending the company's remote-work policy, the new CEO shot off a middle-of-the-night email demanding staff commit to an "extremely hardcore" work culture and put in "long hours at high intensity"—or leave.
      Fast Company called the missive "a masterclass in how not to communicate." The New York Times said it was the "worst midnight email from the boss, ever." The tone was so out of line, in fact, that some recipients assumed (or perhaps wished) the message was a phishing attack.
      Why bring up Elon Musk in an issue on school leadership? By taking a page out of the CEO's playbook—then ripping it up and doing the opposite—new leaders can avoid making a similarly disastrous first impression.

      It is essential to gain a better understanding of a school or district’s cultural dynamics before you start rearranging the furniture.

      Author Image

      This issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to helping new leaders start off right. To do so, the authors note, it is essential to gain a better understanding of a school or district's cultural dynamics before you start rearranging the furniture or bulldozing hallways. (Better yet, don't bulldoze anything.)
      Neil Gupta, the new superintendent of Ohio's Oakwood School District, says, "as leaders we tend to get into trouble when we feel like we have to come in and quickly solve a lot of things … rather than just really investing time in listening and asking a lot of questions."
      In addition to listening closely, new leaders must learn how to read the room. Robert Feirsen and Seth Weitzman argue leaders can address dissension head-on by enhancing their conflict agility skills. Rob Russell and Dustin Miller help leaders hone their decision-making finesse, important considering principals make roughly 300 decisions per day.
      Leading mindfully (e.g., being intentionally present in classrooms, solving problems collaboratively, and showing resilience) has an expressly positive impact on teams. In a survey of 200 educators, Russell and Miller found that "when teachers perceived their principal as more mindful, they were more likely to have a strong sense of belonging." This sense of belonging can serve as a "protective factor" against teacher burnout and turnover.

      By anticipating and clearing at least some roadblocks, districts can help new leaders find their way.

      Author Image

      Especially now, with turnover rates rising, leaders need to pay special attention to instructional cultures. A. Keith Young and Angela Bell Julien share four strategies for leading "intensive and compact" feedback conversations. These 5- to 10-minute chats, which help teachers make adjustments on-the-fly, result in "far more significant improvement, both in teacher efficacy and student learning, than laborious once- or twice-a-year evaluations that often don't reflect actual daily practice."
      Longtime educator Jennifer Orr—whose own school has three new administrators this fall—says more than anything, teachers want leaders with good listening and communication skills. As Elon Musk unartfully illustrated, what you say—and how you say it—matters.
      Whether or not leadership comes naturally, novice principals need strong and ongoing systems of support from districts. Efforts might include taking traditional duties off new leaders' plates, supporting opportunities for representation-based mentoring, and providing coaching that includes emotional well-being. By anticipating and clearing at least some roadblocks, districts can help new leaders find their way.

      Reflect & Discuss

      "The Fundamentals of Fast Feedback" by A. Keith Young and Angela Bell Julien

      ➛ How might you increase or decrease the frequency of your feedback to educators based on teacher needs?

      ➛ Can you think of opportunities, in addition to traditional conversations in team meetings or in the principal's office, where you might provide feedback to teachers? Why would you use that time or place for feedback?

      ➛ How might frequent and brief instructional feedback improve the outcomes for your student population?

      "Being A More Mindful Principal" by Rob Russell and Dustin Miller

      ➛ Consider the mindfulness practices described in the article. Which of these do you do regularly? Which might you need to do more?

      ➛ What is your principal's decision-making style? How does that style affect your work? How does it affect your school culture?

      "Building Community with Circles" by Leah A. Raphael

      ➛ In what ways does your school reproduce hierarchy? In other words, what role does your school play in maintaining social inequity and asymmetric power relationships?

      ➛ What does equity look like in a circle?

      ➛ What are the benefits you would most like to see among your staff as a result of implementing circle practices?

      ➛ The author views leadership as a "collective endeavor." Do you hold the same view? If so, how do you see circles making your leadership more "collective"?

      ➛ As a new leader, how could you frame change as a way to build on the school's past initiatives?

      ➛ What steps could you take to counteract "zero-sum" thinking when it's demonstrated in conversations by parents and other stakeholders?

      Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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