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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

One to Grow On / Leading from "Why"

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The concept of leadership is complex and difficult to capture. We tend to think of leaders, including instructional leaders, as those who have made their way up the "food chain" of professional status. And yet, I suspect all of us have known teachers who were far more influential in shaping conversations about classroom practice than, for example, a principal or curriculum coordinator. I've thought and read about leadership a great deal over the years and have observed (and worked with) leaders who were transformative—and ones who fall at the other end of that continuum. Status and title don't really define leadership. And we're wise never to confuse leadership and management.
While there is no single correct definition of what it means to lead, there are perspectives on instructional leadership that are worthy of careful consideration. We live in challenging and disquieting times. Our schools are victims of those tensions. They are also contributors to the tensions because they too often perpetuate the status quo and thus lack the vibrancy and relevance necessary to be generative for students and their teachers. We need leaders who, like Janus (the god of endings, beginnings, and passages), have the skill to guide us through needed transitions—not merely the skills to "manage" the status quo.

Leading Instructional Transitions

Leadership implies a goal. Leadership for transition to a markedly better place requires a goal that helps those with whom the leader works achieve better outcomes than those they currently achieve (Kruse, 2013). That seems logical enough. "I'll help us do better!"
Unfortunately, however, leaders often frame "doing better" in terms of what we should do next. We should adopt a technology focus, or we should purchase the scripted reading program that promises achievement gains, or we should focus on student behavior, or we should group students by ability or achievement so we can teach them more conveniently.
Tinged as these suggestions are with discouragement or cynicism, they are "what" responses. There are, of course, more positive versions of what we might do to garner a better outcome—begin school an hour later for adolescents, create makerspaces, or establish a community service program. These, too, are what responses.
Whether positive or negative, however, Simon Sinek (2009), a leading voice in transformational leadership, advises us that the what conversation should come later in our thinking, rather than initially. Highly successful organizations differ from less successful ones, he says, in a clear and identifiable way. Organizations that change both the world around them and the world within them in significant and positive ways don't start the conversation with what. Rather, they always start with why. Why do we exist? Why do we matter? Why should we change? Why would people care to follow us? Why do we keep getting up to come to work in the morning?
A powerful vision—a compelling mission—inspires people to work beside leaders, to risk inevitable failures, to become their best selves in service of something greater than what they now serve. Leading from why becomes a reliable GPS that points to worthy and transformational whats and ultimately hows. We are in dire need of why-focused instructional leaders.

Some Possible

I'm not prescient enough to know the best why for instructional principles and practices in our schools, but here are a few possibilities  that I believe would take us in a markedly more compelling direction as we answer the question, "Why do we instruct young people?" Perhaps our mission is to:
  • Ensure that each generation of youth sees itself as learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.
  • Emphasize intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) motivation in students.
  • Nurture creativity in students and teachers.
  • Promote learning through understanding rather than through surface-level learning or memorization.
  • Help students see the applicability of what they learn to the world around them.
  • Instill in young people an appreciation for the world they live in and empathy for the beings who share it with them.
  • Ensure that every student who comes our way has equitable access to excellent preparation for a sound and contributing life.
  • Maximize the strengths of every learner.
  • Ensure that young people, as prescribed by Philip H. Phenix (1964), are equipped to answer the question, "What is life, and who am I in it?"
I believe there are many better ways to answer why we should instruct young people than the answers that—perhaps by default—seem to currently define our work. It would be greatly encouraging to see a critical mass of education leaders invest their professional lives in service of whys such as those noted above and inspire their colleagues to do the same. From "whys" such as those, our "whats" and "hows" would be far more informed, coherent, and purposeful.
We ought not to lead because we got a promotion or because we find the role interesting or because there was a vacancy that needed to be filled. Transformative leaders do not emanate from those who excelled at teaching for the status quo, or who comply and seek compliance, or who shy away from the complexity, ambiguity, and failure inevitable in challenge. We don't need instructional leaders who see themselves as managing what is and who begin with what or how. We need instructional leaders who begin with why and inspire us to create classrooms that honor that vision.

Kruse, K. (2013, April 10). What is leadership? Forbes.

Phenix, P. (1964). Realms of meaning: Philosophy of the curriculum for general education. New York: McGraw Hill.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why. New York: Portfolio Penguin.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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