By: Lauren Acree and Maria Morrisson Copolillo on November 10th, 2020
Our Theory of Action for Developing Innovative Leadership in Schools
Innovative Leadership | District Leadership | School Leadership
At Education Elements, we know that a leader is critical in navigating a school system through change. This has become abundantly clear as we’ve navigated the COVID-19 pandemic - schools and leaders have undergone and continue to experience a period of immense uncertainty and change. School and district leaders have to rise to the occasion and lead their schools through previously unconceived circumstances almost daily. We have seen leadership emerge in the creative ways you all are celebrating students, connecting with families, and adjusting to new norms and methods of instruction.
However, there’s a long track record that shows the importance of leadership even before this crisis. School leadership is second only to classroom instruction among school-related factors that contribute to student learning. Leaders influence student learning by creating a culture that supports learning and growth, developing a vision for student success, and building teacher leadership through distributed leadership.
We have had the opportunity to work with countless leaders across the country and have doubled down on the importance of investing in leaders. We believe that if we develop leadership capacity across educational systems, then individuals and teams will be able to lead intentionally and responsively to promote equity, empower their communities, and navigate ambiguity and change effectively. This will provide long-lasting, sustained support for student learning.
We believe that if we develop leadership capacity across educational systems, then individuals and teams will be able to lead intentionally and responsively to promote equity, empower their communities, and navigate ambiguity and change effectively.
Critical to our theory of action are the six foundational competencies for innovative leadership. These leadership competencies articulate the skills and actions we believe leaders need to have in order to effectively lead this charge. While we’ve written about these competencies before, we wanted to share some strategies you can use with leaders across your own system to further develop these competencies during this time.
We know that COVID-19 has demanded new things from us and we wanted to share some of the lessons we have learned from the incredible leaders we work with.
Knowing yourself means you know your strengths AND are able to share your story with others. When leaders model this they create an environment of authenticity and vulnerability. We’ve been hearing from leaders that taking a moment to reflect on their personal values helps them feel grounded and guide decision-making. You can use a values list like this one from Bright Morning to identify and reflect on the 3-5 values that are most important to you.
Support, understanding, and honesty assist your team in being willing to share feedback and take risks. Taking a moment at the beginning of check-ins to take off your “leader hat” and check in with your team as people first before focusing on the work can go a long way in making team members feel supported. You can use a visual tool like a Mood Meter to get a sense of how your team is feeling before beginning a meeting, or at the end of a long week.
Curiosity allows us to find solutions and be responsive to the needs of our team amidst challenges. One thing is true: we’re all in the same boat when it comes to navigating the uncharted waters of pandemic education. Teachers are gaining experience, thinking, and planning in a way that may be unfamiliar to those of us no longer in the classroom. Leaders have shared that they’re more aware of the need to ask questions rather than provide solutions.
Clear communication is key for a team’s success in general but it is especially important when you are constrained by time and the physical space of an office. Regular communication keeps you and your team aligned and working towards your goals. We’ve seen many great examples of weekly school newsletters and celebrations!
If we want to work collaboratively, we must seek to learn from one another. Listening with a genuine desire to understand helps increase the speed of collaboration by aligning on outcomes and working through miscommunication. We’ve seen leaders using surveys to keep up with the changing needs of their team, school, and community.
Decision fatigue is heightened these days and it’s easy to feel helpless. Having processes and exercises that help you tackle decisions will help you be a more empowered decision-maker. We’ve seen leaders use protocols and matrixes to prioritize decisions and help teams break free from being stuck.
Leadership Across the System
As an organization, we’ve seen the tremendous impact that developing these skills can have on individual leaders – a principal building psychological safety to nurture trust and innovation from teachers across her school can have profound effects on teaching and learning. This effect is further amplified when leaders from across the system are able to speak a shared language and work together to enact change. Consider a system where district leaders are modeling risk-taking, self-awareness, listening, and clear communication for the building leaders. Those building leaders have the clarity they need to be able to foster innovation from their teachers in turn. The teachers feel supported and empowered by their principals to try new things to best meet the needs of each of their students. Making individual shifts in behavior across a system ripples out to amount to shifts in team dynamics and, ultimately, sustained organizational change.
Leaders are a key factor in being able to navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead of us. Investing in leadership across an educational system from the central office to the classroom can help ensure that schools are able to adapt to and confront whatever is thrown their way.