Getting an Education Schools Leaders Need Specialized Development

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1 Getting an Education Schools Leaders Need Specialized Development The unique elements in the public school setting in the United States demand a more customized approach to the development of its leaders. It is important to articulate how leader development affects student learning and achievement, the particular skills and capabilities that are critical for success in educational settings, and development strategies and tactics that support skill attainment and application and that equip participants with the means to develop capacity in others. Given our schools responsibility for preparing the next generation for the growing challenges that lie ahead, effective leader development is perhaps nowhere more crucial than in the field of education specifically, in the United States, in the public primary and secondary schools. But should educational leaders be developed through the same methods used for leaders in other contexts? In some ways the context of educational leadership is similar to other leadership contexts. For example, goals must be set and achieved, employees must be motivated and developed, and resources must be obtained and well managed. However, the public school setting has some unique elements that demand a customized approach to the development of its leaders. Historically in the United States, leaders at the school level (principals) and school district level (superintendents) began their careers primarily as classroom teachers. This common professional background has generated a population of educational leaders who share similar motivation, knowledge, and challenges. A teacher s world focuses on his or her students. The opportunity to have an impact on children is what motivates many public school teachers to enter the field. The teaching profession is committed to serving the interests of students their learning, their wellbeing, and their progress. Teachers often make sacrifices and exceptional by Karen Dyer and Michael T. Renn 3 LIA VOLUME 29, NUMBER 6 january/february 2010

2 efforts because of their concern for the betterment of students. Because the teacher s world focuses on students, a transition from a professional classroom role to a managerial role can be particularly difficult. Consider a few of the typical elements of this transition: Classroom teachers often envi- sion an administrative leadership role as a change of career rather than a promotion within a career; there is little or no career path within teaching. Classroom teachers often are discouraged by their peers from leaving the teaching ranks to pursue an administrative leadership role. Classroom teachers are in a work world that keeps them largely isolated from other adults during much of the day a sharp contrast to the highly interactive world of managerial work. The type of strong emotional connections that teachers work to create with students is often discouraged by the school leadership culture as teachers move to become leaders of adults. There is an expectation that the soft work expected in dealing with children is not appropriate or needed when leading adults. ABOUT THE AUTHORS Karen dyer is group director of the Education and Nonprofit Sectors at CCL. She holds an Ed.D. degree from the University of the Pacific. Michael T. Renn is manager of the Education Sector at CCL. He holds an Ed.D. degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. These and other realities can make the pursuit of an administrative leadership role seem powerfully dissonant with everything that has brought teachers success and satisfaction in their classroom roles. This often leaves them with little desire for a transition that they feel will cost them a great deal and alter what they have come to see as the highly developed self they have worked to perfect as teachers. Even when they decide to enroll in a graduate program to increase For potential educational leaders, making the transition to formal leadership can seem like an abandonment of the children and their chosen profession. their knowledge, amplify their skills, and increase their salaries, they find that these programs often assume that they are pursuing a single career path: teaching or administrative. For potential educational leaders, making the transition to formal leadership can seem like an abandonment of the children and their chosen profession. Teachers are expected to have an expert understanding of the dynamics of learning and development, and this is also an important characteristic of educational leaders. Educational leaders know what the design of effective leader development programs should entail. CCL s assessment, challenge, and support model of leader development resonates with educational leaders. They are well versed in the principles of adult learning pioneered by Malcolm Knowles: Adults need to know why they need to learn something. Adults need to learn experientially. Adults approach learning as problem solving. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. Finally, in a continuation of their practice as teachers, educational leaders also embrace notions of lifelong learning, reflective practice as the core of continuous learning, and transfer of learning as a critical element of effective training programs. As a result, like teachers, they are sophisticated consumers of learning and development interventions. LINK TO ACHIEVEMENT On the surface, CCL s programs for educational leaders look very much like its other leader development programs. They embrace many of the same principles and make use of the same models, exercises, and assessment tools. In addition, however, these programs are customized for educational leaders personal characteristics and sociopolitical context in these ways: They emphasize the link between leader development and student learning and achievement. They use facilitators who have in-depth understanding of educational organizations, can translate general models of leadership into the public school context, and have deep empathy for the sociopolitical challenges and pressures educational leaders face. They are designed so that learn- ing goes beyond conceptual understanding to include skill attainment and application to each leader s own institution. They offer increased attention to the particular skills and capabilities that are critical for leading effectively in educational settings. They address the means for leaders to build capacity in others. 4

3 Many educational leaders, despite understanding the importance of school leadership for student learning and achievement, have been apprehensive when it comes to allocating resources toward their own development as leaders. With limited funding, principals and superintendents are more likely to apply professional development resources to their teachers and other staff members rather than to themselves. When they do consider engaging in leader development for themselves, they ask two primary questions: How do the development program s goals connect to student achievement? and, What kind of impact can I expect for my investment of time, energy, and resources? That educational leaders would ask these questions is not surprising, given their commitment to students and the expectations of boards, parents, and the general public. In response to these queries, CCL staff are careful not to make claims such as, If you attend a program, your student test scores will improve. However, they do articulate how leader development is related to student achievement. Research in 2004 by Kenneth Leithwood, Karen Seashore Louis, Stephen Anderson, and Kyla Wahlstrom concluded that effective school leadership can play a highly significant role in student learning, second only to classroom instruction, and that the impact of leadership is greatest in schools with the greatest challenges. Perhaps more important, the research suggests that leaders do not have a direct impact on student learning; rather the impact on student learning comes about from the leaders actions in regard to school conditions (articulating a vision, setting high performance expectations, and promoting effective communication through the organization), teachers (recruiting, motivating, and developing them), and classroom conditions (securing adequate classroom resources and providing models of best practice). PRACTICE ANd feedback Because educational leaders understand the dynamics of adult learning and are highly motivated to ensure that any investment in leader development will yield positive outcomes for their organizations and students, they expect program designs that go beyond providing a conceptual understanding. They expect to engage in learning experiences that will facilitate skill attainment and back-home application. Research with educators has shown that the impact of training increases as the design of the program expands beyond presentations and modeling of skills and behaviors to include practice, feedback, and peer coaching. Presentations and modeling generate conceptual understanding but little in the way of skill attainment or ongoing application. The addition of practice and feedback significantly increases the number of individuals who achieve skill development from training. Moreover, the effective application of new skills in the workplace is significantly increased again (beyond the level induced by the addition of practice and feedback) through ongoing participation in peer coaching teams that challenge and support practice and implementation of learning. Educators want to go quickly to application. This need can be met even in the leadership classroom by pairing any activity, exercise, or simulation and the subsequent extraction of lessons learned with a conversation about application, prompted by questions such as these: What are the implications for you as a leader back at your school or district? What are the lessons learned, and how can these be applied to the real-life, day-to-day situations you face? In what ways will you be able to use this information with your staff? MORE CAPABILITIES The content of most development programs for educational leaders has focused primarily on how leaders can create and sustain a vision for learning; provide instructional leadership; sustain a culture of achievement (including ensuring a safe and productive learning environment); promote increased parental involvement; recognize the sociopolitical realities that strongly influence Educational leaders expect to engage in learning experiences that will facilitate skill attainment and backhome application. policies, procedures, practices, and norms of behavior; and manage operations all in the service of student learning. Although myriad roles and responsibilities are associated with each of these areas, they reflect the day-to-day realities of school and school district administrators as a whole. We see these skills and capabilities as essential but not sufficient for success as an educational leader. With insights from CCL s research on leadership development and our own experience in the field, we see additional capabilities as central to effective leadership in educational organizations. Self-Awareness Like all other leaders, educational leaders need to understand their individual strengths and development needs. This understanding is arrived 5

4 6 Like all other leaders, educational leaders need to understand their individual strengths and development needs. at through assessment tools, simulations, experiential activities, and staff and peer feedback. This examination of one s effectiveness as a leader is particularly important for those who are making the transition to principal or superintendent roles. Both transitions are critical, and the skills and abilities needed for success can be dramatically different from those relied on in previous roles. The potential for derailment is high. For example, many new school principals are transitioning from roles as assistant principals or teachers. In these roles they were successful primarily because they were effective at dealing with students. As principals, they will be working primarily with adults from multiple constituencies: teachers, parents, community leaders, and others. In addition, different interpersonal dynamics are at play in adult interactions than are found in adult-student interactions. Adults in a school system have authority over students, and effective educators have learned strategies for exercising this authority. For example, they learn to use body language and presence to control situations with students. Principals also have authority in their schools, but their relationships with teachers are different from the adult-student relationships. Using body language and presence to control situations with teachers can be experienced at worst as intimidation and at best as uncomfortable. Effective relationships with teachers and also with parents and others in the community require strong interpersonal skills. New principals can be quite unaware of how they may be applying the approaches they developed in working with students to the context of working with adults, making this transition an important time for indepth assessment and feedback. Leading Change Because of the role that public schools play in a dynamic and democratic society and the multiple stakeholders who care passionately about the impact of schools on students, educational organizations are continuously engaged in improvement efforts. Thus, navigating and leading change is a critical competency for educational leaders. They must be able to articulate a compelling vision, assess a school s or a school system s readiness for change, develop strategies and plans for implementing change, support people in making transitions that enable the change, and deal with unanticipated problems that arise in the midst of change. But changing a complex organization like a school district is fraught with difficulties. Michael Fullan, a leading expert on educational change, has identified five characteristics of effective leaders of change in schools, each of which can be enhanced through leader development programs: They project a sense of moral purpose. They act with the intention of making a positive difference for students, employees, and society as a whole. They understand the change process. They know the role that vision, skills, incentives, resources, and action plans play in managing complex change. They improve relationships. They build positive relationships with diverse people and groups who have a stake in the change. They build knowledge. They generate and openly share knowledge inside and outside the organization. They build coherence. Although they often need to tolerate ambiguity, they know that seeking coherence and shared meaning is essential for generating real commitment to change. Managing Conflict Conflict is an everyday occurrence for many educational leaders. Having knowledge of one s personal conflict management style and how it hinders or helps in resolving conflict and solving problems is a key element in a school leader s success. CCL programs focus on developing this knowledge through self-assessments and feedback from others on how each participant deals with conflict and through exercises that allow participants to see their own reactions to conflict in action. The programs pay special attention to giving and receiving feedback, seeing conflict as opportunity, coping with the emotions resulting from conflict, and promoting authenticity as an important positive element in a leader s conflict style. The bottom line is that poorly navigated conflict yields collateral damage that can have a negative impact on a leader s long-term effectiveness and legacy. Many school leaders have learned to deal effectively with conflict in the moment. They have learned how to listen to concerns and absorb criticism from others without retaliating and how to find common ground by putting the needs of students at the center of problem solving. School leaders have developed these skills from the crises and conflict that are inevitable in schools. What they have not learned to do as effectively is anticipate and plan for conflict and repair relationships after a conflict. Power, Influence, and Politics Effective educational leaders must also develop their capacity to use power and influence skills in a highly

5 political context. This includes creating strategies that leverage relationships with power brokers and other stakeholders, such as school board members, other elected officials, and the general public; positioning oneself as a visible leader in the community (not just as a leader within the schools); formulating effective ethical standards; and creating value-based leadership tenets, such as emphasizing the responsibilities that schools take on for the public good and articulating the values that guide effective decision making in schools. Understanding the differences between positional power and personal power, and how to balance the two, is particularly important for leading in educational organizations. CCL programs make a point of building in time for program participants to share stories of how they balance positional and personal power and to act as advisers to each other on political situations that they are struggling with. Using Teams Problems and issues in educational organizations are often addressed by teams. A typical school has multiple ongoing teams subject matter departments (for example, English and math), grade-level teams, school site councils, and school leadership teams as well as temporary task forces and committees managing special initiatives. As a result, educational leaders must learn to form and manage teams and develop team leadership in others. Team leadership competencies include identifying barriers to team performance, developing a positive team culture, understanding team dynamics, and facilitating team decision making and problem solving. At the same time, the understanding that there are times when a team is needed and times when it is not is often a revelation to educational leaders, who are embedded in highly collaborative cultures. So CCL programs often start a session on using teams with a discussion of this topic. The goal is to convey how teams are effective mechanisms for tackling complex tasks that require a diverse set of knowledge and skills, dealing with controversial issues that need the input of multiple perspectives, and sparking creativity. Straightforward tasks, problems that can be solved by experts, and day-to-day management work typically do not need teams; in fact, using a team approach in these situations might get in the way of productive work. Building Capacity in Others A final point is key to understanding leader development from the perspective of educational leaders. Educational leaders interest in and commitment to leader development is strong when they are able to see a connection between their development and fulfilling their clear desire to build the capacity of others in their schools and organizations again for the collective purpose of a positive impact on student learning and achievement. It is not uncommon to have participants say during a session, I need to take this back and use it with my staff. This applies not only to tools and content but also to lessons gleaned from various activities and processes. These leaders often report in postsession evaluations and in follow-on action planning that the value of the session was not only in what they gained in the moment but also in what they were able to share with others following the program as a way of building these others leadership capabilities. This differs from CCL s experience with participants from other types of organizations. Although some participants from organizations other than schools express an interest in sharing what they have learned with others back at their work sites, a majority of school-based participants are consistently processing their program experiences and lessons through the capacity-building lens. LESSONS INTO PRACTICE The unique elements in the public school setting in the United States demand a customized approach to the development of educational leaders. These elements include a cadre of leaders who have pursued a career in education because of their commitment to serving the interest of students and a host of sociopolitical factors that create a high-stakes, multiple-stakeholder, public accountability leadership context. CCL has worked to make leader development Having knowledge of one s personal conflict management style and how it hinders or helps in resolving conflict and solving problems is a key element in a school leader s success. programs available, relevant, and valuable in this context. In doing so, CCL staff have learned the importance of articulating how leader development affects student learning and achievement, the particular skills and capabilities that are critical for success in educational settings, and the development strategies and tactics that support skill attainment and application and that equip participants with the means to develop capacity in others. Putting these lessons into practice to develop leaders who influence the countless factors that bear directly on student success is what this work is all about. 7

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