Leading Public Schools: 10 Roles You Probably Didn’t Prepare For

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If you want to improve the future of a community, there’s no better role than serving as a public school superintendent. But, as noted in May, it is the hardest job I’ve ever witnessed or experienced.

After spending three days in a couple urban districts last week, I am struck by the sheer complexity of the work. It’s far more challenging to run a urban district than a big corporation. The politics are personal and multilayered. The gordian knot of policies seems debilitating against the challenge to help all students achieve. It can simultaneously be the best and worst job in the world.

In addition to managing the current system, school and system heads four jobs: 1) Set and Convey Vision; 2) Innovate and Manage Shifts; 3) Lead for Outcomes; 4) Engage and Scale. In Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning we outlined 10 specific roles in these leadership categories. Traditional education programs and developmental experiences don’t appear to fully prepare EdLeaders for these new roles. Following is quick drill down on some important emerging skills associated with these 10 roles.

To set and convey a vision for deeper learning, leaders must be vision builders and conversation leaders.

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New tools have created the opportunity to rethink learning experiences (LX), for children and adults. School and system recognize and frame the opportunity starting with good questions about student learning experience and transformative professional learning.

To innovate and manage the shifts in teaching and learning, leaders must be design thinkers, smart innovators and change managers.

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EdLeaders need to be super meta (as a Millennial coder might say) about organizational design and development–renewing focus, getting the right people on the bus, and creating structures that improve performance.

Job #1 for system heads is developing a shared conception, with the school board, school and community leaders–of how a school district should work. Options include enterprise (a unified approach like Mooresville), portfolio (multiple providers/approaches like NOLA), or something in between like managed performance/empowerment (tiered support and earned autonomy, Charlotte, Houston, El Paso, Miami). This step is central to creating role and goal clarity for everyone.

With an inspiring LX vision, supporting next gen school designs that support is the next design job. Fulton County (Atlanta) identified multiple design partners to help school develop a coherent model. The NYC iZone was a good start at creating networks of like minded schools using next gen tools. New Tech Network, NAF, and Big Picture are national networks of schools with shared design principles and systems.

With district and school designs in mind, a growing challenge is to developing an integrated information technology (IT) stack, from student information system to student access devices. It’s still harder than it should be so you need a good EdTech partner in (and probably outside) the district. Never develop a custom system–you’re just asking for trouble. Work with other districts to signal aggregated demand and take advantage of volume pricing. Check out the updated Smart Series Guide To EdTech Procurement.)

This all takes a great team. Good decisions, according to Jim Collins, often comes down to “trusting the right people.” Collins laid it out like this:

  • Share your core values with the team.
  • Do not tightly manage them.
  • Remind them they don’t have a job, they have responsibilities.
  • Make sure they do what they say they’ll do.
  • You must be passionate.

Great decisions and great people, according to Collins, begin with the simple statement, “I don’t know.” This seems like a paradox, but he said that humility is what builds great companies. By saying, “together let’s discover the answers,” it demonstrates the kind of humility a strong leader must have.

To lead for deeper learning outcomes, leaders must be deeper learning instructional leaders, distributive leaders and advocates for all students.

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In Thank You For Your Leadership, Mark Edwards credits distributed leadership as key to the success of their digital conversion.

Check out Opportunity Culture for great resources and powerful examples of teacher leadership. Emerging Leaders has some great resources for training teacher leaders

To engage and scale for deeper learning, leaders must be civic and community catalysts and policy advocates.

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Multiple stakeholders, broad interests, and layers of politics make many superintendent decisions super challenging, much more complex than in the private sector. EdLeaders need to translate plans into a series of decisions, identify those with policy ramifications and sequence them in a logical fashion with a series of public discussions, study sessions, and several board meetings for consideration. The political decision calendar needs to sync up with the development of HR, finance, IT capacity.

For example, developing and implementing blended learning plans impact every department in a school district and probably require a few school board decisions. Syncing up that learning, capacity building, decision making and procurement calendar is a challenge. (Our updated Blended Learning Implementation Guide can help.)

Facilitating the decisions of a political board and community requires EdLeaders to think about a series of campaigns (even the ones they officially can’t be involved in). Building support for a change agenda should incorporate formal campaign strategies like surveying and phone calling and informal strategies to build political capital.

Central to effective campaigning is communication–big groups, one on one, and digital. (Did you notice the list begins and ends with with key communication roles?) Superintendents get several chances to speak to audiences large and small every day; making the most of those interactions is critical. Talk about your (short list) of priorities every time you open your mouth. Use stories to make your points personal. Even better, let kids make the case.

Personal effectiveness. To fulfill these 10 challenging roles, you need to be extraordinarily productive–and a model of personal productivity for your staff.

Ironically, leadership productivity often means knowing when to go slow. Daniel Kahneman warns against rapid instinctive decisions. “The people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.” When mobilizing for systems change, heed the old adage, “go slow to go fast.”

Leaders listen first. They build relationships and exhibit respect for the dignity and worth of all people.

Leaders live wholeheartedly; they honor family as well as professional commitments. They create a healthy balance.

Next steps. As a former business school instructor I know they don’t have it all right but, compared to schools of education, B schools generally embrace an entrepreneurial mindset, are more rooted in practice, more focused on productivity, more sophisticated about problem analysis, and more likely to embrace integrated solutions.

Preparation programs should start with a competency map of what leaders need to know and be able to do. It should be prepared in collaboration with partner school districts and with input from national resources.

Aspiring EdLeaders should have multiple ways to learn aligned with a variety of developmental roles. They should have multiple ways to demonstrate learning. See Preparing Leaders for a full discussion.

For those of you leading public schools and districts, thank you. And, Godspeed.

For more see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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