7 Things Education Leaders Should Do Right Now

Mature Students Working In College Breakout Area

The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
—Wendell Berry

Being an education leader is complicated and challenging. The politics are personal and multilayered. It can be the best and worst job in the world at the same time. But there is no role where an individual can have more influence over the future of a community, how it thinks about itself and its future.
Following are seven tips for the first 90 days, seven tips for the second 90 days, and seven things veteran leaders should do to advance personalized learning.

First 90 Days:  Growth Mindset

  1. Make good first impressions–as many as possible. Meet as many people before and during the first 90 days as possible. Visit every school and classroom (if possible). If you want your students to have a growth mindset, you should model it in your first 90 day meetings–hard working, humble, and open minded.
  1. Assess your leadership team. Make any obvious changes as first steps toward building a high trust, high capacity team.
  1. Hone your personal narrative–where you come from, what you’re doing there, what animates you, what you value. You’ll have a hundred opportunities to share your story during your first 90 days.
  1. Open your political capital bank account and make initial deposits. Find and support parent groups and leaders. Join the chamber board. Begin building parent and business support. Make political capital deposits.
  1. Create transparency and candor about what’s working and what could be better, and do it online, in person and in writing. Invite people inside and outside the system to tell you the truth. Let the community experience you as a learner.
  1. Think hard about a couple symbolic acts that let the community know who you are and what you’re about–fix a problem, build a bridge, take a stand. This is your chance to begin building reliable hope.
  1. Remain open but signal a few priorities early. Address obvious inequities. Don’t wait to harvest low hanging fruit.

Second 90 Days: Agenda Setting

  1. Adopt or build on as much of the old stuff as possible. Continuity counts. Honor the traditions and practices that make sense. Effective leaders adapt their style to the context and maturity of the organization.
  1. Clarify roles and goals for staff members–particularly principals and support service departments. Tell them what you need from them. Let them know what they can expect from you. Make resources allocation and decision making crystal clear.
  1. Hold community conversations that yield temporary agreements that balance improvement and innovation.  
  1. Communicate twice as much as you think you need to–and if you’re missing the empathy gene, find an internal partner that can preview your messaging.
  1. Find and leverage teacher leaders. Break your change strategy into projects. Use management of strategic projects to reward and test emerging leaders.
  1. Build a broad dashboard, measure what matters even if it’s hard. If you rely solely on test scores to measure progress, your community will too.
  1. During the inevitable barrage of criticism, remember it’s probably not about you, it’s about the job. Take care of your family, it’s harder on them than it is on you.  

Long Haul

Ready for the heavy lift? There are seven steps to transform a school or district.  

  1. Mindset check. Over the last decade Dweck, Duckworth, and Tough reminded us that a growth mindset matters. In addition to the importance of hard work, we think students need the opportunity to make stuff, to take initiative and working collaboratively. In Smart Cities we outlined the formula: Innovation Mindset = Growth Mindset + Maker Mindset + Team Mindset. (Read about classroom strategies for building an innovation mindset).If leaders want teachers and students to develop an innovation mindset, they should start by examining their own approach to the work. Ask yourself some tough questions:
    • Am I open to learning and growth?
    • Do I recognize effort as well as reward performance?
    • Do I create room and incentives for initiative?  
    • Have I created a collaborative environment?
  1. Share your next generation vision. Leaders should take every opportunity to describe a hopeful future where students and teachers benefit from personalized learning. It’s particularly helpful to describe the kinds of experiences you’d like to see more of (and maybe what you’d like to see less off).   
  1. Develop talent. The most important lesson of the last 20 years is that talent development–recruiting and developing great teachers and leaders– matters more than anything else.  
  1. Plan for access. Leaders put their vision on a timeline and help their community make incremental decisions toward high access environments where every student has take home connectivity.
  1. Support new school models. We’ve learned a lot about opening good new schools. More than 5,000 schools (both district and charter) were formed in school networks–most around the tried and true formula including a college prep curriculum, talented teachers, and a supportive learning environment. Sponsored by NewSchools Venture Fund and a dozen national and regional foundations, it became apparent that it was easier to open a good new school than to dramatically improve a struggling school–especially a high school.With cheap devices and improving broadband coverage, this decade will be marked by the shift to personalized learning in blended environments. The most influential group packaging promising strategies into new and transformed school grants is NGLC featuring a great set of design principles and sustainable models (see an update on the 7 regional funds).Two districts combining support for teacher leadership and school redesign include:
  1. Partnerships for progress. Schools can’t do this work alone. Chapter four of Smart Cities outlines the importance of partnerships to meet the needs of youth and families, to promote college awareness and readiness, to develop talent, to build improvement capacity, and to incubate innovation. After three years of studying innovations in learning in America’s great cities is that ecosystems matter–and partnerships drive ecosystems.
  2. Stick around! Different than the revolving door common in many urban centers, real equity producing progress takes time–a broad web of leadership sustained over a decade.  

Managers execute where they are. Leaders transport groups to places they’ve never been.
Good superintendents build teams that do both.
For more, see:

Part of this blog originally ran in 7 Things EdLeaders Should Do15 Tips For New Superintendents.

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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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1 Comment

brad berger

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