5 Qualities of Prepared Leaders in a Project-Based World

leaders exhibiting leadership qualities necessary for a project-based learning world

By Dr. Lisa Abel Palmieri

The number of people doing creative work has increased vastly over the past century, and especially in the last decade. The jobs of tomorrow demand that we help students build the mindsets to prepare them for a project-based world. At Holy Family Academy, an innovative independent Catholic school high school in Pittsburgh (home of the rust-belt, and former steel-mill capital of the world), a revolution is not only occurring in our classrooms but across the region. To keep pace with the demand for workers graduating high school and college with the ability to be resilient, problem solve, become entrepreneurs and become empathetic leaders that improve our communities, school leaders must model the qualities necessary for our creative society and be willing to re-invent almost all of the systems and policies in their schools. While there are examples of schools and education leaders nation-wide leading this charge, often schools that serve the most underserved students are being left out.

Rising inequity has created skill gaps that often leave the most vulnerable students without opportunities to build the skills needed for a project-based world. This skills gap perpetuates the poverty narrative that often runs racial lines across America. There are models of schools that are breaking this narrative within the communities they serve guided by organizations like Schools That Can, Big Picture Learning and programs like the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows, but there is more work to be done.

At Holy Family Academy we work to build the mindsets and skills required for the future of work through project-based learning with social justice and equity at the center of all that we design. As an affiliate of Big Picture Schools and member of Schools That Can, our school has a focus on deeper learning through internships, interdisciplinary projects, culturally relevant teaching and learning practices, and we complement this with a robust advisory program meant to build social emotional learning and solve family challenges or other barriers that might be a roadblock to student success.

As a Deeper Learning Equity Fellow and Head of School at Holy Family Academy, I have spent many moments being mindful and reflecting on the qualities needed by leaders to not only create the space in their schools and/or districts for this work but to have a bias for action, be a role-model and have the courage to lead at the edge of the future. While there are many qualities that make a good school-leader, the following five are essential to transform schools into places where students will be prepared for the project-based world of their future.

Prepared Leaders Are Learners

Leadership is developed daily, not in a few days. Successful school leaders are learners first and foremost; they have the capacity to develop and improve their own skills and practice demonstrating perseverance, a necessary mindset for a project-based world. As a learner, I regularly attend professional development events like the Deeper Learning Summit, SxSWedu and many local events through Pittsburgh’s amazing Remake Learning Network.

Additionally, social media is a place to connect with others to learn new practices, receive support or share ideas, and it’s open 24/7/365. As one of the founders of #DTK12CHAT, a weekly chat on design thinking in education, I have build a global PLN (personal learning network) that is available for support and to challenge my thinking, in an instant. If you prefer face-to-face events I also recommend attending an Edcamp event to mix and mingle with other educators and administrators. Maybe the best way to keep learning is to get out of your office. Be an advisor to a group of students. Make the time for it, it’s important. Walk around and talk to teachers. Co-design your school with them and learn what they need to be successful.

Prepared Leaders Are Connectors

Diversity of people, ideas and action makes innovation happen in schools and the workplace. At Holy Family Academy (HFA) all of the classes are interdisciplinary and co-taught by teams of teachers. With particular focus on the personality and experience of our faculty, teaching teams are purposely diverse. Recognizing the individual strengths of educators and our administration was aided by using the Gallup Strengthsfinder, where every member (yes, students too) of our school learned their Top 5 strengths. With strengths in mind, we make connections within our school community but extend that beyond our brick-and-mortar buildings.

In the fashion of Big Picture Learning, students have multiple mentors like their internship mentor, school-based advisor and their family. Forming this network of partners takes careful strategy, a team to implement it successfully, and shared values. Not only do we have 70+ workplace sites and 120 mentors, we also leverage community partners to assure we are preparing students for a project-based world. Our students disperse across the region every Friday as part of our “Network Campus” program where they engage in unique and real-life learning at sites like: Carnegie Science Center, Duquesne University, Citizen Science Lab and Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild among many other sites and work with teaching artists, industry experts and renowned scientists.

In addition to their internship and Network Campus placement, students regularly participate in field based learning where they have logged over 500 hours of observing, interviewing and engagement with the people and resources in the community. Networking is an art often not taught in schools, so never a day goes by that I don’t role-model what it means to be a connector and networked leader.

While some of the examples I provided above aren’t “free,” school leaders that value innovation and diversity are usually able to find ways to connect their students to these opportunities that will prepare them for a project-based world.

Prepared Leaders Are Navigators

Knowing where to go for resources, how to sell your vision and how to navigate the policies in place that often impede efforts at Deeper Learning is another key quality education leaders must develop. I never took an education class on how to “be a navigator” within nine years of college education or as part of my Doctoral program.  However, mentors in my life and many nights at events and denied grant applications have taught me a few key ways to navigate to get the work done. Often school boards are worried about the bottom line with regard to school budgets so it takes careful planning and strategy to navigate beyond the bottom line. Knowing local and national funders, understanding what they want to invest in within education and pursuing opportunities for pilot programs to build program capacity should be part of your role as an educational leader. Also important is finding major donors and/or a shift in spending to sustain the program that gets funded in your school/district. Be sure to share out your success and learnings from funded projects.

Working in the private school realm right now, we have worked hard to navigate around the challenges of our mission (an independent school accessible to any family regardless of their socio-economic status) and realities of running our innovative programming. Laser-focused on preparing students typically underserved in STEM careers with multiple post-secondary career pathways (that include college and entering directly into a career), we’ve navigated around Federal policy with a Department of Labor work waiver that allows us to have the internship program and acquire substantial grant monies to launch our school in 2014, all while focusing on equity.

The second key part of navigating around the system that you can’t learn in a book is often shared by having a mentor. My mentor, Dr. Carol Wooten (an extremely accomplished education leader), has been invaluable in not only my personal success but indirectly the success of every student and faculty member in my school. She never asked to be my mentor, I pursued her and spent many meetings just listening and learning about how to navigate to be a successful educational leader who breaks and re-invents systems so that we can lessen the gap in skills required for the project-based world.

Prepared Leaders Are Designers

Designing educational programs WITH and not FOR teachers and students is imperative to be a transformative leader in a project-based world. Human-centered design and design thinking have received much attention from blogs and other education-focused news media in recent years, and has its skeptics. As an education leader that has practiced both the LUMA System of Innovation and the methods of the Stanford d.School, I’ve spent several years scaffolding design thinking practices as not only a method for creating innovative thinking among staff but using it as a framework for project-based learning in the classroom.

Every week at HFA, our Principal and Director of Innovation lead what we call “Collaborative Professional Learning.” While students are spread out across the region in amazing learning experiences, our faculty and administration are back on campus acting as designers that build empathy for each other and our students, prototype new projects and re-design policies and programs that are found to be ineffective. To ensure design thinking or human centered design isn’t just a buzzword at your school/district, education leaders must act as designers on a daily basis, receive appropriate training and model creative confidence daily. A big task, but important task is to teach students how collaboration is the heart of a project-based world.

It may seem daunting to get started, but please don’t be discouraged. Start by downloading the free materials from the Stanford d.School or picking up “Creative Confidence” by Tom and David Kelley. Once you and your teaching team embrace a designer’s mindset and use design thinking as part of project-based learning, this approach becomes more manageable, meaningful and real. Strive to connect community partnerships and social-justice to student design projects to provide engaging and culturally relevant opportunities within your school/district.

Prepared Leaders Are Equitable

There is no doubt that many students, particularly the most marginalized students, are not engaged in opportunities to prepare for our project-based world. Leaders and policy-makers that serve these students are compelled to break the systems that bind students to inadequate learning opportunities. Especially important for educational leaders that do not look like their students is to unpack their privilege and uncover societal, institutional and personal bias that they bring into their schools/districts. According to Professor Christopher Emdin, urban youth especially, are often expected to leave their day-to-day life and experiences behind and assimilate into the culture of schools. This process is a form of self-repression that is traumatic and directly impacts what happens in our classrooms.

Prepared leaders are focused on how to replace the system of self-repression evident in many schools and harness the power of experiential learning to prepare students for a project-based world. Leaders must embrace the complexity of place, space and their collective impact on teaching and learning to do equity work. At HFA our students come from 26 neighborhoods across the city. Getting to know each one of these neighborhoods and the people within them is critical to our success. This work takes time; it’s deep, and it forms community. No matter what “content” we engage students in learning, without thinking about barriers to equity and opportunities to break them and advance new opportunities we are just spinning our wheels.

Leaders with a focus on equity create safe and trusting environments and provide resources that are respectful of a students’ culture, not working to change it. One of the best decisions we made at HFA to support equity was to break the traditional “guidance counselor” role into three full-time positions. While it’s more expensive to have a Dean of Students, Family Partnership Coordinator and Director of College and Career Counseling, it allows for personalized supports that impact the whole family of the students at our school.

Most importantly, leaders that focus on equity in Deeper Learning see both students and teachers as unique, and have the courage to not be silent in the face of inequity. This might be more important than ever right now to prepare all students in our society for a project-based world. If we don’t, the socioeconomic and racial gaps of the creative class will grow even wider. Educational leaders must create a culture where ways of seeing and engaging challenge the status quo by naming uncomfortable realities and unequal conditions.

The Three C’s for Leadership Going Forward

Cultivating, creating and carrying out these qualities as an educational leader will help both new and experienced leaders transform the culture in their school/district and train a new generation of leaders to take over the helm in ways that re-imagine what learning looks like as we now know it in the majority of schools across America. As John Maxwell, notable leadership trainer, says, “People don’t at first follow worthy causes. They follow worthy leaders who promote worthwhile causes.” Don’t you think our students are worthy enough to be bold and make the changes necessary to prepare them for a project-based world? So, get a new book that will influence your work, sign-up for twitter, learn about design thinking, go to events and activate yourself to have a bias for action in this work.

This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more about this series and to learn ways that you can contribute, click the icon below to go to the Project-Based World page.

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Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

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Dr. Lisa Abel Palmieri is the Head of School and Chief Learning Officer at Holy Family Academy and Deeper Learning Equity Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @Learn21Tech 

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