We need leaders who can develop shared visions of what school can be

This article was originally published in Education Week by Jennifer Perry Cheatham, Rodney Thomas & Adam Parrott-Sheffer — September 23, 2022

Jennifer Perry Cheatham, Rodney Thomas, & Adam Parrott-Sheffer

Jennifer Perry Cheatham is a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University. Rodney Thomas is an independent consultant and speaker. Adam Parrott-Sheffer is a managing a partner at Post Script Coaching and Consulting. They are co-authors of Entry Planning for Equity-Focused Leaders: Empowering Schools and Communities (Harvard Education Press, 2022).

Imagine you’re a board member trapped in the latest crossfire of partisan community debates. It seems there is no space for honest dialogue anymore. So you pressure your superintendent to do something, anything, to appease as many constituent groups as possible. Then picture you’re the superintendent pushed by your board to fix complex problems that have no easy solutions. Everyone is looking to you for direction, so you succumb, jumping into action and making promises that you fear you may not be able to keep. Then envision you’re a principal in the district, responsible for implementing new school district plans, but you can see there are fundamental flaws in the approach. You buffer your staff from what you can, but you have to hand down certain directives to your teachers to remain in good standing.

We are currently seeing evidence of a startling wave of turnover in public education leadership at every level, one that is driven by the fractals of fear, anxiety, and compromise that run through the scenario we described above. While we are not entirely sure how to prevent leaders who are “done” from quitting, we do think that leadership turnover has presented an unusual opportunity to disrupt this unhealthy cycle as leaders begin their new roles in unprecedented numbers.

We know that transitions present problems for schools. As Derek Mitchell, the CEO of Partners in School Innovation, wrote recently on Facebook, “I [can’t] even begin to recount the number of times in my career that leadership transitions slowed or stopped improvements for students and families. It seems like every time there is momentum for greatness to emerge, a transition happens to impede it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this pattern seems to happen more frequently among efforts to ensure a brilliant education for students of color.”

But it is not just the transition that is the problem; it is the way of working that accompanies it. Many of us were trained to enter into new leadership roles with a focus on what is wrong and what to fix, with no understanding of what success looks like for the communities we serve, the tremendous assets that exist, or the wounds that need healing for our communities to thrive. What would it look like for new leaders everywhere, from the boardroom to the classroom, to take a different approach to leadership entry this year, one that challenges these harmful patterns and sets the stage for the kind of authentic listening and collaborative learning that leads to high performance and innovation?

Our communities … need more robust shared visions of what is possible before tackling the problems that stand in the way.

We can think of three shifts that would benefit every new school leader:

  • What if new leaders did more than the usual focus groups, town halls, and one-to-ones and used processes like community circles to build trust and create intentional spaces for healing? With all of the debate happening about the purpose of public schooling today, including bipartisan battles about what can be taught about race and racism in our schools, we need more leaders who can create containers for honest dialogue, help communities repair harm, and develop a common purpose. In the Cudahy, Wisc., school district, for example, superintendent Tina Moore-Owens started the school year with a community circle that included her school board and members of her senior team. When top-level leaders are also engaged in processes that build trust across differences, the effect can be amplified across an organization.
  • In such spaces, new leaders can also start asking different kinds of questions of their community members, ones that focus on assets rather than problems. In Appreciative Inquiry, for example, participants respond to more aspirational questions like “What gives life?” and “What might be?” before devising strategies for, for instance, “What should be?”

    The idea here is that our communities, especially today, need more robust shared visions of what is possible before tackling the problems that stand in the way. When communities are tethered to a stronger shared vision, it is also easier to weather difficult storms together.
  • With more trust and more conversation about what is possible, we believe that new leaders will be better positioned to make sense of the data they’ve gathered and come up with viable solutions. According to Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University, data analysis, when done well, should lead to “compassionate understanding,” not just action. Instead of reviewing data with an internal team of direct reports, which is what new leaders typically do, what if they included teachers, parents, and community members in the sense-making process? With a more nuanced understanding of problems and possible solutions, new leaders will be more likely to devise strategies that their communities can support.

We hope every new leader will take up this call to action. We must center listening with empathy to cultivate understanding. We must prioritize building trust. We must hold space for healing. With these shifts, we can together create schools that leave us stronger, more resilient, and more capable of making the change our communities deserve.

To read more from Jennifer Perry Cheatham and co-author John B. Diamond on leadership challenges, see “Leading for Racial Justice: A Series.”