Developing Leaders Both in Our Classrooms and Buildings

February 15, 2022

By Ken Spero

Even the best leaders and educators have room to improve. Part of getting aspirants on the same page with the rest of the district is simply communicating the district’s values, beliefs, and priorities throughout leadership and professional development. Simulations make this communication process more robust by challenging both the sitting and aspiring leaders and educators to think about the values from their perspective, then talk them through with their peers in a safe place.

Having educators apply the selected content to the evolving climate has the further benefit of reducing the need for outside experts or enabling participants to practice the application of their content while experts are present to answer questions and provide feedback. These sessions might include working in small groups to complete a performance-based task, reviewing a case study and learning from others, or using online simulations.

Focusing on Adaptability

These simulations present a problem or a challenging situation—anything from the mundane like dress code violations to the complex such as cyberbullying incidents—and allow the participants to experience that challenge and reflect on what decisions they can make and the consequences of specific actions. Rather than emphasizing a right or wrong answer, simulations allow our leaders and educators to focus on the thought process they follow by engaging them in conversation with their colleagues.

Just as selecting leaders with the correct core beliefs is more important than the specifics of how they will put those beliefs into practice, this focus on the decision-making process rather than arriving at the “correct” decision is critical for school leaders to address challenges in the classroom, building, and district.

It is a question of adaptability: today’s correct answer might be the wrong answer two years from now or even tomorrow. In many situations, the right or wrong decision will change completely depending on the context or critical details. Just as educators have moved away from expecting students to recite facts and figures in favor of teaching them to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills, so, too, should administrators focus on the process school leaders use to come to their decisions, rather than the decisions themselves.

Defining and Implementing Culture

For leaders to work toward common goals, however, they need the guidance of shared values—otherwise known as district culture. In education, just as in the private sector, culture encompasses the beliefs, values, and commitments an organization collectively holds. Seen from the outside, an organization’s culture is understood through its reputation. What is the organization known for? What are the words and characteristics people associate with your district?

Organizational cultures develop gradually, but over time, they become embedded. Organizations develop reputations and, once they are established, they inform the way members of the organization think about it, their roles within it, and, eventually, how they behave within it. The specifics of how they go about implementing those attitudes and beliefs is essential, certainly, but there is room for variety and experimentation there. Indeed, variety and experimentation are essential pieces of innovation and improvement, but they must be in service of those broader ideals if they are going to fit within and maintain a district’s culture.

The literature around organizational culture tells us very clearly that organizations with a strong reputation for performance are those that pay attention to their culture. Perpetuating that culture includes ensuring that throughout the onboarding, induction, training, and development of new employees, there is a thread of sharing those cultural beliefs and values every step of the way. To reinforce this, the School Leaders Network has identified specific ways to reverse the tide of leadership (and by extension, Teachers) out the door: “continuing to invest in leadership development beyond building the pipeline and engaging principals in authentic peer-to-peer networks where principals can learn from others the art and practice of leading schools.”