The COVID-19 pandemic forced school leaders to question the habits and assumptions that contribute toward our leadership styles. Challenges that never seemed urgent before suddenly became critical: How do we serve all students equitably through virtual-only instruction? How can we forge active partnerships with caregivers at home? What role do social and emotional supports play in student achievement?
As school leaders prepare for the 2021-2022 school year, we must consider how our old leadership styles need to evolve to meet new challenges like COVID-related learning loss. Recently, District Administration published an article encouraging school leaders to consider leadership polarities — situations that may drive you toward a specific leadership mindset and away from the opposite point of view. Today, we urge you to ask yourself how you should approach four of these leadership polarities:
1. Answer vs. Ask — When a question or problem arises, do you answer the question immediately, or do you ask for input from others?
Some leaders believe that to support their team properly, they need to have all the answers when questions come up. After all, how can your team trust your leadership if you admit you do not know key information? On the other hand, some fail to act as effective leaders because they are afraid to commit to a concrete answer when questions arise.
In truth, school leaders need to find a middle ground between these two polarities. It’s obviously important for school leaders to provide training and support about educational best practices for their team; but it’s also important to show vulnerability and a willingness to learn.
The Learning Policy Institute shares a case study demonstrating how school district leaders can strike a healthy balance between the Answer/Ask reactions by building a collaborative learning culture. LPI explains that the San Diego Unified School District listens to principals to learn what specific challenges they face within their schools. Then the administration provides targeted professional development in response.
At the same time, SDUSD administrators emphasize the importance of collaboration by facilitating principal conferences that allow principals to collectively solve problems. This collaborative approach honors the diverse experiences and perspectives each educator brings to the table. It also encourages participants to ask each other for help.
2. Solution vs. Problem — When facing a problem, do you jump straight to proposing a solution, or do you analyze the root cause of the problem?
These leadership polarities are similar to Answer/Ask. It’s possible to be too quick to enact new policies without really addressing the root of a problem. However, it’s equally possible to become so caught up in analyzing the issue that you fail to ever implement solutions.
Edutopia shares the story of a Title I elementary school near Chicago that worked to find one of the root causes of low student literacy, and then took decisive action to produce measurable results within two years. Emily Lech, the principal of Yorkville Grade School, explains why she did not act rashly:
“Often, school funds are used for pricey, quick-fix resources that end up in a closet a year later. For example, a boxed program with fluency or comprehension task cards may seem straightforward, but it often fails to cultivate readers on a deeper level.”
Instead, her team considered that one of the reasons students are often slow to learn reading skills is that they lack access to books they want to read. She took steps to allocate $15,000 from her school’s budget to purchase new books that were selected based on feedback from teachers, parents, and students. Now, she says, “We refocused on books, and students rediscovered book joy.”
3. Act vs. Plan — When you have a new idea, do you immediately act to implement it, or do you work intensively on a plan?
There is value in being nimble as you make decisions about the future of your school. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we must be quick to adapt to new circumstances. But before we act, we should also consider evidence-based best practices and learn from past failures to avoid repeating historical mistakes.
Consider tutoring as an example: Many school leaders want to offer tutoring to help mitigate COVID-related learning loss. Regrettably, not all tutoring programs are actually effective at promoting student achievement. For example, the Learning Policy Institute talks about how nationwide literacy tutoring programs under the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations did not produce positive results. Fortunately, research on tutoring programs finds evidence that tutoring can have a positive impact when all of these conditions are met:
- Qualified, paid professionals (such as teachers, paraprofessionals, and AmeriCorps members) lead the program;
- The professional tutors receive high-quality training and support;
- Tutoring occurs at least three days per week for at least thirty minutes per session;
- Tutoring aligns with the curriculum; and
- School leaders build relationships between students, their tutors, and their regular classroom teachers.
This research can inform a well-planned, effective tutoring program while school leaders continue to be flexible and responsive to new circumstances.
4. Facilitate vs. Direct — In meetings with teachers, do you facilitate discussion that actively engages the group, or do you direct conversation toward your ideas?
There are seemingly infinite resources available for teachers who search for instructional best practices, behavioral supports, and other aids. It is easy for teachers to become overwhelmed as they try to decipher which resources are of high quality. School and district administrators must provide support for teachers through targeted professional development that addresses students’ biggest needs.
That said, school leaders also need to consider teachers’ perspectives as they develop solutions to serve students.
ASCD shares an example of how well-intentioned strategies can end up falling flat without teacher input: Schools commonly use assessments at the state, district, and local levels to identify individual students’ learning needs. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many schools prescribed additional assessments to support students with special needs who were at risk of falling through the cracks during remote learning. Unfortunately, not all schools included teachers in the decision-making process as they implemented new tests.
Teachers express frustration about how student assessments often do not align with the curriculum; this misalignment puts test results into question. Also, many leaders prescribe additional assessments without first evaluating existing measures. This leads to students taking unneeded extra assessments that overlap in the skills and knowledge measured and reduces the class time teachers can actually dedicate toward instruction.
Principals must recognize that there is value both in facilitating conversations that allow teachers to share their experiences and opinions, and in directing their schools toward a unified vision of developing student-centered learning.
Develop a Balanced Approach to Professional Learning
The Center for Student Achievement Solutions works with principals, district administrators, and state leaders to develop collaborative, results-driven professional development. We start by listening to your team’s observations about your school or district’s strengths and opportunities. Then we help your leaders use evidence-based practices to create a professional development strategy that addresses your most pressing needs.
Schedule a free call with one of our consultants to start evaluating your professional development needs now.