Leading for Improvement-Part One

What is your philosophy of education?  If you’re old enough, you may have even produced a portfolio related to this age-old inquiry at some point in your undergraduate studies. However, the question we don’t seem to ask often enough is “What are the most critical elements when it comes to school improvement?” That’s what I attempt to answer in this blog series. I don’t know if these elements are exactly right, but I do know that in practice and experience, at least my own, they have been important aspects of my leadership, especially in situations where I was charged with improving or transforming something. The list isn’t long, but I am making an attempt here to explain each one in hopes that you might also be able to connect with it and recognize it when you see it. Of course, if it’s not in your leadership toolbox, I hope you’ll add it in your efforts to improve your school or district. Here’s the list:

  1. Focus fiercely on the how.
  2. Be as vulnerable as you are brave.
  3. Know the data to coach the behavior.
  4. Anchor the core.
  5. Develop talent to optimize performance.
  6. Pull the team together to start and sustain the improvement process.
  7. Lead the learning before you set the expectation.
  8. Fuel the charge with actionable feedback.
  9. Celebrate the change-big or small.
  10. See the connections and share them explicitly.

These ideas sound simple, but in practice can be extremely challenging. My advice is to start working on improvement right away, but recognize that you cannot do all of these things at once. All ten are equally important. The key is to prioritize and strike the right balance so that you can use the right approach to get the improvement you desire. Each preceding page is a one-page review of my thoughts on each of the elements listed above. Thanks for reading and please…share your thoughts.

Focus fiercely on the how.

Start with the why. It’s what we have all been told as leaders, and it’s good advice. People need to have a deep understanding of why you are asking them to change, do something differently, or rethink their current practices and ideologies. Understanding why we are doing something can serve as an anchor in our daily work, can keep us from getting distracted, or battling with competing priorities. However, as we work toward school or district improvement, we must understand the critical importance of focusing our attention on the what, and more importantly the how. If those we are asking to change fail to understand how to change we’ve empowered folks to be resistant, angry, and frustrated. As leaders of the change, it’s our job to empower and equip others to be able to meet the expectations we set forth successfully.

Although we should start with why, we must push through with the what, and finish with the how. That means that when we are proposing change(s) to members of our organization, we’ve done our research and we can clarify for them, quite specifically, what it is we want them to change (instructional practice, method, etc.) and how we want them to change it. In other words, we’ve clearly taught them about the instructional behavior associated with the change and we have created an opportunity and structure to give them multiple opportunities to practice implementing the new strategy with our feedback as a resource and source of support to help them achieve mastery. We recognize that why is not enough, so our time observing and coaching their work towards mastery of the new practice is critical to the change actually happening and doing so successfully. While we understand that the rationale and justification of the change we are advocating for is important, we know that it cannot happen without a clearly articulated expectation (what) and a fierce focus on how to make it happen.

So yes…start with the why and continue with a clear articulation of what needs to change, but don’t forget to finish as strong as you start by fiercely focusing on the how. If you can do all three of those things, you will find your ability to push for change will move far beyond a mere heartfelt message of why the change is so important. Instead, you’ll see that others are actually willing to do something instead of talking about why they can’t because you have given them the tools they need to make the change a reality. 

Tune in next week for my essay on element #2: Be as vulnerable as you are brave.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!


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