By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
What do great schools have in common? What sets a successful school apart from a struggling one? Our decades of work in the classroom, consulting with school leaders, and looking at the research base have led us to conclude that one of the defining characteristics of an exceptional school is a sense of purpose. Driving that sense of purpose is always a group of dedicated and tireless educators. Behind those educators is a leader who understands how to inspire their team. To be transformational, that school leader must have a vision for their school that has been informed by the school community.
A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more. -Roseabeth Moss Kanter
Setting the Stage for Success
Change happens when someone sees an opportunity for improvement and convinces other people that the hard work necessary to make things better will be worth the effort. In a school building, this person is often the principal; however, any educator—a school psychologist, a nurse, a classroom teacher, a paraprofessional—can take on the role of change agent. The first step on the journey to transformation is identifying what needs to be different. Often, those in charge can see clearly where improvements could made, but when the lens of a leader doesn’t include the perspective of the entire group, the vision will be incomplete.
School leaders wishing to move their schools from stagnant to thriving must bring in voices to represent as many community stakeholders as possible. The sooner in the process those voices are heard, the more inclusive of everyone’s needs the vision will be. This will also make it much easier to recruit a group of peers committed to bringing the ideas you formed together into fruition. In addition, everyone involved is given an opportunity to exercise their leadership skills. When a heart centered leader models compassionate leadership, they give their colleagues a safe space to take risks and be creative as they cultivate their own leadership skills.
Thinking Big, Thinking Small
When visioning for success, leaders must think broadly of the big picture without forgetting about all of the little details. Nearly two decades ago when American students were falling behind the rest of the world in their proficiency in math, reading, and science, Congressional leaders introduced a sweeping vision for ensuring that every child got the education they deserved by raising the standards of each and every school through No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Eighteen years later, most educators agree that the act fell short of delivering on its lofty goals. While the authors of the bill had the best intention of improving schools, they weren’t close enough to understand the unique problems that underfunded urban and rural schools with increasing numbers of children who have experienced trauma face each day; and they didn’t take that extra step to listen to those essential voices.
When leaders have a vision and try to implement it from the top down without bringing in the voices of those it will affect, they are bound to fail. President Obama and members of Congress tried to remedy some of the problems created by NCLB by passing their own extensive legislation. While the agency given back to states who could now create goals unique to their population’s needs and strengths gave educators more room for creativity, few would declare it a resounding victory. What’s missing are the details that emerge when you look beyond test scores as a measure of success and start thinking about the holistic well-being of students, staff, and communities as the ultimate measure of success.
As we write in the upcoming Visioning Onward: A Guide for All Schools (Mason, Liabenow, & Patschke, available in February 2020, p. 93). Nel Nodding (2015), an educational philosopher and professor emerita at Stanford University, suggests that the future will see a shift away from quantifiable measures of performance...Instead, Noddings suggests that the new vision of schools will encompass all aspects of students’ lives: intellectual, physical, moral, spiritual, social, vocational, aesthetic, and civic.
Sharing the Burden of the Weight of the World
The process of transforming your school into a compassionate community where everyone in the building is thriving, growing, and making a difference in their neighborhood and beyond can easily become overwhelming, if you’re the only one steering the effort. The Center for Educational Improvement is here to help guide schools through the process of establishing a Core Learning Team to help you vision, using evidence-based tools to do a needs assessment, and looking at both the big picture and the minute details.
Luckily, every school has the most important resources needed for radical change: people who care. Many young people around the world are already demanding change. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg won’t let us forget that the way we are treating our Earth will lead to disaster. Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai won’t rest until the whole world agrees that girls deserve an education. Water conservation activist Autumn Peltier won’t stand silent as oil companies pollute water supplies across the U.S. These teenagers demand we take action now, because each of them has a unique vision built on lived experience.
When we embark on a visioning journey, we’re not just raising test scores and lowering suspension rates; we’re transforming the lives of children, adults, and entire communities. We’re drawing out leaders who have been waiting in the shadows. We’re giving young people, middle aged folks, and those in their golden years the opportunity to make their mark on the world and make it a better place in the process. In her book Becoming (2018), Michele Obama repeated something she often heard her husband say to inspire people on the Southside of Chicago when he was a community organizer, “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” (p. 118).
How do you think the world should be? Does your school reflect that? How can you make that a reality?
Mason, C., Liabenow, P., & Patschke, M. (2020). Visioning Onward: A Guide for All Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Noddings, N. Noddings, N. (2015). Back to the whole. In M. Scherer (Ed.), Keeping the whole child healthy and safe. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Obama, M. (2018). Becoming. New York, NY: Penguin Random House, LLC.