Education Opinion

Developing the Whole Leader

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 14, 2014 5 min read
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Presently, there is an extraordinary focus on the changes that need to be made in our schools. A plethora has been written about the standards, assessment, and evaluation. We have been among those writing about that. School districts are filled with educators struggling to understand what is being asked of them as they meet the needs of their students daily. How much stress can we place on the people in our systems? Under what conditions can we create the safe schools we need in order for change to take hold and move ahead? Have we become systemically dedicated to cognitive growth absent an awareness of the social and emotional conditions that are the basis of all relationship to learning and to each other?

When interviewing new candidates for positions in the district, we listen as candidates answer the carefully crafted questions, but not only with our minds. We listen with another facet of our beings...call it our EI, or our hearts, or our deeper selves. We watch for how the candidate sounds, feels, connects with those on the committee, reflects on questions and considers his or her answers. We listen to hear what the candidate knows, what they can do and also who they are. Always, there is a split between the listening to the content of the answers and the feeling the person engenders in the listener.

But, when the candidate is hired, most often the district investment in the person as a professional focuses solely on knowledge and skill with a nod toward culture and “how we do things here.” Little attention is given to the person who teaches or leads. Yet, we argue that is as important an investment as the knowledge and skill. If we try to remember our best teachers or our most inspirational leaders, there was an intangible quality that made them memorable. The information glut and the business of getting things done is launched and new hires enter the fray of the urgent work. The disconnect between the work of the job and the work of the person begins, subtly, in those first weeks. Over time, it becomes destructive to the person and to the students we serve.

There are six Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards (ISLLC standards) that guide the preparation, practice and, increasingly, the evaluation of principals. Some newly prepared leaders actually encountered the standards in the preparation programs; others were introduced to them during implementation of Race to the Top legislation as they were often used as the underpinning of the new method for evaluation of school leaders. They do, in fact, spell out, with a level of detail, what leaders need to know and be able to do. Once the day of a school leader begins, that all falls into the construct of who is leading, delivering the hard messages, offering affirmations, resolving conflicts. How we interact in each moment of our intensely filled day, with each man, woman, and child who cross our threshold, with each challenge that arrives in our email inbox, phone call or pink phone message notes, how we meet each of these rests in one place...within us. And, without really acknowledging attention to that, it is embedded in the ISLLC standards as if we all came innately and forever ready as human beings to lead.

Take ISLLC Standard #1 as an example:

An education leader promotes the success of every student by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by all stakeholders.

And the functions that support this standard are:

  • Collaboratively develop and implement a shared vision and mission
  • Collect and use data to identify goals, assess organizational effectiveness, and promote organizational learning
  • Create and implement plans to achieve goals
  • Promote continuous and sustainable improvement
  • Monitor and evaluate progress and revise plans

Deeply embedded in just this one standard, are words that speak to emotional as well as intellectual skills. No matter what we know, how we do things makes the difference. Have you ever heard a secretary say, “don’t go in there today...it’s a bad day”. Or have you ever driven home at the end of a day and wondered why you overreacted...or underacted...to a person or situation? And, have you ever seen someone struggle with whether the right thing or the politically advantageous thing is the decision that should be made? Too many politically advantageous choices eventually silence the voice that tells us what is right. When that happens, people follow us for survival, for loyalty or out of fear. Then, can how effective can we be at promoting and facilitating, creating and sharing, promoting and shepherding?

How much time do we spend developing as human beings in our work and in our lives, connecting head to heart? How much focus does a district place on the development of and value for integrity, perseverance, courage, reflection, kindness and empathy? If those are qualities we hope for children to have, how do leaders demonstrate those in workplaces? No matter what we know, how we meet each day makes an astounding difference.

From ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative:

All educators want to improve the work they do for students, their families, and the community. Whether it’s instruction, school climate, leadership, family engagement, or any of the other issues schools face on a daily basis, all educators need tools to help them improve their actions and methods. A whole child approach, which ensures that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, sets the standard for comprehensive, sustainable school improvement and provides for long-term student success.

We can be best prepared to educate the Whole Child by becoming Whole Leaders. We can create and maintain healthy school climates, inspire followership, foster engagement in the educational experience, while leading sustainable school improvement by developing Whole Teachers and Leaders. So as we think into the next school year, let’s remember to save a precious few resources for fostering the wholeness of the adults in our schools.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.