Education Opinion

We Need Leaders Who Listen and Unite

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 19, 2014 6 min read
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Leadership is an elusive phenomenon. We laud those who prove capable of leading us, usually through times of change, or through challenging or dangerous times. We even laud those who make us simply look good. And, we disparage those in leadership who fail, even if we were all following or rather, maybe, especially if we were. Mostly we have studied political leaders. Stories about educational leaders are hard to find. For those educational leaders who were notable, the likelihood of their successes being sustained is slim because of the many intervening dynamics that occur when they step down. New leaders with new visions and new legislation continue to play a role in redefining successes. This will be so until we learn a better way to build sustainability and a deeper change momentum for our schools.

Although leadership has been studied and written about, how many of our leaders, both in and outside of education, have studied how to lead? Until recently, graduate schools certifying educators to lead schools and districts offered degrees or certificates in educational administration. Indeed, there is much to know to prepare for administering an educational organization: budget, laws, regulations, negotiations, supervision, and so on. But learning how to lead, and the evolution of leadership itself, has little to do with administration. Those in political positions, either elected or appointed, may have never studied leadership at all. They learned it on the job and that is increasingly frightening. We can no longer leave skilful and inspired leadership to be those born with the ‘right stuff.’ We need too many leaders in these times of accelerated change. The study of leadership is essential. It is a personal journey and a practice that requires honest reflection, moral integrity, and courage.

We need leaders who can lead transformations. We need them to be adaptive, help us to make sense of the challenges we face, and work with us as we develop creative solutions to complex problems. (Bass, Avolio, Jung, & Berson, 2003). We need those transformational leaders now more than ever. The turn of the century brought with it an ever-increasing speed of change. Along with all this change, is the ever-increasing speed and accessibility to communication, information, and misinformation. Our leaders need to make themselves known. As the rising opposition to the reform agenda continues to build, and the morale in our schools and communities decline, schools, some of them at least, aren’t the happy, bustling, energizing environments of rich and dynamic learning that we all want them to be. We need leaders who openly will learn as we go into the unknown places. And, we need them to find each other so that collectively they can help the rest of us see the possibility lying just beyond the frontier.

If we hold a fundamental belief that every individual wants to do meaningful work, we must find those leaders who are exploring a better way and trust they are in this for the same reasons we are - our children and the future. If our only path is one of opposition alone, we lock ourselves into a pendulum swing. Rather than seizing a moment of discontent and making it an opportunity for transformation, we place our eyes and energy on the battle and everyone loses sight of the frontier. There is a problem if our leaders don’t listen to those on the front lines. But we should not give up working toward finding common ground. If we can find the spot where we all agree, the place where improving educational opportunities for all children sits within our hearts, we may be able to have a more fruitful discussion.

Currently, we hear the voice of the largest group of energized and engaged parents, teachers, and educational leaders in recent memory. They are reading, communicating, meeting, listening, learning and advocating. They are advocating for their children, united by a common belief that the Common Core, standardized testing, and the use of that testing to evaluate students, teachers, principals, and schools are bad. Whether we agree or not, that force tells us how important public schools still are in our country.

So, commissioner, superintendent, principal, teacher or activist, this is an opportunity not to be missed. We have the attention of the largest audience and we can reach them more easily than ever before. If we aren’t being heard, we can use our capacity to unite and advocate. However, if we succeed we win a responsibility - we must be ready with answers. How do we propose to modernize our teaching and learning methods, how do we suggest meeting the needs of our poor, our learning disabled, our English language learners in new and more effective ways. Can we offer a plan that does not disappoint a generation of learners? How are we willing to hold ourselves accountable, what data will be fair and equitable, how we can prepare our faculties to challenge our youngest learners without taking away the time needed for play and exploration. How we will become 21st century schools? There has been a fundamental shift that some are overlooking. The nineteenth century is no longer where we live and the public has shifted its expectations, asking us to show them how to live and work in this century. It is a role we want and these are questions we have been yearning to answer. ...at least those among us who are really leaders.

The principle challenge to the district and school level leadership is they are in the middle. On the one hand they have to follow the mandates, and on the other, they may be in complete agreement with those most ardently opposed to the reform. That place in the middle must be held with dignity, respect, and hope. While they are charged with implementing required changes, they are bringing the community together to find ways to be informed, careful, and do the least harm. At the same time, they must organize the voices of concern, all of which requires honesty, integrity, informed decision-making, compassion, and vision. That is no small task.

But if all we do is fight against the changes that we believe run counter to what we think is good for children and education, what will we be left with if we win? We will be right back where we started. That is not good either. Schools are not broken, teachers are not bad, and the institution isn’t failing. But we have not been defining the future; it has come to us instead. We are publically funded and accountable for the money given to us. We need a commitment to continuously learn about how to improve the way we educate our changing populations in our changing world. We need our school leaders to be able to help parents and guardians understand why we cannot accept the same routines and curricula for their children that they experienced. We need to reframe this time to be one in which teachers are seen as revolutionizing classrooms, while they, along with their leaders, accept their responsibility to learn and adapt to this century’s demands. Regardless how the battle ends, the new day is here.

Bass, B. M., Avolio, B. J., Jung, D. I., & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting unit performance by assessing transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 207.

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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.