School & District Management

Leading Schools in Tumultuous Times: 7 Lessons From the Nation’s Best District Leaders

By Catherine Gewertz — February 16, 2022 3 min read
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Leaders in school districts have never had to navigate a terrain as difficult as the current one, reshaped by COVID-19 and a national reckoning on race. But while today’s landscape is unique, the wisdom that can help leaders through challenges is time-honored.

As we mark the 10th issue of EdWeek’s Leaders To Learn From, we’ve culled the lessons our leaders have shared over the years.

These are the touchstones they reach for day to day, year after year, to keep them grounded, inspired, and reenergized when the going gets tough. They’re as relevant and powerful today as they’ve been every year our leaders have shared them. Now, let them inspire and fortify you, too.

1. Be brave. Be tenacious.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

No one knows better than district leaders that it’s often an uphill fight to get the job done. Bureaucracy stymies execution of a new idea. Parent opposition, political headwinds, or staff resistance sideline an initiative that leaders considered crucial for equity.

Our Leaders have used strong words to encourage their peers:

“Be persistent,” they say. “Be relentless.” “Be creative.” “Be unafraid to challenge the status quo.” When leaders are called on to reexamine or defend their instruction on racism, and to make decisions about COVID safety that are likely to enrage large swaths of their communities, they must be able to refresh their supplies of bravery and persistence.

2. Give students a voice.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

Leaders have long cited this as important, but few districts do it well. If ever there were a time to build this muscle, however, it’s now. Students languish as adults debate what they should learn about racism and sexism in their classrooms. They’ve suffered without face-to-face instruction. They’ve struggled without the social and emotional support of peer friendships. Now more than ever, leaders need to engage students in genuine conversations to find out what they need.

3. Enlighten and engage your community about school finance.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

The Leaders we’ve honored for financial savvy cite this skill as key. They urge leaders to educate their communities about the basics of school finance, how decisions get made, and the choices they face. Now that districts have access to billions in COVID-19-related federal relief money, educating communities about how it’s spent—and being accountable for that spending—takes on a new significance.

4. Collaborate.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

This is the lesson our Leaders cite most often. It takes various forms. Working as a team. Involving a diverse array of stakeholders in decisionmaking. Empowering and entrusting colleagues to lead. Building strong relationships. Collaboration has become more important than ever, as district leaders work with local health authorities, community groups, parents, and their staff to create and support COVID-19 safety policies and ensure supportive learning environments for students.

5. Communicate.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

This skill consistently makes our Leaders’ hit parades. Year after year, they remind us of the importance of engaging in dialogue with their communities—and their staff—to discuss ideas, answer questions, build understanding, and develop buy-in. Communication has taken on more significance recently, too, as district leaders grapple with how they teach about racism and why, make repeated shifts in COVID-19 safety policies, and understand their communities’ needs.

6. Ground decisions in data.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

In the past, Leaders have cited data as an important foundation for key decisions on everything from guiding instruction to confronting inequity. After the pandemic, data can serve as a set of directional signals, clarifying how and where to provide support for students whose academic progress and mental health suffered.

7. Be humble.

Conceptual image for leading in tumultuos times.

Our Leaders consistently recognize that none of their accomplishments is theirs alone. They advise their peers: Remember, you can’t do it alone. Surround yourself with talented colleagues and empower and entrust them to lead. Be sincere when you ask your community what it thinks and what it needs. And none of that will work, our honorees caution, unless leaders do more listening than talking. These insights are more relevant than ever when communities are in unprecedented turmoil about their schools, asking if their children are physically and emotionally safe there, and concerned whether they’ll receive equitable, fair instruction.

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Illustrations: Akindo/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Decade of Lessons For Leading in Tumultuous Times