School & District Management Opinion

3 Shifts That Will Benefit Every New Ed. Leader

We need leaders who can develop shared visions of what school can be
By Jennifer Perry Cheatham, Rodney Thomas & Adam Parrott-Sheffer — September 23, 2022 4 min read
conceptual image of people coming together to form a lightbulb
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Imagine you’re a board member trapped in the latest crossfire of partisan community debates. It seems there is no space for honest dialogue anymore. So you pressure your superintendent to do something, anything, to appease as many constituent groups as possible. Then picture you’re the superintendent pushed by your board to fix complex problems that have no easy solutions. Everyone is looking to you for direction, so you succumb, jumping into action and making promises that you fear you may not be able to keep. Then envision you’re a principal in the district, responsible for implementing new school district plans, but you can see there are fundamental flaws in the approach. You buffer your staff from what you can, but you have to hand down certain directives to your teachers to remain in good standing.

We are currently seeing evidence of a startling wave of turnover in public education leadership at every level, one that is driven by the fractals of fear, anxiety, and compromise that run through the scenario we described above. While we are not entirely sure how to prevent leaders who are “done” from quitting, we do think that leadership turnover has presented an unusual opportunity to disrupt this unhealthy cycle as leaders begin their new roles in unprecedented numbers.

We know that transitions present problems for schools. As Derek Mitchell, the CEO of Partners in School Innovation, wrote recently on Facebook, “I [can’t] even begin to recount the number of times in my career that leadership transitions slowed or stopped improvements for students and families. It seems like every time there is momentum for greatness to emerge, a transition happens to impede it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this pattern seems to happen more frequently among efforts to ensure a brilliant education for students of color.”

But it is not just the transition that is the problem; it is the way of working that accompanies it. Many of us were trained to enter into new leadership roles with a focus on what is wrong and what to fix, with no understanding of what success looks like for the communities we serve, the tremendous assets that exist, or the wounds that need healing for our communities to thrive. What would it look like for new leaders everywhere, from the boardroom to the classroom, to take a different approach to leadership entry this year, one that challenges these harmful patterns and sets the stage for the kind of authentic listening and collaborative learning that leads to high performance and innovation?

We can think of three shifts that would benefit every new school leader:

  • What if new leaders did more than the usual focus groups, town halls, and one-to-ones and used processes like community circles to build trust and create intentional spaces for healing? With all of the debate happening about the purpose of public schooling today, including bipartisan battles about what can be taught about race and racism in our schools, we need more leaders who can create containers for honest dialogue, help communities repair harm, and develop a common purpose. In the Cudahy, Wisc., school district, for example, superintendent Tina Moore-Owens started the school year with a community circle that included her school board and members of her senior team. When top-level leaders are also engaged in processes that build trust across differences, the effect can be amplified across an organization.
Our communities ... need more robust shared visions of what is possible before tackling the problems that stand in the way.

  • In such spaces, new leaders can also start asking different kinds of questions of their community members, ones that focus on assets rather than problems. In Appreciative Inquiry, for example, participants respond to more aspirational questions like “What gives life?” and “What might be?” before devising strategies for, for instance, “What should be?”

    The idea here is that our communities, especially today, need more robust shared visions of what is possible before tackling the problems that stand in the way. When communities are tethered to a stronger shared vision, it is also easier to weather difficult storms together.

  • With more trust and more conversation about what is possible, we believe that new leaders will be better positioned to make sense of the data they’ve gathered and come up with viable solutions. According to Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University, data analysis, when done well, should lead to “compassionate understanding,” not just action. Instead of reviewing data with an internal team of direct reports, which is what new leaders typically do, what if they included teachers, parents, and community members in the sense-making process? With a more nuanced understanding of problems and possible solutions, new leaders will be more likely to devise strategies that their communities can support.

We hope every new leader will take up this call to action. We must center listening with empathy to cultivate understanding. We must prioritize building trust. We must hold space for healing. With these shifts, we can together create schools that leave us stronger, more resilient, and more capable of making the change our communities deserve.

To read more from Jennifer Perry Cheatham and co-author John B. Diamond on leadership challenges, see “Leading for Racial Justice: A Series.”

Hand writing the word racism on blackboard. Stop hate. Against prejudice and violence. Lecture about discrimination in school.
Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Leading for Racial Justice: A Series
Two educators explore the hard but necessary work of making schools places where Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students can thrive.
June 15, 2021


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Download A Visual Guide to Nonverbal Communication (Download)
Understanding nonverbal communication can help you improve interactions and get your message across.
1 min read
v42 8SR Nonverbal Communication Share Image
Gina Tomko/Education Week and Getty
School & District Management Ensure Your Staff Gets the Message: 3 Tips for School Leaders
School staff are inundated with information. Here's a few ways to ensure they will actually hear you.
3 min read
Image showing a female and male in business attire connecting speech bubble puzzle pieces.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Keep School Staff Motivated All Year Long: Advice From Principals
Here are some of the things—big and small—that school leaders do and say to keep teachers excited about the job.
13 min read
Teachers and faculty play a game of Kahoot! to get to know one another better during a Welcome Back training at CICS Bucktown on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022 in Chicago, Ill.
Teachers and faculty play a game to get to know one another better during a Welcome Back training at Chicago's CICS Bucktown in August.
Taylor Glascock for Education Week
School & District Management How District Leaders Can Make Social Media Work for Them
Two school district leaders with impressive followings share best practices for using social media.
3 min read
Two diverse educators with laptops sitting on an oversize cellphone with communication symbols and text bubbles on the phone and in the air around them.
Gina Tomko/Education Week and DigitalVision Vectors