School & District Management Opinion

3 Skills to Help Leaders Navigate in Uncertain Times

Ed. leaders must pay deep attention to themselves, their communities, the nation, and the world
By Jennifer Perry Cheatham — June 12, 2024 5 min read
A leader at a podium coaches a diverse team of rowers with large pencil oars on a boat. Political leadership. Polarization.
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I have been working with my colleague, former school Superintendent Carl Cohn, on equity-focused political leadership for as long as we have known each other. That work is fueled by a common passion to make things better for kids, especially students of color and other marginalized youth, in a world where adults can’t seem to agree.

For us, political leadership in education is about doing all that it takes to navigate competing interests in a way that facilitates positive outcomes for our nation’s youth. That’s because plans only get you so far. Much of the real work of change is about bringing people together, understanding them, and mobilizing them.

But over the past 10 years, we’ve started to see something new, a political fractiousness that has come to a head and has been causing us grave concern. For example:

  • Board flips from majority support of district direction to minority have long threatened the stability of school district leadership, but today, we are seeing calculated, partisan political campaigns to take over local school boards, driven by ideology instead of public service.
  • Drawn-out school board meetings have long been the norm, but today, we are witnessing meetings with hours of vitriolic and threatening public testimony.
  • Resistance to equity-focused change is also not new, but today, the attacks on local efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion are more hostile and often aimed at the people who lead them.

A couple years ago, we decided to bring together a group of about 30 leaders, including superintendents from across the country, the CEOs of prominent superintendent-preparation and -support programs, and scholars of education politics, to make sense of what was happening. What we heard was that education leaders—even the most experienced—desperately need guidance and support navigating this new political scene. This group, formally called the Collaborative on Political Leadership in the Superintendency, now exists to help superintendents and other education leaders effectively navigate today’s politics so that our efforts to reduce inequality in education are not derailed. We’ve been conducting research, working together to improve existing programmatic support for superintendents, and distributing our learning to all who might benefit.

As part of that mission, we’ve been working on an emergent, research-based framework that posits that political leadership is essential in education, but it requires more than attention to the typical local players. It requires deep attention to ourselves, our communities, our nation, and our world. Here is a peek at what we are learning, which we believe is relevant for every education leader today.

A focus on self

It is crucial for leaders at every level (teacher leaders, principals, and district leaders) to mine their social identities with attention to race and gender, but they must interrogate their views about political leadership as well.

We often start our talks with leaders by asking them to rate how they feel about navigating politics in their communities on a scale of 1 to 5. A 1 is “I hate it and I try to avoid it,” and a 5 is “I am passionate about it.”

A good chunk of any group will say they are 1s and 2s. Those leaders see the political realm as the least appealing part of the job. They share that the political stuff feels like a distraction from what they call the “real work” of instructional leadership. And they admit that it can feel dishonorable to consider the interests of adults, which requires compromise, when they have been taught to focus on the needs of children. Understandably, the political part of leadership can leave one feeling disillusioned and distraught. It seems reasonable to ask, if we can’t align around the needs of our community’s young people, what chance do we have at coming together around anything? What we’ve seen, however, is that leaders who begin to embrace political leadership also begin to see more success in their endeavors and, in turn, find more satisfaction with their work.

Political leadership is what leaders do to get things done (in our case, for students) in a complex environment. It is not only work worth embracing, but it is crucial if we are to remain focused on reducing inequality in education and our country.

Much of the real work of change is about bringing people together, understanding them, and mobilizing them.

A focus on local community

Embracing political leadership requires an understanding that educational leaders are more than simply leaders of their organizations but also civic leaders who are responsible for the welfare of their communities.

Superintendents and principals must be rooted in their communities, collaborating with civic, religious, and community organizations across political lines. That means representing the hopes, desires, and needs of students and their families in lots of different spaces given the special insight that educators have; regularly communicating what is really happening in schools without jargon to shape honest narratives that combat misinformation; and setting tables where parents and other community members can talk across lines of difference in productive ways. We cannot lead for equity through complexity without partners—partners who can help shape the vision, communicate it, and mobilize a larger swath of community members for positive change.

These alliances have never been more crucial. By taking on the work of political leadership, education leaders can help move these difficult conversations forward productively.

A focus on the state and national

Education leaders at every level must stay attuned to what is happening in the state and national (and even global) context.

The problem is that we have not prioritized participation beyond our local communities in the past. Many busy education leaders regularly opt out of regional meetings, state conferences, or association meetings. The “optics” are seen as negative. Who has the time or resources to be away from work, even for a day or two? Leaders might not even have time to read major professional publications. In fact, being too busy for these things is sometimes seen as a badge of honor. But today, it is more important than ever to talk with one another, share our stories, our strategies, and our successes. Leaders today must work collaboratively across schools and districts to find a path forward.

As education politics scholar John Rogers at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out, we are at an “existential moment for public education and a diverse democracy.” And members of our collaborative have been trying to sound the alarm. Today’s political landscape directly threatens school districts’ efforts to create environments where every student can learn. Let’s support one another in developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to navigate it successfully.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays that seeks to offer guidance to education leaders on how to effectively navigate political divisiveness while supporting all students. Read the second essay in the series.

See Also

A pair of hands type on a blank slate of keys that are either falling apart or coming together on a bed of sharpened pencils.  Leadership resources.
Raul Arias for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion Don’t Just Listen to the Loudest Voices: Resources for Ed. Leaders
Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Jenny Portillo-Nacu, June 20, 2024
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