School Climate & Safety Opinion

4 Critical Leadership Abilities Leading to Student Success

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 24, 2016 5 min read
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No one can expect an organization to move dynamically into the future without a vision, a sense of direction and an articulated plan for change. We would be foolish to expect professionals who have experienced success in the past to seek and adopt new practices without purposeful professional development and an environment in which adult learning and risk-taking is valued and rewarded. So, in order to pursue a vision for evolving teaching and learning practices, sustaining professional development is a non-negotiable. We are leading in a moment when there is an increasingly momentum for major shifts in practice based upon the social, technological and economic environment that exists beyond the school walls. There is an expectation for system agility that is greater than in the past. We aren’t necessarily good at it. But, survival and agility often go hand and hand.

No matter from where the demands come, preparing students for college and career remains primarily in the hands of the educators. A global economy has impacted workplaces and technology is redefining required workforce skills. Educators must keep pace with the world outside our walls. Only with that growing understanding can we prepare students for their graduation into college or career. Teaching and learning, itself, must be alive and changing.

In their thirdway.org article, Professor Richard Murnane, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Frank Levy, Professor Emeritus in Urban Planning at MIT argue...

...the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks.

Consider what this means to our education system. Our students not only need to have sound foundational skills but they must be prepared to continue to learn on their own over their lifetime as they encounter “solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks.”

More Than a Bumper Sticker
Surely the phrase “developing life-long learners” has been included in mission statements, and included on documents, walls, and bumper stickers. It cannot be just a phrase; it must be an essential understanding of the reshaping the economy in which our students will be working and living, of how technology continually impacts the need for a differing skill sets, and how those things relate to the necessary shift in the way teaching and learning must take place. Local need and local talent can drive these decisions and changes. Regulations and legislation aside, it is within the purview of each school and district to choose and design a path, but only up to a point.

As newness arises and pushes up against the old and the familiar, tensions points emerge. It is then that we need the collective professional voice that calls out from within the schools for change. Continuing to push forward without attending to those yearning for a deeper understanding of the “whys” sets the stage for a very shallow and unsustainable effort. These are the cases where momentum is lost when the players change. Educators do need to lean into the future and become models. Some critics are right. This is not being done quickly enough to see the results of well-intentioned efforts. In fact, authors Levy and Murnane believe...

American schools are not worse than they were in a previous generation. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary...Today’s education problem stems from the increased complexity of foundational skills needed in today’s economy and from the changes in family income and family structure that leave a significant portion of American children unprepared to learn when they enter school (Levy & Murnane).

The Gap Comes to School
The gap that exists when the little ones cross the school threshold begins the educators’ challenge. The manner in which each individual teacher and leader and board takes responsibility for closing that gap as quickly as possible makes a major difference. The second difference is made in how deeply and effectively each adult in the school and the community share the belief that the teaching and learning environment must become a 21st century one. Schools must develop students’ conceptual understanding and create opportunities for students to be engaged in the dynamic nature of problem-solving.

...teaching today’s foundational skills requires changing how core subjects are taught, with increased emphasis on conceptual understanding and problem-solving. Lacking clear guidance and support for changing instruction, most teachers teach the way they were taught as students--providing what is now an inappropriate focus on mastering the procedural skills needed to carry out routine cognitive and manual tasks (Levy & Murnane).

So we arrive once again at the responsibility of the leader to:

  1. know and understand the learning needs of her or his students as they apply now, to the world in which they are, and will be, living. No longer can we rest on the idea that we have no idea of what the future will bring as an excuse not to begin motion.
  2. build a coalition of the community of teachers and parents and other community members to find and articulate a shared vision for how and why the school/district will change the manner in which students need to be taught and learn.
  3. create and maintain an environment in which everyone feels safe enough to take the risks that are the required when learning and implementing new ways of doing things...not unlike the risks we ask students to take in their classrooms every day.
  4. remain connected to a passion for the work that continues to fuel her or himself and the community to remain engaged in the change process, with integrity.

It takes courage to lean in and take responsibility for these four steps. It is the leaders’ responsibility to have that courage to live into these steps, as it is the teachers’ responsibility to have the courage to grow into the teaching and learning needs of this century. It can become less of a challenge when keeping the needs of the children in mind. It is their future we are preparing them for. A new future, not the one that was ours.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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.