School Climate & Safety Opinion

Extending Welcome to New Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 27, 2015 5 min read
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The current pressure on schools to change requires resolve. It requires a constant evaluation of what must be preserved, what must be changed, how to generate these discussions that make these distinctions and align them with the values of the school and district. In essence, the process requires leadership. But we are in a time in which leadership is often, itself, in transition.

Last May, Learning Lab reported:

Of the nearly 300 superintendencies in Massachusetts, 50 positions were open in the last several months, according to Glenn Koocher, director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Simultaneously, the Texas Association of School Administrators was advertising vacancies for 110 principal and assistant principal positions. Change in leadership is an ongoing reality.

While schools are moving forward, how can we maintain the values and traditions that form and sustain the culture of our districts and schools, let go of those beliefs and practices that are holding us back, while at the same time we welcome new leaders? As schools enter a new year, this is the question confronting many.

Schools Are Cultural Bastions of Tradition
In families, holiday gatherings, the food shared, and the faith held, offer honor and respect to culture and provide comfort and assurance. They also initiate the next generation into the customs and traditions of the family so they will not be lost. In schools, we have traditions as well. In fact, schools are cultural bastions of tradition.

From the first day of school to graduation, there are tradition rich family and community events. They communicate what is important in the community, hold us intergenerationally together and offer the comfort and assurance of the familiar and enduring. They sustain identities and offer stability while school leaders are mobile, they don’t.

Traditions are frequently more powerful than leaders and certainly last longer. The manner in which problems are handled, plans are made, celebrations are held, communication is accomplished are embedded in tradition. Try to change a holiday concert or an opening football game rally and you step onto tradition’s toes. New leaders need to beware of these easy missteps. These nearly sacred rituals are different in every community because local traditions are personal and unique to each. Once those are violated or disrupted, teachers and staff, students and parents are compelled to adjust their expectations and behaviors.

Before new leaders move to make changes, it is best if they are welcomed by an offering, not of advice, but of the story of the community, with a nod to local traditions and how they came to be. It would be a valuable orientation for new leaders and one rarely given with intentionality. New leaders often are left to read the tea leaves or the hallways to discover the cultural glue that holds the community together.

New leaders are often hired to change things but they do better if they know how to prioritize what will be changed, when and by whom. At the end of the day, unless the new ideas are aligned with the values that stand behind existing traditions, the results may not be what was intended, and the longevity and success of the leader may be impacted.

Change Can Push Up Against Tradition
School life can seem different very simply. A new principal can have an “open door policy” that runs counter to the historical practice. Expectations for the noise volume in the hallways can change, how students are engaged when they make poor choices, the scheduling process, attendance expectations....these can change with the person in the leader’s office. These are all potentially subtle personal style changes to which everyone adjusts with a new leader. And yet, these are not the strong community traditions. Those are ever more sacrosanct.

These days the protected classroom space of teacher and students may feel like the only place where order and the familiar exist. But, even that is vanishing. Curriculum and standards changes are pushing up against traditional delivery of instruction and assessments. So, wise leaders can anticipate some will grip even more firmly to whatever traditions they can, in order to feel some sense of continuity, and, on a deeper level, safety.

Any change requires well-communicated intent, and rich and ongoing professional development, where a broadly understood alignment with district values, mission and vision are clearly articulated and agreed upon. How can this occur with revolving leadership?

Welcome, Respect, Courage and Leadership
What is welcome? Is it “Southern hospitality”? First and foremost, welcome is open and extending. It is sincere and respectful. It is given to the neighbor and to the stranger. It is an extended hand that brings you in and says you are wanted here. It uses your name and sees you for who you are. It is a gift to a new leader and teacher and, hopefully, to every student every day.

In a system in which values have been held central, it is the teachers along with leaders remaining in the district who carry this mantle. Welcoming new leaders becomes the process of acculturation. Even if they have been hired to make the changes left undone by their predecessor, the heart of the school and the district remains beating. There is a bit of courage called for in the welcoming process. It is not merely a matter of communicating, “This is how we do things here.” Rather, it is a matter of “This is who we are and why we do these things here.” Respect and identity stand together as part of the welcome.

The beginning of a school year is an emotionally dynamic, fluid time for all the participants. For those who are asked to change that which has deep roots, needs to have a gardener’s heart and skill set. Transplanting and planting require care of the ground and preparation as well as the right plant and a healthy one. The tradition we educators share in common is about the student experience. As new leaders arrive, help them understand, deeply and quickly, what holds the district together and why “we do these things here”. Donald Hall is an accomplished poet from New Hampshire and author of the children’s book, Ox Cart Man. The story is about a farmer who goes to the Portsmouth market and sells the ox who has served him so well. He kisses it on the nose and lets it go. That is the key....it is the kissing it on the nose. It says thank you, I respect and honor what we have done together, I will miss you but it is time to say goodbye. Leaders can learn from that story as well. There may be a need to release what has served us well so we can begin newly. Let’s help new leaders do this by welcoming them with good willed intentionlaity.

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