School & District Management Opinion

HOPE: 10 Ways to Develop Sustainable Leadership in Your School

By John Wilson — September 04, 2012 3 min read
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Note: Alan Blankstein, president and founder of the HOPE Foundation, is back as a guest blogger to share some more of his work to transform public schools.

Sustainable leadership is characterized by depth of learning and real achievement rather than
superficially tested performance; length of impact over the long haul, beyond individual leaders, through effectively managed succession; breadth of influence, where leadership becomes a distributed responsibility; justice in ensuring that leadership actions do no harm to and actively benefit students in other classes and schools; diversity that replaces standardization and alignment with networks and cohesion; resourcefulness that conserves and renews teachers’ and leaders’ energy and does not burn them out; and conservation that builds on the best of the past to create an even better future.

The following, are 10 practical ideas for developing sustainable leadership in your system or
your school:

1. Refocus your curriculum, use of materials, and school design to include ecological
sustainability as a core aspect of teaching and learning for all students.

2. Begin all discussions about achievement and how to raise it with conversation and reflection about the learning that underpins the achievement. Put learning first, before testing and even before achievement. Get the learning right and the others will follow.

3. Insist that all school improvement plans should contain leadership succession plans. this
does not mean naming successors, but it means having continuing conversations and plans,
shared by the community, about the future leadership needs of the school or district.

4. Make it a condition of professional employment that every teacher and leader is part of a
learning team in his or her school district that meets within scheduled school time on a regular basis as well as outside of it. This focus of the learning teams should be self guided, not administratively imposed.

5. Write your own professional obituary. It makes you think hard about the legacy you want to
leave, and how, deliberately, you can bring that into being.

6. Form a three-sided partnership with a lower- or higher-performing district or school in your own country and with a school or district in a less-developed country, so all are learning and inspired, everyone needs and gives help, and no one is top dog on everything.

7. Establish a collaborative of schools in your town or city, across district boundaries, to commit to community development initiatives beyond the interests of particular schools.

8. Create a system where principals and leadership teams in successfully turned-around
schools can take on a second school or even a third (as well as their own), with dramatically
improved salary (with resources being provided to maintain and replace capacity in their “home” schools), to develop administrative careers for administrators without having to abandon their close connections to learning, to provide peer assistance (rather than top-down intervention) to struggling schools, and to lighten district administration at the top in favor of more interconnected leadership within and across districts from below.

9. Coach a teacher who looks like they have little capacity for leadership-and not just ones who look like they already have leadership in them. All leadership is learned, even though some will struggle more than others to learn it. There will be little distributed leadership unless the pool of leaders is widened to include those who do not even yet aspire to lead at all.

10. Spend more time in schools (if you work in the district) or classrooms (if you are principal in a school), not just to check up on people as in the overused management walk-throught, but as a way to develop genuine interest in, curiosity about, and knowledge of what teachers and students are doing. Know your people first. Check the data and spreadsheets second. Not theother way around.

These 10 ideas on sustainable leadership are an excerpt from the award winning book by
Alan Blankstein, Failure Is Not an Option®: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement
in High-Performing Schools (Corwin Press, 2004). To learn more about school improvement and comprehensive education reform programs, visit the HOPE Foundation website at http://

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.