School & District Management Opinion

‘I Don’t Know What to Do': Facing Today’s Education Leadership Challenges

3 steps for creating a safe learning environment amid political storms
By Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Bonnie Lo — June 17, 2024 5 min read
A leader encourages a large group of people across a bridge made of pencils. Proactive leadership.
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These days, education leaders are responding to one political battle after another. Many of those challenges have sprung from the conservative right (e.g., anti-critical race theory), but some have emerged from the liberal left (e.g., defunding the police). Some are global (e.g., the Israel-Hamas war).

Even discussions about seemingly neutral issues, like the science of reading, have become politically charged, creating more controversy and division in school communities. As politicians often say, “All politics is local.” All of it makes it hard to stay focused on doing what is right for kids.

It’s also tough on the leaders themselves. If they say the “wrong” thing or use the “wrong” term, they risk being labeled, harassed, discredited, or worse. In our work with the Collaboration on Political Leadership in the Superintendency, we often hear how painful it can be for leaders to bear witness to the fractures in their communities. A superintendent told us recently, “I am laughing one second and devastated the next. … I don’t know what to do.”

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Given today’s context, it is easy to fall into reactive mode when you, your team, your teachers, your students, and their families are in danger and under stress. What we’ve learned through our research on political leadership in education, however, is that effective education leaders must be proactive if they are to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for every child while preserving their own integrity. Here are some thoughts on how.

Do your homework

First, today’s leaders must stay abreast of state and national issues and anticipate how they may play out locally, while staying grounded in the policies and laws that protect children. The key is not to get caught off guard.

The issues will evolve—it’s school discipline one day, misinformation on social media the next, the health curriculum the day after, and the history of slavery the day after that. They are all different versions of the same debate—about who has the right to learn what in a safe environment. The idea is to get out of reactive mode by anticipating what will come next and doing what it takes to preserve the dignity of every child.

Doing your homework also means being meticulous about 1) understanding school district rules and their history (think of the existing board policy on vetting instructional materials, for instance); 2) being proactive about advocating changes in existing policy when you need to (like the policies that govern the way school board meetings work); and 3) staying in front of new policy proposals by establishing a thorough process that includes careful analysis of who may benefit and who may be harmed by any proposal from multiple perspectives. This methodical attention to detail and process is crucial for staying grounded in the face of adversity.

Ask yourself: How do you look ahead? How do you stay abreast of issues in other communities like yours? How do you anticipate issues that might come your way?

Build relationships everywhere

Leaders today must also spend significant time proactively building trusting relationships with people and organizations. These are the relationships a leader can draw on when challenges arise.

A leader must have solid relationships within their organization—with students, staff, and parents. But these days, external relationships are equally important. Building alliances with people and organizations that are values-aligned is especially important during a time when taken-for-granted tenets about democracy in schools are under attack. Consider meeting with them regularly and proactively as a group, not just individually. They can help mobilize a community when needed, especially in low-turnout school board elections.

Effective education leaders must be proactive if they are to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for every child.

It is also important to build authentic relationships in which people come to really know each other across lines of difference, including conflicting ideology. That requires meeting with and listening to people with both conservative views and people with liberal views. It is important to stay curious. In these conversations, the leader can’t make any promises, but listening closely for underlying hopes, fears, and common values can help a leader see where there may be the start of shared understanding without compromising the safety and well-being of any child. Proactively building relationships can make it easier to have discussions around divisive issues down the line. The idea is to center the humanity of everyone.

Ask yourself: Who are your allies? How do you listen to those who represent a value system that is different from your own?

Remain resilient

Finally, leaders today need to do more than have thick skin to be resilient. They need to practice self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-care.

That requires having ongoing spaces for sense-making with work colleagues. Regular team meetings, team retreats, and one-to-ones can offer moments to pause and talk about what is happening, how team members are feeling, and what they need. These settings can help a leader reconnect to their purpose, raise awareness of their own discomfort, manage disappointment, and stay strong and steady.

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It also means finding an “inner circle,” friends and mentors outside the district who can help a leader talk through tricky political situations without censoring themselves and garner direct feedback, insights, and solution-oriented advice in a timely way. These are the people who always pick up the phone.

Ask yourself: To what extent am I carving out time for sense-making at work? Who can I go to outside of work? Who are my trusted thought partners?

We’ve learned a lot from the leaders we work with. But the thing we’ve learned above all is that we need to sharpen our proactive leadership skills if we are to navigate today’s political landscape. As education leaders, we are often looked to as steady, moral leaders. By staying in front of things, building relationships, and supporting one another, we can be a light in the storm.

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 first essay in the series here.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as ‘I Don’t Know What to Do’: Facing Today’s Leadership Challenges


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