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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leaders Must Navigate The Web of Systems Thinking and Relationships

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 04, 2018 3 min read
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We begin writing this particular blog with a usual opening. Schools are busy places where dynamic activity demands complex decisions at warp speed. Leaders want to do their best for their teachers and their students. Teachers want to do their best for their students. Surely there are those who don’t meet those expectations and others who may not try. We all know how exciting schools are. Learning environments are dynamic with more moving parts than can be counted. With school safety rising as a focus once again, teacher evaluation deadlines looming, end of year assessments written, delivered, and graded, end of year activities mounting, attention is pulled in many directions. Add to that interviewing that may be needed to replace retiring teachers, holding meetings that offer information about the proposed budget, and meetings, meetings, meetings.

One of the most important facets of a leader’s work that gets lost in all of this is the dedication to making certain that all things are woven into the fabric of the system. And a way for that to happen is not only through actions, but through relationships.

Systems Thinking

We cannot allow the day-to-day to pull us away from the most important work of leading changes that last. The work is only exhausting if we are expending energy on the immediate without remembering and focusing also on the value of the work of building systemic shifts. In an Educational Leadership article from 1993 Michael Holzman writes:

Systemic means working with every aspect of the school system. A school might begin with improvements in curriculum, but then realize that curriculum depends on staff development programs, which require budget considerations, which leads to the question of who decides the budget. The school quickly finds itself at the policy level. Parents will also wish to be informed about changes in curriculum, and they may want to have a say in curricular decisions. Before long, what had seemed a simple matter--Should we add two days of ecology to the 5th grade curriculum?--has involved the entire system.

The same idea is applies as each day unfolds. Connecting the dots for those within the system is a daily responsibility. Remembering and communicating how the work of the day connects to the vision or the goal is essential. Whether disciplining a youngster, coaching a teacher, planning a professional development session, organizing a committee meeting, developing an agenda for a faculty meeting, meeting with parents, business, and community members, it is important to remember and connect for others the raison d’etre. Who better than an educational leader understands that schools are living systems with moving parts, events, changes, and challenges?

Relationships Are the Foundation

Margaret Wheatley explains a living system:

The path of living systems requires that we entertain some startling and disturbing concepts--ideas that call into question our present approaches to systems study.

An organization is not just a system, it is a living system. Life is always new and surprising, constantly creating further complications and mystery as it unfolds. These characteristics of life do not sit well with our desire for control. Yet life creates such dense and entangled webs that it is impossible for us to predict its behavior or to understand it through mapping. Graphic depictions deceive us into believing that we can truly understand a system. In truth, every time we develop precision in our understanding of something--including causal loops and system maps--we lose the rest of the system. Every act of defining loses more information than it gains. The relevancy is actually in the messy, never-ending complexity of relationships.

The relationships developed and cultivated are what fuels the work of building a system that is strong and able to change. Two important takeaways:


  • Think about the system always ... everything is interconnected
  • Think about relationships always ... everyone and their work is also interconnected

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by unclelkt 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.


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