School & District Management Opinion

Leading Schools Within an Ecosystem

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 26, 2016 5 min read
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BREXIT has just passed in the United Kingdom and the world is rocking today. It is just one more example of the difficult questions this century is presenting to us. We struggle to understand how as citizens of a nation we can be so impacted by others in the world. Can we be independent as nations and interconnected simultaneously? If we are given the right to choose, do we retreat into what is autonomy to some and isolation to others or do we attempt to redefine autonomy within a new context? These are not just global questions. They are questions of human relationships and, ironically, increasingly they are questions for school systems as well.

It is no longer possible or even desirable to prepare students for lives in our communities. Technology in breaking through boundaries and people are increasingly mobile. Perhaps more than any others in the public sector, we experience this change as we expand our connectivity, try to maximize new instructional and communication resources, and watch our student population change.

Schools Are Part of Something Bigger
We have to think differently. We must be clear about what we can control and what we cannot. We need to make decisions with our values clarified and facts in hand. And, we need to function in a world where leadership is not a solo function and where we are more effective in serving our purpose if we find partners. Simple examples are trying to change how, when and by whom school libraries are used or modifying the length of the school day or year by ever so small an amount. We discover rapidly the ways these actions impact those outside the school walls, the families of our staff, the parents of our students and the community at large. Those leading school systems understand this and still can be surprised by it.

So leaders can be helped if rather than thinking of leading a school or a school system, they think of themselves as leading a living organism within an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, each ‘organism’ plays a role. An ecosystem is organized in levels; individual, population, community, ecosystem, biome, biosphere. For the purpose of this post, we are thinking of education as a biome within the biosphere (world). Change can become sustainable at lower levels but for education to delight in sustainable change all the “organisms” affected must be included as they, too, will be changed and changing. Unlike nature, where changes take place naturally, human beings and organizations like schools make choices. Leaders translate thoughts and ideas into local actions.

Two Examples
There exists a plethora of information about new ways to do things, and new vehicles for gaining that information. There is much we can learn simply be spending time surfing the web, reading blogs and articles, watching videos, and listening to podcasts. But little time is invested in reimagining how schools could organize and how children could learn. Creativity is not widely used by educational leaders and their communities in this regard. We are consumed by the present and informed by the past. There is little time to explore possibilities. Yet, choices and change are our business. All living beings are constantly changing because the status quo is not life supporting or life giving.

But, here we are in the business of growth and learning and children holding often to the status quo. How ironic. Why do we define our time with children in minutes of instruction? Why do we separate subjects when the world does not function that way? Why do we fear and resist those who ask us to push past the boundaries of our current thinking? What do we know about memory, learning, and application and how do we apply any of that in our schools? Practically speaking, can we blend subjects and still meet the standards for each? How can we best offer students opportunities of application of their knowledge?

In this, as in other election cycles, candidates are talking about what schools should be and have. Libraries were recently mentioned. What do they imagine a library will be? Will it have books? Computers? Collaborative working spaces? Maker spaces? Will it have teacher spaces and student spaces as separate or will they be open for all? Will it be blended with community libraries and accessible to all? Will it house a computer lab? Do we need computer labs? Will there be independent, automated check-in and check-out systems? Does having a library include having a technology specialist? If so, what will be their role? Will it be a multi-use space where guest speakers invite the community and student’s alike to participate in thought provoking and resource filled conversations? Can libraries become one of the places where organisms in the ecosystem convene?

Leaders have a responsibility to translate political and educational shorthand for the public they serve. Using the library example, consider what the general public thinks of when they hear the word “library”. Parents remember what the library looked like when they were in school, and recall its function as a place to do research and borrow books. They may remember card catalogs and rules about silence. Changing that vision as educators ourselves and communicating the increased value and role of libraries in the ecosystem is a leadership responsibility.

Another example can be found in the discussion, or lack of it, about longer school day or school year. For those who may be advocates of the idea two truths remain. One, if we extend the school day or year and fill the added time with ‘more of the same’, the likelihood of garnering support and help in the change process is small. The possibility of merging two groups, one initially supportive and one oppositional, is increased when the reasons for the change, and the systemic view of the effect of the change becomes clear to everyone. Had that happened in Britain, perhaps millions of Brits would not be signing petitions for a re-vote after markets have fallen apart and trade implications are more clear. How does one lead the public to decide what change is educationally worthy and which ones are frivolous?

In the End
If a sound set of reasons for our positons are clearly and crisply articulated, if important teaching and learning changes are available and if they contribute to an increasingly effective and positive learning experience for students and if students’ experiences can be expanded, then change can garner support. But, when a leader thinks of the ecosystem, the leader will not be the voice calling out in the wilderness for a change. In a newly interconnected world, the educational leader is one of a chorus, whose voices are harmoniously advocating for children. Is this “pie in the sky” thinking? We have seen systems working this way, where school leaders and business leaders and community and faith leaders are working together for children. Leaders share the work and the rewards of serving children belong to all.

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.