Professional Development Opinion

Reflection and Renewal Sustain Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 10, 2014 6 min read
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Principals have the power, the ability, and the compassion to make the world a better place, but only if they have learned how to sustain their well-being” - John Blaydes

Recently, we wrote about the role of the principal in the morale of the building. Principals are in the position to create and manage the mood and the morale of the buildings in which the mornings, afternoons, and sometimes evenings of our students and teachers are spent. Actually, it is a blessing that this is so. No matter what happens in the world or community, the principal is vigilant, actively concerned to bring safety and meaning to working and learning in the building. It is not an easy task. Nor is it something learned on most paths through the courses required to become a school leader. So from where does this capacity arise and grow? It is one of those things rarely talked about and most often not offered in the usual professional development workshops. Vacations can allow these leaders to create a space between them and their daily demands of work. But, unless we learn something new, or have taken that vacation in a place where we were encouraged to learn about renewal, we return the same, just rested...and little or nothing will change in the work.

Leaders Need More Than PD On Discrete Skills

To meet these pressing challenges, principals will need to develop even greater internal capacities in order to manage the tremendous amounts of complexity and ambiguity inherent in adaptive challenges. In addition, they will need to learn new approaches to address these challenges - in the process of working on them. Such processes require ongoing support, as opposed to training on specific topics and the acquisition of discrete skills only (Drago-Severson. p.4).

This is true for principals and for district leaders also. There needs to be time dedicated to renewal practices. There needs to be facilitation and support provided for leaders to be restored in heart and renewed in their work. Leaders, themselves, must take the initiative. With so much responsibility on their shoulders, unless there is time, a practice and a commitment for renewal, we will see more burnout, and good, talented leaders will leave the field without making the contribution they could have made. So this is urgent.

District leaders and principals both need to become aware of new approaches for personal growth, and beyond offering it, they should be encouraged into it. We are not talking about simply taking time away from work, reading a good book, or visiting with friends. Tennis, golf, kayaking and beaches with family are all good but we are talking about another thing. In the study, entitled, “The Need for Principal Renewal: The Promise of Sustaining Principals Through Principal-to-Principal Reflective Practice” a group of 25 principals were studied. They met the need for renewal by participating in reflective practice with colleagues. Simply creating a network of colleagues with whom we can share our frustrations can be helpful, but only in the short term. Being able to blow off steam about the frustrations that accompany leading schools these days can make us feel like we have company in these difficult times, but it does little or nothing to help us learn something new, grow into a deeper relationship with ourselves and others and return to the work of the day renewed.

Critical reflection occurs when we invest time reflecting on the content of the problem, the process of problem solving, or the problem’s basis. Disorienting dilemmas, such as adaptive challenges, can be rich contexts or triggers for this type of reflection. This process enables us to consider alternative ways of thinking and to “generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8). This process requires time and intentionality as well as a willingness to examine how we know what we know and the values that produce and influence our perspectives (Mezirow, 1991, 2000). Adult learning theory can help us understand how principals experience reflective practice as a support to their learning (p.12).

Drago-Severson found that collaborative, reflective practice for principals improved leadership, teacher development, and instructional skills in teachers and in student achievement. The model in this study included the development of a leadership learning community. That community’s focus was on reflective dialogue with focus that prevented a slide into the abyss of complaints and frustrations. The opportunity allowed the principals in the study to reflect on their practice in the company of colleagues. This supported the community of practitioners. Learning through self-reflection, traditionally a process, if done at all, is done in isolation. The principals in this study found that as a result of this process, practitioners were able to learn from each other’s reflective practices and the result was improved student achievement.

The Importance of Reflection by Leaders On the Rise
Whether the practice is individual like yoga or mediation or shared like renewal retreats for leaders, there is a movement spreading to acknowledge its value for leaders. From multiple sources across multiple disciplines the importance of reflection in leadership is arising. Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at Wharton, comments:

You can have numbers and spreadsheets, but they don’t work alone ... We influence others all the time emotionally. A leader who knows that can be tremendously effective in fixing a bad situation or reinvigorating members of his organization, captivating people, or calming them down. People resonate to people who connect to them emotionally.

Deepak Chopra, a physician and prolific author, speaks about leaders with egos, focused on power, functioning arrogantly, and disregarding the emotions of others. He suggests that successful leaders seek “meaning in your life, love and compassion, self-esteem and a sense of connection with your own creativity”...or they become " insecure, anchoring their self esteem in external things such as money and power.

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer, author, educator and philosopher, wrote:

A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

Make Room for Reflection and Renewal
We argue for making room in the lives of leaders to have these reflective times. There is no more time for leaders who play out their shadows in schools or districts with heavy consequences for those who teach and those who learn. The focus on knowledge, skills and measurements must not pull us away from the essential need for learning and growing the inner lives of those who lead. Leaders who know how to sustain their own wellbeing while developing and nurturing the wellbeing of those with whom he or she is working will be the ones who make the greatest difference.

The Call to Grow and Improve
How often is the content of the problem, the process of problem solving, or the problem’s basis on our mind? More often there is a problem presented and a solution sought. It is a task. And as we have found, “solving” the problem does not prevent it from recurring. If we want the system to grow and improve, then the people within it are called to do the same, beginning with those who respond to the call to lead.

Drago-Severson, Eleanor (2012) The Need for Principal Renewal: The Promise of Sustaining Principals Through Principal-to-Principal Reflective Practice College Record Volume 114 Number 12, 2012, p. 1-56 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16717, Date Accessed: 8/3/2014 5:23:19 PM

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