Teaching Profession Opinion

Schools Are Interdependent Organisms; Ecosystems in Which Leadership Matters

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 14, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teachers need great principals who need great superintendents in order to be successful with our students. As far away as the superintendency may seem from the students, the responsibility for building and maintaining a healthy, dynamic, growing system ultimately resides with the superintendent.

Teachers are being called to become innovators. Changing teaching methods, generating ideas, addressing assessments, evaluations, and curricula, all require competence blended with creativity, risk taking and a voracious desire to be a learner. The feeling of being sure, confident, and experienced melts away and even the most senior teachers become novices in one way or another, an uncomfortable feeling for many. In turn, the skilled principal who leads a school environment in which people feel safe and can dare to take learning and teaching risks needs the guarantee that the environment she or he has created, the risks being taken, the failures as learning opportunities, will be encouraged and supported by the superintendent. Schools are ecosystems, each part of the system interacting with the other.

Ecosystems are communities of interacting organisms and the physical environment in which they live. They are the combination and interaction of the plants, animals, minerals, and people in any given area of the Earth. (PBS.org)

Teachers have been a focus of school improvement and accountability conversations for so long that the roles of the principal and superintendent have become sidebars along the way instead of important contributing factors in schools’ ecosystems. What if a portion of the evaluation criteria for all school leaders was drawn from student test scores and along with their ratings, contracts and salaries were tied to those? Although it is certainly true that teachers are the closest to the children, interacting with them directly day after day, responsible for their learning and for their social development, the environment in which they work is the responsibility of the principal who in turn relies on the superintendent. Leadership is not an “also” in this; we contend it is inherently related to teacher success and therefore to student success.

Observers often note the silos into which we have separated our field by grades and subjects and classroom doors. The freedom and isolation resulting diminish the capacity of the ecosystem. The good in one place doesn’t ripple quickly into the next. The vertical layering of our bureaucratic structure has a similar, but compounded, effect. The distance between the superintendent’s office and the classroom can be vast and the larger it gets the more difficult it is for everyone to do their best. But, all do have defined roles, so how can the distance be traversed in a manner that generates cohesive, energetic action?

This involves personal capacity. The superintendent, and his or her leadership team, principals included, along with creating and holding the vision, navigating policy arenas and political minefields, engaging the community and the media, understanding and implementing mandates, need to do add another task to the list. Discover the way to hold an open mind and enter open hearted conversations.

...start talking about what we care about. If we could stop ignoring each other, stop engaging in fear-filled gossip, what might we discover? Conversation, however, takes time. We need time to sit together, to listen, to worry and dream together. As this age of turmoil tears us apart, we need to reclaim time to be together. Otherwise, we cannot stop the fragmentation...And we need to be able to talk with those we have named “enemy.” Fear of each other also keeps us apart...(pp. 4-5)

If the system is led by one who is open, makes time for listening and seeks conversations across the vertical divides, skillfully and with enough trustworthiness not to put principal leadership in jeopardy. If the superintendent remains removed, albeit doing the job of keeping things “rolling”, each contributing member of the school ecosystem remains disconnected, which limits their contribution to the entire system. The teachers in first grade who are teaching a love of reading and a comfort with problem solving are affecting the manner in which their students will present to the teachers in the high school. Unless the ecosystem is healthy and open and vibrant, subjects and the people teaching them will remain separate; teachers will not see, or feel, the affect of their hard work beyond their own classroom. This limits one’s view of themselves as an important part of the organization, and starves the ecosystem.

Principals can make a difference in the culture of the building, the attitudes with which people deal with each other and the problems and challenges they face. But the principal is not alone in his or her role as leader. There is another leader, the superintendent, who can ultimately make the difference in how healthy the ecosystem can become.

As a species, we humans possess some unique capacities. We can stand apart from what’s going on, think about it, question it, imagine it being different. We are also curious. We want to know “why?” We figure out “how?” We think about what’s past, we dream forward to the future. We create what we want rather than just accept what is. So far, we’re the only species we know that does this ( p.96).

Each member of the ecosystem must want the participation of the other. The actions of each will impact all. Each member has a role to play as we encounter, and cause, changes.

There is a great deal of well-documented scientific evidence that we’re living in an era of unparalleled destruction of species, habitats, and natural resources” (p. 104). Let us not contribute to schools being part of this destruction by leading without heart. The environment, the culture of a district, like all other things, is, at the end, the responsibility of every person. Teacher leaders, student leaders, parent leaders, community leaders, all can become part of the solution. The superintendent’s hand is on the door. How to invite them in, what will happen if they all come and how to balance chaos and order to keep a system moving forward are in her/his hands as the door opens.

Wheatley,M.J. (2002). Turning to One Another. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

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.