Who are your leaders? Who do you ask to assist? Whose opinion do you want?
One of the topics that often comes up in conversation during principal training is the formation of a leadership team. People will ask me how I chose the adults that are going to be on an equity lead team, or the math team, or the school effectiveness team, etc. I’ve heard stories of good people being passed over and then holding a grudge that others were selected ahead of them. They are uncertain of the criteria, and they were never provided with an explanation.
This activity of finding the people to lead and discuss key initiatives at the school is vitally important, because it sends a message to the staff on who is valued. It is imperative that it is done well because you want the right people helping with decisions without causing insult to others. There is that common analogy that in a school you want the right people on the bus and in reality you want the right people in the right seats on the bus.
How do new people get an opportunity if roles are historically taken by veteran staff? What about new people coming to your school from other locations? What if you do not have the luxury of a large staff and as a smaller school you have the same people always doing the same leadership roles and they are not appropriate or become burned out?
I once had an experienced principal share with a group their leadership team structure. It was an elementary setting with three key initiatives or pillars in the school (let’s list them as equity/well being, mathematics, literacy). The principal selected one representative from Kindergarten, one from the primary division, another from junior and finally one staff to represent the intermediates. As a cross classification chart this would be 12 individuals as a leadership team, responsible to inform others on their team about the work that is being done in these areas. (a different kindergarten staff member in each of equity/well being, mathematics, literacy). How do you pick? Who are your favourites? Why them and not others? How do staff now see these educators? Do you want those that ‘have it’ or those that are going to ‘learn it’? Isn’t it all about implementation? These decisions have a huge impact on your staff climate and culture.
My solution was a structure we called School Directions. It was based on sharing leadership and utilizing the power of the talents in the whole school not in a selected group of individuals. Your staff is filled with many different talents, skills and abilities and the opinions of many need to be shared, welcomed and acknowledged. Some of your best solutions are found within those that must be invited to share. Give them this opportunity.
On a fairly regular basis we would have a School Directions meeting. One Topic-One Hour. Advertised well in advance, everyone is invited and attendance is based on interest.
You are planning your professional activity day for the following week, school directions.
You are planning your assembly for the last day before a holiday, school directions.
You are sharing your school budget and how it has been allocated, school directions.
You are sharing new guidelines for the staff in regards to websites, school directions.
You are purchasing math manipulative for a shared cupboard of resources, school directions.
When staff arrive for the meeting, thank them for their time and introduce the topic in more detail. Attendance is based on interest and it was not uncommon for me to find people in the school in the days before and ask them if they were going to attend. Depending on the topic there are certain people that I want at the meeting. Asking them if they plan to attend or suggesting to them that I would love to see them is very different from selecting them to drive the decision or that they represent the entire division or section of the school. I suggested to many of our aspiring leaders that they should attend the meeting in order to participate in the conversation but also so I could model the running of such a meeting. So yes, behind the scenes I did try to get some key contributors to attend.
School directions was an opportunity for me to listen. Staff need to know right at the start if they are the decision makers (content in the assembly) or they are consulting (budget allocation) because some topics are not part of their accountability. However, I want them informed. If people come to the meeting believing the decisions have already been made and it is not a good use of their time, they will not attend, or worse your leadership will be questioned because you are just giving the appearance of collaboration, when in fact nothing is going to change. You need to be up front, how much of the decision making process do the staff control? Explain what will happen after the meeting, provide the rationale. It was not uncommon to hear me say, ‘I am going to take everything I hear tonight and come back with a decision about the direction we will go. I need you to help me see things that I do not, or share with me aspects that I may be unaware of and you can shine some light. But today, you are in a consultative role not a decision making role’.
Besides providing the background information for the meeting it is important to create together, and review often, the norms and expectations. Just because we are all in education and work with students we cannot assume that simply putting adults together in a space to share important information or make a decision that everyone is going to get along. You may need to develop strategies about raising hands, having a ‘talking stick etc. Always finish with next steps. WWWH-Who is going to do What When and How.
In the book Radical Candor, Kim Scott shares the strategies of loud and quiet listening. I really found the concept of ‘loud listening ‘ to be helpful in school directions meetings at the beginning of our hour together. To be a loud listener is to state ‘a point of view strongly’, ‘it also prevents people from wasting a lot of time trying to figure out what the boss thinks’. Therefore a sentence starter could be, ‘I’m thinking of (doing this) because…” And then ask for views, counter arguments and other pieces of information that will help with the decision. If you are open and transparent at the start, respectful of people’s view, you will receive high quality conversation because staff feel safe with you. But you are ‘on’ because the moment you turn on someone’s idea or allow poor group dynamics the work you are doing to foster this collaborative culture will be ruined.
Big idea. I did School Directions meetings as much for the modelling and watching of the adult dynamics in the school. It gave me a very interesting perspective on staff personalities. It helps build leadership, and forges positive interactions while discussing tough issues. There is a process and the product in every School Directions meeting. You must give as much attention and thought to the process (the people) as you do the product (outcome)
We have to trust in our staff that they have a vision of how they want the school to be for the students and the adults that call it home. Their perspective matters and it gives you an intimate look at where some of them are coming from. Don’t close yourself off and only welcome the thoughts of a few chosen ones. This allows you to see the leadership potential in others, because as leaders they will need to learn to work with adults. You will see your staff interacting with students quite a bit, and you will see your staff being collegial with each other. Watching your staff doing the harder work of collaboration is so important to school culture. I believe our best teachers with students may not be the best leaders of adults. One hundred percent I believe our best leaders are wonderful with students and staff.
Find your leaders, cultivate and grow their ability to work with the adults as well as the children. New administrators say to me all the time that they had no idea when they started in administration that so much of their time would be taken by the adults in and out of the building. They knew they would be working with and for students, the percentage of time with staff and families, a surprise.
At a school directions meeting I am going to make my thinking visible so staff can see that I am focused and determined to get the best results by utilizing the strengths of the people in the building. I am showing I am open and transparent as much as I can be. And I am going to be honest on the decisions that sit completely with me and share as much of the decision making as I can. It builds leadership in others to see how this is done, managed etc and it is transparent, inclusive and empowers staff to be part of the professional learning community and not just a select few.
What direction are you going to take with you staff?