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Letter to Ollie’s New Superintendent: Focus on Leadership

Throughout the year, Ken Kay has been sharing advice with his grandson Ollie’s new superintendent in her journey to prepare Ollie and his classmates for life in the 21st century. This item originally appeared on the AASA Engage blog on May 5, 2016.


Dear Ollie's Superintendent,

In this series of posts, I've shared my suggestions for cultivating your district’s 21st century vision, pedagogy, culture, and assessment. The last topic I want to explore is leadership — but I might just as well have started with it! I have yet to see a district succeed in its 21st century education efforts without a visionary leader who not only understands and promotes, but also embodies and models, the 4Cs competencies you want to integrate system-wide. 

Three key principles of effective 21st century leadership seem worth considering: 

1.  Model the 4Cs Change You’d Like to See

The best leaders reflect deeply on their own, personal leadership styles. When we started EdLeader21 five years ago, we asked our first 30 superintendents to examine the 18 21st century skills originally identified by P21, and to name their top four. These district leaders listed critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity — what we now refer to as “the 4Cs” — recognizing these not only as priority goals for student learning in the 21st century, but also as crucial skills in their own professional lives.

Reflect upon your demonstration of the 4Cs. If your district uses 4Cs rubrics, spend some time reflecting on your professional performance through their lens. How effectively do you demonstrate the 21st century competencies you’ve identified as priorities for student learning? What opportunities can you find to practice those skills and habits and mind in your own work? Most importantly, how could you improve your own performance in any of these areas?

Be an example to your leadership team and a beacon to your district’s teachers: model the 4Cs in all the critical areas of your district leadership. The more you demonstrate your own personal capacities, focus on your own professional learning, and communicate the impact of the 4Cs on your leadership, the more authentically you will be able to help catalyze transformation system-wide.

2. Empower Your Leadership Team

After you take a good long look at yourself, turn your attention to your district’s leadership team. To guide your team’s early work, and its transformation of the district over time, you and your leadership team will need to embrace a common leadership theory. Some have focused on “distributed leadership” as a model, but to me this term suggests that all of the power is yours to delegate. Your focus should be on empowering other leaders to think, decide, and act for themselves.

Michael Fullan, a Canadian educational researcher and former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has talked about the concept of “collaborative autonomy.” I prefer this term. As collaborators, you need to agree to a common vision and hold each other collaboratively accountable to that vision. Your team’s ultimate goal is that all of your school site leaders, staff, and teachers will feel they have the autonomy to implement your district’s vision in a way that works for their school, department, or classroom. But a crucial first step is to bring this dynamic to life in your district leadership team.

Don’t rush this phase of development: the most thoughtful superintendents discourage their teams from jumping precipitously into classroom-level transformation from the outset of their work. Instead, these superintendents spend the time they need with their leadership teams — often a year or more — developing a common and thorough understanding of their district’s vision, goals, and strategies, and building an “inner” team culture on the same principles it hopes to cultivate district-wide.

Position your leadership team as your key collaborators in the transformation process: take your time constructing your relationship with them as full “thought partners.” Consider leading them through a process like the one you’ve undertaken yourself. Focus on one of the 4Cs each month; if you have student rubrics for the 4Cs, use them as a guide. Discuss the demonstration of the 4Cs in each other’s work, and explore the ways you can improve together, as you prepare to catalyze these principles district-wide.

3.  Continue to Lead and Learn in Professional Learning Communities

This early work with your leadership team is vital — but you’ll also need a plan to sustain the work of all your school and district leaders over time. As your district's 4Cs work gets deeper and more complex, will your district leaders, school site leaders, and instructional coaches have spaces where they can collaborate to improve their leadership capabilities, solve problems of practice, and develop strategies to achieve the fullest expression of your district's vision? Develop a concrete strategy to ensure that leaders will continue to create, collaborate, communicate, and think critically together in PLCs. Just as PLCs have proven to be instrumental in helping teachers to improve their classroom practice, they can have transformative impacts on leaders as well. PLCs will not only improve your leaders’ performance and support their needs, but also position them to model the professional culture you’re cultivating for all of the adults in your system.

It's also important to consider how you can extend this model of learning beyond the boundaries of your district — and deepen your leaders’ collaboration further still — by participating in leadership PLCs with colleagues from around the country. You've had your district join EdLeader21, and we're delighted. In addition to learning from other district leaders' practices, helping each other problem-solve, and designing new resources together for continued systemic transformation, your participation in a PLC will be responsive to a simple truth we sometimes don’t discuss: leadership at the highest levels can sometimes be a lonely enterprise. Collaborating with other district leaders in a PLC — leaders who understand your experience, who are committed to similar transformation efforts, and who can give you advice and solace when you inevitably encounter obstacles — will not only improve your professional practice, but sustain you personally as you travel this path together.

I hope you’ve been enjoying this first year of transformative leadership as a superintendent. It has been exciting for me to think of the impact your work will have on the learning experiences my grandson Ollie, and all his friends, will enjoy in the years to come. Our family considers itself fortunate that you’ve embarked on this journey to bring the 4Cs and 21st century education to the district.

Just know that one of your student’s grandparents will be cheering for you all the way, and willing to help in any way he can.

Sincerely,
Ken


This item originally appeared on the AASA Engage blog on May 5, 2016.