Focus on the problems they are trying to solve.
In a recent OnCUE blog post, Kristina Allison references some of the challenges of teacher leadership, including the dilemma of being spread thin over multiple, sometimes conflicting, priorities. It’s a challenge that many teachers continually take on because they know the value of lending their unique perspective and expertise to school systems more broadly. Yet despite their considerable efforts, teachers do not always have a seat at the table when it comes to the system-level decisions that affect their classrooms. How can teachers make the best use of their limited time and increase their agency to influence their system leaders?
One way for teachers to get traction is to better understand the most important decisions their leaders are facing and offer their perspectives on keeping those challenges in mind. In order to better understand what kinds of challenges leaders might hold in common, The Learning Accelerator (TLA) recently embarked on a 10-month study to find out what leaders identified as their “biggest hurdles” when working to scale personalized learning innovations. We found that district and CMO leaders in charge of these scaling efforts were surprisingly consistent in the kinds of challenges they named as strategically important. We distilled out seven key questions, frequently presented by leaders as a pull between competing priorities:
How do we decide what the district should hold tight vs. loose? (Centralized vs. Decentralized Implementation)
How fast should we be moving from pilot to scale? How can we achieve sustainability? (“Fast and Furious” vs. “Slow and Steady”)
How do we decide where to pilot and how to allocate resources to schools? (Prioritize Need vs. Prioritize Readiness)
How should we develop our talent and resource pipeline? (Build Internally vs. Buy Externally)
How flexible should our district strategy be over time? (Fixed Strategy vs. Adapt with Experience)
Should we scale a comprehensive model throughout our system or provide access to a series of independent, modular resources or tools? (“Prix Fixe” vs. “A-la-Carte”)
How might practitioners best learn from one another? What should we be cataloging and sharing throughout the district? (Share Best Practices vs. Share Process/Failures)
Leaders generally did not advocate choosing one priority (e.g. centralization) over the other (decentralization), but rather explained that any district-wide implementation choices they made usually had to take the benefits of both these options into account. Managing this tug-of-war can be difficult.
Teachers can add tremendous value by offering their administrators data or advice that help them manage these tensions. For example, leaders might assume that a benefit of centralized implementation (such as a district-managed professional development program that gets rolled out to all schools over a period of time) is increased efficiency. Only teachers, however, can help their leaders understand the extent to which this assumption is true and under what conditions. By framing feedback as, for instance, “this is where a more centralized approach benefits us and here is when a decentralized one would really be more helpful,” teachers can add nuance and rigor to shore up their leaders’ assumptions. Where, for example, is autonomy particular important for you as an educator and under what conditions would it be helpful to have a general model to follow? What stories or information would help leaders align their strategic goals to the day-to-day realities of the classroom?
To use a practical example, district leaders from Henry County Schools, Georgia explained to us that it was feedback from teachers that helped them develop the right supports to help schools develop personalized instructional opportunities for students. While their first impulse was to offer almost full autonomy to schools to define their own systems and goals, dialogue with teachers and school leaders taught them that teachers needed both more peer collaboration and coaching and clearer guidelines in order to successfully change their practice. This information altered the perspective of district leaders and influenced the choices that were ultimately made to support teachers.
Figuring out what problems your leaders are trying to solve is not just a strategically smart move, it is also one that builds empathy and mutual understanding at all levels of the system. Teachers have access to a wealth of information about the daily life of classrooms that leaders cannot always see. By understanding these fundamental leadership challenges, teachers can share that information in a way that increases teacher voice at the system level.
Ellie Avishai joined TLA as a Partner for her residency year as a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is an expert in organizational strategy, change management and helping people use seemingly opposing ways of thinking to spark new innovations. Before joining TLA, Ellie founded I-Think, a unique K-12 initiative housed at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management that trains teachers and system leaders in Integrative Thinking, a process for blending critical and creative problem-solving in the classroom and across leadership teams. She also taught for several years in the Special Education departments of two Toronto middle and high schools. When she is not working, Ellie is usually playing lego or riding bikes with her two little boys, reading the first 50 pages of books on social science, or traveling to visit her family in Toronto, Canada.