“Leadership is about adding value.” It’s a statement from a leader I had the privilege of working for early in my career, and since then I have made it part of my ethos. In joining Lightspeed Systems in November as its Chief Revenue Officer, I spent my initial weeks getting educated about the products, the K-12 market, and the challenges we are trying to solve. Being an active listener, synthesizing a lot of data and information from dozens of meetings, and asking a lot of questions!—all help in determining how to prioritize my work, focus, and where I can add the most value.
What I have learned is that K-12 education is a segment that faces unprecedented disruption especially when you consider the following:
- Educators are leaving the profession in droves. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 567,000 fewer educators in public schools than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Concerns of student mental health are at an all-time high. Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are all on the rise, and it’s affecting younger and younger children every year.
- Budget shortfalls are a financial reality in many districts, further compounding issues related to staff and resource shortages.
- Curricula designs in many states are threatened by political pressures at far ends of the ideological spectrum.
- Generative AI has exploded onto the scene, and districts around the world are struggling to determine how to unleash its almost unlimited potential while recognizing its limitations and circumventing its challenges.
K-12 educational leaders find themselves in a chaotic environment. However, they are perfectly positioned to navigate these tumultuous waters. The ranks of educators are filled with principled, passion-fueled professionals who, taken at large as a group, are the envy of organizations around the world.
How many businesses would benefit from the commitment displayed daily by teachers, principals, librarians, guidance counselors, nurses, and administrative professionals at schools across the country?
To transform K-12 school districts through this period of disruption, I see many of the same leadership principles needed that those in the business world value.
Leveraging Leadership Principles in K-12 Education
1—Open the Door
Allow people to share a view on the district and its schools, the organizational culture, the community, the tools and technology used for teaching, and, importantly, leadership perceptions. Find the change agents, those individuals who are desperate for the district to overcome the inertia of “doing things like we’ve always done them” or just wanting to move faster. Encourage everyone to have agency—How would you behave if the entire district were your responsibility?
Surround yourself with intelligent and thought-provoking people, and ideally those who might disagree with you. Be open to compromise and change. Both experienced and new educators have a lot of ideas and knowledge, and tapping into that will help develop the most creative and comprehensive solutions.
3—Call Out Politics When You See and Hear It
Politics are words and behaviors that are rooted in what you want others to think or act on, and likely not what you really feel. Politics slow things down and create fiefdoms and unnecessary noise. It creates a victim mentality and a strategy where people make decisions that align with “playing not to lose.” Welcome critical feedback—encourage it. The best leaders know they don’t know everything and want people to tell them the truth.
4—Develop Shared Expectations
Driving organizational change requires active participation. It also requires everyone to be part of the team. Expect and demand more from leaders across the district. Hold your peers accountable and request they do the same to you. When trust is earned, and the organization aligns around a shared vision, that is when you will see progress accelerate.
Status quo for K-12 education has always been a constant level of disruption on a variety of fronts.
Case in point is how successfully schools responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, a dire challenge that was literally instantly heaved upon them. Just “keeping the lights on,” both during and since, has been a monumental victory.
Leaders in school districts are skilled and experienced in leading from the front. The people are in place to successfully navigate the situation and drive positive change. What your school district needs is a band of change agents who lead by example. Defining and communicating leadership principles is another tool in an expansive toolbox, improving student learning outcomes and ensuring the school district is as successful as it deserves to be.