A new school year holds incredible promise with an energized community committed to a clean set of expectations for what the school aspires to be and a vision for how to get there. It seems as though everyone – board members, head of school, leadership team, all faculty and staff, the students and families – is all in; after extensive planning, training, and implementation, systems and procedures are ready; and there is a spirit of shared responsibility for and accountability to this greater purpose of learning and growth.
This promise may likely, and almost always will, break down at some point in the year with an individual, a group of stakeholders, a particular system, or a set of procedures. Perhaps this signals the real start to the school year when, as one school leader phrased it, we begin “stepping into crazy.” In other fields, I have heard this break-down referred to as veering from the “happy path” to the “corners and the edges.” This can be especially treacherous with NativityMiguel Schools. Given the small size of our leadership team, faculty and support staff and our small number of students, even minor disruptions to the expectations are not easily absorbed and can lead to significant drift in school culture and student achievement.
The expectations that your school community set at the beginning of the year are meaningful and purposeful. It is when the freshness of the year begins to fade that great leaders step up to ensure that all expectations continue to be consistently met across the school. Before we get too far into the new school year, we take a moment to prepare for the decisions ahead when those “corners and edges” begin to reveal themselves:
Stay Well-Informed: Effective school leaders take the time to get out ahead of the “crazy,” monitoring, observing, and documenting the school environment, talking with members of the community, and taking a pulse of the organization to anticipate early signs of any divergence to the expectations. Pro-active leaders are able to make strategic adjustments to systems or resolve initial concerns with individuals rather than react to an issue only after it explodes to crisis mode which can drain and exhaust time, energy, and resources.
Is no decision the best decision?: Like all leaders, school leaders are faced with many decisions each day, and like all who say yes to leadership, school leaders are perceived by the decisions they make or do not make. While a leader may often be pressed to make a decision, a leader’s best response may be “I’ll get back to you.” This allows time to consult with board members, team members, trusted advisors, or specific experts such as lawyers and gather more information. “I’ll get back to you” also allows a leader to diffuse a potentially difficult situation and build a strong coalition when it comes time to communicate a decision.
Painful decisions: At some point, every leader will need to reach, communicate, and commit to a painful decision that will impact the life of a family, student, graduate, faculty or staff member, or board member. When faced with such a decision, mission becomes a leader ‘s greatest ally. A school’s mission is the primary consideration when weighing a course of action and a decision should always support what is in the best interest of a particular student and all students. Does your decision uphold the integrity of your mission? Or does it have the opposite effect? Does another decision better position your school with the ability and capacity to more fully live its mission? As one school leader remarked this summer, “There are no wrong decisions if your decisions are mission-aligned decisions.” A great test for assessing whether your decision is mission-aligned is to imagine waking to a news headline about your decision the next morning. Even if it is an unpopular decision, would you be able to clearly articulate how the decision upholds the integrity of your mission when responding to inquiries?
Speak with Trust and Love: Our educational model is built on forming relationship characterized by trust and love with each person that enters into our school community. Whether we are setting expectations with a staff member, correcting student behavior, or communicating a more painful, permanent decision, we do so with trust and love for the individuals involved. This is not always easy, and the trust and love may not always be reciprocated. Nonetheless, if we begin with trust and love, we are able to stay grounded in trust and love no matter the challenge of the situation, conversation, or crisis that we face.
Finally, now that we are a few weeks or even a month into the school year, it is also important to reflect on how well you have initially met the expectations that you and others set for you heading into the school year. Are you staying true to your “happy path” or are you operating in “the corners and edges” on a weekly or even daily basis? Are you fulfilling your role and responsibility to the mission and vision of the school? Are you modelling accountability by realizing where you have fallen short and taking steps to become better? As always, great leadership starts with you.