Sharing leadership, finding solutions
Leadership is looming big in my thinking these days as the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district welcomes a new superintendent and as three other organizations near and dear to my heart change their executive directors. Leadership is hard to get right.
In education, where so many individuals play a role in the success of our children, it is crucial for our leaders to be able to motivate and engage the team that is needed to achieve our developmental goals for them. School leaders need to be visionary and decisive, but they also need to be inclusive, respectful, engaged, patient and trusting. They need to be collaborative! The typical hierarchical style of big bureaucracies just doesn’t work when your job is to motivate.
For the last several months I’ve been part of a team convened by retiring Superintendent Nylajean McDaniel to work on parent and community engagement as a meaningful part of our district’s approach to education. This surprising experience has been a tutorial in collaborative leadership.
After lobbying the superintendent about the need for district leadership to promote parent engagement in our schools, I was invited to a brainstorming meeting with her and staff members Laurie Chapman and Jen Bennett, former classroom teachers who now oversee a lot of professional development in the district. I expected we would develop a plan for convincing the staff that parent engagement was important and then leave it to the staff to make it happen.
McDaniel’s vision was quite different: Hold a parent-engagement summit and get the full range of players involved in our schools in a room to talk about what they would like to see. The direction for the next steps would flow from the summit and be guided by participants who wanted to help shape them. We brainstormed all the community partners and school personnel who would have a stake in the topic and who should be included in this launch activity and invited them.
A second planning meeting included a principal and three other community members invited to share responsibility for progress. Chapman and Bennett introduced a protocol that would ensure that everyone who attended the summit would have a voice in exploring, from their individual perspectives, the meaning of positive engagement. The intent was to make everyone an expert and a relevant part of the solution. The evening would produce a way to frame the issue, while building investment in developing a direction for action.
The summit went off without a hitch. The ideas expressed were varied and magnificent. People—regardless of their roles in the school community—said they wanted trust and respect, collaboration and communication. More than 40 of the 85 participants signed up to form a steering committee. Another round of planning meetings, to prepare for a July 19 follow-up to the summit, is underway.
It strikes me that starting a problem-solving activity by structuring a meaningful engagement process is a way to share power and responsibility and produce meaningful solutions. Welcoming all voices is an effective way to establish respect for differences and build a team. Exploring the meaning of something that appears obvious is an important prerequisite to framing a problem, defining the solution or establishing an action plan.
There is no denying that the superintendent has authority and power, but she has used it to create the space for others to bring their skills, commitment, resources and voices to the discussion. Oversight of education in our school district is her responsibility, but we all share responsibility for its success. The challenge is how to do it together.
I admire the superintendent for having the courage to give up control and trust the process.
Our schools are the location where a diverse group of adults and children converge. It’s an awkward space where the opportunity for mistrust abounds but the need for trust is essential. The challenge is how to find effective ways to pull together the diverse players, needs, expectations, experiences, skills and aspirations so that something coherent—the best possible environment for learning—emerges.
Despite my impatient temperament, I am thrilled to be part of a developmental process being built slowly and surely, using techniques designed to build a team and to build sensitivity to diverse perspectives and assumptions. In the end I hope we will have something that is solid because we took the time to build a firm foundation. I am starting to trust the process.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.