I spent much of 2021 engaging deeply with leaders across the country about the transformational power that school leaders hold for leading equitable school communities. What I learned is that, when positioned properly and truly empowered to lead, principals are the key to changing student experience, particularly for those students furthest from justice in our schools. Working side-by-side with leaders, I learned that leading for equitable experiences and outcomes fundamentally changes the role of the principal — and demands equally fundamental changes in how central offices support them. Asking principals to lead differently requires the throughline from students to superintendent to undergo a substantial shift.
The throughline from student to superintendent
For years, our team at CEL has talked about how each person in a school system needs to see how their work ultimately impacts student learning. We have most often talked about the throughline in terms of practice — a more technical focus — and how practice impacts others in the system. For a superintendent, that means ensuring that principals have the professional learning they need to truly center students in their leadership work. For principals, this includes creating collaborative structures and providing professional development so that teachers have the skills and agency to meet student needs and desires. For teachers, this means focusing on the needs of the students they serve and making the best decisions possible to help each student learn and grow.
In 2021, I saw a different throughline being built: a throughline focused on creating more humane school systems through listening, caring, and naming and attending to power dynamics. I’ve seen this focus in action when leaders make the time to listen to and center student experience in their leadership. I’ve seen it when principals engage as curious co-learners with teachers around their professional development. I’ve seen this throughline emerge when central office leaders grapple with the ways they make it hard for principals to lead for equity in their schools. As this humane-system-and-caring focused throughline comes to life more and more, we will hear the voices that most need to be heard.
Rebuilding schools with our communities
Much has been written throughout the course of the pandemic about how schools can only recover from the impact of the COVID-19 through the development of innovative new models of schools, along with new and different use of technology. No doubt, students and their families will benefit from transforming our schooling models, but it is only through deep listening and caring that we can meet the aspirations and demands of equity, particularly for those students most marginalized in our schools.
What we need most to recover from COVID-19 and transform our schools is to create new, trusting relationships throughout our K-12 systems so that our rebuilding is done with students and families. This must be an essential aspect of school and central leadership moving forward.
As we enter 2022, it is hard to imagine how much resilience education leaders like you will need. There’s so much to address: another variant, potential for continued school threats and acts of physical violence, and repeated attacks on what is taught in schools about our country’s history of racism. Yet, this new throughline brings me hope for the coming year and convinces me that better days are ahead. I am confident that through caring and listening, we will hear the voices that most need to be heard and, by listening to them, we will strengthen the relationships that can carry us through even the most difficult times.
Please keep an eye out in mid-February for CEL’s release of an updated version of the Principal Support Framework. This version was designed with the new throughline in mind and will support central office leaders in better understanding principal experience while building the supports for them to be happy and proud in their leadership.