The discussion ranged from leadership preparation programs to efforts to ensure that leadership is allowed to thrive at all levels, and a number of actionable recommendations emerged.
1. Don’t rely only on external programs to prepare school leaders.
In Mooresville, Edwards said, the district partners with two universities on higher education degree cohorts. District leaders developed content and curriculum and aligned it directly to the district’s needs.
“I think we informed the university about some missing links. We were able to use and develop some systems, particularly in the area of digital leadership, in terms of universities and what they bring to the table,” Edwards said. “Partnering is the way to go—building the work together and evolving the leadership practice.”
“We don’t rely on external programs [to prepare leadership],” said Montgomery County’s Starr. “We’re investing a significant amount of resources into leadership, and it’s a cultural shift. We take full responsibility for leadership development, and we don’t rely on universities.”
2. Develop and support growth at all levels.
“I think it becomes clear who went to a quality program early on,” said Javorsky of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, noting that many programs have evolved in recent years to focus on creating leaders instead of simply creating school administrators. “You need to meet people where they are and provide support.”
“The supposition that anyone is going to come to the job ready to go is wrong,” Edwards said. “Our district is about development and growth. The idea should be that, whenever we hire somebody, we develop and support their growth. I think strong school systems and effective superintendents understand that leadership development should be a central part of the work.”
3. Make a shift to coaching.
Instead of focusing solely on evaluations, Starr said, Montgomery County is “trying to make a shift to coaching.”
The district pairs a “consulting principal” with each new principal that enters the district—even if that new principal has 10 years of principal experience in another district or state. Principal managers also are trained on coaching in addition to evaluation.
“The evaluation should not be a surprise at the end [of the year],” Starr said. “It should be part of a running evaluation. How are we prepared to support principals along the way? Are we doing our part? If I don’t have good principal managers to support people, it doesn’t matter what kind of program they went to.”
4. Create initiatives and outreach for rural district leadership development.
“Where there’s a good collegial network, there’s a lot of sharing,” Edwards said. “Superintendents should be sharing and working together.”
School success “happens because of the leadership—being willing to go out and tell your story is part of it,” Javorsky said.
Bringing rural leaders together is another path to supporting rural leadership development, Veselka said. “Bringing leaders in small rural districts together to create regional consortia…has really been very productive,” he said. “There’s a much deeper conversation around student learning and digital integration in classrooms.”
5. Put a premium on high engagement.
As Montgomery County rolls out Chromebooks and a bring-your-own-device initiative, one thing has become clear, Starr said.
“There’s a direct correlation between schools that have very high engagement scored and their ability to integrate devices,” he said. “The schools where the teachers are highly engaged and are collaborative in nature are the ones that are doing the best.”
6. Identify and cultivate future leaders.
“We brought younger superintendents in and created a cohort of leaders that we see as our next generation of superintendent leaders going forward,” Veselka said. TASA also is identifying ways to identify teacher leaders across the state in order to provide instructional support for classroom educators.
“It’s an explicit expectation for my formal leaders to be identifying the next generation [of leaders] and mentoring them, and encouraging them,” Starr said.
7. Authorize leadership at all points in the district.
Realizing that leaders come from all parts of the district—from support and custodial staff, to students, to teachers—is key.
“If you don’t authorize leadership at all points in the district, you’re not really capturing the benefit of [digital] resources,” Edwards said. “The notion that an 8-, 10-, or 15-year-old isn’t a leader is ridiculous.”
“Oftentimes other people recognize teachers’ leadership, but teachers themselves don’t necessarily recognize it,” Javorsky said. Creating a nonthreatening environment in which teachers can explore new digital technologies and leadership roles could help them realize they are equipped to take on such leadership roles.
8. Acknowledge leadership.
Acknowledging leadership is an important step in creating positive associations between leadership efforts and results.
“When leadership is acknowledged, it grows,” Edwards said. “If you’re not growing, something’s wrong. In a strong culture of learning, where leadership is growing, we’re leading and learning together.”
Something as simple as tweeting about promising practices can have a big effect, said Starr, who routinely tweets out photos or observations about leadership examples and successful efforts in his district.
“The pride people have when you recognize them, I’ve found, has been a really powerful way to promote leadership practices and help other people understand what I’m looking for.”