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Monday / July 23

Three Tips for Managing Turbulence in Schools

As I wrote this post on the way to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Conference, wind and rain buffeted the plane. We were unable to land because of severe turbulence, so we circled in a holding pattern over New York City. I’d planned to present two papers on collective leadership—the work that teachers and administrators do together in pursuit of shared goals.

The turbulence was preventing me from getting there.

We could not land, yet we could not escape the turbulence because the air space around New York City was too congested with other planes.

This reminds me of the turbulence we see in schools – student trauma, policy changes, the initiative du jour, scarce resources, and district politics. The winds and rain that blast our schools come from the federal, state, and local levels.

 What strikes me is that great leaders manage turbulence for others. In Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomes, I highlight the work of teachers and administrators who are managing turbulence for others so that they can reach their shared goals. As leaders, we can manage turbulence in at least three ways:

  • Say “no.”
  • Say “no,” so others can say “yes.”
  • Adapt.

Say “no”

The best administrators and teacher leaders with whom I have worked are great at saying “no.” They say “no” to state or district initiatives that take their focus off of the needs of their students. Minimally, they protect teachers from bureaucratic red tape that might keep them from serving students well.

One high school principal told me, “It is all about the teachers. We do everything we can to give them what they need to teach students well. We try to keep everything else off their plates.” This lets others rise above the turbulence.

Administrators should ask themselves, do I need to ask teachers to do _______,
do it myself, or say “no” for all of us?

Teachers should ask themselves, will _________ help my students learn
more effectively? If not, say “no.”

Say “no,” so others can say “yes”

When we say “yes” to too many things, then we are saying “no” to other things which could be better. This can lead to initiative fatigue or just too many competing initiatives making for a bumpy ride. Ask almost any teacher at the end of the school year, and they can list a number of initiatives that have sapped energy and effort but not produced tangible results for their students. They are tired of the desperate churn in search of the miracle that will solve all educational challenges.

At one high school where administration was good at saying “no” to initiatives that took them off mission, they said “yes” to student-initiated clubs. They had 67 clubs, 40 of which were sponsored by faculty who were not compensated. One teacher said, “If students want to start a club, we do everything we can to support them.” Because teachers and administrators have space, they can be responsive to student needs that relate directly to the school’s core mission of “inspiring life-long learners.”

Teachers and administrators should ask themselves, if we say yes to ________,
will we have to say no to ___________?

Adapt

We could not land in New York City, so with the assistance of air traffic control, our pilots adapted and landed the plan at Dulles International Airport. Our goal was still to get to New York, but our primary goal remained arriving there safely. Effective leaders are always adapting; however, they always have their primary goals in mind.

At the rural high school featured in Leading Together, teacher leaders recognized that too many of their freshmen students were struggling to make the transition from middle to high school. In a class of just over 100 students, they were seeing approximately 125 Fs per semester. With the support of administrators, a team of teachers formed a “Freshmen Team” to focus on the 15 students who were struggling the most; data dashboards, wrap-around supports, and weekly check-in meetings became part of the solution. One year later, the number of Fs in the freshmen class dropped to seven.

Teachers and administrators: What areas require adaptation for your school
to improve next year?

I did eventually make it to New York to share these and other findings with researchers from around the world. However, this work is occurring all over the United States as great teachers and administrators manage turbulence.

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Jonathan Eckert was a public school teacher outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years. He earned his doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Currently, he is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College where he prepares teachers and returns regularly to teach in the district where his career began. In addition to leading professional development across the country, he has published numerous peer-reviewed and practitioner articles on teaching effectiveness and education policy. Jon is the author of  Leading Together and The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher.

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