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2 Priorities to Transform Education and Renew Your Leadership

COVID has shaken up so many elements of how and with whom we interact and lead that we would be foolish to ignore the singular opportunity it is giving us.

Think about it… as we lift our masks, share our smiles, teach all our classes face-to-face, sit in meetings together, dare to hug once again we have a choice to make over-and-over-again: will we be who we were, act the way we acted, prioritize what we prioritized, ignore what we ignored, shun what we shunned, embrace what we embraced and lead the way we led before the pandemic?

No one alive today has experienced a comparable moment during which everyone is emerging from shared gloom, loss and isolation. A moment in which each of us has the chance to decide whether our futures will be driven by lax muscle memories or by vision and intentionality. For leaders – especially education’s leaders – our answers will shape the destiny of a generation.

Here’s the opportunity: In its simplest form, each of us can decide to lead differently and better than we led before the pandemic. That would be magnificent all by itself! But imagine if we, individually and collectively, chose to elevate just two priorities around which to organize and improve our leadership decisions going forward. If they’re the right priorities, that can be transformational!

Not long ago I taught a course at the University of Rochester titled “How To Be An Antiracist Leader” capturing lessons from two books that are very dear to me. My selection of one of those books won’t surprise you and my selection of the other shouldn’t. The first is my own: Collaborative Leadership: Developing Effective Partnerships for Communities and Schools. The second is Ibram X Kendi’s compelling best seller How To Be An Antiracist. They merged in this course to propel exciting examinations often touching on two essential questions: Why do we lead? and How to lead?

Two brief stories…

  • I was sitting with a rising young nonprofit leader who expressed his frustration with the old guard of civic leaders in town, saying that they’re simply managing their shops, bringing money in and spending it the same old way and getting the same old results. He asked, what happened to the visions of social change that sparked the creation of all these nonprofits and that launched the careers of so many of these leaders? We decided, on the spot, that we had come up with a working definitional distinction between leaders and managers: managers keep the ship afloat, maintain operations, implement plans; leaders, on the other hand, do all this with an eye towards a significant change and motivate others to work together to achieve that shared vision. . Too many of the old guard stopped being leaders when they stopped prioritizing change.
  • The second story is one I use often to help people understand the imperative of antiracism: You’re walking down a crowded avenue. You look across the street and see an old friend you haven’t seen in a long-long time walking in the other direction. Your eyes connect. Huge smiles spread across your faces. You wave and she, with her eyes locked on yours, excitedly comes walking across the street towards you, ignoring traffic. You see a car barreling straight towards her. You have a split second to make a decision: you can race towards her to try to save her in that moment, you can wave or scream at her but that’s more likely to simply freeze her midstep, or you can do nothing. Do you act, take the risk and try to save her … or not? There is no neutral option.

These stories illustrate the two priorities we can share in order to make this post-pandemic moment transformational across our profession and within each of our communities. My proposal is brief, achievable and completely dependent upon what you choose to do.

  • First ask yourself: Why do I lead? Remind yourself of the specific vision of change that drove you to become an education leader. What did you want to fix? What did you want to build? What did you want to stand for? Reclaim that vision. Modify it with the lessons you’ve learned over time. Print it and poste it on at least your office wall. Share it with colleagues and managers who work with you. And rededicate yourself to lead towards that change.
  • Second, ask yourself: How do I lead? No matter where any of us is positioned relative to the color lines that have divided us or how well we understand systemic systems of oppression, each one of us can choose to do a better job recognizing and remedying and removing disparate outcomes resulting from the decisions we make … or permit to be made around us. We can be better antiracist and anti-oppression leaders. There is no neutrality in the racism-antiracism continuum. So, paying particular respect to what’s been labelled the “racial awakening” of the past two-plus years, I propose that our second priority is to lead with courage, accept possible risks, and act to save and protect and prepare our students and communities as determined antiracist leaders.

Let’s treat this post-pandemic moment as an awakening and recommittal of education’s leaders.

The precariousness of this moment – with global tensions, ecological decline and a nation whose house is more divided than any of us have experienced before – is even more threatening for our youngsters than it is for ourselves. We owe it to them to be better leaders going forward. To awaken from the pandemic with clear priorities:

  1. To be agents of change – real and meaningful change – on their behalf and
  2. To be antiracist leaders – courageous and persistent, never neutral – in every way we possibly can.

Written by

Hank Rubin is author of the bestselling Collaborative Leadership: Developing Effective Partnerships for Communities and Schools (2009) and over 70 scholarly and editorial articles, chapters and books on leadership, education and social justice. Hank draws on leadership experience in government, nonprofit, philanthropic, preK-12 and higher education. He can be reached at the Institute for Collaborative Leadership.

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