“Focus your attention on shaping the work as close to the classroom as you can, not on shaping the decisions above you.”
Whether or not I want the title, I’m sometimes seen as the “charter school guy.” Of course I loved being the principal at City Arts & Tech High School, an arts & digital media focused charter in San Francisco. I’m biased, of course, but it’s genuinely a fantastic school. So having spent time in an innovative, fast-paced charter environment is certainly an important part of my professional narrative, and there are definitely elements of my charter experience that I would like to see more broadly adopted in my new district home. That creates a natural tension, since I’m now working in a large school district that is having it’s own structural challenges from would-be charter operators in the city. I see myself as part of the solution to creating an organizational culture that is more nimble, flexible, and responsive to adjust to the shifting wants of the community and the more fundamental sea-change in how people are thinking about education in general.
And yet my charter experience often trips me up in terms of doing the work that I really want to do. I often fixate on the differences in structures and policies that shape a large bureaucracy like the one I work in, attributing those structural differences as the primary drivers of professional culture and improved learning outcomes for kids. And yet charters experience the same variability in quality as district schools. And the financial volatility can be even more extreme. So yes, sometimes I get caught in the trap of assuming that systems level work is about board policies, association contracts, and superintendent fiat, when I should know better.
We all tend to look above us when we want a scapegoat. An excuse. A reason something can’t be done. Whether it’s Ed Code, board policy, contract language, or a person in a position of authority. Certainly our context and many actions are shaped and governed by these foundational documents and key stakeholders. But this is where creative leadership is so powerful. Regardless of where we sit in the system, we can exercise the leadership necessary to navigate the context in ways that improve outcomes and experiences for learners. If we don’t get creative – then we often get disillusioned or paralyzed – abdicating both our agency and our responsibility. Perhaps even more humbling is when we remember that to someone else, we’re the potential obstacle in high places.
So sometimes when I get overly anxious in attempting to negotiate the big pieces – I have to be reminded (often by our Deputy Superintendent) that there is already more good work staring me right in the face than I can possibly do. It’s right there, waiting for me to take it up. Of course I can focus my energy and righteous indignation at the inertia of the bureaucracy, or I can do the leadership work necessary to transform the practices I can – and allow the collective impact of those changes to shape the bigger forces around me.
As Heifetz & Linsky remind us – “The toughest problems that groups and communities face are hard precisely because the group or community will not authorize anyone to push them to address those problems.” Leadership is not about clamoring for permission. It’s about pushing in the right places.