I admire Justin Baeder’s blog, Eduleadership, because he is equally at ease clarifying abstract organizational-system issues as he is offering practical strategies for addressing the day-to-day challenges of managing one’s work and life. I also admire Justin’s blog because he reveals his thinking through consistently clear and accessible language.
Justin, who is director of The Principal Center, was for 10 years a principal and teacher in Seattle, Washington. He is now a full-time consultant focusing on high-performance instructional leadership.
For all those reasons I was eager to interview Justin.
What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from doing it, observing it, or studying it?
Justin: It’s taken me a while to realize this, but I think the most important function of school leaders is to build the capacity of their organizations. I see so many leaders trying to bring about change for change’s sake, or because they have a particular issue that they’re passionate about.
You can use your positional power to change people’s behavior, but if you want to build lasting change in a school, the real work is investing in capacity-building. As leaders, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re asking people to change because it will truly enhance their practice as professionals, or simply so we can say we’ve implemented the change.
What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?
Justin: When you’re starting out as a leader, it’s important to be willing to do anything that needs to be done…once. If you’re doing something more than once, it’s critical to take a system-building perspective, because you don’t have time to make the same decisions over and over again.
We all understand the importance of school policies—policies for other people to follow—but even more important are the policies we put in place for ourselves, to help us treat people consistently and avoid redoing the mental work of making decisions.
This is the key difference between new and experienced administrators—those with experience know their personal policies and follow them. If you start out viewing every decision as a precedent for future decisions, you’ll actually gain experience faster than if you wait for these policies to settle into your practice by default
From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work?
Justin: Let’s face it: this is tough work. Leading schools is demanding and often stressful. I think the people who thrive are those who find what they love most about the job, and pursue that with vigor and passion. Everything else they treat as a challenge—not a burden to bear (that gets old quickly!), but as a puzzle to figure out.
It also takes a certain selflessness and dedication to the work as inherently worthwhile. If you view your work as a never-ending series of hassles, you’re going to have a lot more stress in your life than if you view each day as a series of opportunities to make direct and indirect (sometimes very indirect!) contributions to student learning.
What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?
Justin: My boss, Pat Sander, used to say “Justin, I’m puzzled about something, and I wonder if you can help me with it.” Usually, this was her way of gently critiquing my decisions as a new principal, but she wasn’t just being polite; she was modeling an inquisitive approach to leadership. Similarly, Stephen Covey reminded us to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
When we ask questions, we learn. When we ask “Why do we do this?” or “Why don’t we do that?” we learn more about the systems that are in place, and the systems we should put in place, to create lasting improvements in our schools.
A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?
Justin: Too often, we don’t inquire deeply enough into the reason for teachers’ resistance. In The Human Side of School Change, Robert Evans points out that there are many reasons for teachers to resist new practices, the most common of which is essentially “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
What seems like a common-sense improvement to us may in fact be a very threatening change to teachers, because they’re being asked to give up something they’re good at and start doing something new and unfamiliar.
Is a “best practice,” implemented poorly, better than a mediocre practice implemented well? It depends, and our job as leaders is to ensure that any new practices are implemented well, and this means supporting people through the learning curve.
I encourage principals and teacher leaders to “work smart” – that is, to apply their energy to a small number of areas or activities in which they are likely to make the largest difference for students and the school community. From your experience, what are those few areas/activities in which school leaders would have the biggest impact on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?
Justin: Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has an excellent book called Leverage Leadership, in which he identifies seven “levers” through which leaders can improve their schools. The two “super-levers” he identifies are data-driven instruction and student climate, and I think he’s right on.
Stepping back, though, I think the way we can have the greatest impact is to build lasting systems—organizational habits, to borrow a phrase from Charles Duhigg—that will keep on creating great results and continuous improvements, year after year.
A great example is Professional Learning Communities (I’m referring specifically to the work of Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, and their colleagues). Rather than focus on a specific problem, PLCs give school-based teams a set of habits they can develop to foster continuous improvement.
As leaders, the more of these systems we can put in place, the greater our impact will be.
You can find Justin Baeder’s writing at eduleadership.org and follow him on Twitter @eduleadership or Google+ at +JustinBaeder.