The leader’s role in creating resilient schools

Dennis Sparks

The January 7, 2013 issue of the New Yorker features an article (“Adaptation”) about ways that cities can adapt to climate change (unfortunately, the article is not available without a subscription). The solutions fall into two broad categories.

• “Climate proof cities” – restore wetlands; upgrade infrastructure related to power, transportation, and communication; and build gates and other barriers.

• Cultivate human resilience in the face of an adversity that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

As an example of such resilience the story describes two adjacent “hyper-segregated” communities in Chicago during a 1995 heatwave that killed 739 residents of the city.

While the communities had similar demographics, one had 33 deaths per hundred thousand residents while the other had three per thousand, which made it far safer that even most of the affluent neighborhoods in the city.

Various studies illuminated the source of this resilience in the safer neighborhood and in other settings and, as result, “. . . governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support,” Eric Klinenberg, the article’s author, notes.

Resilience is also a hallmark of successful schools, particularly those that serve students in communities challenged by high levels of poverty and unimaginable tragedies.

Social networks and connections are of universal value, but they take on even greater importance when organizations are stressed.

Consequently, a major responsibility of leaders is developing school cultures that enhance the relationship-based resilience already found within schools and in their surrounding neighborhoods.

To that end, successful principals and teacher leaders promote a sense of common purpose and mutual support within classrooms and schools, form strong bonds with families and community organizations, and create or strengthen already existing teacher teams and networks.

The results of such efforts, carefully nurtured over time, prepare school communities for both anticipated challenges and the unexpected events that can affect all schools without warning.

3 Responses to “The leader’s role in creating resilient schools”

  1. 1 Jim Knight January 4, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I’m just starting Andrew Zolli’s book Resilience, which I plan to read as an audio book as I drive to Canada tomorrow. I think it will have real implications for how we can all bounce back from setbacks and maintain energy to fighting burnout. I agree completely that building a culture of support is a vitally important leadership task. I’m hoping Zolli’s book will give more insight into how to do that.

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks January 4, 2013 at 8:49 am

    And I am eager, Jim, to read about what you learn about that subject on your blog ( and elsewhere.

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