Effective school leaders should build trust, use empathy and have equity at the forefront of access and opportunities for students and staff, said Brianna Hodges and Thomas C. Murray during a virtual keynote speech at the Future of Education Technology Conference.
The past year in education has been chaotic because of the pandemic, said Murray, the director of innovation at Future Ready Schools, but it’s also provided school leaders an opportunity to reset their management approaches and reflect on their individual purposes as educators and supervisors.
School leaders should also allow themselves to be vulnerable during this uncertain time and admit that they don’t always know the answers but are willing to work with others to find solutions to challenges, said Hodges, a Future Ready instructional leader.
In laying out four key effective management approaches, Murray and Hodges gave school leaders permission to recognize they are likely overwhelmed by their responsibilities in reacting to COVID-19 challenges, but that they have the capacity to not only survive but to thrive.
Know your why: Understanding one’s purpose as an educator and what drives them professionally helps school leaders continue to push through their doubts and apprehensions. It can also maximize effectiveness, the speakers said.
The “why” of what leads educators to be passionate about their jobs is personal to each individual. In the chat text during the session, participants shared their whys, which included “I want to make a difference in the lives of others” and “To do your best for the right reasons.”
Having a laser focus on your purpose can help school leaders hone in on the critical work of education instead of being burdened and buried under all the components of leadership, Hodges said.
“Figure out what it is about your work that either completely and totally compels you because you are so incredibly passionate about it, or go the opposite of what is it that just completely breaks your heart that this is not happening,” Hodges said.
Humanize learning through story: Avoid making judgments about a student or staff member, Hodges and Murray said. Instead, leaders should try to understand a person’s backstory so the administrator can make decisions based on comprehensive information. For example, if a student has a high number of school absences, try to find out why. Was it because the student is homeless, in the hospital or has anxiety?
“It's a person's story that defines the context in which their learning occurs,” Murray said.
It may not be possible to know every student and staff member’s hidden story, but asking empathetic questions about someone’s status can lead to better approaches and results, Murray said.
Establish reciprocal trust: School leaders should be the first to trust and the first to extend trust, Hodges said. The first and most important job of any leader is to inspire trust, she said.
“Extending trust is trusting your staff, colleagues, your community, to perform the job for which they're responsible,” Hodges said. “Extending trust is believing in and building up capacity. It’s showing faith and assuming excellence.”
Extending trust is being transparent, accountable, truthful, loyal, authentic and more, Hodges said.
Have an equity lens at all times: Scrutinizing a program for barriers to access and opportunities can shine a light on paths toward improvement, such as expanding course participation and hiring a diverse staff.
During the pandemic, many school systems have done the hard work of expanding access, such as providing devices and hotspots to students who are learning remotely, said Murray. That work, however, should not end when the pandemic is over, he said.
“COVID did not create equity issues,” Murray said. “It amplified those issues that have always existed."
Using an equity mindset is not checking off boxes on a list of problems, he said.
“It's about taking a deep look at the need, and by the way, removing our own personal blinders, developing the action plan, and getting the work done to make sure that our learners have the access and the opportunities [they] need to thrive in tomorrow's workforce and in life,” Murray said.