Opinion: Effective school leadership demands on-the-job training

Tim Brinton/NewsArt

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Tim Brinton/NewsArt

Leslie Hazle Bussey is interim executive director of the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement. In this column, she talks about the myth of the superhero leader who shows up on day one able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

By Leslie Hazle Bussey

I vividly remember the moment we came home with our firstborn. We had attended two different types of childbirth classes and read dozens of books about parenting. But when the door closed and it was just my husband, me, and the baby blinking at each other, my mind was blank about what to do next.

Seventeen years later, we are still figuring it out. We noticed that not everything that worked for other parents worked for our child. We also noticed some of the most impactful learning experiences were those we encountered in response to real challenges in our journey: how to help her sleep, how and why to set screen time boundaries, how to keep her in dialog with us during her teen years. It is hard to fathom that any parenting class we could have taken would have been enough to prepare us for this journey. Luckily, policymakers are not advocating that if only we create the definitive childbirth class for expectant parents, we can overcome all societal ills.

 Leslie Hazle Bussey joined the GLISI staff in 2010 and serves as Interim Executive Director. Her background is in teaching, professional learning, and research.

Credit: Maureen Downey

icon to expand image

Credit: Maureen Downey

Yet, it is not unusual to hear this argument about school leaders. Proposed solutions for improving school performance nearly always involve developing the "One Effective Preparation Program for Leaders" that will finally succeed where preparation programs before have fallen short.

What is flawed about this approach is that, like parenting, leading a school demands a complex constellation of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that take years and practice for master principals to develop. Not only that, but just as different children in the same home require a different parenting approach, schools of different sizes, serving different communities require different leadership skills and strengths.

In fact, research on how adults learn points to a handful of key conditions for optimal learning, whether for parents or school leaders: 1) the adult learner needs a sense of urgency to learn introduced by a here-and-now challenge they need to resolve; 2) learning is greatest when the difficulty of the challenge calls on the adult learner to push beyond their comfort zone; 3) the adult learner must believe in the relevance of the learning experience to address their problem; and 4) the adult learner has to engage in a high number of at-bats or practice opportunities to develop mastery level expertise (Ericsson et al., 1993; Knowles, 1984; Mezirow, 1997; Rabin, 2013).

Like the pathway to becoming a better parent, a solution for growing better school leaders -- and dramatically changing outcomes for Georgia’s schools and students -- must be focused on supporting the leader while they are leading, not only beforehand.

Georgia has such a solution. The Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement, or GLISI, was born over 16 years ago with a vision to disrupt the preparation myth. GLISI provides cutting-edge training and coaching not only for leaders, but for their teams, so that leaders and teachers are growing together, working on problems of practice they face in schools right now, and intentionally building school cultures that uplift and liberate the untapped potential of teachers and students.

A self-sustaining non-profit organization with no dedicated line item in the state budget, GLISI challenges the paradigm of the hero leader who has all the answers and will singlehandedly save the day as soon as he or she completes superhero leader preparation.

In the last three years alone, GLISI has served more than 4,300 practicing principals, assistant principals, teachers and district leaders from over 30 percent of the districts in Georgia, mostly small and rural districts from every corner of the state. Leaders come to GLISI because they seek change, not because they are compelled to attend by law or the threat of losing funding.

Under these conditions -- which are intentional to our research-based design -- we see encouraging trends. Among districts that have participated in our flagship training experience multiple times, we notice lower rates of teacher absenteeism and higher rates of principal retention compared to the state average, both of which tell us that the climate of GLISI schools is more hospitable for educators -- and therefore more hospitable for students (Berkowitz et al, 2016). In terms of outcomes for students, we saw a 9.6 percentage point increase in graduation rate from 2014 to 2016, outpacing state average growth.

Our work with leaders takes place at the point of practice: just-in-time when the leader is facing the new challenge or working on a new initiative. We do not purport that our training and coaching alone are what lead to positive outcomes, nor that preparation experiences don’t make important contributions to a leader’s confidence and competence. Of course, they do.

But when sustained adult behavior change is the goal -- and that is what must happen for schools in Georgia to disrupt the connections between race, neighborhood, family income and student achievement -- there must be desire, commitment, and work on the part of the adult to get better. Those factors converge at the point of practice -- not when the prospective leader is sitting in a desk imagining how it might be, but when they are in the position, with the specific context of district size, parents, teachers, community members and students needing leadership right now.

If 17 years ago, as part of my childbirth class, I had aced an in-basket exercise on shepherding a teenage girl through college selection, I doubt it would have helped me to be the coach and encourager I need to be today. I’m glad I have just-in-time support in the form of a network of experts and experienced friends as well as research and information to help me navigate these waters successfully. Just as school leaders’ growth is what will determine student and school success, my growth as a parent will decide how well that baby I didn’t know what to do with is positioned to unleash her passion and talents on a world that needs her.