District Office Leaders: Sharing School Wins
Leadership Insights

District Office Leaders: Sharing Successful Practices

By Terry Wilhelm October 7, 2014
District Office Leaders: Sharing School Wins

In an ASCD article about teaching, education consultant and author Roland Barth wrote:

“It’s just a very leveling profession. Teachers are, in a way, their own worst enemy when it comes to unlocking leadership because they don’t welcome it, typically don’t respect it, and often feel threatened by one of their own taking it on. Anyone who bumps above the level is subject to condemnation: ‘Who the heck do you think you are?!’ ”

Barth was discussing teacher leadership and the unfortunate cultural norms of the profession that sanction attempts to recognize, single out, or allow individuals to behave in ways that are above the “level.” I have observed this same leveling phenomenon at work at the district level in regard to principals and schools.

Cultural reluctance to stand out prevents successful learning strategies from being shared

Many district-level leaders have been historically reluctant to single out principals or schools for positive recognition. Internal, unwritten biases like these have simply remained unexamined. Due to the taboo against putting one school or principal in the spotlight, practices from a school that is recognized regionally or at the state level are not shared with other schools in a district.

This failure goes beyond full-scale school recognitions like the National Blue Ribbon distinction or state-level awards such as California’s Distinguished School recognition. Many schools have effective small-scale practices that could be replicated — if others only knew about them.

District leaders can create a culture of support and recognition for large and small educational accomplishments

Several years ago, the superintendent of a California area service agency became somewhat disenchanted with the limitations of the state’s Distinguished Schools Recognition Program. His staff members comprised the teams that validated DSRP school nominees’ applications, but he wanted to broaden the opportunities to recognize — and share — schools’ smaller-scale accomplishments and best practices in his region. He called this program Models of Excellence.

District office leaders can use a concept like this to recognize, share, and promote successful school practices internally. Schools that are on an upward trajectory but have not yet attained “distinguished” status, or have not yet moved an effective practice to scale — for example, all departments at a comprehensive high school — may present valuable models, and have learned lessons that can immediately benefit other schools in the district.

School ‘showcase’ visits allow principals to model effective practices to colleagues

Once the decision is made to move ahead, simply ask principals to consider practices they are implementing at their own sites that may be replicable. These could — and should — include practices to accelerate specific district initiative(s). District leaders who visit schools frequently can encourage specific principals to volunteer first and break the ice, which can be important if principal sharing is a new practice.

A simple format such as a one-page questionnaire asking for a description of the practice and its impact on student learning (with evidence) can be the mechanism for a principal to host a “showcase” visit. Imagine the benefits to principals’ leadership if occasionally, a principals’ meeting consisted of a showcase school site visit and debrief, and the business agenda items were handled by email.

Sharing school successes makes principals less isolated, more likely to celebrate small wins

One side benefit of sharing effective practices between schools will be the gradual breaking down of principal isolation. Another will be that new principals will have hands-on opportunities to see the fruits of experienced colleagues’ leadership.

There is also the possibility that some of the newer principals may already have begun to put effective, replicable practices in place. Finally — and of at least equal importance — a district culture of recognition, mutual support, and celebration of small wins can begin to take root and grow.

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