By Karen K. Garza, PhD
As we experience the first days of summer, it seems almost inconceivable that the past several months were consumed with school closures, remote learning, and virtual graduation ceremonies, along with many other significant school events that were canceled, postponed, or reimagined. In addition, we’ve seen an historic outcry across the nation and the world in response to persistent and systemic racism and inequities. Our world has changed so dramatically—and will never be the same.
“During this time of extreme change and uncertainty, does it feel as if your school system’s vision for the future has also been canceled?”
History reveals that during times of crisis, a hopeful and inspiring vision is essential to rally the commitments, energies, and emotions of the community and the organization toward the creation of a new reality. Certainly, the magnitude of crisis that leaders are dealing with today will test themselves, their community, and their vision. A compelling vision can serve to heal and unite people—exactly what is needed today. In absence of a vision, how do leaders instill hope for the future and show the way forward?
True leadership reveals itself during extraordinary times. Leading during times of crisis is always difficult. However, to lead during times of sustained crisis is a new phenomenon for all leaders and it requires fundamentally different approaches.
Leading through a sustained crisis that will likely result in a new normal, has two distinct phases. -Heifetz, et.al, (2020)
The first is the emergency phase where leaders rally the district resources and the community to respond to the pressing and immediate challenges. This is a definite challenge, but nothing like the second phase.
The second phase is extraordinarily difficult—the adaptive phase. The adaptive phase is leading the organization beyond the immediate crisis to building the capacity for all to thrive in a new reality. The adaptive phase is particularly difficult because everyone will almost certainly exert significant energies to try to recreate the past. In fact, Heifetz and his colleagues state that when we get beyond the immediacy of the crisis and emotions are even somewhat ameliorated, an illusion of normalcy is often created.
We are observing evidence of strong educational leadership across the nation, with leaders making very difficult decisions in the interest of protecting health and well-being, often against seemingly fierce opposition. It is in times like these that steady, resolute leadership is paramount. Over the past few months, we have connected with superintendents in our national network, comprised of approximately 200 school systems across 45 states. These superintendents, like others across the country, have responded to the emergencies of the first phase, such as…
- Do all students have a technological device and the ability to connect to access learning?
- Are the emotional and overall well-being needs of students and staff being addressed?
- Are our educators well-equipped to design and support learning in a virtual setting?
These are fundamentally important issues that require the steady hand of skilled educational leaders. The superintendents in our national network and others throughout the nation are addressing these important issues, but they are also taking great care to move into the adaptive phase. These leaders are intentionally creating conditions where the system is poised to embrace the necessary adaptation—to act on a compelling vision that proactively shapes a relevant, responsive education system for the future. These leaders are wrestling with questions of the adaptive phase, such as…
- How do we maintain momentum for our vision for 21st century learning—our Portrait of a Graduate?
- How do we capture and continue the learning and ingenuity that has surfaced during this time?
- As a result of this time of significant unrest and change, what shifts are we seeing in community perspectives about the purpose, nature, and value of education?
To successfully navigate the adaptive phase, resulting in enduring transformation, leaders must apply systems thinking. Peter Senge, in his work on systems and systems thinking, reminds us that in order to transform organizations, we must maintain the right level of pressure on the system. This requires collective focus and leadership. Without this pressure and unifying focus on a new vision, systems often revert to what is known and familiar.
“Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future…this shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.” – Senge, Hamilton, Kania, 2015
In this sustained crisis, it is likely that the public will be seeking some semblance of predictability as well as a renewed sense of hope for the future. As the center of many communities across the nation, our school systems are well positioned to model and lead. We have an opportunity now to proactively shape the future of education for the better!
As system leaders navigate these extraordinarily challenging times, we have crafted a series of questions around the Battelle for Kid’s systems framework—Portrait of a 21st Century Educational System. This series of questions can be found in this Conversation & Action Guide for Re-Opening Schools. This guide has been developed to assist educational leaders as they navigate the reentry and reimagine the renewal of their educational systems.
As stewards of a national network of innovative and visionary leaders, we feel a responsibility to leverage the power of this network to collect ideas and learnings for the benefit of everyone within the larger community of educators. Over the coming months, we will be collecting ideas and perspectives from superintendents across the country. We invite you to contribute to this important national discourse by going to bfk.me/OnlineActionGuide to share your insights and responses to these questions.
Education and community leaders everywhere must provide a hopeful and responsive vision for moving forward—a vision that provides a renewed sense of hope, an aspirational direction forward, and a better tomorrow for every student, everywhere. The Vision must NOT be canceled!
By Karen K. Garza, PhD
President & CEO, Battelle for Kids
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