Self-Reflection and Leadership: Create a Healthier and Happier School Culture by Looking Within
Self-reflection is always important for school leaders, and the beginning of a new year is a natural time to think about your personal leadership approach. Perhaps your school community is at a pivot point. Or, maybe you’re looking forward to powering through and carrying the momentum you’ve gained through the second half of the year and into your summer planning. Or, you’re still looking for answers to matters that troubled you in the first half of the year and are optimistic about winning solutions emerging. In any case, taking the time to reflect on your personal leadership will help with a strong re-start, advance your professional learning, and create a happier, healthier school (or district) culture.
The power of objectivity and reflective thinking
Personal leadership encompasses your values, beliefs, and attitudes. It also determines the way you interact with staff, students, and families. How do your beliefs influence your leadership style? A professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is known for asking her students to record themselves teaching a lesson and then critique it like sports teams would watching their game film. This kind of thing is a great tool for objectivity and self-reflection. Yet, school and district leaders can’t have a camera crew following them around as they make decisions and take action. How then can we ensure that we’re being properly objective when we reflect on our personal leadership?
One way to ensure objectivity is by having a clear set of factors to include in your self-reflection exercise. It’s important to write down and evaluate things like your skill set, strengths, weaknesses, behavior patterns, influence strategy, values, and goals. For example, for skill set, consider what things you do best as well as the skills you need to work on or gain more confidence in. With something like a behavior pattern, reflect on how you reacted during certain stressful situations. Really take the time to go through this exercise properly and you will discover things about yourself that will make you a better person and professional.
When you feel like you’ve done a good job taking inventory and evaluating yourself in writing, it’s time to ask others about your leadership style. As you take this step, be sure to avoid the people who you know will only tell you what you want to hear. Always hearing that you’re doing a good job isn’t going to help you grow as a leader or seek out the right professional development. How certain are you that you’ve created a psychologically safe environment where your staff and leadership team feel comfortable offering honest feedback? Have the courage to find out by encouraging valued members of your school community to be candid and truthful.
Our personal leadership framework
At New Leaders, we value the power of self-reflection and have organized our own framework of five personal leadership actions that will surely help you learn more about yourself as a leader and energize your school community. When you’re ready to start thinking more about your leadership, take a look at the five actions below that can be used as factors to evaluate yourself in writing. If you don’t have the time to write, take voice memos or call a colleague and use them as a sounding board. Below are descriptions of each action and some guiding questions to prompt your reflective thinking.
1. Belief-based and goal-driven leadership
Belief-based leaders know that every child can achieve at high levels and they inspire their staff to believe the same. They also set ambitious but achievable goals for their school community. New Leaders alum and former principal Karen Bryan Chambers offers this insight: “I wanted my staff to embrace the vision, not just read it on a poster around the building. So, I started by telling my staff why I became a teacher and why I went into leadership. Once I shared my why, I asked every staff member to tell me their why. That’s how we got to our collective WHY.”
- What expectations do you have for the adults and students in your school and what do those expectations look like in practice?
- How can you help staff to focus on student achievement and not be distracted by the quibbles of others in the school building?
- How do you express urgency in attaining goals?
2. Equity-focused Leadership
Equity-focused leaders consistently explore their own biases and assumptions about students, staff, and families. They are aware of and appreciate the various backgrounds their school community comes from and models their reflective practice. They also find a wide range of voices and perspectives to inform their own beliefs and actions.
- Do you regularly seek out evidence that will reveal your biases? If so, how? If not, why not, and what can you do to make that a part of your routine?
- Is your staff diverse? Does your staff bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to discussions?
- How can you become or remain aware of the power dynamics between you and your staff and families, particularly around areas of race, culture, and class?
3. Interpersonal leadership
Interpersonal leaders build strong and trusting relationships with multiple stakeholders and always communicate respectfully. “I learned that there is no one magical wellness initiative that works for everyone,” observes Daniela Anello, head of school and New Leaders alum. “So we listen, adapt, and differentiate—that’s how we demonstrate that we are being thoughtful around our teacher and staff needs.”
- How did you build rapport with your team and were there teachers and staff that you struggled to build relationships with? If so, why?
- How do you tailor your communication with staff, families, and other school community members?
4. Adaptive leadership
Adaptive leaders anticipate change and are good at helping their school community navigate changes while maintaining the school vision and a sense of care for adults and students.
- What was a challenge that you identified or your staff identified for you? What was the root of the problem?
- Was it something that could be solved by an expert? Was there a “right answer” that already existed, but may not have been known by the team?
- Did it require staff members to change their practices and beliefs or the way they collaborate within a team?
5. Resilient leadership
Resilient leaders show resolve during times of adversity and constantly look for solutions that will move their school closer to its goals. They also reflect on their actions to ensure that they are always learning and improving. Dr. Ian Roberts, superintendent and New Leaders alum, shares: “The question that I always ask my team and every school leader is: What is most important right now? Resilient leaders are signal-senders. Every time we made a decision, we were sending a signal that it was going to be okay.”
- What activities do you do to re-energize yourself from the challenges of school leadership?
- What actions do you encourage your team to take to build and sustain the team in challenging moments?
- What do you do when you recognize staff members who are personally struggling with work or something in their personal lives?
Self-reflection is a powerful practice that all school and district leaders can employ. When doing it intentionally, being objective and documenting your learning, it will fuel your personal and professional growth—and teacher growth as well. That growth will then help you to continue to create a healthier and happier school culture, which will lead to greater student achievement and well-being.