What Is It Going to Take for Students to Do Their Very Best?
“It’s all about having an asset-based growth mindset, even when you are pushed to your limits,” advises Keshia B.Warner. A New Leaders alum and former principal, Warner leads New Leaders’ (now virtual) Aspiring Principals Program in Chicago, where she trains future principals to be adaptive and resilient leaders. “Focus on the opportunity, not the stress,” she adds, “even when you doubt that something could be successful.”
An openness to learning, a commitment to building on strengths rather than focusing on deficits, and the belief that hard work and effort contribute to success are the three hallmarks of an asset-based mindset. It’s the mindset leaders need most when there is no one right answer. Today, school leaders are navigating unprecedented decisions: How to ensure the health and safety of students, staff, and families amid a pandemic. How to protect and optimize learning in whatever form instruction takes. How to address systemic racism in schools.
“What I hear over and over again from principals is that they would love to get back to some sense of normalcy… but their primary concern is student and staff safety.” From staff members with underlying medical conditions to a lack of substitute teachers, mandatory face masks to sanitation protocols, social distance measures to teachers who decline to return, school leaders need a way to lead their school communities through growing uncertainty and change.
We asked Warner what she would prioritize for the upcoming school year if she were still a principal. Instruction, she said unequivocally. To do so effectively, she added, school and system leaders need to zero in on adaptive leadership practices.
Like the adage “one size does not fit all,” adaptive leadership allows educators and leaders to dig into problems that do not have an easy or singular solution, like the question of school reopening. According to Warner, adaptive leaders step back to observe and understand a challenge through many lenses. They consider who is affected and identify key partners and human resources. They interpret existing data and act in a way that honors the unique context of their community.
Take, for example, the need to deliver high-quality instruction to all students during an ongoing pandemic. It is the quintessential adaptive challenge – whether in-person, remote, or hybrid – and also an opportunity as Warner points out. Unlike this past spring, when the shift to remote learning occurred overnight, this summer affords education leaders the chance to be equitable and intentional as they adapt their school-wide instruction plans to meet their current context.
Using an adaptive lens, Warner offers guiding questions for leaders and their teams to consider:
Observe: What can be learned about students now? Using existing data, which students engaged in remote learning? Who excelled? Who needs academic support? Or social emotional support due to loss?
Interpret: What kind of support and daily schedule do students need to be successful? How can supports be differentiated to meet observed needs? What existing partnerships can be leveraged for small groups, extended learning, enrichment and intervention?
Intervene: How does the instructional plan dismantle inequitable systems? How will its execution ensure equitable access to learning?
Warner knows first-hand the power of adaptive leadership. In 2013, in an unprecedented move and amid intense public outcry, Chicago Public Schools closed 49 elementary schools and one high school in an effort to balance a billion dollar budget deficit. Overnight, Warner was named a “Welcoming Principal.” Her current school was slated to relocate and then “welcome” or merge with two schools slated for closure. Her role was to lead the new consolidated school.
Like all adaptive challenges, there was no roadmap and no quick fix. That spring, Warner facilitated biweekly meetings with the staff and parent transition teams from all three schools as well as a student movie event. Her goal was to help students, families, and staff forge new relationships and build a unified school culture – while also honoring the sudden impact and loss to both communities. “I had to consistently communicate and show students and parents that I was dedicated to every child’s success.”
Now more than ever, Warner wants leaders to recognize and remember that they do not have to have all the answers. And, that they are not in it by themselves. Adaptive and resilient leaders mobilize and engage all stakeholders in uncovering the solutions they need. “It’s really about putting the opportunities in place for students to excel no matter what… What is it going to take for students to do their very best?”