A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Schools exist to serve students and their families. For this reason, as school leaders we must never lose sight of the student experience and remain in dialogue with students at all times. Ultimately, students are the end users within our schools. The goal should be to subvert traditional hierarchies between teachers and students so that they are authentically in collaboration with each other. Therefore, each iteration or change we make as leaders should be designed to be more aligned with the needs of students as they define them.
The student experience isn’t one of compliance or obedience to the arbitrary rules of the school. In contrast, students take meaningful ownership over their own learning. Students personalize their learning by having control over what they are learning, the way they are assessed, and set their own goals. Each student interacts and partners with students who have had very different perspectives than their own. At the end of each course students explain and demonstrate what they were learning about and why to an authentic audience. Each year students have a transformative experience involving travel or community service where they are pushed to see the world from a different perspective. These transformative experiences help students tap into a deeper sense of purpose and recognize their own self worth beyond the selectiveness of the college where they ultimately will be accepted.
Meaningful learning happens in the context of a supportive community. Communities are nurtured by a shared set of values and a unifying vision. Constructing a community requires building a culture where teachers and students feel respected and listened to. This creates a climate of psychological safety where people laugh together yet feel empowered to challenge one another to grow and improve. School leaders can test whether this community exists by seeing whether students and staff articulate a reasonably similar vision of what defines the school.
Teachers feel part of a community of professionals working together on an ongoing basis to improve the experience of students. Professional development is ongoing where teachers are exposed to new instructional practices, receive coaching and feedback, and get the opportunity to reflect and connect these practices to the bigger goals of the organization. A strong adult culture coupled with a clear vision of instructional practices sets the stage for teachers to grow their practice.
A leader nurtures the development of a community amongst students and teachers. Once this culture is established leadership is about empowering people to take on appropriate challenges. As a school leader it isn’t possible to address the constellation of challenges that emerge on an ongoing basis so it is critical that leadership is distributed to the entire school community. Given these distributed leadership roles It is critical to celebrate success whenever possible. This also implies being their to support people who took a risk and didn’t get the outcomes they hoped for while pushing them to improve. This reflects the development of a collegial culture where people are able to share critical feedback in the service of pushing the work forward without people feeling attacked or growing defensive.
A leader is also able to see when there are different more efficient ways for an organization to support its vision. Thinking differently and embracing innovation in service of these goals is a critical part of leadership. What seems critical is that leaders not pursue innovation for the recognition of being an early adopter but in ways that help the organization achieve their mission. Leaders need to exercise sound judgement and recognize the tradeoffs of implementing new approaches that might spark resistance and undermine adult culture. But ultimately a leader should be evaluated on the extent to which the school is aligned with the authentic needs of the students they serve.