Shelley Burgess

Reflections of an educational learner and leader

Mandates… How Do We Lead Them?

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So… I was inspired to send my first voice “Vox” today based on a question posed in the #bfctlap Voxer group that I belong to by an educational leader wanting some advice from the group on balancing State and District mandates with the needs of her school (I’m abbreviating this a bit, but it captures at least some of it).  This is a subject I am passionate about, so while my voice “Voxes” were a little clunky, I enjoyed being a part of the conversation and hearing insights from teachers and leaders a like.  The conversation went in many directions and has inspired a lot of thought, but I wanted to share my initial two cents on the topic of leading someone else’s mandates.  I hope my thoughts are more eloquently stated in writing than they were while speaking into the “walkie talkie”… at least in writing, I know I won’t use the word “umm”.

It doesn’t matter your role in education… there will always be mandates.  Things that come down from above that you will be required to do – some of them you will agree with and others you won’t, but how we handle these mandates contribute to who we are and how others see us as leaders.

The mandates come from somewhere, and I truly believe they often come from a very well-intended place from a group of people who are trying to find solutions to an often glaring problem.  Just getting your arms around that can help you lead them.  Take NCLB for example – I know as educators most of us hate that mandate at this point, but it was very well-intended legislation trying to make sure that districts and schools were paying attention to the very real achievement gaps we had (and still have) across the country.  It was intended to say that EVERY child matters, and EVERY child deserves a high quality education.  While we may have disagreed with how this legislation played out, I would be hard-pressed to find a professional educator who would disagree with its premise.

This leads me to my point… to lead someone else’s mandate, it’s worth the time up front to understand where it’s coming from and the problem it is trying to solve.  One example I shared in my Vox conversation comes from my time as a principal.  I was charged at the end of my first year in that role with carrying out a district mandate to use a new curriculum for our English Language Development Program beginning the following year.  I HATED the program.  It was one of those fully scripted “take the teacher out of it” programs that literally caused people to say things like “Even the custodian could have an ELD group!” Are you kidding me?  I had fabulous custodians at my school, but they were not professional teachers… See my blog “Programs Don’t Teach Kids, Teachers Do” for more of my thoughts on that topic!!

I did NOT want to use this program in my school, but I had a very wise mentor once tell me that while I might feel like the “boss of the school”, I was really only middle management… hired by the Board and the Superintendent to help lead their vision, so part of my job was to figure out how to do that well, and if my found myself in a place where I truly didn’t believe in their vision, then I needed to find another system in which to work!   Not bad advice… and I know I worked in a place where ultimately our values and beliefs were in alignment.

So… I spent a lot of time thinking about how to take this back to my staff because I knew they were going to have the same negative reactions to the program as I did. What I knew for sure was that I was NOT going to walk into a staff meeting and share  with them “The district wants us to do a new ELD program, and by the way… I hate it!” – that would have taken all of my influence as a leader away from me, and I knew that at the core of the decision to mandate this new program was the fact that English learners across our district were NOT learning English at the levels that they should or could.  So, I did this instead…

I prepared a sea of data about how our school’s English language learners were performing.  I had been digging deep into this data for awhile, but I went deeper.  I created a data set to share with my staff that started with the big picture and ultimately drilled down to individual kids.  I was prepared for all of the challenges that might come up – you know the ones… they usually start with “yeah, but…”  What I ended up with as my final slide was data, names, pictures etc. for a very small number of students – 23 of them to be exact!  So who were these students?  They were English language learners who had just “graduated” from 6th grade the year before who had been in our school continuously since they were in kindergarten or first grade. They did not have chronic attendance problems and they did not have a special education label… and two, yes ONLY two of them had demonstrated proficiency in the English language by the time we sent them on to middle school. They had been in our care for at least six years!  I let that sink in for a minute, and then I remember saying something like “Is there any one of these students that we collectively don’t own?”

I was met with silence, downcast eyes, uncomfortable twitching and movement, and I let that go on for a for what I’m sure seemed like an eternity, but was probably about 60 seconds!  And then I asked, “So why is this happening and what are we going to do about it?”  From there we had small group table discussions, charts and charts of thoughts and ideas about how we might move forward, and we started to formulate the beginnings of a plan…  Over the course of the next few weeks, we formed an ELD Committee, ironed out the plan, pointed out obstacles, and identified the things we needed to learn more about.  While we knew we had hard work ahead of us, we had generated positive energy around doing this good work and charting a course to do better by our kids.  At some point, in the midst of all of this, I introduced the new District ELD program and asked my team to help identify how the new resource could support OUR plan, and guess what?  It did support our plan… it wasn’t a complete solution, but it filled a need.  We had clearly identified problems with what we were currently doing… we were not systematic enough in our delivery of ELD and didn’t have the right assessments – we were creating, not closing gaps because of this.  We had also had some teachers share that they weren’t fully confident in their ability to teach the English language, and the new program helped with that.

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So while I was never enamored with this district mandated program, we found a way as a school team to make it our own and to fit it into OUR plans to support OUR teachers and kids.  One of the things we talked about in the Voxer group was the idea of “positioning” to our staff.  While I didn’t think of it then, I have reflected on it since… I’m not sure that we are after as leaders is the right “positioning”.  I think what we are after is working with our team to find value in new ideas and new ways of thinking, and yes… even value in new programs.  But that doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes careful planning and paying close attention to the needs of your students and the needs of your staff.  It also takes faith and trust that you are leading a team of professionals who when presented with the data and the problem that needs solving that they will roll up their sleeves and want to be part of creating and carrying out the solution.  It also means making a commitment to setting aside the time it takes to grow and learn together and it means not beating people up when they take risks and make mistakes.

So, my #bfctlap Voxer friends… this is one of the things I was trying to articulate in my clunky and awkward Voxes.  Thank you @KeriSkeeters  @marcihouseman @BethHouf @rosy_burke for raising such important issues, asking great questions, thinking about solutions and for being the educators that you are.  I look forward to the day when we can have these conversations in person!

One thought on “Mandates… How Do We Lead Them?

  1. Thank you for once again reminding me how much I respect you as a leader, how much I loved working with you, and what truly exceptional instructional leadership looks and sounds like every day.