The Art of Juggling as a School Leader
There are educational giants whose mere mention of their names conjures awe, respect, inspiration, and admiration. Some of our edu-heroes are Booker T. Washington, Horace Mann, Madeline Hunter, and John Dewey, to name a few. Enrico Rastelli doesn’t typically make the list, but in 2023 he is someone educators should revere. Rastelli considered the greatest juggler of all time, grew his signature act, juggling 10 balls, 8 sticks, and 8 plates – sometimes with one balanced on his head or even while jumping through a hoop! A juggler might not be the first recipient of an edu-hero award, but we think differently about that. Figuratively speaking, our best educators are master jugglers–juggling multiple priorities and initiatives that all seem urgent, competing for time, resources, and energy.
Consider the following areas of focus that many educators have prioritized recently:
These are just a few of the major initiatives and scopes of work that school leaders are building into their system to ensure successful student achievement. The challenge is that school leaders are expected to implement initiatives while educators are adapting to them simultaneously. The workload is immense, which is enough to have anyone’s head spinning. With so many different initiatives and priorities, school leaders must master planning, executing, monitoring, and correcting.
The challenge is that school leaders are expected to implement initiatives while educators are adapting to them simultaneously. ~TheSchoolHouse302
The School Leader a Master Juggler
Education leaders must possess similar skills to that of a juggler, especially as they lead their schools and districts through the complex and intricate landscape of 21st-century teaching and learning. Like Rastelli, school leaders must possess a keen understanding and control of their school. As an expert juggler can skillfully toss and catch various objects, school leaders must execute the school’s vision and mission with the precision and finesse necessary to avoid overwhelm and fatigued.
Effective school leaders also have a rhythm and method to manage the multiple competing priorities so that they flow and work together with and among all initiatives while involving each stakeholder group. Juggling priorities with proper communication is a key component of school leadership and, when done well, leads to student success.
Lastly, effective school leaders anticipate and recognize patterns and situations similar to how a juggler can with a variety of moving objects. The consistent honing of these qualities is necessary to effectively manage the multi-faceted aspects of the daily operations within schools. The goal with every initiative is not to be one more thing but to add layers, working together with everything else to bring about positive changes for all students.
Bowling Pins and Plates: The Marriage Between Non-Instructional and Instructional Priorities
One fascinating element of juggling is all of the unique and different objects that are being wielded through the air. Although different in many ways in both size to weight, the objects are transported smoothly with what appears to be very little effort. The same is true with the synchronization in what creates a harmonious learning environment. At TheSchoolHouse302, we champion the idea of not getting caught up in dualistic thinking. It’s easy for us to see management and instruction as competitors, but they are not. In fact, management is the foundation for exceptional instructional leadership. And, yes, all leaders in schools should be focused on both.
One way to ensure that the two are working together is through our Anchor, Focus, and Align Model (A.F.A.), which we use with school districts as they learn the foundation of what it means to provide meaningful feedback.
Anchor: By establishing the anchor, school leaders create the reference point that helps you maintain focus and remain steady on your goals. We anchor our work to the vision and values.
Focus: Once the anchor is established, focus involves prioritizing tasks and responsibilities so that efforts are continuous. We focus our work on incremental and continuous improvement.
Align: Alignment refers to a learning culture. Every action, strategy, resource, and people should be coordinated in a cohesive manner. We align our work with the professional learning necessary to achieve success.
When all three work together, a clear sense of direction is maintained through intentional choices. A.F.A. optimizes performance and maximizes impact because there is a throughline woven among all the various initiatives to maintain the clarity that they support one another, regardless of their relationship to instructional or non-instructional goals.
Planning, Follow Through and Follow Up
To emphasize and establish the importance of coordination among initiatives to reach success with them, we clearly identify the difference between the three stages of successful initiative implementation:
- Planning for implementation
- Following through on implementation
- Following up on implementation
Let’s consider what each means and why they’re all important for progress to be made.
Planning: In our interview with Jim Marshall, he stressed the fact that prior planning for the successful implementation of an initiative is critical but doesn’t happen to the extent it should. When initiatives fail, we have to evaluate whether it’s the program or the people who are putting it into place. Often, it’s a people problem due to improper planning.
Technical Tip: The first step is to accurately define the problem that we’re trying to solve and create a thorough outline of the tasks, steps, and resources needed to be successful. We suggest using the systems thinking model that we wrote about in 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders, called The Octopus Approach.
Follow Through: Follow through is different than planning. In fact, excellent planning builds in follow-through, which is aimed at successful implementation and sustainability. We don’t want to become paralyzed as we review the data, create a plan, and prepare for perfection. We just heard from a teacher about grading reform, and the sentiment was that everyone would need to be trained, qualified, and absolutely ready to implement the new structures.
That’s not practical, nor is it even possible. When we’re talking about new initiatives, we look for a culture of try versus a culture of why. Yes, we can get clear on the rationale in the planning phase, but during implementation, we need everyone to make an effort. As we’ve heard from Dr. Douglas Reeves, the concept of “buy-in” is a myth. Follow-through means that we make certain that the program is off the ground and being implemented, even if it’s rocky and imperfect.
Technical Tip: Follow-through consists of initiative monitoring. This is the effective use of data to help navigate the initiative’s progress. This information is invaluable as the team identifies successes, unearths areas of improvement, and celebrates small and early wins.
Follow-Up: If the follow-through is a problem, follow-up is likely non-existent. Follow-up is the outcome of successful follow-through. Follow-up is about adjusting, tweaking, and altering the program based on relevant data and information. Schools are not static entities, and conditions change all the time. As one initiative is launched, another one may be required and is closely related to other work being done. Without follow-up, programs and initiatives can falter and halt without us even knowing. If you’ve ever tried to implement a new practice only to find out that no one is putting it into action, you’ve encountered a lack of follow-up on your expectations.
Technical Tip: Follow-up includes using observation, feedback, and support so that the implementation remains adaptable and suited to the needs of the school. Without it, you can end up with zero change, weak implementation, and disgruntled people who see initiatives as “one more thing.”
Sustainability Planning: Avoiding the One More Shiny Thing Theory
If there’s anything that we want to impress upon school leaders, especially new school leaders, it’s that all of your projects and initiatives should be considered under the singular vision of your school or department. Successful initiative implementation rests on the leader’s ability to continue and expand them over time. And, anything worth changing is inherently inconvenient, at least at the beginning of implementation, so building them into existing practices and the school’s culture is vital for ongoing success.
Consider goals like de-tracking students or grading reform. They can seem like separate and different initiatives if they are not planned well. However, through careful and thoughtful planning and communication, they should both be aspects of your equity initiative. By identifying and recognizing the similarities of certain initiatives, you have the ability to capitalize on all efforts, resources, time, and people. Always consider your school values and align the projects to the heart of your school’s vision. That way, anything you implement as “new” falls under an already established expectation for the academic success and well-being of your students.
In schools where the new shiny thing to do is deemed “one more thing,” it’s often because of improper planning. Take time to identify how the initiative aligns with your established program of work, how it will be monitored as it unfolds, and the feedback necessary to make it excellent.
Next Steps for School Leaders
We challenge our readers to enumerate all of your initiatives and assign them to one or more of your core values under the singular vision of your department, school, or district. After that, evaluate your communication plan. Successful initiatives are transparent. Consider all stakeholders. This will capture the Anchor in A.F.A.
Next, we challenge you to comb through your professional learning plan and align your initiatives to the PL offered throughout the year and within your professional learning communities (PLCs). This will confirm that there is adequate training and support. Don’t assume that everyone has the knowledge, skills, and resources to successfully implement the initiatives. This will capture the Focus in A.F.A.
Lastly, we challenge you to embrace a growth mindset and accept that plans need to be adjusted through feedback and support. Your follow-up, as everyone implements, will allow you to provide feedback, both praise, and correction, to make sure that you’re making real progress toward the goal. This will capture the Align in A.F.A.
Successful initiatives are transparent initiatives. ~TheSchoolHouse302
We fully acknowledge that the details and specific application of these principles vary based on the school, context, and needs of each organization. TheSchooHouse302 offers professional learning, coaching, training, and resources to support school and district leaders in implementing these principles effectively. Reach out.