The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Tennessee was facing a common challenge in education — lots of its best people were retiring and there weren’t enough qualified people in the district to fill the leadership positions opening up. This practical challenge prompted the district to look inward and take steps to develop existing talent with an eye to the future. What started as a desperate need became a concerted emphasis on increasing leadership capacity at all levels of the district and has led to remarkable growth in student achievement by extension.
“We’ve tried to establish opportunities for people to gain knowledge of leadership, no matter where they are in the organization,” said Dr. B.J. Worthington, director of schools for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. The training program the district uses includes 21 leadership responsibilities based in research on effective leadership tactics compiled by McREL International.
“When we first started balanced leadership, there was this idea that leadership responsibilities were on the instructional side,” said Dr. Susan Jones, the district’s professional development coordinator. But district leaders have made it clear to every department — from human resources to instructional coaches to the business department — that the principles apply in every context. “Once we got to that understanding then we are all speaking the same language,” she said.
Worthington and Jones have tried to honor the capacity in every person to be a leader by actively inviting anyone who wants to get leadership training to do so. The early trainings include workshops on how the district is organized, how its operations work and how an individual can be effective within that system. The goal is to empower staff with knowledge, helping them to see the complex workings of the district not as an opaque and confusing process, but as an open system that they can influence. The district also offers more advanced leadership training, like an “Aspiring Administrator Academy” that teachers must be recommended for by their principals.
Clarkesville-Montgomery’s focus on leadership is an attempt at change from the inside out. No state-level administrator told them they had to improve the leadership qualities of its employees, but Worthington was tired of top-down initiatives that never seemed to take hold at the school level. He thought if the central office could build the capacity of its school site leaders, teachers, coaches, area leaders and so on, not only would they have a homegrown pipeline of qualified people, but there would be more ownership over creating positive change in each building.
MAKING CHANGE PALATABLE
“Good leaders have to have a clear vision of where they’re going and they have to understand there’s lots of parts of that vision,” Worthington said.
One task for school administrators in leadership training is to develop a set of operating principles with their staff, so everyone buys into the vision and expects to be held accountable. Worthington described one struggling high school that had missed its graduation targets and was slipping in academic performance. The school’s new principal had gone through the leadership training and was so effective at building a shared vision that in just two years the school moved from being a three to a five — the highest score possible — on the state’s scale of effectiveness.
Worthington likes to emphasize in trainings that change is personal. It happens because of personal relationships and it affects each person individually. Good leaders must understand this, be transparent about the reasons behind the change, and help people to see a path forward that seems feasible for them. Approaching change in this way has been tremendously successful for Clarksville-Montgomery. In the 2014-2015 school year the district led the state in student growth for overall literacy and numeracy in grades 3-12.
“If you help people to see this is what it’s going to look like in the end, then you can work backwards and anticipate the hard points,” Worthington said. “You can build in staff development, you build in those scaffolded supports during the rough parts.” Not only does this approach smooth the inevitable bumps that come with change, but it also helps build credibility for the leader, who anticipated and let staff know when to expect a little hardship.
Coaching leaders to shepherd positive changes in their buildings is a big part of the central office training. Worthington says it’s crucial that administrators communicate well, provide order and clear processes for the change, including how people can get help, to understand and work with the culture in the building, and to create spaces for input. If these four aspects aren’t handled well by the leader, the change is likely to go negatively.
As more people in the district learn how to lead by stepping up and then stepping back, teachers have been given more control over what happens in the building, too. The model focuses on distributing leadership so the staff in a building not only have a shared vision, but also have a shared responsibility and imperative to make that vision a reality.
HOLDING LEADERS ACCOUNTABLE
Worthington says it’s important to support leaders as they try out new approaches and implement what they’ve learned in trainings, but in a “trust but verify” system where everyone is held accountable for the ultimate goal of student achievement. One of the primary ways Clarksville-Montgomery does this at the school level is through 360 reviews. All faculty and staff evaluate the principal once a year, and if it’s a new principal he or she gets a midyear 360-review in addition to one at year’s end.
“Our staff members out in the school are not reticent to say what they think about a specific administrator,” Worthington said. The reviews are anonymous and include specific questions. Those reviews are shared with the principal, and he or she is expected to take any resulting trends back to the staff for a conversation about the feedback.
“If that principal is genuinely interested in growing and getting better, nine times out of 10 they go back and talk with their leadership team,” Worthington said. Most often no one gets a 360-review that’s all good or all bad, but it does give principals a clear idea of how their actions are perceived by teachers and staff in the school.
This emphasis on accountability also applies to teachers and student outcomes. Worthington described one school where a new teacher was struggling and clearly not being successful. Rather than letting that situation continue, the principal immediately recognized what was going on and combined the struggling teacher’s class with that of a more experienced teacher who could model effective teaching. Over time, the principal gradually allowed the new teacher to have more freedom over her class.
“You have to have the honest conversation with the person who isn’t being as successful as they should be,” Worthington said. And in most cases, teachers are open to anything that can help them improve — they want help.
“If a teacher is struggling on day one, they’re probably going to struggle on day two,” Worthington said. “So intervene immediately.” For Worthington, the goal is equal access to positive academic outcomes for every child. That goal supersedes any concern a leader might feel about having an uncomfortable conversation.
Focusing on effective leadership has also helped each person in the school ecosystem be effective at their role, meaning fewer smaller problems surface to the highest levels. “Leadership takes away the inefficiencies in the building that can distract teachers from really being able to teach,” Worthington said.
The same goes for leadership at every level. If the janitorial staff is well-led, that person can handle any issues before they rise to the principal’s attention, who can in turn stay focused on supporting teachers.