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Leadership Skills and Implementation

District Level Leadership: Grounding Consistent Messaging in Service

By Terry Wilhelm

In my introductory post on the topic of consistent messaging from districts to sites, I listed several roadblocks to good communication, including ambiguity about priorities at the district level. Site-level administrators and clerical staff often spend an inordinate amount of time and effort satisfying district-level bureaucratic demands, which drain time and energy from administrators’ attention to classroom instruction and the ability of site clerical staff to support them.

Correcting the modus operandi begins with district leadership

Righting this upside-down method begins with explicit clarification by district leadership that the priority of district-level departments is to serve and support the school sites, rather than the reverse.

Robert Greenleaf, renowned for his 1977 book Servant Leadership, also authored another, less well-known book titled The Institution as Servant. In this book, Greenleaf expands upon the theme of capacity to serve, the goal of creating a more caring world, and addressing the growing problems of institutions that he viewed as “often large, complex, powerful, impersonal, not always competent.”

Does strategic planning bring real change or just attractive posters?

Strategic planning has enjoyed a long era of great popularity in school districts. Much attention has been given to the development of mission/purpose/vision statements, lists of values, goals, and even group commitments. However, educators who have seen waves of these efforts result in manifestos printed on attractive posters, cubicle memos, and pocket cards — not to mention thick binders of highly detailed plans — may roll their eyes. Many times, the new mission, values, and commitments end up sliding off daily operational behavior in typical institutions like sticky food off Teflon.

That said, a written standard must be created in order for a district to improve service and support for schools. Otherwise, there is nothing to fall back on when changes are introduced and quickly challenged, as in, “We’ve never done it this way.” A sincere effort to reduce the bureaucratic burden on schools may necessitate extra work for district staff or a willingness to release certain layers of time-honored procedure and protocol — changes which may not be welcomed with open arms.

Set expectations & develop purpose statements with the whole staff

Taking a page from Thoreau — “Simplify, simplify” — once the expectation for this improvement is set at the top by the district superintendent, the work of developing simple purpose statements should encompass every district worker, from the Cabinet to the lowest-ranking technician or clerk. For best success, each workgroup must engage in this endeavor within a given time frame, such as four to six weeks.

For clarity, each workgroup should begin with the same question, such as, “How can we improve our service and support to schools?” Without a common focus, each group could easily develop complex, pleasing sets of statements that have nothing to do with the goal of reducing the bureaucratic burden to sites.

The final statements should be printed and prominently posted in the work areas.  This will provide ongoing cues – reminders – as well as a standard to refer back to when leaders begin to operationalize the written statements with procedural changes.

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