Leadership from the middle

A couple of weeks ago, our senior education team attended the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) Fall Conference which featured Michael Fullan and Santiago Rincon-Gallardo. During one of the presentations I took the picture below (sorry for the quality) which to me, helps explain how deep and sustainable educational change needs to occur in systems.

While some would like to believe that real change in schools will only occur from a bottom up approach, some are equally adamant that it will only occur top down. Although change can and will occur from both approaches, neither of them will serve as the magic bullet for deep and sustainable change. Systemic change (from the province/state right to the classroom level) needs to occur through leadership from the middle.

But where is the middle?

Sitting as the superintendent of a school division, I would suggest that our senior team is in the middle. We exploit (I’ll explain later) and leverage up to the Board and Government and liberate and support down to our school administrators. Collaborating and connecting with our peers at the senior level is ongoing and a common practice in Alberta, especially in the southern part of the province.

But the visual should be seen as putting school administration in the middle too! They exploit/leverage up to the senior leaders and liberate/support down to their teachers. In our system and many others, you would recognize a strong willingness of school leaders to collaborate and connect with others. The same could be said about teachers as they too exploit/leverage up to the their school administrators and liberate/support their students and hopefully they are collaborating and connecting with their peers.

I want to return to the word “exploit.” The negative connotation may tend to limit higher echelons of organizations from fully embracing the concept of leading from the middle. I would agree if exploiting means breaking the law. That is not acceptable and I will not tolerate that type of definition. But I believe that exploiting is about looking at the rules of the game, the policies and procedures in place and finding ways to better support practices in schools and learning for students. It is about finding grey to leverage learning.

Systems, ALL systems have far too may rules that hamper the highest quality of education occurring in our classrooms. Some of those rules involve legislation or laws that simply cannot be ignored. There is good reason that some rules are black or white. However, I fully expect our school leaders to challenge me on rules that inhibit classroom practice and negate innovative teaching. And they should expect push back from me to show me the evidence or research to influence the change required. I don’t consider this insubordination, but rather a necessary practice to lead from the middle. And as a superintendent, I should be doing the same (with respect) to the Board of Trustees and to the Provincial Government.

I also know that the best schools have leaders who feel supported by their central office staff. They need to feel comfortable to be innovative but also challenged not to maintain the status quo. Liberating, in order to allow them to be outstanding is no different from what they do with teachers; Allow them to try new things and support their efforts to continuously improve.

In the end, leadership from the middle, no matter where you reside, is about fostering an environment where the very best instructional practice is occurring.¬†Find your middle and exploit/leverage up, liberate/support down and connect and collaborate from the sides…it will be the start of great systemic change!


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