Sustainable Leadership

Ann Skelcher Engagement 0 Comments

In recent conversations with several of our customers we talked about the impact that neighboring schools and districts have on one another. Our discussions centered mostly around the need to compete for students in areas where there is open enrollment.

These conversations reminded me of times when, as principal, I felt a sense of pride when students chose our school over others. It also reminded me of the despair I felt when parents applied out of our school enrollment area. In both cases the staff were working hard, focused on doing the very best and, by all measures, doing the right things for the students.

Reading Sustainable Leadership by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink framed my experience in a perspective I had never considered.

“The fates of schools are almost always intertwined. What leaders do in one school affects the fortunes of students and teachers in other schools around them. Sustainability, therefore, is not only about the maintainability of initiatives within individual schools, but also about being responsible to and for the schools and students in the wider environment that your leadership actions affect. Sustainability is ultimately and inextricably about social justice.”

Moving from examples of unsustainable change and practice – the results of which are teacher exhaustion, restricted innovation, and a focus on test scores – the authors address seven principles of sustainability:

  1. Depth: Learning and Integrity
  2. Length: Endurance and Succession
  3. Breadth: Distribution, Not Delegation
  4. Justice: Others and Ourselves
  5. Diversity: Complexity and Cohesion
  6. Resourcefulness: Restraint and Renewal
  7. Conservation: History and Legacy

The principle that most addressed my concern was number 4 – Justice: Others and Ourselves.

Controversial though it may be, Hargreaves and Fink identify schools of choice, school rankings, competition between magnet schools, and academies for “the best students” as

“educational legacies of liberty without justice, of markets without morality, in which successful schools typically prosper at the expense of their sinking and underperforming neighbors.”

Ultimately what this leads to is widening social and educational inequality.

Hargreaves and Fink emphasize community, relationships, cultural diversity and concern for human welfare over individualism, competition, and focus on the accumulation of resources. They stress that committing to public education means committing to the public good and fulfilling our moral duties of equality and justice for all. Ensuring a quality education for every student ensures that both our public and individual self-interests are served.

For educational leaders, this means caring for the interests of students in our own jurisdictions as well as those in neighboring schools and districts.

“Socially just and sustainable leadership is responsible leadership in the fullest sense. Educational leaders are responsible not just as professionals to their own students’ learning, but also as citizens, community members, and ethical human beings to all those whom their actions affect or might affect.”

Sustainable leadership also means recognizing that educational resources are finite. Accumulating resources such as teacher skill, student talent, and material resources draws away from those with greater needs. Taking out students and staff with the greatest intellectual, social, and economic capital leaves behind the unskilled, disadvantaged, and neediest.


What then are the solutions?

Hargreaves and Fink propose a number of solutions to this lack of justice and inequality:

Paired schools
Successful schools are paired with ones that are struggling. Peer-to-peer mentorship is established for counsellors, administrative teams, and teacher teams. Leadership is distributed and shared throughout both schools. Newport News School District, with support of the HOPE Foundation, is a successful example of paired schools.

Networked districts
Specialist schools are established in cooperation with neighboring districts. For example, the Knowsley Education Authority in England, in partnership with the surrounding secondary schools and community college, established a shared collegiate. Students age 14-18 are offered specialist programs in one of the collegiate’s learning, vocational or specialist centers. The authority has plans to take down their secondary schools and build in their place a network of learning centers. Findings reveal that one third of students are attending collegiate programs and more students are staying in school after age 16.


Community consultation

“Schools of choice, purpose-built innovative schools, and charter schools can and should actively consult, contribute to and avoid doing harm to the wider communities in which they are located.”

By way of example, one charter school, Blue Mountain High School in Canada only advertised for teachers outside of its neighboring districts. Another engaged with its community about the impact it would have and as a result initiated a quota system to ensure that it was not drawing disproportionately from any one school. The longevity of specialist schools is said to be extended when schools consult with their surrounding communities to garner support and trust.


Collective accountability
School accountability measures are often used to compete with other schools. In BC, Canada, the Fraser Institute ranks schools according to their provincial test results and graduation rates. The rankings put pressure on schools to compete – both for students and the best teachers.

Alternatively, schools are coming together to engage in cycles of inquiry to improve school performance. The New York City Department of Education has institutionalized collaborative practices between schools through its Interschool Collaborative Learning Program, which seeks to build the capacity of its school communities through interschool collaboration, leadership development, and resource sharing.

As educators, we’re hard-wired to do the best for our students, our schools, and our districts. We want to provide the best opportunities for our students and to have them thrive. The traps here are:

a) believing that they are my students or this is my school or my district – they aren’t – they are ours

b) ignoring the detrimental affect that our own accumulation of resources – material and human – has on our neighbors and on the students they serve

Collaboration, the building of networks, consulting, cooperative action, and a focus on the collective allows educators to come together to fulfill our shared responsibility for all students and so ensure equity and justice for every student.

“Sustainable leadership means caring for all the people our actions and choices affect – those whom we can’t immediately see as well as those we can. Sustainable leadership is socially just leadership, nothing simpler, nothing less.”

Read The Ripple Effect in EL Magazine for more on paired schools in Newport News School District.
Learn about ASCD’s online magazine EL (Education Leadership) in our Recommended Reading Series.

About the Author

Ann Skelcher

Ann is our Senior Engagement Consultant and comes to Thoughtexchange from a 34 year career in education serving as a classroom and special education teacher for 8 of those years before moving into leadership roles as vice-principal and principal at both the elementary and secondary levels. Ann’s doctoral program in educational leadership centred on school crisis recovery and provided opportunity for her to look reflexively at the role of school leader. As well, she has shared her work on school culture, parent engagement, and student assessment in BC, Alberta and Nunavut.Time with her supportive and loving partner, two grown children and four grandchildren as well as quiet time in the garden, yoga, and forest walks keep Ann energized and balanced.

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