Continuing the leadership journey
The 11 fellows in our inaugural Impact Academy cohort recently completed their fellowship year, a year full of hard work and learning as fellows focused on leading improvement efforts that they believed would better prepare teacher-candidates to meet the needs of students in their partner districts.
Just as the first year of Impact Academy was an opportunity for us at Deans for Impact to test our hypotheses about how best to support and learn with leaders, it was also a chance for our fellows to rethink assumptions they held about improvement and reconsider mindsets related to their own role in this work.
Here’s what they found:
Nudging towards a collective vision
From the outset of the fellowship, many fellows recognized how important it was to set a vision for how their programs would prepare candidates to meet the needs of students and create a sense of urgency for achieving that vision. But implementing a vision — no matter how impressive it was — required the work of individuals. As one fellow noted, “Even the best systems are reliant on the characteristics of the personnel executing the functions contained in the system; their skills, capacity to adapt, growth mindset, and willingness to meet new expectations.” It wasn’t enough to make a splashy presentation about the vision at an early retreat. Helping people understand how their work contributed to the vision was important. One fellow was surprised at how much “continual nudging” she had to do, talking repeatedly about the vision in small and large settings, sketching out the possibilities on whiteboards, and explicitly recognizing when she saw the vision in action in big or little ways.
Moving beyond the invitation
One fellow described how he used to believe that the work of a dean was to create “more invitations” for improvement work. He thought that if he created a vision and asked people to join him, they would come along. What he came to realize over his fellowship year was that even if people want to embark on improvement work, there are often existing structures and cultures that hinder their efforts. If he wanted his faculty to look at candidate data and use it to inform their program design, for example, he couldn’t just mention it to his department chairs and hope the culture would change. He needed to carve out space in the meeting schedule, design structures for those conversations, and invest his own time in the conversations to signal their importance. Without that, he reflected, “no amount of vision generation and accountability will yield productive change.”
Many fellows came into the fellowship focused on the changes they hoped would occur in their programs, and what others would have to do differently in order to realize those improvements. But over the course of the year, fellows began to shift their focus inward and examine what they needed to change about their own leadership in order to move their organization forward. Helping the organization work in new ways required the dean to also work in new ways. “It is hard for me to see how…organizational improvement can work without a component specifically targeted to the leader’s own self-improvement,” said one fellow. One fellow recognized, for example, that sometimes he pushed for improvements faster than his team could “enact change with fidelity and integrity,” and so is now focused on how to pace his leadership actions with the capacity of the rest of the team. Another fellow realized that he often lost sight of long-range commitments as he got caught up in the “urgency of the day-to-day job.” He needed to develop new methods to focus his attention on both the urgent and the important.
One of our hopes for fellows is that they continue to refine their conception of leadership, while reflecting on their roles and identities as leaders. Our fellows are well on their way on that journey – and we’re looking forward to continuing to support them.