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Six Systems to Build Organizational Trust In a School District

In November 2019, I wrote about the importance of a relationship between an organization and its employees as we seek to solve the difficult issues facing public education. The idea that an organization should develop and coach their workers to engage in the important work of educating all kids was discussed in the earlier blog.

Today, I am writing about the interdependent nature of school systems. I became a systems thinker after working with Stanford’s Accelerated Schools Project and reading Senge’s Fifth Discipline(1990). Through both the practical experience and the theoretical experience, I learned how all aspects of a school fit together and are interdependent. Through these experiences, I recognized that this type of thinking led to a strengths based learning organization. It is clear that relationships across the system are critical to the development of mutual understanding while assisting in bringing coherent thought to an organization.  When all stakeholders are in productive conversations, they are able to assist one another in making sense of one another’s thinking moving the organization forward.  

We must remember that school districts are loosely coupled school systems connected through a shared vision for student learning and engagement. Consequently, relationships and conversations are critical in such organizations. A successful school system has a certain “feel” to its culture evidenced through its connective tissue of  values, ethics and behaviors aligned to the shared vision. As Warren Bennis states a “culture of candor” through transparent and direct conversation is very important as we align the system in a loosely coupled organization. 

In the earlier essay, I reviewed the work of Peter Senge in addition to that of Douglas McGregor, Otto Scharmer, and Don Clifton. We talked about the importance of engaging all staff with their work.  My personal mission the past 30 years has been to help people find meaning in their work. I tell people that “I cannot make them happy as that is up to them” but I know I can co-create systems and processes that can help them find meaning in their work.   

During this journey as a public school leader to help my colleagues find meaning in their work, I identified six distinct systems found in successful schools and school districts. Staff participate in and co-lead these systems focusing stakeholders to successfully promote student learning and engagement. 

You see everything that we do in a strengths based school is focused on just that student learning and engagement. Successful school systems are threaded together by a shared vision, district mission, and a set of core values that drive the behavior of those who live and network throughout the system.

The first system is Teaching and Learning and is the heart of every school house and focuses the system on student learning and engagement.  Every school based decision is focused on what is good for our learner or user of the system. It is where we implement a learning philosophy of personalized learning with a guaranteed and viable curriculum. It is where we mentor learners to own and drive their own learning. We infuse gifted learning strategies into all classrooms and teach all students in a rich and rigorous manner. By nurturing schools to become learner centric, we encourage kids to develop a growth mindset. This is especially true for students in poverty and those who will develop a growth mindset and a sense of hope for a positive future. 

Next is Shared Governance / School Design. It is a systems leadership approach to leading a school that is implemented in-conjunction with the School Design Process I shared in a blog earlier this month. It is a generative process where leaders see from the whole and are able to “dance with the system” seeing the interdependence of the system. It identifies the talents and strengths of learners and staff alike and builds their capacity cultivating and nurturing leadership throughout the system. In addition, the school design process helps a community evolve into a learning organization from data, future trends, and the many relationships developed through collaborative efforts of all stakeholders to co-create schools where we would want our own children to attend.

Innovation and professional learning is critical to the transformation of learning in a school. Innovation is encouraged throughout the school community. Teachers are asked to fail twenty-five percent of the time. If you learn from the failure, it is not a failure according to my friends in the design world. Additionally, staff who participate in a strong professional learning system develop clarity and understand why the learning is important as the organization strives to accomplish its goals.  Once clarity is achieved, staff are then given the time and opportunity to learn deeply about what is being implemented by the district. As they move into the implementation stage I call “deep learning”, they become skilled in the educational practice being implemented. We also ask staff to stay current with future trends ready to innovate and prototype new ideas and practices. Finally, each school is responsible for planning professional learning opportunities based on their students’ data, rich PLC conversations, and the cultural context of their community using the organization’s shared vision as the focal point.

Data and results are how we measure our progress. As a superintendent I met quarterly with each principal to review their goals and school data to support the efforts of the school community. It is also how we get to know our students. In this system, we bring a diverse group of stakeholders together to align student outcomes with key data points so that we collect data that explains our progress toward our shared vision. The group starts with what Covey (1989) encourages effective people to do; “begin with the end in mind.”  In this system we also use a learner profile to personalize the learning of children. It is a blend of traditional and non-traditional data that is collected. It pulls the curtain back so we may know our students well allowing teachers to teach them how they learn best. For instance, a district may ask fifth or sixth grade students to complete the Gallup Explore survey to help the learner understand their innate talents and help the teacher develop those talents into strengths as the students matriculate through the system.

By being immersed in rich conversation around the data, all participants can make sense of the data and what it means to them collectively.  One sees these robust conversations in PLC collaborative teams, in grade level team meetings, and in the working groups of the School Design Process. All of this dialogue leads to coherence and better organizational decisions. It also leads to greater organizational trust between and among all stakeholders. 

A school system we must maintain our fiscal health and the physical plant of our school district.  The system of Operations and Facilities targets the fiscal aspects of budgeting by aligning the allocation of funds and spending with that of our shared vision.  There is never enough money in a labor intensive profession such as education but I find it is where we decide to spend our money that matters the most. Again, working with the school board, community members, and business leaders we are able to best align and allocate our funds in areas to best support our children. In addition, maintaining facilities that are clean and in working order is important to the teaching and learning environment. Jonathon Kozel explained the importance of facilities in his book Savage Inequalities. Additionally, creating learning spaces that are flexible and have flexible furniture is important for teachers to personalize learning for all students. This is a system that is often overlooked or an area school boards feel they may cut corners. That could not be farther from the truth because a facility that is run down and not working or is ill designed may negatively impact the learning and engagement of the community’s children.

The final system may be the most important. It is the system of Communication and Community Engagement. In my thirty plus years as a school administrator, it is this system that has changed the most. The increasing pace of communication  has certainly changed the expectations of parents and staff when it comes to communication. The expectation is to respond within the hour not by the end of the day, which was the expectation in 1987 when I entered the field of school administration. The emergence of social media and how quickly something may “go viral” in your community is one big reason this is a key system.  In addition, the increasing loss of print media leaves especially smaller communities without a newspaper and forces the school district to hire a communication specialist to inform constituents of what is happening in the schools. In 2007, I wrote an article outlining this important fact including a framework for teaching and learning conversations. In the article I said 

“In my world, I try to merge the different elements of communication into a framework that applies to meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations about teaching and learning. The elements of my framework are below.

Communication Framework 

  • Listening empathetically; 
  • Speaking to clarify and develop a mutual understanding; 
  • Asking meaningful questions as part of inquiry; 
  • Acting with data to make an appropriate decision; 
  • Sharing responsibility to implement a decision and analyze the results; and 
  • Organizing meetings to focus on critical questions. (McCann, 2007)”

In addition, engaging the community in the work of the school district is critical to the success of the district. In my experience as a school principal where I included parents in an advisory role around the challenges of the school, they became the best public relations people in the community. By involving parents, they intimately understood how hard faculty and staff were working, the many challenges facing the school and the community. I came up with several ways to both engage the community and the BOE within their role to engage the community. First, I organized advisory boards made up of community members and BOE members. Advisory boards in areas such as facilities and land use, curriculum and instruction, school finance and budgeting led to successful bond elections, the implementation of PK-12 1:1 learning initiative along with other curricula programming not possible without community engagement. I took this a step forward with the Board of Education by conducting what I called “big idea meetings” where BOE members could be forward thinking by discussing innovative ideas brought forward by the superintendent. It is important to put ideas on the table so the community through the BOE is able to have dialogue around a topic of interest not always possible during a regularly scheduled BOE meeting.   It also allowed community members with experiences and expertise from outside the profession impact and improve the thinking that occurred within the school system. It nurtured and built organizational trust by opening the system to those not ordinarily asked to provide their ideas and thinking to move the school forward.

In closing, it is as if the leader of the organization is a gardener.  As a gardener, you must tend to the entire garden and not ignore parts of the garden. If you only weed the green beans then the tomatoes go wild. You must compost the vegetables that are no longer growing to make room for the new plants. You see schools like gardens are living breathing systems that must work in concert to maximize the harvest and enjoy the bounty of student learning and engagement the focus of a trustworthy school system.

Blane McCann

Author Blane McCann

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