Schools that empower their middle leaders to take ownership of their teams will demonstrate these 6 characteristics:
1) Differentiate the expectations for each leader;
2) Select leaders that are ‘stage appropriate’ and have shared values with the community;
3) Provide a platform for leaders to share resources, best practices and communicate with executive stakeholders;
4) Evaluate leaders on outcomes;
5) Clarify the role, expectations and available resources;
6) Allocate time for planning and development;
In this article I will explore the role executive stakeholders play to ensure middle leaders have clarity of purpose and appropriate resourcing to seed their success. Teacher leaders, coordinators, department heads and vice-principals are the true change agents and will be the most effective tool in ensuring transformative and sustained change. To achieve transformative outcomes, we not only need their buy-in, but we need to empower them by defining and equipping the Sandbox within which they play.
In corporate IT parlance, sandboxes are insulated testing grounds that allow programmers to develop and test applications before releasing them into the real world. The sandbox begins as a ‘clean room’, void of any possible contaminates, but ultimately is intended to be a simulation of the operating environment that the applications will be used in. Sandboxes in this way have several iterations, with the intent of progressively getting closer and closer to real world operations, with integration, acceptance, alpha and beta tests. It is because of this iterative progression that sandboxes are not silos. Applications have proven ready for release because there has already been a significant amount of interaction between the applications and the world that awaits them.
If you use Google to search for information, then this anecdote will hit especially close to home, especially in the age of ‘fake news’. In 2004-5 a conspiracy theory around the Google search algorithms erupted, the Google Sandbox Theory. Developers that were making a killing from Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and felt they had ‘gamed’ the system, employed all their best practices but weren’t finding their sites in the top search results, and in some cases not in any results for relevant search terms. The most likely reason is that before Google promotes websites, they ‘sandbox’ them for an undefined period to ensure the content is relevant to the searches. In one respect, the websites are ‘live’, listed and accessible, but before Google promotes them in searches, according to the developers’ design, the search engine wants to study how the world interacts with the website. Imagine sand-boxing a new lesson planning tool, learning management system, assessment strategy or even communication tools for a sample of parents. Whilst one group is trialing the tool or strategy, the rest of the community can be kept informed and prepare for its eventual release.
The corporate world over the past 20 years, beyond IT, has also embraced sandboxes for organizational development. Schools, to a small degree, also use sandboxes, they just don’t know it. The sandbox effect in schools is often a result of silos and high-functioning teams insulating themselves from a culture of complacency. These sandboxes, unfortunately, prevent the propagation of good practice, as they lack the input and support of key stakeholders, there are not connections across the school, such as a Middle Leadership Team. Performance evaluation, interdisciplinary teams, leadership succession, budgeting, master planning and communication strategies are examples that have been successfully sand-boxed and helped organizations achieve transformative change.
The sandbox, though, over a period can get quite messy. Contaminates can fester in a sandbox that isn’t churned and cleared properly. Before letting my children play in any sandbox I often like to run my hand through the sand, to ensure there is nothing sharp, or unhygienic. In this metaphor, within schools something sharp may be a competing initiative, and something unhygienic could be a team member(s) attitudes towards an initiative. Often executive stakeholders introduce ideas they either learned about from their previous schools or from their own in-depth research. These ideas evolve into initiatives that are introduced (imposed) on teams without clearing the sandbox. The initiatives may actually be properly introduced and the appropriate buy-in sought, but if the sandbox isn’t cleared, then the initiative is vulnerable to contamination. So, ensuring our middle leaders have a clean sandbox to play in is incredibly important, but equally important is knowing what and who are in the sandbox before we throw any more toys or initiatives into it.
The sandbox requires boundaries and rules, not just to keep the sand in, but also to prevent the sandbox from getting too busy or dirty. The walls of the sandbox are the rules that govern what goes in and what comes out. The sandbox is a finite space, which limits the amount of sand, tools and people that the sandbox can accommodate. Like any play area the sandbox requires regular cleaning and maintenance. We need to protect the sand and ensure that after each play session we properly churn and clean it. Bringing closure to completed initiatives or having exit interviews with departing team members are examples of cleaning.
Before we throw in new initiatives or change the team composition, lets assess the current state of the sandbox to verify the:
- Stage: Can the team’s current stage of development process the initiative? Will adding someone cause the team to regress?
- Culture: What is the team’s prevailing attitude? Who can help shape the necessary culture?
- Capacity: What is the team working on? Are there past initiatives that require closure?
To strengthen the walls of the sandbox, we need to ensure stability by reassuring middle leaders their role is secure beyond one year. Providing middle leaders with a 3-year horizon ensures there is more space for planning, coordination and professional development; to achieve impact on transformative change initiatives in one year is impossible. However, with more time, and ample support, middle leaders will settle into their role and devise strategies and practices to utilize resources and people more effectively. To empower middle leaders, we need to provide them the safety net for mistakes and space for reflection. In a proper sand-boxed environment, failure within the team becomes a growth opportunity and not demoralizing break room whispers. As we reflect on the journey of middle leaders to achieve transformational collaborative change within their team and school, we need to respect the time and investment that is necessary to complete that journey. Transformative change is not achieved in a year, we need effective middle leaders to think of their role in terms of multi-year horizons.
Regardless if the middle leader has a full-time teaching role, annually they should also have their job description evaluated and amended to clearly define the leadership responsibilities they are assuming, as well as the expectations and resources that come with those responsibilities. If the role is clearly defined and the expectations laid-out and agreed to, then we can secure and maintain their sandbox. A secure sandbox effectively mitigates the problem of time, or more to the point helps middle leaders better understand how to use their time. This time problem is more pronounced by middle leaders that have too much going on in their sandbox, not to mention, still teaching in a classroom. For those middle leaders that are not in the classroom, but are still hindered by the time problem, it is most likely because they are taking on too many initiatives and/or micromanaging the work of their subordinates. Executive stakeholders need to acknowledge that good leadership isn’t just something someone does. Those that can effectively navigate space and time demonstrate good leadership. Unfortunately, these are two variables that middle leaders have very little power to control.