This is a lesson. If you’re guessin’ and if you’re borrowin’
Hurry hurry step right up and keep followin’
The Leader.Rakim, “Follow the Leader”
Leadership has always been about being reflective, innovative, and pushing people out of their comfort zones. There are multiple needles to move to create a school that is vibrant, connected, and equitable for a diverse community in metro-Atlanta. What do our scholars and communities deserve? They deserve schools that are vibrant in the sense that everyone adds something to the school beyond their typical role. The vision has to be salient and pervasive. Making that idea of vibrancy and collective effort clear to everyone requires some creativity and persistence. While some members of a team naturally devote themselves to the overall mission, others require more compelling illustrations of how they fit into the legacy we are crafting. My leadership style samples the ancient pedagogical use of analogies, used by Plato, Socrates and Jesus in teaching concepts and developing understanding in groups. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a perfect example of using symbols and scenarios to illustrate a deeper meaning. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used a powerful analogy to describe America when he said “I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” When asked what we should do, he went on to say, “Become the firemen. Let us not standby and watch the house burn.” It was an analogy that conveyed a reflective and honest assessment of what he saw and what needed to be done.
Months after school closings and stay at home orders were issued by some cities, something interesting happened. D-Nice stood at two turntables and helped us, if only for a moment, forget that the world as we knew it was crumbling. D-Nice not only played music for us to lift our spirits, he reminded us to live, to dance, to vote, and to give to worthy causes. We watched him groove to the music himself, clapping and singing along as he led the gathering he dubbed Club Quarantine. With traveling limited and many live venues closed, he found a way to continue his work in a different format, much like what our schools have been called to do in this moment. He listened to requests posted in the chat, gave shout outs to listeners, and created a sense of community among people who had never met before his hands touched the turntables. He brought millions of people into his home to share an experience that exemplifies what great school leaders must do to move needles now.
Work-life balance has been an ongoing conversation with my staff this year. With students and staff isolated from one another for almost a year, we all have had to adjust from an analog experience to digital platforms for schooling. Learning to unplug from our work and tap into our passions has become a call to action that even principals must embrace as we lead teams virtually. I began to think of how D-Nice’s arrival in this space emerged out of a crisis. His normal venues were closed, and he sensed a need to bring music to the people during a time of heightened anxiety about the pandemic. It was innovation at the most organic level. Identify a need and develop a solution that steps beyond the limits of what we’ve done in the past. It’s the challenge that I present to my staff and leadership team each day.
D-Nice ignited a movement by leaning into his passions. What are the leadership lessons school principals can ‘sample’ or ‘remix’ into their own crate of strategies? What are some essentials for moving needles now on student achievement and school culture? Principals, aspiring principals, and those who currently support principals should know these 7 techniques principals need to move needles at this moment in public education.
The unpredictability of D-Nice’s changes in hats reminded me of the rhythm of our work as educational leaders. School leaders have always worn many hats and adjusted their movements to the beat of many different drums. There is a growing collection of hats principals must wear to manage virtual and hybrid schools such as the distribution of devices, monitoring of virtual classrooms, and orchestrating ongoing professional development. In Hip-Hop culture, the dj was once the central figure, often promoted as the headliner. The names of groups would start with the dj followed by the emcees. There was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Eric B and Rakim. Eventually, dj’s began to play a different role in the culture as emcees and lyricism took center stage. Even in our schools, leaders have to know when to pause and endure painful silence, troubleshoot a technical issue and when to push others to the front of the stage.
As D-Nice pushed the crossfader back and forth, transitioning to a new track, we posted comments in the chat. We watched the numbers of viewers as they reached the millions. We subconsciously collected data and talked about it with friends. News broadcasts did features on “Club Quarantine”. Each week, we hoped to see him top the previous week’s numbers, so we called and texted one another when he went live. His success was a collective win. Every school leader working during this time of virtual learning and beyond needs a comprehensive measure of success for teachers, students, and school culture. At least three times each year, teachers and parents should complete a survey that assesses whether the needle is moving as it should. Everything needs to be measured. Operations, professional development, collaborative planning, and leadership all need data points.
Monitoring the chat means listening with a discerning ear. Is it an idea, suggestion, or gripe? Is the idea student-centered or intended to make life easier for adults at the cost of students? During his Club Quarantine sessions, D-Nice monitored the chat, laughed at some of the suggestions, honored others, and thanked viewers for their input. Creating a culture where people feel free to share is a never-ending challenge as you are leading a team. State requirements and national mandates sometimes leave little room tor teacher input. District directives with short timelines for implementation add another layer of urgency that can minimize the voice of teachers on some school decisions. Aside from these moments, the leader can open up the line to ‘take requests and suggestions’ from the team. It adds texture to the culture of the school. Change is as instrumental to the ever-evolving culture of schools as turntables are to Hip-Hop.
Have we drifted from our initial priorities we laid out during pre-planning? Are we still focused on our school improvement goals? Are educators and parents getting the supports they need? Leaders need teachers on their staff who are courageous enough to be completely honest about the school’s trajectory. Every school will have areas of strength and opportunities for growth. The hope is that those taking the survey approach it with a sense of our collective self-efficacy. It’s incumbent upon leaders to follow-up and share the data with the staff, leading them through a conversation that may become somewhat tense. Like D-Nice, leaders are adjusting the levels, mixing tracks, monitoring the chat and responding to requests. If parents want more communication we must oblige them. If teachers want more feedback, we must oblige them.
It’s what I call “Instructional Inertia” where an individual or organization resists any and all forces that attempt to move them beyond their current state.
A teacher once said, “But we’ve always done it this way!” It’s a notoriously confining statement that can derail positive change in any organization. It’s a normal tendency to try to replicate past successes. It’s what I call “Instructional Inertia” where an individual or organization resists any and all forces that attempt to move them beyond their current state. The topography of the school community is not smooth, but scratched with grooves from years of stops and starts, new policies and priority shifts. Moving the needle can be a battle. Monitoring the levels of growth and program implementation means overcoming the fear of change. We find a routine and become married to it like sheet music, insisting that notes be played a certain way every time. We find ourselves stuck like a needle caught in a groove on an old 45-inch, wailing the same blues of pain and regret. Principals need the courage to pickup the needle, clean it off, and place it in a different spot when things aren’t moving forward. Staffing changes and schedule changes can be extremely uncomfortable for some. When the music changes, it takes everyone a moment to figure out what just happened. Sometimes instead of an abrupt change, a gradual fade is a much better approach.
The turntabalist sets the mood of the room as much with his selection of vinyl as with his enthusiastic commentary. He looks through the chat or into the audience and shouts out people by name. He recognized members of the team who helped make everything possible. “I see you!” Everyone loves to be acknowledged for their efforts. Some prefer it publicly and others appreciate a simple note of thanks. Honoring effort and innovation creates a foundation for everything else.
Moreover, principals must be reminded that each member of the team has something to contribute to moving the needle. Tapping into that broader circle of talent is the secret ingredient of the most successful organizations. Tedious tasks given to school leaders with short timelines require delegating portions of the work to those who can offer expertise and who aspire to one day move needles in their own roles as leaders. An academic coach, a grade chairperson, or a gifted teacher all have ideas and experiences to contribute to co-produce our next professional development. No one is allowed to only show up for the party once all of the equipment has been unloaded and set up. Everyone has something to contribute behind the scenes to help us move the needle once the mics are on.
When albums were pressed, record labels would generally put the song that was intended to get more radio play on the A-side. The B-side was reserved for songs that were less popular in the mainstream. Songs on the B-side of the album sometimes included instrumentals. Feedback is the A-side of our work of moving the needle because it is easy to gather from parents and teacher. A leader’s responsiveness is the B-side to feedback where their actions are more instrumental. It is the less popular, less comfortable part of moving the needle.
In other words, the B-side of leadership is becoming more self-reflective. Understanding that the role of the school leader is not exclusively centered around effecting change in students and managing others. Leaders who become fixated on this portion of the role can quickly destroy the soul of a school. Death by micromanagement isn’t a research-based practice. At their core, great leaders emerge out of an understanding that they must examine and reexamine their own practices. This B-side of the leadership experience is less popular and often overlooked by aspiring leaders. Baruti Kafele’s Virtual AP Leadership Academy was and continues to be a source of deep professional insight for my role as a school leader. He emphasizes the questions a leader must ask oneself as they enter this role.
In my collection, I have a sealed Sugar Hill Gang record. It’s a rerelease of Rapper’s Delight, the first Hip-Hop single to reach Billboard’s Top 40 in 1980. Sealed records are great for collectors, but for a vinyl enthusiast, the skies open when the needle touches the vinyl. Schools and districts can unknowingly become collectors of programs and resources that remain sealed, unused or underutilized by those who need them. Leaders need clear and consistent processes to monitor usage of programs and software. Each expenditure is an investment intended to move the needle. Before we can honestly say “It wasn’t effective”, we must first ask ourselves whether we used it with fidelity and whether the usage was monitored consistently.
Virtuosity in any creative or academic pursuit is rare. Unsealing the vinyl means not only using program, products and resources in our classrooms. It means opening up the books and literature that sheds light on what we want to accomplish in our school. Books like “I Choose to Stay” by Salome Thomas-El helped shape the vision of what I wanted to accomplish as a school leader. Years later, I was leading a school of my own and teaching urban youth the game of chess to help them develop better decision-making skills.
The real test of leadership is whether you have the knowledge and skill of developing leadership in those around you? If the people on your leadership team or staff aren’t consistently tasked with trying out new skills, sharing with others, and adding to the strength of the team, the school never reaches its full potential. School leaders need professional development that prepares them to be both analog and digital at once. They need to be analog in the sense of being able to ‘read the room’, pick up on the feedback, and make adjustments at the right moment. Some songs aren’t meant to be played in their entirety. A dj knows when to fade, when to repeat a chorus, and when to make a hard shift into a completely new track.
Ask any leader “What have you been reading lately?” and you will learn much about who they are and what they will become. Yes, our work is time-consuming and maintaining a work-life balance is a skill. Carving out time to search for new ideas and innovative approaches to solve problems is akin to a dj digging in the crates looking for those rare, dusty samples that can be adapted into something au courant. Every leader should take an honest self-assessment of how they spend their time, including time spent watching sports and movies. Then, compare that amount of time with the amount of time we spend reading and studying to improve our practice as leaders. What gets scheduled gets done. Research on moving the needle on student achievement and improving school culture is abundant. Time is finite.
Once the leader has spent time ‘digging in the crates’ researching innovations for moving the needle in a specific area, a decision must be made. Which practices fit for my school community? Which pieces of new information can help move us forward without overwhelming the existing improvement strategies? After Hip-Hop began to move away from using disco tracks, DJ’s and producers began using technology to sample a portion of a record, creating a loop that could become the foundation for something unique. What was once the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” transforms into Notorious B.I.G’s “Big Poppa”. MF DOOM reincarnates Anita Baker’s “Been So Long” into “Zatar”. The Genius of MF DOOM is two-fold, simultaneously giving new life to his writings under a new moniker and bringing his selected samples to a new generation of listeners.
Looking through my school re-entry plan or continuous school improvement plan, you’ll find elements borrowed from the plans of schools from around the country. The format for many of the extra-curricular activities we offer to our scholars is sampled from successful programs that have already been implemented with the positive outcomes we aspire to see. We extract the portion we need, slow it down, speed it up, add a few other elements to it, and let it play for a few months.
Finding your footing as a school leader means continuing to lean into your gift with gravitas, using these 7 techniques in proportions that fit the goals you’ve laid out. Next, you have to determine if it works for the team you’ve assembled. There is no standard formula, but rather similar ingredients in various proportions. I will allow the greatest lyricist of our time, Rakim, who once wisely reminded us to “Follow the Leader”, to have the last word regarding techniques:
They never grow old techniques become antiques.
Better than something brand new ’cause it’s original.
In a while, style’ll have much more value.
Classical too intelligent to be radical,
Masterful, never irrelevant mathematical.
Here’s some soothing souvenirs for all the years
They fought and sought, the thoughts and ideas.
It’s cool when you freak to the beat,
But don’t sweat the technique.