Virgel Hammonds’ Six Insights into Leadership

October 8, 2014 by

virgelThis is the second in a two part series on RSU2 in Maine. The first post is A Quick Update from RSU2 Maine

We all know that the magic ingredient to successfully bringing about any systemic reform is leadership. We know it, we talk about it, but what exact leadership style and strategies are needed?

I’ve listened to superintendents, district teams, principals, and teacher-leaders talk about the importance of leadership in converting schools to competency education. There seems to be something special about the type of leadership that is needed, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it until I spoke with Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of RSU2 in Maine.

Hammonds issued a caveat at the beginning of our conversation on leadership, reminding me that he considered himself a new superintendent and that he was still figuring out the role. He then laid out six insights about what is required of district leadership in proficiency-based systems that struck me as coming from the voice of experience.

1. No One Has All the Answers

Hammonds described the trap that captures educators as they ascend the career ladder. As authority increases, education leaders are positioned as the ones who have the answer. The trap is that having the final say can easily come to mean “the one who has the right answer.” Leaders can start to feel that they have to have the right answer, or worse, that they in fact do have the answer.

Hammonds explained that leaders have to move away from this thinking, “As districts and schools convert to proficiency-based learning, they are knocking down load-bearing walls. It’s impossible to have all the answers because any organizational change often has multiple consequences.” He said learning to be a superintendent in a proficiency-based district meant he had to let go of the pride of having all the answers. “No one person is going to do this all by themselves or be able to figure it all out entirely by themselves. Instead, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How can we take a position of trust and respect that can harness the collective intelligence needed to bring about transformative change?’”

2.  Make Decisions Around the Best Interest of Students

Hammonds said that he is often asked about the Lindsay story (he was a high school principal in that California district) or the RSU2 story, as if there is a step-by-step process that other districts can follow. “It’s not about one method. Every district and school has its own history and culture. They need to be able to tap into the assets of their communities and schools to develop the vision, guiding principles, and process that is right for them.”

One thing that superintendents have to ensure is that decisions are being made around the best interests of students. Adult issues or traditional ways of doing things – contracts, bus schedules, and athletics – can easily drive decision making if superintendents aren’t vigilant. With all the complexity of how schools operate and the incredible number of small decisions that need to be made daily, Hammonds warns that leaders can get stuck being a manager rather than a leader.  Leadership is needed to take a step back and ask, “How is this moving our kids along their learning progressions? How is this providing learning opportunities that are meaningful to our kids?” Hammonds emphasizes superintendents have to consistently role model how to make decisions in the best interest of learners.

3. Courage to Confront the Truth

Superintendents have to have the courage to confront the truth. If they don’t, it’s unlikely anyone else will. First, they need to know where their students are on the learning progressions and if growth is happening. They can’t hide behind any type of excuse. If they are acting in the best interest of kids, they need to be honest about how well students are learning — or not.

Second, they have to be able to identify when a process or approach isn’t working. “Adjust it now if you know it’s not working,” Hammonds said. This can be one of the harder leadership functions because everyone is working so hard, and they might have spent months trying to develop a new process. But if it isn’t working, they need to deal with it, not wait until the end of the school year. “We have to be courageous to confront activities that aren’t moving kids in their learning. We can’t be afraid to confront the truth. If a process isn’t working, either refine it or scrap it.”

He went on to explain, “Schools are big ships that are really hard to turn. So we need to have the courage to say when it needs to turn. We need to think about different ways to turn it.  In the long run, we need to be building in processes that make it easier to turn.”

Turning the ship also means engaging educators effectively. Ensuring that Professional Learning Communities are nurtured is critical. Another is finding ways to engage the more skeptical educators. Hammonds explained that educators who have seen the schools change course over and over again based on the last conference the superintendent went to, or who have had to participate in processes that weren’t making a difference for students, can easily become skeptics who will just wait out the next reform.  He said by confronting the problems and asking “Why isn’t it working?”, leaders can start to engage the skeptics. In fact, they often have a lot of insight into why something isn’t working.

4. Use Your Guiding Principles

When complex problems emerge, Hammonds returns to RSU2’s guiding principles. These aren’t guiding principles that sit in a notebook or look good on the website. They are active principles such as “Students learn in different ways and in different timeframes,” “Mistakes are inherent in the learning process,” “Teaching is collaborative and involves on-going learning,”  and “Learning Communities encourage and support risk taking and innovation.”

Hammonds explained that the guiding principles help us refocus on what we are trying to accomplish. “ We go to the guiding principles whenever we encounter tough decisions.” He encouraged districts to think about how they will use guiding principles when they are writing them.

5. Be Relentless AND Slow Down to Get it Right

Hammonds feels a great deal of urgency to get the system, structures, and processes right. He emphasized, “We have zero time to waste.” Yet, he doesn’t think we should waste time on band-aid approaches, either.  “We need to be relentless in that we need to figure things out. As a superintendent, I also need to be clear about when we need to slow things down in order to figure out complex problems. My job is to keep the pressure on without forcing staff to feel that they need to come up with a short-term fix.”

6. Hire Leaders Who Can Build Collective Capacity

Hammonds and I also talked about what he looked for when hiring principals.  He looks for individuals who are active  learners themselves, who practice a collaborative approach to work, and demonstrate humility in knowing that others will have valuable information and ideas needed to solve problems. He also seeks two additional qualities. First, he seeks an unwavering commitment to serving their community and children. He explained that he will push several times in interviews to determine how deep and unswerving this commitment is.  Second, he seeks people who lead, listen, and seek to understand others in order to empower them to reach their full potential. It’s leadership through empathy and empowerment. For example, he listens to learn if candidates understand that supporting and empowering teachers is an essential element to supporting students. The bottom line: Hammonds seeks leaders who are dedicated to building the collective capacity of their schools.

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As I listened to Hammonds, I was reminded of my experiences in non-profits working in partnership with Lotus (you’ll have to shake some brain cells loose to remember their products) in a continuous improvement environment. One of the functions of leadership was to help sort out which processes needed to be addressed and within what type of timeline. Essentially, leaders helped the organizations decide where to focus energy, engaged people in figuring out how to solve the problem, and once those decisions were made, their job was to help the organization stay the course. It sounds much like the structure laid out by Hammonds in his six insights.

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