DA op-ed: Upside-down leadership

Using flipped strategies to enhance school culture
By: | Issue: September, 2019
August 2, 2019
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Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.

Many of us have supported the movement of flipped classrooms and flipped learning. It changes the pedagogy by turning traditional instruction upside down. Flipped classrooms move the independent work associated with homework to the classroom and the direct instruction associated with class to home.

We can also flip our leadership and culture. How can traditional school leadership be improved by turning it upside down? Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Flip the rules

Instead of focusing on rules or policies, focus on opportunities. I’m not saying abandon all rules and policies. Indeed, a strong school culture is based upon mutual respect, professionalism and trust.

Do we get those by hammering students and families with a litany of rules and policies? No. By emphasizing opportunities and community first, we can create a strong school culture that supports rules, policies and expectations.

Think about the first thing most people see on a school campus. Often, it’s a large list of rules and, sometimes, the penalties if they are violated. The message conveyed is that rules and policies are paramount—not learning, not opportunities, not relationships and not a truly trusting school culture.
What if people were greeted at the gates by messaging that focused on the unique opportunities at the school, on great projects or great staff, or on quotes from alumni?

Flip the communication

Think of the messaging that goes home. For example, most districts still produce some sort of handbook for students and parents to read and sign. We all know that no one really reads the handbook, so what would it take to make that document more valuable? Answer that question, and then do it.

Some districts and schools allow students to sit on a committee in a symbolic role but rarely as active participants.

Rather than just listing policies and procedures, what if the handbook explained opportunities, challenged students and families, or inspired ways for advanced learning?

Think about all the newsletters, robocalls and even social media communication from schools. Yes, we still have to communicate dates, deadlines and even rules. But if our communications focused more on opportunities, learning, celebrations and innovation, these efforts would be seen as more valuable by parents, students and stakeholders.

Flip the hierarchy

Traditional school hierarchy features the principal, the vice principal, the teachers, the staff and the students. Now, we realize that the top-down approach leads to minimal results and little buy-in from constituents or stakeholders.

Many schools have moved to a more democratic approach by having teachers and staff serve on committees to expand voice, ideas and buy-in. But we often exclude one key group: students. Some districts and schools allow students to sit on committees and serve in symbolic roles, but they are rarely active participants. What if we solicited student opinions on school decisions, policy development, curriculum, instructional approaches, tech integration and more?

At my last school, we never had an interview panel without at least two student representatives. The students played a vital role in evaluating teacher interviews, presentations and applications. Indeed, if we had competitive candidates for a teaching position that required a second interview, we often had the teachers face a group of students in a “teach off” during which the students evaluated the learning environment, their engagement and their overall experience. Consider ways to include students when developing school programs and procedures, making decisions, and building culture. You will get tremendous buy-in and probably some innovative ideas.

Bottom line: Don’t do what you’ve always done. Stop being so scientific, and try different things. Choose something that you’ve always done one way and turn it upside down. You’ll be experimenting and innovating. The results may surprise you.

Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes about transformational leadership and PD.