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Community-Focused Leadership

By Jerome A. Steele, Assistant Director of Research and Professional Development

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

- Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men


In professional development sessions throughout the year, several educators have wondered “is this sustainable?” This is certainly a valid question. Teachers have been frontline workers through another year of pandemic schooling and continue to be called upon to act as first responders and combat medics during school shootings. Elements of “normalcy” such as state testing have returned, but this offers little respite in what for many has felt like another year of perpetual crisis. Students have reported greater mental health struggles and educators have experienced burnout as they struggle to support youth in their classrooms. Increased turnover in building level leadership is a symptom highlighting the complexity and depth of issues facing educators. While this paints a grim portrait of challenges ahead, it also signals a tremendous opportunity. New leaders, and leaders taking new positions have an opportunity to enact community-centered leadership by rethinking the use of time and space, challenging existing hierarchies and power dynamics and focusing on connection rather than control to build sustainable, human-centered school communities.


Time is perhaps the most valuable resource within schools. How students and educators spend their time in schools are primary determinants of their experience. Structures that govern time, the master schedule foremost among them, are often approached as perfunctory functions of administration. This function does not occur in a vacuum. Often, building leaders are forced to respond to persistent pressure from parents to place their children in preferred sections, or even create “advanced” sections to serve only small numbers of students. This creates inequities for students whose parents are unable to advocate for them with counselors and administration, as they are placed in disproportionately crowded classrooms where they receive less individual attention from teachers (Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Assigning some teachers to crowded classrooms and others to sections of fewer than 10 students creates a massive strain on those who must meet the needs of the many to accommodate the preferences of the few while creating tension within the teaching workforce. The sociologist Charles Tilly termed this phenomenon “opportunity hoarding” (Tilly, 1999). Alongside deleterious effects for students, this practice leads to uneven teaching workloads, adding further stressors to stretched instructional staff members. It is important to note that this is most often not the result of pernicious neglect on the part of administrators and counselors, rather it is the byproduct of responding to immediate pressures in a work environment that is increasingly defined by them.


The LEAD Tool, a rubric based on the research of Mollie Galloway, Ann Ishimaru and others offers a detailed framework for equitable school leadership. With regard to resource allocation, the authors state exemplary equitable leadership exists when “leadership collaborates with staff, students, families, and community members to equitably allocate resources, redistributing financial, material, time, and human resources to support teaching and learning for students who have not been well-served due to their race, ethnicity, class, or home language” (Galloway, Ishimaru, 2019). In order to move closer to equitable resource allocation, there must first be an equitable decision-making process in which those who have been previously excluded are empowered to guide how schools use time and space to serve the needs of students and community members. Here the process is at least as important as any outcome it may generate. A truly equitable decision-making process requires administrators to cede some of the control they typically exercise over community engagement activities, but empowering youth and community voices will help identify needs and develop solutions that are unlikely to have emerged within the system.


Student voice initiatives represent another opportunity to empower new voices, redefine problems and seek new paths forward - they also offer some insights into how existing structures work to stifle youth voices and place educators and leaders in difficult positions. In their article “The Bind of Unilateral Power Dynamics and Youth Voice in School Politics,” Ashley D. Dominguez, Valencia Clement and Melanie Bertrand draw upon the economic theory of bounded rationality to answer the question: “How do hierarchical power structures in schools influence power dynamics and the actualization of student voice efforts?” (Dominguez et. al. p. 171). Bounded rationality is a simple, intuitive concept that adds necessary context to and challenges the fatuous axiom beloved of postwar Friedmanite economists that casts humans as always “rational and self maximizing when it comes to decision making.” Herbert Simon developed bounded rationality “to provide an alternative model of decision-making behavior that accounts for time, information, and cognitive and environmental constraints that may lead people away from optimizing their decision-making capacity” (p. 172).


Principals and district leaders do not make decisions in a vacuum - they respond to multiple pressures and must ensure compliance with all manner of state mandates. This reality invokes one of bounded rationality’s four principles - the principle of tradeoffs:


The principle of trade-offs says that people set “aspiration levels”—or levels of satisfactory or “good enough” outcomes—when making decisions. Simon (1997) refers to this “good enough” decision-making as “satisficing,” choosing “an alternative that meets or exceeds specified criteria, but that is not guaranteed to be either unique or in any sense the best” (p. 295).


Dominguez and her co-authors illustrate how educators must make decisions with regard to student voice in the context of bounded rationality:


To illustrate how this theory can be applied to youth voice in the school context, let’s take the hypothetical case of Ms. Michel, a high school algebra teacher who is doing a youth voice project with her after-school math club. Her principal has asked that her project address a specific state curricular standard, but her students want to alter the curriculum to focus on diverse mathematicians. Ms. Michel, a new teacher, is unsure if she should give agency to members of her math club to choose their project or mandate the project suggested by the principal. The principle of intended rationality points to how her decision is limited by her environment and work obligations. The principle of adaptation is illustrated by her ability to choose either a student-centered project or a pre-determined project created by administration. The principle of uncertainty suggests that Ms. Michel, as a new teacher, may not know of the possible outcomes of making decisions that center students’ best interests, as opposed to following the principal’s guidance. The principle of trade-offs indicates that Ms. Michel will have to make a decision that is “good enough”—perhaps appeasing both students and the principal—or she will have to compromise in achieving that aspiration level based on the information, resources, and structures in her bounded reality.


Educators and leaders are familiar with this bind. However, leaders especially can use moments like these to move beyond bounded rationality by emphasizing authenticity, engagement, inquiry and connection. Could the building leader in this case have participated in a session with the after-school math club to better understand the students’ perspective? Could they have used their power and positionality to promote student agency rather than urging compliance? Could they have used that same power and positionality to support Ms. Michel so she did not have to negotiate these tensions in her work with students?


Dominguez et al. deepen this discussion by juxtaposing unilateral power with relational power. They define unilateral power as “the capacity to influence, guide, adjust, manipulate, shape, control, or transform the human or natural environment in order to advance one’s purposes” (Loomer, 1976, p. 17). This can be viewed as the “power over” others, such as administrators’ power over students (Welton et al., 2016). In contrast, relational power is “power with” or “the capacity both to influence and be influenced by others, both a giving and receiving” (p. 174).


The collective nature of relational power presents many possibilities to challenge traditional hierarchies, democratize school decision-making processes and build authentic community. It calls for reciprocity and acknowledgement of complexity. It requires us to live in the messiness of organic problems and invest in the people with whom we are in community to develop viable, sustainable solutions. Leaders must challenge the pressures that confine them to narrow, bounded rationalities in their decision making if they are to confront inequities such as opportunity hoarding that create stratification and disconnection in their school systems. They must build relational power with teachers, students, families and community members to create something different.


Developing relational power requires an intentional investment in building relationships - requiring time and space. Leaders can demonstrate their commitment to the school community by ensuring there is time during the school day for teachers and students to communicate authentically through ongoing structured interactions such as community circles. Or, they can simply make themselves available at times convenient to parents and community members to hear concerns, identify issues and co-create solutions. This may require a reconceptualization of the school day, and in certain circumstances, adjustments to bargaining unit contracts, which typically define a teacher or administrator work day. Taking this thought one step further, we should question the agrarian-based school year calendar and the artifact of the 10 month teacher work year.


Educational leadership that truly centers community wellbeing and sustainability requires us to challenge the unquestioned logic and assumptions that form the bounded rationalities in which educators operate. If we want schools to become more equitable, democratic, humanizing and sustainable for all members of our community - we must co-construct new rules and move beyond those that have led us to this moment. There is no guarantee of a specific outcome - but dedicating time and space to and investing meaningful power in voices traditionally marginalized, silenced or confined to specific “initiatives'' can lay the groundwork for relational power that can lead us to something different. Perhaps something sustainable. A post covid education system that lives up to the aspirations of “all children will be successful” and truly meaning all.