George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Leading by Example as a School Administrator

Leaders often provide feedback without receiving it in turn, but they can offer a power example to staff through efforts to collect and use feedback.

May 16, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

For division directors, it’s not always easy to get in the arena alongside faculty. The decisions I make impact teachers differently than they impact me. Setting policies is one thing, but living out those decisions daily, as my teachers do, is quite another. 

This was my dilemma when my school adopted the Wellington Engagement Index (WEI), a simple but powerful tool that measures student engagement. It allows students to quickly provide feedback on their engagement in class by placing a dot on a digital grid based on how challenged they feel and how much they’re enjoying the learning experience.

No matter how powerful the tool may be, we must acknowledge that asking teachers to solicit feedback from students requires vulnerability. Teaching is an intensely personal act—not something that can be looked at objectively or clinically. Feedback from students feels exposing.

Yet there I was, with a faculty who felt exposed, and I couldn’t offer reassurance. I knew then what I had to do. I called a meeting of faculty to help me develop and launch a WEI-inspired tool that assessed administrators’ performance, giving teachers a chance to turn the tables. 

Throughout the process, I learned the value of leading with vulnerability. 

Developing a Leadership Assessment Tool

We decided that the new tool should measure two dimensions: competence and supportiveness. We defined competence as having strong communication skills; having effective interpersonal interactions with parents, faculty, and students; being a lead learner at school; possessing a clear vision for the future; and having the skills to realize that vision. 

Supportiveness, we characterized, is a commitment to faculty professional growth, treating faculty as professionals, supporting faculty during parent conflicts, backing teachers’ decisions on student behavior, fostering a positive school culture, and being approachable for discussions about concerns. 

This effort resulted in what we, somewhat cheekily, named the “Scott-Lasso Matrix.” We created a graphic that features the characters of Michael Scott from The Office on one end and Ted Lasso on the other. When students complete the WEI, teachers do the same for me.

But that was just the start.

Using Formative Leadership Data

The WEI is a quantitative tool—it collects dots on a grid. For these dots to carry meaning, teachers need to analyze them, formulate hypotheses, and discuss their thoughts with students to gather rich qualitative feedback. Dots only have meaning when they come into contact with long-form student feedback. 

This process requires extra vulnerability. It’s one thing to collect dots from behind a computer screen—quite another to share them with students and solicit their feedback.

Fortunately, once teachers were “doing the dots” for me, I could model this next step. After each data-collection period, I sent an email to teachers that included an unedited snapshot of my dots, as well as a couple of hundred words hypothesizing why my dots were improving or declining. This vulnerability legitimized my calls for the faculty to be vulnerable with their students in turn.

Over time, teachers began displaying their dots to students and seeking further feedback. In environments where trust and protocols were already well-established, teachers organized Harkness discussions during which students dissected the teacher’s hypotheses about their dot trends. Other teachers conducted focus groups with a small group of students to delve deeper into their dots. Still others found it most effective to use anonymous Google Forms, allowing students to share their thoughts freely. 

Ultimately, the WEI fulfilled its powerful promise when the faculty and I all led with vulnerability and used our dots as formative performance feedback.

Fostering a Culture of Vulnerability

These experiences showed me how to get in the arena. Here are a few strategies that might help you similarly foster a culture of vulnerability in leadership and professional development:

Remember, “a fish rots from the head down.” As James Kouzes and Barry Posner once wrote, “Great leaders are great learners.” Leadership is complex, and administrators should continually seek ways to improve. By shielding ourselves from feedback while expecting teachers to accept it, we inadvertently create a two-tier system where administrators are insulated from criticism but faculty are not. 

By subjecting ourselves to the same standards we set for others, we foster a culture where feedback is not only accepted but expected. As I shared with faculty in an email following one collection period, “I do not think I am a great leader, but to become one, it’s crucial that I stay open, non-judgmental, and appreciative of feedback that can guide my learning. No one knows my areas for growth better than you. I know there are shortcomings, but I need your help to call my attention to them. If there’s anything I could do better to support you or the students, please reach out, visit my office, or leave an anonymous note in my mailbox. However you choose to communicate, I want you to be part of my leadership  journey.”

Define what vulnerability means to you. Curiosity and vulnerability are closely linked, but vulnerability doesn’t have to be seen as a squishy or singular idea. Leading with vulnerability isn’t about being a raw nerve or open book; it’s about being confident in your leadership. As Brené Brown eloquently says, “Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment; it is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” If we want to cultivate a culture where everyone feels safe to explore and innovate, we have to figure out what vulnerability means to us and lead with it. 

Leverage formative feedback. The WEI was a formative tool and did not factor into end-of-year evaluations, which is important. It’s not just students who need formative feedback to grow; our faculty need it as well. If everything we do is seen as a metric for evaluations, we risk stifling vulnerability instead of encouraging it. 

There’s a big difference between a culture of surveillance and one of support. A safe environment where faculty can openly learn is one that will nourish vulnerability. Such a culture doesn’t arise spontaneously. It’s predicated on leaders opening themselves to equitable processes and leading with vulnerability themselves.

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