In 2012 Jim May led a small team of us in a “Leadership Deep Dive” which resulted in the creation of the NTN Learning Organization Framework, an essential tool to help us and schools guide improvements in teaching and learning. One of the activities we engaged in during that Deep Dive was a small group exercise to identify and attempt to visually capture the traits of the ideal school leader.
Now, I could go into the details of every trait we felt a leader should embody, but the main idea is: the ideal school leader has many layers. It is with deep gratitude that we were able to highlight such a leader recently, through her and her team’s openness to highlight their school as a case study at the 2016 Spring NTN Leadership Summit in San Diego, CA. Erin Frew, the Director of New Tech West in Cleveland, OH, embodies the qualities of the ideal school leader my colleagues and I envisioned almost 4 years ago, and it is this reality that seems to be sticking with me most a few weeks after the conclusion of Summit. It is not easy to be a school leader. It requires a special sort of person, and I think Erin is one of them.
There are a few aspects of Erin’s leadership that stand out to me.
Erin knows herself. She will readily admit that she tends to go on “bird walks,” and that she needs a particular thought partner to help her stay focused. She acknowledges that she has a tendency to be reactive in nature and that her team’s disciplined focus on improving something specific about their students’ learning has been integral to helping her stay on a clear, proactive path. She projects a calm confidence that commands respect, an admirable humility and tendency to credit her team before herself, and a willing vulnerability that inspires the same of others around her. Erin’s self-awareness and regulation are quickly palpable when you interact with her. And she carries a sense of humor about it all, which I think might just be an essential trait for enduring and thriving in what, to me, might be one of the most challenging jobs there is.
Interpersonal Knowledge & Skill
Erin could be described as artful in her interactions with and support of others. She chooses language carefully to help meet her goals. If another leader describes a staff member as “resistant,” Erin might suggest they are “reluctant” or “nervous.” In the case of her school’s improvement effort, she seeks to understand how individuals and teams are experiencing the challenges they encounter, and she carefully aligns her responses and supports accordingly. Although she tends to refer to herself as the annoying one in the eyes of her district leaders, I believe she knows and understands that her unique interpersonal ability is what allows her to be disruptive to the system in ways best for her students and staff. This is probably why she gets leveraged so frequently by the district she seems to think finds her such a challenge. She’s also just fun to be around, and although this may not be an essential leadership trait, it certainly doesn’t hurt. I think her genuineness also allows her the leeway to be directive when necessary, and Erin does an admirable job of navigating that decision-making fine line.
Seeing the Big Picture / Seeing Systems
My colleague, Jude Garnier, often uses the metaphor of “nested dolls” to describe the many systemic layers present in the field of education. Erin sees these systemic layers and can move across them and connect them with relative ease. Erin knew that in order to be able to commit to a disciplined improvement effort as a school, she was going to need to reorganize their structures for learning to accommodate this effort. She knew that certain people would need to be paired with others in order for them to be in a position to learn and grow. She understands that her student population will continue to change as their school location does, and that she and her staff must continue to adapt to the needs of that population. (And by the way, how many school leaders can say that they have an 85% staff retention rate after 3 location moves in 5 years? I’m pretty sure this says something about Erin.) Erin also saw that her team’s improvement effort was building some political clout, and she leveraged this to protect her students and staff from a district common assessment system that doesn’t align with their New Tech project-based instructional practices. The fact that Erin was able to negotiate at the district level, using evidence from their improvement effort as leverage, is just another affirmation of her interpersonal skills and her political savvy, another skill I think every school leader should work to hone, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for some.
When I look back at the leadership traits my small team and I identified in our Oakland office in 2012, I am reminded of why the average retention rate of a new school leader is 3 years. It’s not easy to lead a school, and it’s especially difficult to lead a school to a place where it is continuously improving the outcomes it wants for its students. I am proud to know that we have such leaders in the New Tech Network, and I am forever grateful to Erin Frew, and to the leaders to come, who are willing to share their stories and the work of their schools for the benefit of all schools making the noble effort to build a nation proud of its public schools.