Leading with Heart

By Roman Nowak

More than ever, teachers and school leaders need to work together in bringing about a dramatic transformation in school culture. In a time of testing, data, numbers and political and societal pressures, educators need to put the focus back on kids and their stories. This conversation and collaborative workshop is all about bringing about a shift in school culture by leading with the heart.

Identifying Challenges to Bring Heart Back to the Center of the School Community

The chat began by having the group respond to some of the challenges faced in bringing heart back to our schools. A common theme was pressure in schools and the demands teachers feel to meet those demands, which results in shifting the focus away from students. Another theme was passion, which can sometimes be lacking from those in teaching roles, making it challenging to really be present to meet the needs of students and the demands of the job.

The Collective Heart

Roman honored that with the fast pace of change, and a tendency of educators to copy what is known in our past life. He pushed that educators need to really rally together to see a change in our schools, not wait on the system to change but to build something grassroots and able to spread. “The heart belongs to us.” Mary agreed that educators can’t think about heart singularly and have to think about it collectively.

The role leadership plays in supporting efforts to lead with the heart was a theme.  Educators cited wanted a strong leader who can put forth a vision to create the conditions for staff to lead with heart.  Stacy asserted that if your leader isn’t on board with leading from the heart teachers will stray. Nicole cited that to have a collective heart educators need to let go of control. Mary built on that, saying that leaders need to give teacher resources and trust them, and embed trust in the culture of our building. Giving teachers knowledge by rethinking professional learning as an ongoing thing that happens in the trenches can empower them to lead with heart.  Collaboration and creating an atmosphere of family among staff enables teachers to meet the needs of all students.

Moving Beyond Numbers to Student Stories

How might reframing a statement about students grounded in data help us change the way we talk about students and problem solve solutions?

Students are stories and human beings, and there’s a story behind the numbers that are used to describe their performance. Knowing the story behind the number can only help educators understand why data looks the way it does.  The group shared that they often reflect on the reality that every students comes with a story, and it’s the job of educators to figure out how they’re going to move that student forward despite their stories

The most important field on a spreadsheet is the name column.  

If you don’t know who a child is when you’re making decisions about that child, that’s a problem. Several participants shared strategies for bringing students into conferences. At Renee’s school, they bring photographs of students when we conference, it brings the child for life. Julie’s strategy is to use Flip Grid to capture student passions and anchor conferences around their child’s passions. It takes just a minute and ensures the student is the focus of the conversation, and brings the community of adults to focus around on the student first. Read more about the differences between data-driven and student driven instruction here

And finally, the group discussed the misconception that solutions to challenges must be 1-size-fits-all or “best for most” students instead of individualized. Mary shared the perspective that no two children are alike, in her 40+ years of teaching she hasn’t found any solution that meets the needs of every child. Roman asserted that it takes bravery to stand up and share the stories that drive the data and justify meeting students non-academic needs first and foremost.

Growing a School Community where all Staff Play a Role In Supporting Students

School culture plays a huge role in allowing educators to lead from the heart. Scott reflected on his reading of the book Culturize. His takeaway from the first chapter is that we’re all leaders and need to look at ourselves as leaders. When everyone realizes they play a major role in leadership, progress is faster.

The group shared that a big part of a positive school culture means having open classrooms up and inviting people in. Brandi shared the importance of having an open line of communication among staff to allow for collaboration to happen, and being willing as a teacher to invite people in as supports. If we’re in a school where the culture is “i dread when someone comes in my classroom” that should be brought up so that learning can happen across classrooms. Yvette  shared that she believes teachers need to observe other teachers to get ideas and create a culture of growth that’s enabled to do what’s in the best interest of kids.

Building on open classrooms and a supportive culture, Julie shared a metaphor that really resonated with the group, likening school staff  to sports teams. If you look at a sports team, no one practices by themselves.  There’s growth in sharing weaknesses and strengths with one another. Scott shared that thinking about the whole school community as team shows students the need to respect all adults equally and in turn students will have a better sense of community. The group considered ways to Include anyone who is a part of a student’s life in meetings and discussions about that child.  Even though there might be obstacles, looking at problems differently and offering different solutions can be one way to refocus and lead from the heart.

Additional Resources

  • Yvette recommended Move Your Bus by Ron Clark
  • Mary recommended Tom Marshall’s new book Reclaiming the Principalship.  Read more about it here.

Thank you so much for leading this inspiring conversation, Roman! 

More about Roman: As a teacher for the past 14 years, I have had the privilege to learn alongside many amazing educators from K-12. My work as a high school ELA and Student Success Teacher have helped shape my beliefs and convictions on the need to learn and teach by leading with the heart. My last three years as a leader and facilitator with 12 districts supporting student success programs for struggling students have helped create my mission and journey to teach to the whole child, to look beyond numbers and to live and lead with kindness. From this passion stemmed the movement #bekindEDU.