Lessons for Leading Schools in Challenging Times, With Equity in Mind

School leader walking with teachers

Elizabeth Ann Ross Harvard Graduate School of Education

Public schools have been plagued with staffing challenges at all levels in recent years, including turnover at the top but, while some might view the current times with trepidation, Jennifer Cheatham sees possibilities.

“There’s a window of opportunity that opens up for change during transition,” explains Cheatham, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is a great “time for a new leader to take advantage of the hope … and dissuade the fear.”

In her new book, Entry Planning for Equity-Focused Leaders: Empowering Schools and Communities, Cheatham and her co-authors tap into their own leadership successes and struggles, and weave in practical lessons and advice from other leaders.

When it comes to leading with equity, especially racial equity, the authors call for a collaborative versus a top-down approach. At the end of the day, they explain, leaders are temporary but the communities they serve will remain.

Cheatham shared six tips for the first make-or-break months on the job for new principals, superintendents, and other education leaders:

1) Avoid harm.

When new leaders show up, community members may worry about the potential damage they can cause. The new arrivals might unintentionally resurface old wounds and organizational trauma. Paying attention to past harm and creating opportunities for healing can be transformative, Cheatham says.

2) Strive to understand current and historical context.

It’s important to understand current day context in order to appreciate the strengths that exist in the new community you are joining — you don’t want to end up “dismantling things that are good” — but understanding historical context is even more crucial, Cheatham argues. She says it is important to grasp “why things are the way they are.” If you don’t understand the history of systemic racism and oppression in your community and the country “it’s hard to build towards a positive future.”

3) Be self-aware.

Leaders need to be intentional about understanding who they are and the potential biases they bring. Take time to think about how you might be perceived by those you are serving.

4) Listen with empathy and develop a shared vision.

Focus less on diagnosing problems — unless the problems stand in the way of your community’s aspirations. Use your energy to make collaborative and sustainable change by working alongside those in your district.

5) Look after yourself.

The early days of leadership can be exhausting because you are doing the work of leading and working through your early plans and ideas at the same time, says Cheatham. Hearing about other people’s problems and pain can be emotionally draining too. “You have to prepare mentally and introduce routines for self-care from the beginning,” says Cheatham, “otherwise you [will] run out of gas before you’ve even gotten going.”

6) Don’t do the work alone.

School leaders, particularly women and leaders of color, are under greater scrutiny than ever, according to Cheatham. It is important to have a group of trusted advisers to bounce off ideas, to support you, and to keep you accountable.

Jennifer Cheatham’s latest book, Entry Planning for Equity-Focused Leaders: Empowering Schools and Communities, is co-authored with Adam Parrott-Sheffer, and Rodney Thomas. Cheatham is the co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard.