School Leadership: Learner-Centered Leadership in Times of Crisis

As many of you know, I have been working on a book about school leadership for over a year. The urgency to finish the project accelerated after the COVID-19 related school closings happened. I am currently working with a team of editors and designers to put the finishing touches on the book. I anticipate that the book will be published in late December or early January. I want to share the prologue of the book with you. Any comments can be added to this post or directed to me at


Rob, the superintendent of schools, looks around the corner to where his kitchen used to be. The walls are down to the studs, just like they should be at this point in the project – at least, that’s what the contractor is saying. Living with a kitchen that’s just studs is an entirely different matter. The living room is stripped down to studs and joists, too. Everything is exactly as it should be…or is it? He walks out to his garage, which is now the living room, and grabs the keys to his car. He sighs, looking at his sofa squeezed up against the family’s bicycles with DVDs precariously stacked on its cushions. It’s going to be like this for a while. Construction is on hold and wishful thinking will not bring back the first floor of his house.

During the drive to his office, Rob ponders the similar course his school district is on. The day before, the county went under a “stay at home order” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When his contractor arrived to work the next day, he had barely hooked on his tool belt when local law enforcement came to the worksite and told him his work was not deemed “essential,” and he had to go home. “What can you do? We will just have to make the best of it,” Rob thought.

Luckily, he’s had plenty to keep his mind occupied. For the past two weeks, Rob has been busy transitioning his school district from a brick and mortar traditional school to a virtual school. The shock to his school occurred on a Friday (the 13th no less!) when the Governor closed all the school buildings in his State. Overnight, Rob’s best-laid plans of schooling and education changed. No more busses, sporting events, or band concerts. Well, not for now, anyway. These concerns changed to internet accessibility for his students, lunch programs for families, and training all his teachers in one week how to adapt their lesson plans to teach online. Pulling into the parking lot to his office, Rob thinks that if he can figure out all that stuff at work, he can figure out how to live with no functional first floor of his house.

Rob walks through what’s normally a bustling workplace to get to his office. He sits down at his desk and tries to ignore the buzzing on his cell phone, announcing emails and text messages. Leading schools in a time of crisis is a challenge. Schools are such an integral part of the lives of the community, and a crisis exposes how much the school is woven into the fabric of the community. Parents are now looking for childcare; bus contractors can’t pay their drivers; sporting events are canceled. It’s as if someone pulled on a thread of the community fabric and the entire piece unraveled. When a severe crisis occurs, the community looks to schools for safety and stability – a challenge Rob recognizes and welcomes.

Rob knows his community well. After all, the job of a school superintendent requires that you be engrained in the community. He knows that throughout their lives, community members have counted on the school to be “there.” Maybe they did not agree with everything the school has done or felt angry with personnel from the school at times, but the school was omnipresent. Rob’s learned that schools are a lot like family… “locals” can criticize it themselves, but if someone outside the community criticizes it, watch out! During the first days of the COVID-19 crisis, the physical presence of the school was gone. The hub of the community was taken away.

Rob thinks back on all the books he has read about leadership theory over the years. He chuckles at some of the experiences he has had as a superintendent, some that went well, and some that did not go so well (who can forget the notorious firing of the football coach). He wonders how this combination of theory and practical experience can help him as he navigates the COVID-19 crisis.

Thinking too much about all the problems starts to overwhelm him, so Rob decides to go for a walk. Rob’s office is in an elementary school and walking through an empty hallway to the exit is disorienting and chaotic. Usually, at this time of the day, he is fending off kids that want to give him a hug, or teachers that want him to answer a burning question right now. He used to get annoyed at these interruptions but now longs for them. “Oh well,” he tells himself, “I need some fresh air and a fresh perspective to help me figure out where to start to lead the school and the community during this mess.”

He steps outside and quickly finds the trailhead to the nature path that surrounds the school. He drinks it in: the stillness, the silence, the sounds of birds in the trees. Have they always been here? The lack of human noise feels like an echo. “The benefit of being an ‘essential’ employee means I can be out here by myself,” Rob thinks to himself. He stops and listens to the distinctive sound of a red-winged blackbird perched on a nearby fencepost. His focus on the bird makes the surrounding environment disappear. He sees and hears only the bird. It’s as if the problems overwhelming Rob vanished from his mind for one blissful moment. The bird doesn’t pay any attention to Rob. He’s solely focused on calling for a mate. “How simple,” Rob thinks. “How freeing it must be to have the drive and singular focus of this bird.”

The bird finishes his song and flutters away, but he leaves Rob with a gift…the gift of clarity. Rob smiles to himself as he turns around on the path and heads back to his office. “It’s funny how the brain works. Sometimes you must stop trying so hard to find a solution and allow your brain the space to work without distractions. Now I’ve got my game plan!”

Rob starts to outline his plan on the way back to his office. “We must stay true to learners, stay true to ourselves, and stay true to staff in this crisis. If we just concentrate on those three things, we will become a better school when the COVID-19 crisis, or any crisis we have in the future, decides to come into our communities.”

Stepping out of the trailhead, Rob considers his new three pillars. In a sense, “staying true” is more than a way to lead through a crisis. The pillars are a framework for leading a school at any time. The education world is filled with so much noise around reform and innovation. Outside experts are constantly telling teachers, principals, and superintendents how to do their job. Rob believes these well-meaning school reformers have de-professionalized educators. He thinks of curriculums that are implemented where teachers literally read from a script to their learners. Policies made at the State and Federal level that limit the budgetary options of school leaders is another example of interference. Finally, the confusion around education leadership with too many voices (often conflicting) offering the best way forward muddies the waters even more.

Staying True to Learners

Staying true simplifies school leadership. There are so many aspects of the job that you cannot control that we need to remind ourselves of the things we can control.

Staying True to Your Learners
Staying true to your learners occurs when the entire system of schooling is designed, and operates, in the best interest of every individual learner.

We can control staying true to our learners. After all, learners are the only reason schools exist. In Rob’s view, there seems to be an “education industrial complex” that continually churns out recommendations, policies, and research whose unintended consequence is the complication of the learning process. Placing all the recommendations, policies, and research in the proper context is an essential facet of “staying true to learners.”

Rob stops midway through the parking lot and looks over at the bus garage. Generally, at this time of the day, the bus garage would be busy with busses coming and going from their student runs. Now, all the busses sit empty. He feels a pang of longing to have those busses full of students again. While we wait for them to return to school, what can the district be doing to stay true to learners?

School leaders have a unique perspective on their learners, families, and communities: they have an in-depth knowledge of their learners as they exist in their school and community. He has experienced how different the context can be for learners as he changed jobs from one district to the next. The appropriate tactics to achieve the best learning outcomes for learners in one setting may not work in another setting. This brings Rob to the second part of the definition of “staying true to yourself.” The learner, and the learning experience, must be the center of the entire learning ecosystem. The guiding principle of being learner-centered provides a focus for school leaders that allow them to adapt tactics appropriate for their context. For this reason, during the current crisis, staying true to learners must be the lens through which we navigate this crisis.

Staying True to Yourself

Staying True to Yourself
Staying true to yourself occurs when you know that your everyday actions and decisions further your dreams that you have for your learners, school, and community.

Opening the door to the school and walking into the empty hallway, he notices Jane, the elementary principal, working in her office. Jane is an exceptional leader who learned long ago how to lead by staying focused on short and long-term goals for her learners and staff. Jane exemplifies Rob’s vision of staying true to yourself: never forgetting why you became an educator in the first place.

One of Rob’s “go-to” jokes is that he has never met a school leader who decided to be an educator because they wanted to administer standardized tests. Many times, after years of changes, educators forget their core beliefs and purpose for starting a career in education. Staying focused on your core beliefs and purposes is the most important job for a school leader. Too often, distractions caused by positional power, politics, or management steer school leaders away from their core beliefs and purpose. Jane does not allow distractions to detour her from staying true to herself and staying focused on why she chose to be an educator.

Staying True to Your Staff

Rob has almost made his way back to his office. Along the way, he stopped and peered into a few classrooms. If he wasn’t so excited about his revelation on the walking path, he might find himself getting melancholy looking at all those empty desks. However, because of his excitement, the quiet classrooms remind him of his third principle, staying true to your staff. This principle is straight forward. Without staff buy-in, no significant change will occur in your

Staying True to Your Staff
Staying true to your staff occurs when you use empathy to understand what your staff is experiencing now, what they will experience in the future and to empower them to grow professionally.

school. The work of ingraining a learner-centered mindset into the school structure requires everyone in the system to contribute. Every time he opens the door to his office, as he is doing now, Rob reminds himself that he can’t do the work of incorporating a learner-centered focus into the school by himself. The school district administration cannot do the work themselves. Leadership comes from everywhere within the school district. Staying true to your staff involves three key facets:

  1. Including your staff on all aspects of planning and implementation of an initiative.
  2. Making sure the staff has the knowledge and skills necessary to make the changes you want to implement. Spend the time and money to make sure this happens.
  3. Asking the staff what new knowledge and skills they think they need to implement the initiative.
Empowerment is a frequently used word in this book. Empowerment happens when staff or learners have meaningful input into decisions affecting them and are given authority to take independent action.

Rob’s not fond of “buzz words” in education. Jargon is the reason there’s too much complexity in schools right now. However, the three critical facets of staying true to your staff are summed up in one word: empowerment. When the staff knows they are being treated as professionals, and their input is meaningful, then they become ambassadors for the initiative the school is undertaking.

Rob remembers one of his core beliefs: teachers interacting with students is everything. Nothing comes before or gets in the way of that invaluable interaction. Everything else is secondary. Staying true to learners occurs when teachers are interacting with them. To help all staff with creating the conditions to create the best learning experiences, they must remember to stay true to themselves. When these three principles are working in unison, a school system can navigate its way through any crisis. As Rob walks through the doorway to his office, he is renewed and excited about the future of the school district…but still a bit nervous about pulling this off.

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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