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The challenge of managing the empowered school community

Mal Lee discusses some factors in managing an empowered school community.

Mal Lee
Mal Lee is an author and educational consultant whose research and writings over the past twenty plus years have focused on the digital evolution and transformation of schooling globally.

The dividends from empowerment can be immense. The sustaining of that empowerment as the norm is emerging as a major issue. It is becoming increasingly apparent, in researching those schools globally that have normalised the use of the digital, and successfully empowered their staff, students and parent community, that the challenge of daily managing those hundreds of empowered people is immense and potentially overwhelming. More schools in NSW are taking advantage of ‘Local Schools, Local Decisions’ to move to a digital operational mode, to socially network and to genuinely collaborate with and empower their school community. It is a challenge for which all schools need to ready themselves.

The challenge of empowerment

It is a matter of addressing the issue while simultaneously shaping the desired school digital ecosystem and contending with the everyday realities of running a school.

The experience of the early adopter schools (Lee and Broadie, 2016a) affirms empowerment requires the school’s leaders, and most assuredly its teacher librarians, to shape and support the daily contribution of potentially hundreds of empowered, often palpably excited contributors, all keen to do the utmost for the school and the students. All will want the school to fly, but all come with their distinct personalities, ways of working, egos and agendas.

The research affirms the empowered are simultaneously a delight to work with, great contributors to the work and growth of the school but they are also on trend to be one of the greater challenges digital and socially networked schools will have to manage. Some highly committed contributors can be a pain.

Unless handled astutely, and as a normal facet of everyday schooling, the challenge could crush even the best of school principals.

Within the traditional, strongly hierarchical, silo-like organisational structure, each teacher’s contribution was constrained, bounded and relatively easy to manage. All understood their place, with many staff in larger schools having no dealings with the head.

The same held with the parents, the students and the wider school community. They had learned from childhood their place, understood the school executive unilaterally ran the school and, at best, they could have but a small voice.

All that changes when the schools go digital, socially network, genuinely collaborate with their community and are of a mind to trust, respect, empower and work with all staff, the students, the parents and the wider community. Unwittingly, many of the established mores, practices and parameters are soon discarded or seriously questioned, necessitating the evolution of a replacement set appropriate for the new ecosystem. Mature digital schools have experienced the same kind of digital transformation that has impacted every other mature digital organisation (Kane, et.al, 2016) and, like them, the schools have needed time to adjust their ways.

Recognise the speed of change

In shaping the digital evolution and transformation of your school, bear in mind the recentness and speed of the change, and that none of the staff or parents experienced in their youth a digitally-based mode of schooling. All need to be educated on the new ways.

What is clear in working with the case study schools is that the empowerment has yielded all the hoped for benefits and more. The trend line is pointing to increasingly greater involvement and contribution. However, that further contribution could, if not managed astutely, amplify an already daunting challenge. That said it would be educational and economic folly for any school to try and stymie the contribution.

Dynamic leadership approach

The challenge has to be managed by taking a dynamic leadership approach, where the delegated responsibilities for evolving how the school operates and how learning happens is kept at the top end of delegation. At this point, the leader is largely ‘hands-off’ in managing staff, due to their high confidence and high skills.

However, in a rapidly changing environment staff can find themselves struggling with newly emerging aspects of their job, so the leader has to have constant light-touch interactions to check their levels of confidence and that their decisions are contributing properly to the overall shaping of development. Sometimes it might entail touching the brakes or simply giving a highly committed teacher breathing time.

What is required is a solution that allows an already committed staff and school leadership to continue doing their job well, working within what society would regard as reasonable hours. Highly committed professionals cannot be crushed and the well-being of the school compromised. It would be as well to bear these operational givens in mind in finding the apt way forward.

The desired solution is likely to be found in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the school’s ecosystem, making best use of the professional’s time and adopting processes that naturally, and largely invisibly, channel the contribution of the empowered.

While the early adopters with their organisational agility are responding well to the challenge, they are nonetheless daily coming to better understand the potential magnitude and nature of the challenge, and are trying different strategies to make the going easier.

It bears underscoring that all the case study schools are working on solutions while contending with the everyday pressures that come with operating a school, of finding replacement staff for those taking leave, working with scarce monies, dealing with dysfunctional families and their offspring, and appeasing the occasional bureaucratic request.

So far, the research on staff empowerment within digital organisations has rightly focused on how best to empower the total staff, and support that empowerment. Little, as yet, has been written on the challenge of daily shaping and sustaining the contribution of the dynamic empowered staff.

Nothing moreover has been penned on the even greater challenge that schools have to contend with of not only managing the professionals but also an empowered parent group and community, none of whom are bound by the staff members conditions of employment.

Most assuredly, nothing has been written on the challenge of doing so in an ever evolving, complex, adaptive system and an increasingly integrated digital school ecosystem where the natural forces at play will impact, in often quite unintended ways, on the workings of the school.

How that challenge is best met, time, experience and research will hopefully reveal.

Meeting the challenge

That said, there appear to be a number of key moves the case study schools have made that should help prepare the later adopter schools. Nine key moves are summarised here.

1. Successful digitally-based school ecosystem.

All have created a tightly integrated, mature digitally-based ecosystem, where all operations are focused on realising the school’s shaping educational vision.

2. Shaping vision

All have a clear shaping educational vision – readily understood by the total school community – that is the glue that holds the networked organisation together (Lipnack and Stamps, 1994). Vitally it must be strong glue, able to withstand daily stress testing by literally hundreds of the school’s community.

3. Astute principal, with the requisite people skills

Every one of the case study schools had an astute school principal with the wherewithal to lead and orchestrate the workings of a digital and socially networked school community (Lee and Broadie, 2016b).

The person has had the requisite people management skills, readily able to daily manage the contribution of a dynamic empowered staff and parent community.

The last thing a digital and socially networked school needs is a highly qualified head with limited or no people skills.

4. Distribute the management

When schools succeed in empowering all staff, the homes and the local community, one is talking about genuine empowerment with hundreds of people, all with their own agendas.

No one person, no single principal, no one executive position has the time – or indeed the need – to manage the contribution of such a vast body of empowered personnel.

The job should rightly be distributed across the staff such that the management happens naturally as part of everyday interaction.

5. Professional staff

Central to the quest to empower the staff and the wider school community has been the creation of a highly professional staff, whose professionalism is developed to the full, able to play a lead role in both educating the children and in nurturing the teaching contribution of the other teachers of the young – the parents, carers, grandparents, the community and the children themselves. The schools have tried to avoid adding to the workload of the staff.

Done well, the principal should be able to rely on all the staff, teaching and professional support, playing the major frontline role in managing the empowered parent group, leaving the executive team to supplement that support when needed.

Macro understanding

That desired level of professionalism necessitates all the staff (Lee and Broadie, 2016c) having a strong macro understanding of the workings of the school’s ecosystem, the value of empowerment and genuine collaboration and the importance of doing so naturally as part of the everyday dealings.

Astute use of the digital

With digital normalisation the school is able to look to all manner of digital smarts and efficiencies to reduce or contain the load on staff.

That said, unless clear parameters are set the same technology can, as all well know, add to the burden on staff.

Known operational parameters

In the seeming chaos of the rapid digital evolution of schools and the disbanding of many of the traditional operational parameters, the pathfinder schools found it is very easy to forget the importance of always having apt and clear operational parameters to guide all within the school’s community.

In a state of flux when people are being empowered – and given greater power – it is probably inevitable that some will test the new boundaries.

In a genuinely collaborative environment it should be relatively easy to proactively decide as a group what the parameters will be and how they will be observed.

The lesson appears to be, be conscious of always having in place and publicised the operational boundaries. Teacher and executive time should be protected.

Operational units

Further, to the earlier comment about distributing the management of the empowerment, some of the larger case study schools have opted to use small operational units to better manage the empowered. Thought was being given to using bite sized operational units, mini-schools that can more readily manage the empowered group.

The advantage of such units is that their size can be tailored to the extent of parent collaboration, understanding that, for some time yet, it is likely that collaboration will be greater with the younger students.

Many schools globally are already using such groupings based on the stages of schooling. While the management of an empowered group was not the reason for their creation, the more manageable logistics could make the going that much easier for the staff.

Conclusion

In making these observations it bears stressing these are still early days with the development, with much still to be learnt.

As indicated at the outset, what we are seeing globally – and not solely in NSW – is the emergence of a highly laudable educational development that has the potential to add immensely to the school, that needs to be managed astutely if it is to sustained and not crush the school’s leadership

References and further reading

Kane, G.C., Palmer, D., Phillips, A.N., Kiron, D. & Buckley, N. 2016, ‘Aligning the organisation for its digital future’, MIT Sloan Management Review, July 2016, Massachusetts MIT SMR/Deloitte University Press, accessed 28 February 2017.

Lee, M. & Broadie, R. 2016a, A taxonomy of school evolutionary stages, 2nd edn, Armidale Douglas and Brown, accessed 28 February 2017.

Lee, M. & Broadie, R. 2016b, ‘The critical role of the principal’, Digital Evolution of Schooling, May 2016, accessed 28 February 2017.

Lee, M. & Broadie, R. 2016, ‘Trust and digital schooling’, Educational Technology Solutions, August 2016, accessed 28 February 2017.

Lipnack, J. & Stamps, J. 1994, The age of the network: organizing principles for the 21st century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.

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