Education Transformation in 2021

November 23, 2021

By Rebecca Holmes, CEI President and CEO

Last week I had the honor of being recognized at Denver Business Journals’ 2021 Most Admired CEOs event.  The theme for this year’s awards was transformation, and I was thrilled to see that four of the 21 awardees lead education or youth-serving organizations.  Awards like these are certainly flattering but ignore the reality that everything we do at CEI is a team effort, with our outstanding internal team, our partners in schools and districts across the state, and countless other champions, including funders who stepped up last year in important ways.  And while the awards focused on 2020-2021, we’re finding that unlocking transformation in 2021-2022 will demand different behaviors.

CEI President and CEO Rebecca Holmes

Leading for transformation in this moment means leading through times of diminishing trust, particularly in public institutions.  As public school and system leaders, we are charged to meet this reality amid evidence that the people in our public systems are feeling frayed.  Public discourse that highlights waning trust is particularly personal for those of us in education because, as educators, we have chosen careers and lives that are centered on caring for other people’s children as much as we do our own.  Nearly 25 years into this work, it’s still remarkable to me that moms and dads and tios and abuelas trusted their babies with me as a young teacher and then as an administrator.  That trust is core to our work, is something we can’t take for granted, and something that is even harder to earn and maintain across lines of racial or ideological difference.  The rhetoric, the strife, and the fear of the last several months serve to remind us we need to do more to listen, be open, and build trusting relationships in our communities.  Even more complex, schools remain one of the few public institutions where people with opposing views come together in our communities.  The charge for school and district leaders right now is immense.  It’s been an honor this month to be in the field with leaders from Longmont to Cañon City, from Grand Junction to Greeley, who are meeting it.  The team at CEI is steeped in leadership lessons of our own, and we’re learning beside you more than we ever have.

With adults in the system feeling frayed, and parents still under the stress that comes from worrying about the physical or social wellness of children, we cannot be surprised that many of our students are presenting with behaviors our systems weren’t built to address.  Fear is surging but leading in 2021-2022 in ways that both respond to current context and lay a foundation for breakthrough change demands trust, clarity, and creativity.

The leaders who are finding success right now seem to have three shared behaviors:
  1. Investing in team and taking care of people
  2. Engaging in deep listening with families and communities
  3. Building a daily practice to focus on bright spots

We’ll touch on each of these over our next three newsletters.  The first, investing in team, means so much more than just making sure people are getting more time and permission to engage in “self-care.” Classroom teaching can be isolating and administration can be rife with competing initiatives.  In both cases, great leaders are focused on collective efficacy at every level of the school system.  To achieve this, we see building and district leaders working closely with their teams to identify and build consensus around tightly focused strategic goals for their collective work.  This requires that each member of the team understand the role they play, and also builds confidence in their ability to deliver.  Moreover, these leaders regularly and transparently communicate progress to build internal trust among all members of the team, showing that the organization is coherent and aligned in its actions.  To accelerate trust and positive momentum, the most effective leaders use their power to remove barriers to progress and eliminate as much ambiguity as possible.

The research on this collective efficacy at the school level is remarkable, and the practice is critical as we settle into a school year where many students have more significant social and academic needs and our systems are stressed with staff shortages.  Collective efficacy for district leaders also means getting crystal clear on what matters most at the system level and communicating a small number of shared priorities.  When everything feels urgent, it can be challenging to step back and plan, but we’re seeing great clarity and sense of shared purpose emerge in districts that have found ways to engage in strategic planning efforts related to relief spending, talent strategies, and other issues that require longer-range thinking.  This strategic clarity acts as a stress-buffering system, creating confidence in educators who are being asked to do more than ever to support their students.  Having helped co-create and co-produce the strategic plan, adults across the system believe their efforts will add up to more than the sum of the parts and make their own contributions, no matter how herculean, worth the effort.

We’re seeing districts offer unexpected closure dates for teacher mental health, and certainly understand the need for that small intervention.  However, what makes people persist in mission-driven work is a sense that what we are doing is making a difference and is aligned to the efforts of our colleagues across an organization.  Essentially, do we know we’re all rowing in the same direction and is there evidence that we’re getting somewhere?  CEI has a statewide view that reminds us this year is full of challenges, but the best schools and systems in this state will emerge stronger for it, with clarity and a plan for constant improvement.

Our November newsletter features several opportunities that we believe can be entry points for leading toward education transformation this school year.