Successful District Leadership Interview With Michael Fullan

By Brian Sheehan, Ed.D. & Anna Mackenzie Sheehan

Sheehan.jpgBrian Sheehan: Let’s start with change and some of the challenges of leading school district improvement in an era of change. Why do people resist change and what do you feel distinguishes the successful organizations that have strong capacities for change?

Michael Fullan: I think I first want to put the focus on what we call ‘whole system reform’, which is either the whole district or sometimes even bigger, as in the whole state or providence. It’s not one school at a time; it’s a whole set of schools. The ones that we find are successful have superintendents that have put the focus on the achievement agenda and then, instead of focusing on what I call negative accountability, they focus on capacity building. Capacity building in this instance means developing a teacher’s ability at the school level to work together in a collective capacity to zero in on making the changes, monitoring the results, and making corrections. It’s that kind of really strong focus, and there are other elements, but it definitely is leadership and focus as it builds capacity. Of course, the question is how do you get greater system commitment. Sometimes I refer to this as ‘systemness’ and it occurs when teachers, principals, district level people, and others commit to each other to help to develop ’system effectiveness’. ‘Systemness’ should be thought of it in terms of what is going to hold the system together. What is the glue, I guess I’ll say of the effort, and there are two dimensions of it. The first is a better two-way partnership vertically; between district leadership and schools. Another key part that has been at the heart of our work is to foster lateral networks where people are learning from each other. I mean, you see that within a collaborative school teachers are learning from each other because that’s the way the leadership position is, but you also see it when we get schools working together in networks where schools are learning from each other as they progress. So you can see immediately, once you start describing it that way, it’s really what we call social capital. The groups are learning from each other, they’re getting committed. They are getting good ideas. There’s a good degree of peer pressure to do better, which means that with this kind of pressure that’s more organic and acceptable.

Brian Sheehan: And that also encourages teachers… I mean it excites teachers and it gets teachers more involved, wouldn’t you say?

Michael Fullan: Yes. The key thing here is how do you motivate people, teachers, to put in the energy to get the results: to want to focus and want to work with their peers. So that’s the excitement. In one of our books we call it the ‘push and pull of change’. The pull of change is when you’re attracting a teacher into a process that they find that’s really exciting and effective. Conversely, the push of change is expecting teachers to get involved to make that happen. So it’s that judicious combination of push and pull.

Brian Sheehan: And if a district is lucky enough to be able to put these things in place, can you talk briefly about sustainability?

Michael Fullan: Yes. Sustainability I think comes from two conditions and they’re hard to get. One is leadership that has some degree of continuity - if there’s a turnover of superintendents every three years, you don’t get that continuity. So we know the districts that are more successful have superintendents who are there for a half dozen or more years, so that’s one dimension. The second and related dimension is a leader producing other leaders. I would put as the main mark of a leader at the end of his or her tenure is not only the impact they’ve had on student achievement, it does include that, but also how many good leaders do they leave behind who can carry on who they’ve trained and supported and developed. So that’s when you get sustainability; when you’re generating the next pipeline of leadership while you’re doing your work in the current part, which is all the more effective because you’ve got combined leaders working on this together. So when you see the successful school systems you see a coordinated and consistent effort among and across school and district leaders.

Brian Sheehan: And this takes the focus away from the individual leader and puts it instead on the system, right?

Michael Fullan: It does. In some way the individual leader is a tradition of American culture; the frontier leader who goes in and against all odds and is carving out an existence in the future. That’s okay for historical purposes, but in fact the heroic leader by definition is ‘one at a time’, so if you depend on the heroic leader, you will win some lose some, but it never has any grip. Individual leaders can do great things, but their legacy doesn’t last if we’re not doing the collective part.

Brian Sheehan: Great. And it seems like we’re talking a lot about school and district culture. What is the role of the school board member in establishing a positive culture in a district?

Michael Fullan: School board members should focus on the priorities of the district and hire the best possible superintendent and hold them accountable. School board members should zero in on the student learning agenda and look for leaders who have a track record of making progress in relation to that agenda, not a leader who interviews well, but one who actually has done the work and can explain it pretty directly; a person of action, a person of collective action.

Michael Fullan: It’s not like you share the leadership and let somebody go off and make a bunch of decisions without you. It’s more that you have created what we sometimes call a ‘guided coalition’. But you’ve created a group that’s got a degree of cohesion and interaction and people providing leadership. So if you think of it as an interactive coactivity, then more gets done because there are more people working on the task. But it’s also consistent, like people aren’t doing their own thing. This is a collective focus as we’d seen in our work. You’re focusing on a small number of key priorities. People are agreed on strategies that are capacity building and they don’t go overboard on judgementalism. So they create this culture of learning that’s very serious with high expectations and use data and because it works, it’s the best possible thing they can do from an accountability point of view because it get results.

Brian Sheehan: A big part of a superintendent’s success comes from the job their building principals do; can you talk briefly about what superintendents should expect from their principals?

Michael Fullan: Yes, it’s a very important point now and I’m just actually working on a book on the role of the principal. In it I focus on two things, the first being the way in which the principal and how their role as an instructional leader. This is good in one sense, can really eat up all their time and there are kind of much more specific aspects of instructional leadership whereas what they have to do, I think to have lasting impact is two things. One is internal to the school to develop the professional capital of teachers. We have a book that is called the Professional Capital of Teachers, which is the social capital that is the ability of teachers to work together to get results. So they should be paying attention internal to the school to fostering this professional capital of teachers and we say if you want to change the group, use the group to change the group. So this is the principal using the group so to speak to change the group and not using up all their time on kind of micromanaging one on one instruction. And then the second thing they need to do is to realize and this should be on the job description and it is in the job description in the districts that we find successful, realize that they have a responsibility to contribute to and learn from other schools in the district. But a principal who just kind of works away at their own school and doesn’t pay attention to other schools or the district we say it’s too narrow a role and it won’t lead to systems success. It actually won’t lead to continuous success for the principal in that situation because the system is going to help them or hinder them and if they don’t improve the system, help improve the system, they’re going to be injured by it more than helped.

Brian Sheehan: What characteristics would you look for in a district leader if you were on a school board and charged with appointing a new superintendent?

Michael Fullan: I would want to know whether or not that person has a track record. That is where they’ve been before, where they’ve built up the collective commitment in a previous district to work together. In other words, I wouldn’t look for the one lone ranger who happens to be the star in another situation and kind of has a reputation for being able to save the day or to do something heroic individually. I would look for someone who perhaps doesn’t look as flashy, but you know by understanding where they were before and from your own history with them that they go about their work in a way that’s developing other people; someone who is good at developing the collaboration and also at identifying other leaders to help do the work. So that’s one of two things. The other thing is what I call the moral imperative, or better still, the moral imperative realized. Anybody can say that they have a very strong commitment to raising the bar and closing the gap for student learning, but we’ve added the word ‘realized’ to emphasize it’s about the track record. What have you actually done to make that happen? Not what you have promised or what you aspire to do, but what’s your track record of zeroing in and getting results on learning of students to raise the bar, close the gap and mobilizing, which goes back to my first point, developing other leaders to help cause this to happen.

Michael Sheehan, Instructional Leader
Salemwood School
Malden Public Schools
Malden, MA
bsheehan@malden.mec.edu