I find one of my important jobs is getting the ‘tension’ right between schools and the district. Tension is often a word with negative connotations, but it provides a necessary balance throughout the system. People look at me questioningly when I acknowledge and even encourage healthy tension between competing interests (but we are all teammates in the bigger picture). At each hierarchical level, whether provincial government, school district, school or classroom, there needs to be autonomy to be innovative and creative to meet specific needs. But, the work must be connected because we are more than a collection of independent contractors and a sum of ideas. I described some of this in a previous post on flexibility.
When faced with a topic or issue, I regularly consider if something is primarily a school focus or a district decision. There are many issues that districts should simply stay out of, and leave to schools who are more nimble and quicker to make changes as required. Further, for new initiatives to take hold, they often come from passionate teachers, schools or communities and not from a district decree.
Schools tend to look at issues through the lens of the school first and foremost; a district takes a more global view of the school district as a whole and, as a district leader, this is the perspective I take, for example, when a school wants to start a new program. The case is often made “how it is right for the community,” and I then take into consideration the impact the new program would have on other schools and the district as a whole. Some programs that have been suggested would have done very well, but would have also moved student populations and emptied out other schools — good for the school but bad for the district. It is also very easy in a district job to think we know best and make more decisions centrally (but we would NEVER want the provincial government to do that with school districts). There are other times where the district can help transform a community by suggesting the consideration of a new program. The placement of programs like French Immersion, for example, are often crucial ones for a district to make as they look at the larger view of community interests and population trends.
As a principal, the ‘tension’ was in wanting to be encouraging of innovation, but also wanting to ensure, as a school, we were moving in a common direction. As a district leader, the ‘tension’ is more in trying to set direction for the district but giving the freedom and flexibility to schools to each have their own “signature” one that is informed but rarely prescribed by the District.
I will often talk about our commitment to inquiry, self-regulation, social-emotional learning and digital literacy. And, at each school, these ideas will take on different shapes and direction. I use this blog and other opportunities to engage, discuss and draw connections between the different approaches to the same larger goals. All our schools develop their own narrative, but they are part of a bigger story. Similarly, I feel that our district is part of a larger provincial story – one of a highly achieving system looking towards where it needs to go next.
I have often heard teachers and administrators say of their districts “I don’t know where we are going.” Hopefully, I am finding ways to be clear about where we are going, but not prescribing a single narrow path to get there. I will continue to consider whether we are getting the ‘tension’ right.