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For Leaders, From Leaders: Mindset Shifts for Sustainable Change

Five growth mindset tips for education leaders that create space for innovation and systems change

January 9, 2024

By: Jillian Kuhlmann


  • A growth mindset for education leaders creates space for innovation and systems change.
  • Necessary changes for student-centered mindset shifts include ceding and redistributing power, listening to educators, creating a culture of sustainability, removing barriers and collaborating.
  • Strong leadership can make or break a shift to personalized, competency-based learning and a more student-centered approach.

While shifting practices in the classroom is still a critical part of implementing personalized, competency-based learning, a good leader can ensure long-term sustainability and systems-level change.

For Theresa Ewald, former assistant superintendent of Kettle Moraine School District in Wales, Wisconsin, her true passion is in coaching leaders to realize their visions for a more student-centered approach. After retiring with more than 30 years of experience as an educator and administrator, she recognizes the power of shifting thinking about instructional leadership.

鈥淚 believe in modeling and culture to my core, and that starts with changing how we lead.鈥 鈥 Theresa Ewald

Bob Knisely, a middle school principal with Perry Local Schools in Perry, Ohio, agrees that it’s important to model behavior and set an example for other teachers and leaders to follow as they advance in their own careers. Knisely, , said, 鈥淵ou do things how you鈥檝e experienced them,鈥 and credits the modeling of his principal when he was a classroom teacher for instilling this in him. 鈥淓specially at first, when you don鈥檛 know any better. That鈥檚 served me well.鈥

Below are insights for leaders, from leaders, to support a shift to a more personalized, competency-based learning environment.

For educators to let go of control in the classroom, leaders and administrators have to cede power, too.

鈥淲e can鈥檛 have teachers do for kids what we don鈥檛 do for teachers,鈥 said Ewald. 鈥淲e can鈥檛 have a top-down management strategy or script all their stuff and expect them to do differently with kids.鈥

Distributed leadership, where decision-making happens via a group versus a single person, is an example of what this kind of leadership approach can look like. Deion Jordan, a teaching and learning director at 澳门天天好彩, saw this in action in his previous role at Crosstown High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

鈥淒uring my time at Crosstown High, we鈥檇 been in a state of stagnation, focused on administrative tasks as opposed to instruction. The leadership team made the decision to forgo the traditional principal role and opted for distributed leadership, or holistic leadership,鈥 said Jordan, former director of competency-based learning with Crosstown High School. 鈥淲e created an instructional leadership team tasked with oversight of three primary areas: competency-based learning, project-based learning and pedagogy, while also empowering our strongest teachers to lead grade-level teams and academic departments.鈥

Jordan said the school鈥檚 shared vision held everyone accountable to the strategic plan, and to have an active role in continuous quality improvement. This distributed leadership approach enabled staff to distribute the learning, innovating, action and accountability across a group of capable individuals, including learners.

Educators know what they need. Ask and listen.

After attending a parent-teacher conference for his son and really taking a closer look at the way student engagement takes a dive after third or fourth grade, Knisely wanted to change that trajectory. But he didn鈥檛 start by proposing solutions. He started with listening.

鈥淧re-COVID-19, I started to do a deep dive on ways to increase student achievement,鈥 said Knisely. 鈥淚 was having conversations with teachers over six to eight months, asking them things like, what would the perfect classroom look like for you? Sound like? What would kids be doing? What barriers would I need to remove? The more teachers I engaged in those conversations, the more consensus developed around what learning would look like if we removed barriers and gave them the opportunity to teach the way they felt kids needed to be instructed.鈥

Perry Local Schools鈥 approach at the middle school, called connected and authentic learning, is a system built around access, agency and meaningful choices. And while the Connected and Authentic Learning Academy began as a school within a school approach, Knisely explained that it grew organically to include nearly all fifth and sixth grade teachers. Additionally, to meet a goal to ensure 100 percent exposure to authentic learning, all core teachers in all grades participate in school-wide, interdisciplinary authentic learning experiences once per semester.

鈥淟ast year our school action goal was to collect, capture and celebrate all the authentic learning experiences that are happening. We wanted to ensure every kid was getting exposed to learning opportunities and had the ability to experience authentic learning,鈥 Knisely said. 鈥淚t emerged very quickly that when we were doing the research. The comment kept coming up from teachers, 鈥橶e would do this regardless of whether it鈥檚 a thing because it鈥檚 good teaching.鈥欌

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For long-term change, create a culture of sustainability.

What educators experience and come to believe about school culture and climate are a result of what鈥檚 been modeled by the leaders in their school or district.

鈥淛ust like teachers are modeling for kids, we鈥檙e modeling for teachers. Next year鈥檚 principals are this year鈥檚 teachers,鈥 Ewald said.

Ewald recognizes that she wasn鈥檛 trained to create the space for culture. 鈥淣obody talked to me about that, it was just about having a vision, making an action plan, monitoring my people. But we need to rethink leadership in this new frame: a true system of personalization, a system of agency, for everyone.鈥

Knisely endeavors to stay connected with the experiences of educators and learners, and co-taught one of Perry Local Schools鈥 authentic learning classes last year.

鈥淭hat was really good experience; it got me back to where I was 15 years ago in the classroom,鈥 said Knisely. 鈥淚t allowed me to experience what the teachers were experiencing in getting the kids to shift their mindsets, try to break the habits we鈥檝e ingrained in them since preschool and kindergarten.鈥

Just like teachers are modeling for kids, we鈥檙e modeling for teachers. Next year鈥檚 principals are this year鈥檚 teachers.

Theresa Ewald, Former Assistant Superintendent Kettle Moraine School District, Wales, Wisconsin

Building this kind of shared vision and culture is, according to Jordan, essential for second-order change 鈥 which he describes as making the kinds of changes that are fundamentally and categorically different from the way things have been done. “With second-order change, you’re not just deciding to do something different. There is a well-developed, intentional, authentic plan that is structured in a way that creates a process of irreversibility,” said Jordan. “When you’re acting with intentionality, it鈥檚 impossible to return to the old way of doing things.”

鈥淐oaching leaders to understand and recognize the differences and nuances of first versus second order change is vital, alongside the development and fostering of a culture of transparency,鈥 Jordan said. In addition to a feeling of connection and a sense of accountability, a vision that includes an understanding that risk-taking and failure are a part of the process ensures sustainability.

鈥淐reating a well-regulated green light culture that embraces failure and success while providing many opportunities for feedback, mentorship, modeling and coaching is vital to achieving your goals,鈥 said Jordan. 鈥淓veryone from educators, learners, bus drivers and administrative assistants must see themselves as a part of the vision and understand their unique role in actualizing it.鈥

And when leaders move on 鈥 because they will 鈥 their legacy is that they鈥檝e built up others and created something that can outlast change.

Remove barriers when you can. Co-create solutions when you can鈥檛.

鈥淚 see myself as a shield and as a person who is able to do the things that a classroom teacher can鈥檛 do,鈥 said Knisely. 鈥淚f it鈥檚 going to be good for kids and good for learning, it鈥檚 about finding ways to do that. I can remove barriers. I can get creative with the schedule.鈥

For Knisely, partnership and open lines of communication are critical.

鈥淚 may not have the answer, but we鈥檒l collaborate the heck out of a problem until we come up with a solution that works for us.鈥

Collaborative problem-solving includes engaging in evaluation and data-driven continuous improvement throughout the school or district, from policies and practices to the master schedule and bulletin boards.

鈥淎t Crosstown High, we often deployed a pre-mortem protocol where we attempted to anticipate our failures and successes with or without the use of data-points to ensure we designed the best possible policy or procedure for our learning community,鈥 said Jordan. 鈥淲e were also adaptive leaders that sought to ensure we were flexible in our support of our teachers. One moment, we could be a mentor, another a coach. Sometimes just a friend deeply listening. The role of leader is evolutionary. One鈥檚 ability to respond to a myriad of situational needs is fundamental.鈥

Understand the role of the leader.

Strong leadership can make or break a shift to personalized, competency-based learning and a more student-centered approach. Investing in leadership training and focusing on mindset shifts at the outset can help create sustainable transformation.

鈥淲hen people started visiting Kettle Moraine, I could step back and listen to my teachers talk about the culture they worked in and realize that we built that. It wasn鈥檛 a Theresa thing,鈥 said Ewald. 鈥淎nd when I left the district, the practices were so ingrained and so deep that a leadership change didn鈥檛 have the impact I thought it would have. People come to Kettle Moraine and they say, 鈥業鈥檝e never felt a school like this.鈥 Our kids love their school. People feel that. Experiencing that kind of a learning environment is an opportunity to feel hope.鈥


Jillian Kuhlmann
Senior Manager of Communications

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