Before I got married I wondered why I didn’t have a green thumb. I love the spring and have always planted flowers, spending lots of time planning my purchases and planting. Despite my passion, however, my garden never prospered. The reason for this is because I was only committing to the initial work of planting, maintaining the garden escaped me. Thank goodness I have a husband who is more committed to gardening than I am and understands not only when to plant, but is skilled at weeding, watering, and fertilizing. He understands the complexities of keeping the plants growing.
The job of the leader, like that of the gardener, is to develop supports and structures that help everyone in the system grow and develop. This requires knowing not only what to do, but when to do it. The complexity of a school and a school system filled with adults and students with diverse needs is analogous to tending to the variety of plants that line garden beds. Gardens and school systems prosper when control is balanced by equal measures of commitment and skill (knowing what to do, how to do it, and when to do it).
The challenge for school leaders is the same as it was for me and my garden– it isn’t planting the seeds, it’s committing to the upkeep. Like the well intentioned gardener who fails to water and weed on a regular basis school leaders can also get sidetracked from their main job of leading teaching and learning. Committing to the work requires a high degree of persistence. A dedicated gardener sticks with it even when the plants don’t sprout up right away, or the rabbits eat their lettuce. Leadership is a practice that requires a high degree of commitment in order to get results.
So what should leaders be committing to? The commitments stem from the three components that make up the professional capital equation; human, social, and decisional capital (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). Professional capital is a framework for leading learning that involves equal measure and interaction of the three types of capital in order to develop the entire organization. If you haven’t read this book it is a must– truly a touchstone text for any leader.
The purpose of a garden is growth so gardeners value the land and the weather. The purpose of schooling is student learning so school leaders need to value the people and processes that make this happen. School leaders need to commit to:
- Implementation of school improvement processes at high levels (decisional capital)
- Development of a school culture that promotes learning (social capital)
- Use of a growth mindset to develop and enhance professionals (human capital)
So the next question becomes how does a leader do this? There are specific actions that a leader must take and there are certain times during the year when these actions will have a bigger impact. Leaders must understand the seasons of the school year and engage in specific behaviors at critical points in the year, using the right tools at the right time. For schools summer marks the season for reflection and planning. During these months leaders are busy making sure they have the right infrastructure in place, both in terms of schedules and human resources, to do the work. The fall is when the planting begins. Leaders prepare the field by making sure they have school improvement and professional development plans that align with a strong mission and vision. Finally, during the winter/spring schools focus on making sure that they are getting the right results with an ongoing focus on implementation.
Emily Hughes (2015) tells a story in her children’s book titled The Little Gardener of a boy who is frustrated and overwhelmed with the enormity of caring for his garden. He loves his garden, it means the world to him, but his small size and how much work needs to be done to make it thrive discourage him. However, one plant blooms and this plant give hope to others who see it and who in the end join him in helping create a beautiful and wondrous garden. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of caring for and nurturing a whole school or school system of students. Leaders can feel small and inconsequential in their attempts to make improvements. But like the little gardener leaders must not lose hope. Hope is not a plan, but it can help ordinary people do extraordinary things. For more specifics on how to help your garden grow check out School Leadership Through the Seasons: A Guide to Staying Focused and Getting Results All Year. You might be surprised by your green thumb.