Creating Resilient Schools

External forces such as laws, regulations and public ratings seem to be continuing to increase pressure around schools. For the last several years schools have struggled with internal forces including new technology, challenging student behaviors and higher expectations for student achievement. These external and internal forces continue to build and now schools are facing severe budget cuts. These pressures will have significant impact on many schools. However, some schools will be able to deftly adjust to these increasing forces. I call these resilient schools. Resilience is defined as being able to recover from or adjust easily to change. I have learned from many of the schools that I have visited adapting to change is neither about adopting best practices or even following research proven programs. Resilience is about creating the conditions for a school to uniquely use staff talents to meet student needs. School leaders must abandon any hope of maintaining status quo and be able to lead their organizations to adapt to these changing conditions as a resilient school.
 
The tendency in school reform is to closely examine schools that are successful and replicate their practices such as PLCs or block scheduling or mimic common characteristics such as having a clear common vision that is shared by all staff, commitment to constant improvement and common school culture. Simply trying to replicate these characteristics may not be the answer! The answer is creating the underlying strength of resiliency. Resiliency is not resistance or resignation, it is the quality of adaptation to changing conditions and perseverance to achieve its goals.
 
There are three strategies school leaders should pursue in creating resilient schools: developing an integrated and aligned system, 2) understanding schools as living systems, and 3) improving organizations through adaptive leadership.
 
Developing an Integrated and Aligned System
 
When we think about services in our society we tend to focus simply on the key occupation in that service. For example, we focus on doctors within medical care or pilots in airline transportation or soldiers in the military. The reality is that doctors, pilots or soldiers could not function and do the complex tasks involved in their job without a supportive system around them. Doctors rely on a system of technicians, assistants, researchers, data analysts, and administrative support to do their jobs well. Pilots rely on air traffic controllers and maintenance staff to ensure that thousands of flights take off and land safely. 
 
In the case of education, we tend to focus on the teacher as the key role in schools. But as challenging as teaching and learning is today, teachers require a complex integrated system of professionals and data systems to support the teacher. In some cases, we have not provided adequate data systems or support in areas such as technology, counseling or nutrition to support teachers in their work. School leaders need to consider the entire system to enhance teaching and learning and not simply focusing on the quality of individual teachers. Additionally, that system needs to be all aligned around supporting the key delivery of learning experiences. Often because of contracts, regulations and just plain tradition, schools are slow to change and build capacity to support current teachers and teaching.  Many schools carry on functions that have little connection to instructional goals. It makes little sense to have a large number of people working within an industry if they are not focused and aligned toward providing of a common service. School leaders need to consider building an integrated system which works efficiently and is all focused on delivering high quality learning experiences to every student.
 
Understanding Schools as Living Systems
 
Schools are a system with elements of inputs, process and outputs. We must recognize the unique characteristics of schools as a system. We sometimes oversimplified by applying our system experience from manufacturing or computer systems, where it is essential to isolate the system and improve the quality of resources or information taking taken into the system. These are the characteristics of a closed system, attempting to maintain the consistent performance and high-quality outputs. Schools are an open system more like a living ecosystem that is constantly influenced by the environment around it. It is often impossible to isolate schools from outside influences. What happens in the community and families or neighborhoods comes into school every day. Schools also have no control over the education that occurs prior to students coming to that school as a preschooler or as a transfer. Schools must accept every student and try and do the best that they can to help to develop their potential.
 
There are lessons from open systems that can help to guide us in operating the unique characteristics of schools as a system. In the living environment, organisms change and adapt by constantly sensing their environment modeling the behavior of others, building strong relationships, managing their resources wisely and taking appropriate risks. In schools we need to enhance communication systems and have timely data that can inform teacher actions and adjusting instruction on a daily basis. We need to encourage teachers to model the behavior of other teachers and encouraging collaboration and peer observation. Relationships are fundamental in building a strong community that collaborates and works together with a strong sense of community. We must also use resources wisely and make careful decisions about the allocation of staff and resources to ensure that it benefits the entire community. We also want to encourage risk-taking and innovation to bring new ideas to develop the next practices that will improve our school organizations.
 
Avoid simple comparison of schools as a closed manufacturing system. Recognize the unique characteristics of a school as a living system and just as a farmer creates the conditions for growth of a crop school leaders must create the conditions for the growth of the school and its students.
 
Improving Organizations Through Adaptive leadership
 
The final strategy is to recognize the situational aspects of leadership. Leadership is not a set of practices or a “to-do” list. Leadership is much more dynamic and includes taking actions as appropriate for the conditions. Leadership is also not about a position or job title leadership is about taking action and includes teacher leadership in student leadership within a school organization. The four quadrant model of 
Quadrant D Leadership describes the four different aspects of leadership which must occur based upon appropriate conditions. In every school there is a necessity for Authoritative Leadership, particularly in cases of safety and security, ethics, legal and financial issues. 
 
However Authoritative Leadership will not create the conditions necessary for a school to adapt and grow over time. There are conditions when schools must become more collaborative in creating relationships among staff in the effective use of team decision-making and action, termed Collaborative Leadership. 
 
However Collaborative Leadership may not be sufficient if the school staff continues to maintain the status quo and do business as usual. As the conditions for learning change schools must create and reduce new visions and new opportunities for learning, termed Creative Leadership. There are times when leadership must step forward and create this new vision and encourage innovation in instructional practice. 
 
Adaptive Leadership can be considered as the combination of creativity and collaboration. This is the aspiration for leadership that has to occur over time. Principals and assistant principals and teams should constantly reflect on their leadership actions to determine the degree to which they're embracing the characteristics of Quadrant D Adaptive  Leadership in building a resilient school.
 
Summary
 
It is not simply enough to try and replicate the practices we see in other schools. It requires good leadership but following these three strategies of looking at an integrated aligned system, recognizing schools is unique living system and using adaptive leadership skills schools can develop the characteristics of being resilient and adapting to whatever change comes their way.