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What Sets Leaders and Schools Apart from the Crowd?

Drawing from his past experiences and relationships, CSI Co-CEO Glenn Vos observes four keys that contribute to a school flourishing in this month’s Lead Well article.

After retiring from my role as a school leader, I have had the opportunity to visit many schools and school leaders across the country. Being on the faculty of a graduate program for educational leadership has also presented me with opportunities to stop by both public and faith-based schools. The deep and insightful conversations that I have had with school leaders, even globally, have given me a good sense of crucial leadership qualities that help good schools become great. Through these conversations, I have discovered that there are significant trends among schools that are flourishing that distinguish them from those that are floundering. It is very evident that the leaders of flourishing schools are also growing both in confidence and in leadership opportunities outside of their immediate communities.

First, a disclaimer. The conclusions in this article are not research based but are grounded in the experiences and relationships that I have been gifted with over my many years in Christian education. I have had the opportunity to see in action large schools, small schools, urban and suburban schools, rural schools, schools blessed with generous donors and plentiful resources, and those that are operating on a very tight budget with limited facilities. It is my hope that my observations will trigger reflection and action in your leadership journey. To lead well is to be thinking about the right questions to ask and answer along with doing the right work so that your school will be set apart from the crowd because it is flourishing.

Quite often, school leaders indicate that their school is struggling due to lack of access to sufficient resources. Generally, this is due to financial and facility restraints or because enrollment numbers do not support programs in an efficient and robust manner. Additionally, leaders bemoan the fact that they cannot attract or retain the quality staff members that some other schools seem to have in place. However, I am convinced that none of those factors are the keys to success. Certainly, they are “nice to have” and provide some traction for moving forward, but they are not the factors that will set your school apart because it is “hitting on the cylinders.”

Let me be clear, in my opinion, flourishing is not about increasing enrollment or successfully completing capital campaigns. Rather it is about a culture where students and staff are growing and blossoming, creating, and learning with joy. It is where relationships reflect love for one another and caring for the community in which they reside. It is where students are being well prepared for the next chapter of their story and fulfilling their calling.

Four Keys to School Flourishing

From my observations, there are four keys that contribute to a school flourishing. I may not be telling you something you do not already know, but the question is, what are you doing about making sure these are the attributes of your leadership and of your school community? As the leader, you are clearly responsible for the priorities that currently guide your school. You are developing a pathway to a sustainable and blessed future. The challenge in Scripture to see to it that generations yet to be born will have the opportunity to learn about the God that created them and called them to discipleship and service is your biggest responsibility. Are you meeting that challenge?

1. Understand Your Purpose

The first key to success is that you need to have a very strong understanding of your purpose. Who are you? Why do you exist? What is your mission? What is your story? These are questions to wrestle with for you, your school leadership team, and your board. Not just once and it is done, but constantly. Too frequently, schools and their leaders do not know their purpose and are certainly not guided in their actions and decisions by their mission. They keep doing what they always have done, looking at the past for answers rather than looking for answers about what makes them relevant today and what will make them relevant in the future. Are you asking these questions or are you just paddling furiously downstream wherever the current will take you?

2. Know Where You’re Headed

Understanding your purpose is directly related to the second key. Do you not only know who you are and why you exist, but are you also able to articulate where you are going and how you are going to get there? Schools that are flourishing have a clearly outlined plan for the future. They are not chasing the next fad or just following along with what other nearby schools are doing. They have a very specific plan that has been generated through a thoughtful and broad-based process for input, which provides accountability for the leadership of the school and a pathway that the staff, students, parents, and supporters of the school can rally around. This is not a shopping list of wants but a plan that will advance the mission of the school and provide further opportunities for learning and growth for both students and staff. Do you have a strategic plan that is vibrant, routinely revised and reviewed as needed in this constantly changing educational landscape? Is it directing the actions and decisions of school leaders? Or do you have a strategic plan that was made by a small group of people on a weekend retreat and is not looked at again for the next three years?

3. Keep a Positive Relationship Between the Board and Administration

The third key for flourishing schools is a positive relationship between the board and the school administration. Schools that are floundering are often doing so because these two groups are not “staying in their lanes.” When the roles of the board members and the administration are not clearly outlined or adhered to, muddy waters can ensue. More often than not, board members are stepping out of their role as a board member and doing the work of the administration, causing the administrator to take on the role of the board in their actions and decisions. This is very hard work and often puts the school community at risk because the leadership is not functioning as it should. Parents and staff become unsure of who is in charge. Confusion can arise. Clear articulation of roles provides a process for accountability for both the board and administration.

4. Commit to Staff Development and Improvement

The fourth key element for flourishing is that schools and their leaders must be committed to providing opportunities for staff development and improvement. To assume that the staff members will improve only through experiences is a very faulty and dangerous approach. This will not only mean that schools will stand still without training, but it will actually diminish the quality of the educational programing. Students will immediately be affected by this. When people are busy and budgets limited, professional learning is often the first line item to be reduced or eliminated—that is a huge price for students to pay. Professional growth is a key measure of school culture and a mark of a flourishing school. The responsibility to make sure staff development is in place and used well is a priority of a flourishing leader. Investing in staff development is especially important in today’s employment landscape where the pool of qualified and highly capable staff members is diminishing quickly. Are you making this critical investment in your staff?

By focusing on these very important four keys, your leadership should launch your school forward to become a flourishing school community. Leading well is good, hard work. Thank you for committing to it.

If you feel that your school could use a boost or a review of any of these four key areas, please contact , membership consultant.

Glenn Vos is co-CEO of Christian Schools International. He is a retired superintendent of Holland Christian Schools and is currently an adjunct professor at Dordt University. Glenn has served for more than fifty years in Christian education, serving as a teacher, counselor, principal, superintendent, and in a variety of schools since his retirement as an interim head of school and consultant. Glenn continues to serve schools with strategic planning and board governance consulting as well.

Where you see that teachers are growing professionally, that school leaders and boards are mission focused and where the planning is forward thinking, you will find a flourishing school.

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Christian School

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