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In the “hot seat”: Sharing, learning in a leadership cohort

Mark was struggling. As the lower school principal of an independent K-8 in Bergen County, NJ, Mark was trying to stay afloat in a pandemic that has sapped all our energy and made school leadership -- already a lonely field -- even more isolating. 

In particular, Mark had a problem that’s been weighing on him for a while. He supervises an assistant principal who, in turn, manages all K-5 teachers within the school. One teacher, in particular, is a bit “old school” for this progressive institution, and the AP has it in for her. Yet, from Mark’s perspective, the teacher is largely successful and is popular with her students (a group that has historically presented many behavioral challenges) and their parents. The academic data also points to her meeting, if not exceeding learning benchmarks.

On the one hand, Mark wanted to support his AP and help get this veteran teacher “on board.” On the other hand, he saw many positive qualities in her that his AP either misses or chooses to ignore. He just didn’t know how best to proceed.   

When I launched my School Leadership Mastermind for school principals and administrators back in June, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was my first time running a mastermind group of any kind and, while I had participated in and gained from other masterminds, running my own would be a totally different experience. Particularly in the throes of a COVID pandemic that had put school leaders back on their heels for months. 

Thankfully, the group quickly coalesced around a common desire to grow as professionals, expand their professional networks, find comfort in community, and have their most burning questions answered on the “hot seat.”

What’s a “hot seat”? Known also as a “spotlight,” a hot seat is a segment of each mastermind session during which one member presents a personal challenge for others to reflect on and share solutions. Following the hot seat, I get with the members to clarify their takeaways and get them to commit to purposeful, goal-driven actions to propel them forward.

One hot seat discussion focused on helping a lower school principal in Montreal address the school’s board of directors about salary disparities within school departments. Her teachers’ salaries were the lowest within the school and she felt it to be both unjust and a competitive disadvantage in her quest to staff her classes with high-quality teachers. Compounding the problem was that she had little to do with the board (she never reported to them,) and its members seemed largely focused on fundraising and saving dollars, not spending more of them.

The group heard her out and encouraged her to think of ways that she could justify her request. One idea that this principal arrived at on her one was that she was also a fundraiser, through the application to a series of grants. She also was a primary liaison for the school in dealing with Quebec’s onerous paperwork and compliance requirements. This made her more valuable to the board and someone that they couldn’t easily dismiss. This, together with the added confidence and support that she got from a group of peers that believed in her, allowed her to march into a primary board member’s office and successfully pitch her request.   

In Mark’s case, the group impressed upon him the importance of prioritizing the students’ needs over our adult wants. If the class is well taught and well managed, then the AP needs to reset her expectations and work with the teacher “where she is,” rather than try to remake her. If the AP is not willing or able to see past the teacher’s shortcomings, perhaps Mark needs to step in and make her his responsibility instead. And he also needs to get with the AP and coach her to be more effective with and supportive of all the teachers in the department.

Other examples of hot seat breakthroughs include:

  • Providing guidance to a new principal who needed to (1) build relationships with his colleagues and constituents over Zoom while (2) figuring out his role within an administrative team that was ill-defined. He was advised to focus on the former while allowing the latter to run its course. That’s what he did, and it’s worked out well for him.
  • Supporting multiple colleagues with complicated relationships involving colleagues, supervisors, teachers, and other constituents. As three participants hailed from the same Texas school district, they all had struggled with the same high-ranking individual whose actions were complicating the jobs of so many district administrators. Collectively, they mustered the courage to deal with this person and ensure that she no longer interfere with their work.
  • Emphasizing the importance of visibility to the one assistant superintendent in the group and helping her set goals to that end. This was in response to her feeling of being largely overlooked and underappreciated by others. 
  • Helping the principal of a small, independent K-8 school in Charleston, South Carolina work towards accreditation and identify new programming options by aligning with an online high school program that could serve his students upon graduation. Here is how he reflected upon his hot seat experience and aftermath. “The biggest challenge we faced was knowing when to live within our means and save money to ensure a balanced budget. We needed funds both for accreditation and to hire extra staff to be sure health needs during the pandemic were met, which is also an accreditation expectation. It was a classic “caught between a rock and a hard place” of two conflicting priorities that were both legitimate. We ultimately spent the money to invest in health.”

Many of these wins are not related to academics but rather, relationships. This may not be obvious to those who think that principals deal almost exclusively with things like learning and curriculum but those in the trenches know how important soft skills are to their success. And too often, school leaders need to develop these on the job, as our universities do not emphasize this enough in their leadership training programs.

The rest of our sessions were filled with weekly wins, reports from the previous week’s hot seat occupant, and structured learning that typically included breakout rooms in which partners worked together to answer questions and solve problems before sharing their outcomes with the group at large.

School leadership is difficult, lonely work -- especially now. Leadership cohorts let you connect with peers who understand the nuances of your work and can offer practical insight and support. Many of our conversations and learning sessions centered less on academic leadership per se than on people and personal leadership. Yes, we spent time on such things as curriculum development and teacher observations. But what this group most sought were augmented toolkits in such areas as emotional intelligence, trust-building and communication, so that they could leverage their abundant skills and expertise to achieve their goals. 

And continue moving their schools forward. 

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. He is launching a new mastermind cohort for school leaders who want to up their game and gain much-needed clarity and support during these most challenging times. To learn more, visit his School Leadership Mastermind page.

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