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Why educational leadership requires growth and change

Tracie Brown is among LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, an assistant superintendent and founder of FSLN. We spoke with her about leadership in education.

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Why educational leadership requires growth and change

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“#GrowthIsMandatory.” – Tracie Brown, Arlington Independent School District

As schools across the world shifted to online learning, the importance of leadership in education increased dramatically. But ensuring that student learning continues moving forward requires more than just the usual duties and responsibilities. It means being able to facilitate change to ensure students and teachers are taken care of. At a time when uncertainty has become all too normal, leaders in education must be certain in the methods they use to support their schools.

Tracie Brown is one of LinkedIns Top Voices in Education, assistant superintendent of school leadership at Arlington Independent School District and the founder of Future School Leaders Network.

SmartBrief Education spoke with Brown about educational leadership preparation, how these preparation programs can improve school systems and the motivations behind her overall leadership philosophy. Here’s the interview. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


In your LinkedIn postlast year, you used the hashtag #growthismandatory, and said “E​very day you interview for your next job! Keep striving.” How do you maintain your growth mindset and what advice can you give to others in education?

Growth is mandatory! We are constantly evolving and growing. So, it is important that leaders are constantly learning and applying it to our work. Take risks, fail forward.

This is also an integral part of growing. Learn from the lessons and move forward. Whether we know it or not, people are watching and learning how to lead by following our example.

It’s important that others know of successes, but also when we have stumbled. It builds credibility, trust and permission to take risks.


Your article “Talking about talent is transforming our school district,” outlines the system you created for identifying and nurturing leadership talent from among your ranks. Could you talk about that development process and the elements that made it successful?

In Arlington ISD, we are committed to getting better every day. We have spent quite a bit of time assessing perceptions of leaders in our district as it relates to educational professional development and advancement opportunities.

Through our partnership with the Holdsworth Center, we created our Leadership Definition, which helped us identify the key leadership attributes that leaders in AISD should have: passion for the work, commitment to personal growth and dedication to the team.

Further, to ensure leaders were knowledgeable about how to grow and develop towards their aspirational role, we formed distinct pathways: Teacher Leadership, School Leadership and Central Office Leadership. This gives individuals seeking advancement a clear path for acquiring the leadership skills needed for their next role.

We visited GEs Crotonville (General Electric’s Management Development Institute) in New York to learn firsthand its system for identifying and developing talent. This way of thinking is not the norm for school districts, but it should be.

Nothing can replace the human element of relationships in education. If we have great people, our students will succeed. It’s as simple as that.  The awakening for our district leadership team was realizing there is already greatness all around us — it’s our responsibility as ‘talent masters’ to bring it out of our people.

We engaged assistant principals and deans in our first wave of identifying high-potential leaders using predetermined qualitative and quantitative data. Then, principals calibrated with peers through Talent Talks to help determine the best ways to support these aspiring principals.

Our next step will involve creating distinct learning experiences for each category of leader (Ready, Aspiring, Develop, or Grow) in AISD. So far, the results have been positive, as leaders see a more deliberate focus on leadership development, placement and growth in the district.


What advice would you give to other school leaders looking to advance their careers?

I created the acronym ASCEND to provide guidance for those seeking to advance in their careers:

Aspire to expand your territory;

Seek new learning opportunities;

Connect with those who know more than you;

Embrace feedback and get better;

Navigate roadblocks and challenges;

Dare to step out of your comfort zone! ©️

I fervently believe that when you live and walk in your purpose, opportunities will pursue you.


What traits do educational leaders need to navigate today’s challenging environment?

Leaders have certainly had to exercise their leadership muscle in the last couple of months. From this uncertain challenge, many opportunities arose. An educational leader today must have grit, first and foremost, the ability to rise after stumbling.

There are many unknowns, so the leader’s ability to be adaptable is certainly critical. Being an influential communicator matters too, especially now. People should have confidence and trust in the leader’s words and their actions as they navigate unchartered territory. The leader should also be self-aware and manage emotions as people are experiencing a lot of anxiety at the moment.


What motivates you as a leader?

Changing outcomes for students. That is my simple motivation. I want to do my part to make sure kids like me do not fall through the cracks. It happened to me.

We have so many students who are “invisible” to many, and it’s our duty and moral responsibility to “see” all students. That moral obligation drives every decision I make and every interaction I have with others both personally and professionally.


What motivated you to create the Future School Leaders Network? What are some examples of tools and resources that you provide?

Future School Leaders Network was created because I saw a tremendous need for aspiring leaders and those currently in educational leadership roles to connect with other like-minded leaders in their quest to strengthen their personal leadership.

Since its founding in 2016, more than 140 leaders have participated in a year-long cohort learning series designed to broaden their knowledge base, leverage diverse perspectives and learn tenets of promoting a high-performance culture.  We delve into leading transformational change, leading with values, making judgment calls and the power of two-way feedback.

More than 55% of cohort members have been promoted to new roles after participating in the cohort experience. Through FSLN, members have formed meaningful connections with peers that continue well beyond the cohort ends.

FSLN also supports higher education students by awarding scholarships. We also recently honored educational leaders who have significantly contributed to education during our first Leadership Legacy Luncheon in December 2019, with over 150 attendees. I can’t wait to see how this organization flourishes in the coming years!


Which do you find to be a bigger challenge: adapting to organizational changes brought on by external factors, or creating changes within your existing organization? Why?

The bigger challenge is creating change within an existing organization. Adapting to change due to external factors — such as the COVID-19 pandemic — can force people to respond rapidly because the force is so strong. They are left without a choice.

In organizations, there are deeply rooted cultural norms and traditions that tend to guide behaviors, decisions and more. So, when leaders try to execute change it can be particularly difficult to navigate.

Why? Because people typically don’t fear change itself. They fear loss. The loss of what they know. The loss of what is comfortable.

It’s the leader’s job to first galvanize the team around a common challenge. Gather input to create the vision for the work. Then, support the team as change is executed. I lean into a few change management thought leaders and authors, including John Kotter’s 8 Steps Process for Leading Change, Chip Heath’s Switch and Lisa Lahey/Robert Kegan’s Immunity to Change.


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Kanoe Namahoe, director of content for SmartBrief Education, contributed to this story.

Evan Lauterborn is Audience & Content Development Manager at SmartBrief. He focuses on subscriber growth, subscriber retention, content and managing the @SmartBrief Twitter account. Connect with him on LinkedIn.