Leading the Energy of a School


This article was originally published through Edutopia.

In schools, it is important to have a sense of the positive energy surrounding each of the many systems because when this energy is flowing in rhythm, it can be harnessed for solution making, but when it flows without rhythm, it can lead to an unintended disequilibrium in the system. This holds true for both the internal and external energies that impact learning systems. Think about the energy that surrounds schools.


There is the energy that families bring to the table. There are some families that bring an incredible amount of energy to the system, both positive and negative, and there are other families that don’t bring the visible level of energy to the learning space that many educators would like. Either way, everyone can agree that families play a key role in the energy flow of a school.


There is also the natural energy that surrounds a school. Some schools live in the urban energy of a city while other sit in the energy of acres of woods and fields. This energy supports and inhibits the possibility of learning in its own unique way. This includes sounds, light, and the inspiration of beauty. Schools are also baked in the economic energy of their community. Communities with vibrant economic situations amplify their school in financial resources as well as emotional resources. School in areas that are struggling economically feel this energy bleeding through its walls on a daily basis.


There is also an expert energy. For a long time, this was the energy of the teaching staff and those that made school their place of employment each day, but now this includes the experts and partners that schools are bringing into the learning space to support students. This expert energy includes internships, apprenticeships, and academy placements. All of this energy nurtures the students through relationships, sharing of wisdom, and support around decision making.


Two other energies that often go unnoticed (there are probably more) are the energy that comes from trauma. Many students are victims in our communities and find healing in our learning spaces. Others are victimized in our schools and turn to the community for healing. Either way the energy caused by trauma impacts the teaching, learning, and care in our schools. This energy tugs at resources. It creates issues of trust, and it limits the deep impact that quality learning can have. Couple this with the energy that comes from the invisible people in our communities (the elderly, the homeless, the mentally fragile), and again there is a surge of energy that impacts the learning spaces that we look to craft in a personal way for all learners.


Balancing external energies that can, at their best feed and inform and at their worst gnaw on the best designed systems, processes, and procedures, with the internal pressures that can create acute moments of stress at their worst while fueling and innovating the system at their best is a challenge that many leaders haven’t unpacked as a part of their leadership responsibilities. When one begins to examine leadership through this lens of how energy impacts the system, some areas of conversation emerge.


The first of these conversations is around a shared deep purpose. Beyond the textbooks that tell leaders how important that mission and vision are, there is a deeper meaning to the work. This purpose is what propels a school. It is the unspoken vision and mission that gets folks excited about trying something new and shifting good practices to great. Leaders that spend their energy capital around articulating this deep purpose are spending time wisely. They are growing the garden and building deeper roots. Leadership can use all of the energy of their system to articulate and craft a deep purpose that reenergizes the system in fresh, new ways.


Leadership based on the energy of the system also looks at the chemistry and synergy of the system. It is essential that one plus one equals three. The sum of the parts must be greater than the whole for complex systems like schools to flourish. Leaders need to feel the energy of their system. This energy ebbs and flows, and being tuned into these subtle changes makes knowing when to introduce change, when to support the whole teacher, and when to disrupt the system much more obvious. It also helps leaders to see intersections of people that don’t normally connect that can contribute to the organization through projects or conversations.


Systems that have energy in balance also experience a congruence in action. The outcome of these moments is when a colleague is one step ahead in getting something prepared, calling a potential partner, or finishing a sentence in a planning meeting. This congruence doesn’t come from luck, but it comes from leadership that recognizes the power of balanced, positive energy on an organization. Recognizing the places that feel out of sorts and going to those places to heal the organization is essential. Energy imbalance doesn’t naturally go away. It takes external realignment and pressure to set things spinning the right way again.


Defining organizational success in a robust and holistic way is another way that leaders can control and shape the energy of their organization. In too many places, the success definition of a school is created and controlled by state or federal officials. It’s not that some of the factors of success can’t be handed down, but the ones that are created within the system are essential for maintaining the positive energy in the system. These are factors that leaders, teachers, students, and parents can control, and it allows for the system to bounce forward and keep its stride.


Processes and procedures laid heavy on an organization can be an energy killer, but used correctly, both processes and procedures actually create a nimble, light organization. Everyone needs to know where the rails are on the organizational train. Only through knowing the parameters of innovation and the tolerance of the system can everyone have the rhythm that they need to bend and break the “rules”. Leaders that find the right density of processes and procedures are living in the system and growing a vibrant balanced system.


Energy leads to energy, and leadership needs to not only maintain the positive energy to fuel learning, but also the build an energy around the conversations necessary for the continuous improvement cycle that fuels the best schools. Leaders have to feed change into the system through question and inquiry. They have to provide ideas and resources. They have to feel the right energy to have the conversations that are necessary for change and seize the one or two moments when the energy aligns perfectly.


A pattern of excellence is only a pattern when it has been documented, celebrated, and shared. Excellence in education is a mindset. It is a way of being. Many districts don’t know or feel this energy. They are immune to awesome moments. They aren’t seekers of excellence, but instead they catalogue greatness when the energy from both internal and external forces is screaming for deeper, intentional, ongoing sharing. The energy needed requires a communication stream that doesn’t stop that pushes on folks to join the cause, and builds a momentum from the outside about what is truly possible.


This is the hardest part of leadership. This is the part that they don’t teach us in schools. This is the part that makes a difference. Focus in on the energy of the system. Focus on the levers that truly make change. Recognize the energy that pushes on the system from beyond, and see the energy that comes from the learning system. Embrace the beauty of this energy and shape it to make the learning great for kids.