Establishing a Culture of Leadership for Students to Model

Spring 2018

By Laura Blankenship

We aim to create leaders. Many of our schools explicitly make this a part of the vision statement. At The Baldwin School (PA), a pre-K through 12th-grade all-girls’ school, we say our mission is to “form women capable of leading their generation.” Female leaders, we believe, will bridge the gender gap in STEM fields, the government, C-suites, and boardrooms. And bridging this gap will change the world.

That’s a tall mission, and to achieve it, we need to do more than put students into leadership positions or talk about them as future leaders. We must also give them the skills and support they need to be leaders, now and when they leave our schools. To do that effectively, we need to understand how to build leadership capability at all levels. In other words, as faculty and staff charged with creating future leaders, we need to be leaders ourselves.

That, too, seems like a tall mission. But at Baldwin, we’re tackling leadership development through multiple avenues, building the same kinds of support for our faculty as we do for our students. With the aim of establishing a culture of leadership, we’re focusing on four key ideas: to lead a community is to know the community, leadership can be learned, leadership takes practice, and leadership starts at the beginning.

Know the Community

To lead a community, one must understand that community’s needs and values and then help the community meet challenges in ways that correspond to its values. That requires getting to know the individuals within the community at a deeper level.

In the fall of 2016, The Baldwin School welcomed Marisa Porges as our new head of school. As she came on board, she began her own process of getting to know the community of faculty and staff she had joined. As part of that process, Porges also helped us reinforce our ties to each other, positioning us to lead from within.

At her first faculty meeting, she encouraged us to recommit to the mission of the school and to recommit to each other. In small, deliberately mixed groups of faculty and staff, we shared why we were committed to working at Baldwin and what we loved about our work. We heard dining services staff describe seeing the girls every day and having a sense, when they walked into the dining hall, about how their day was going and when they might need just a little more mac and cheese and a bigger smile. And we heard from faculty who had watched students grow and learn, seeing, for example, the shy and quiet student from years ago now speaking in front of the whole school.

At other moments throughout the year we got together to continue to share perspectives on our work with our students and to create a shared sense of mission and values that would allow each of us to lead both our peers and students. For our in-service days in the fall and spring, we were just as concerned about connecting people across departments and divisions as we were about the content of the program. We used outside vendors to cater the event to allow the dining services and support staff to attend, and we made sure the entire staff was invited and welcomed. We created a walk-and-talk activity that randomly paired people so that everyone could get to know someone they don’t usually spend time with. And we organized small discussion groups that represented a variety of faculty and staff.

The results? During the walk-and-talk, 100 percent of participants talked to someone they didn’t regularly
work with, and more than half of those talked to someone they only knew a little or didn’t know at all. And 93 percent of the small-group discussion participants agreed or strongly agreed that the discussion helped strengthen connections and understanding of colleagues.

These programs help faculty and staff see challenges not just through their own lens but also give them an understanding of others’ perspectives. Thus, when the opportunity to lead, formally or informally, presents itself, a colleague will have a broader perspective to work from, making it more likely she will lead effectively. She’ll have a bigger picture of the school and will likely propose better solutions that meet more constituents’ needs. Additionally, peers will understand her perspective and know that she understands theirs, making it more likely that they will accept her leadership.

Learning to Lead

In his TED talk “Everyday Leadership,” leadership educator Drew Dudley tells a story about a moment when he made a difference in someone’s life by simply handing out a lollipop and having a conversation. His key message is that some of the smallest gestures can make a difference in people’s lives, and these moments are central to authentic leadership. Everyone is capable of this powerful form of leadership.

This message became a central piece of our program during our first in-service day. In small groups, we showed this video and discussed its meaning for us as faculty and staff, who often make a difference in students’ and each others’ lives, but may not always know that until much later. In my group, one of the other participants was a member of our dining services staff, a man who never fails to smile and say “hello” to each one of us and tells us to have a good day. Everyone in the group had a story about how he had made a difference to them. He would never claim to be a leader, and yet, we showed him that he was by his simple gestures.

Our educational efforts did not stop there. We also brought in a panel of alumnae who were strong leaders in educational institutions, showcasing examples of the end result of our teaching. An expert from the panel on women’s leadership shared her findings on how we can foster leadership in ourselves, our colleagues, and our students. We started book clubs focusing on different ways of leading. And we brought in a panel of student leaders who shared their direct experience of learning to lead, often through the behavior we model.

That was just year one. In year two, our head of school is leading brown-bag discussions on educational leadership, and our in-service days will focus on more specific tools for leading when faced with challenging situations and topics. Just as we scaffold concepts for our students, we are developing a framework of leadership study for our faculty that will span multiple years and cross multiple disciplines. We are reinforcing the message that everyone in our community plays a leadership role for our students and each other.

Leadership Practice

Every day, our teachers lead their classes through the activities of the day and serve as role models for their students. Even as that most common form of school leadership continues, we’ve built other ways for Baldwin’s faculty members to hone their leadership skills outside the classroom.

We’ve established a range of faculty-led committees that are responsible for a variety of important school policy and planning functions. Faculty and staff—not administrators—chair these committees, and the group’s members define the work. For example, representatives from every division lead our Academic Technology Committee, determining technology initiatives to pursue, implementing initiatives, and overseeing programs already in place. This group, representing a cross-section of seasoned and newer community members, often leads conversations in faculty meetings, runs professional development sessions, and even presents to larger groups, on and off campus. Every member of the committee is regularly called on to lead, in one way or another.

Likewise, our Professional Development Committee, jointly chaired by a faculty member and a staff member, leads all our professional development efforts, planning in-service days from the ground up and bridging those days with other educational efforts. Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, co-chaired by members of the faculty and staff, guides educational efforts and conversations around this important topic.

Not only do these committees provide opportunities for our faculty and staff to step into leadership roles, they also foster community-building, as faculty and staff from across the school work together toward a common goal, whether it’s planning professional development or leading a conversation about a challenging topic.

Leading from the Start

At the first meeting of the middle school faculty at the beginning of the 2017–2018 school year, Cindy Lapinski, Baldwin’s middle school director, asked her faculty to organize themselves into a circle according to the least amount of time working in education to the most. The range was impressive, from just a couple of years for our teaching fellow to more than 30 years for many teachers. Lapinski did this to emphasize that just because someone is new to Baldwin doesn’t mean they’re new to teaching, and we can all learn something from each other: new perspectives from different schools, new techniques fresh from graduate programs, or ideas gained from years of experience. Every member of our community is capable of school leadership, regardless of their length of service.

Building on this idea, we restructured our faculty mentoring program to emphasize this “learning from each other” approach. Instead of the typical model in which an experienced teacher mentors a new teacher, Baldwin’s Learning Partners Program puts teachers into learning pods of two new teachers and three veteran Baldwin teachers. The teachers in each group span departments and divisions, underscoring the importance of learning about and from other departments and divisions in addition to their own. 

Within this model, our new fourth-grade teacher is in a pod with our new middle school DREAM Lab coordinator, a middle school art teacher, a third-grade teacher, and a fifth-grade teacher. These five meet weekly to talk about topics ranging from immediate needs, such as managing open house events, to meatier topics, such as philosophies in grading.

The Learning Partners Program actively supports our new faculty by addressing their specific concerns while building leadership skills among the entire group, as everyone is required to share expertise and lead their peers at various points. Our hope is that these learning pods will continue to work together beyond the first year, growing into stand-alone leadership pods for faculty at every stage of their career.

Leading Students

Developing the leadership capacity of faculty and staff naturally leads to developing that capacity in our
students. When faculty have a better understanding of their own leadership skills, they can better support their students’ leadership development. We sometimes joke that by the time students are in upper school, they’re essentially running the school. They are the club leaders, the student government leaders, and they plan and run schoolwide events.

Earlier this year, as I was walking by a middle school English class, I saw students at the front of the room and the teacher standing in the back. The teacher explained that for the next few class periods, the students would be doing the teaching. The students had identified some issues in their reading material that they wanted to delve into, so they were presenting their research and leading a class discussion. This type of student-led class occurs across the school. It’s very common to see a student presenting, whether to the class or to the whole division or school, the parent community, or even the faculty.

And leadership isn’t just fostered in the classroom. Sports team captains bring the team together and help members operate at their best. Likewise, when students participate in a school play or music ensemble, they work together to achieve a goal, supporting and leading as needed. And club leaders organize activities in and out of school, lead fundraising efforts, and coordinate schoolwide events.

We also encourage students to actively reflect on their own leadership, to think more deliberately about their skills, and to discuss their future leadership potential. At the beginning of every school year, student leaders participate in a daylong retreat where they learn from experienced leaders, talk through leadership challenges that they may experience, and begin to understand what it means to “run the school” as a student leader.

Building on this, Porges launched a leadership seminar for seniors, which meets once or twice a month over lunch to discuss the leadership qualities they see in themselves, the skills they need to develop, and how leadership might change as they take on future challenges and opportunities outside Baldwin. With faculty facilitating small-group discussions, these students consider how they will lead in a larger environment, how they will develop a network beyond Baldwin that can support their success, and more. In helping the students wrestle with these questions, the faculty facilitators also further their own growth as leaders, in our community and beyond.

We take seriously the idea that leaders are made and not born. We recognize that for our students to become leaders, they need to see leaders every day. We’ve worked hard over the last year to make leadership a part of our everyday practice and part of how we define ourselves as members of an educational institution. In doing so, we are building a stronger institution that will fulfill our students’ leadership potential.
Laura Blankenship

Laura Blankenship is the dean of academic affairs and the middle and upper school computer science coordinator at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.