New book helps school leaders focus on what they can do without getting weighed down

LAWRENCE — No one can do everything. Yet that is exactly what many school leaders feel like they must do. A new book from a pair of school leaders and scholars aims to help those who often feel overwhelmed focus on what they can and should do and how to help teachers and students lead schools to reaching their full potential.

Book cover of "Focused" by Jim Watterston and Yong Zhao

“Focused: Understanding, Negotiating, and Maximizing Your Influence as a School Leader,” by Jim Watterston and Yong Zhao, aims to help educational administrators guide schools to success without getting weighed down by things they can’t control. The book shares stories of leaders from around the world.

“The basic idea we wanted to give school leaders is that there are many things you can do, but you have to focus on the things that only you can do,” said Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Kansas. “You can’t do everything, and you need to empower others to do the things that they can do. We look at the issue of, ‘How do you carve out a space for yourself?’” 

Watterston, dean of the faculty at the University of Melbourne, and Zhao have starkly different backgrounds in education. The former started as a classroom teacher in a rural Indigenous school in Western Australia and rose to lead several schools before taking his current post. 

Zhao has spent a career in higher education researching and writing about schools around the world and improving the educational experience. 

In working together previously, they realized their unique experiences with education suited them to a collaboration. 

“I said, ‘You’ve got to write that book. Because I want to know what you did in going from a small, rural school to probably the best university in Australia,’” Zhao said of his co-author. “That was fascinating to me, his journey.” 

Zhao’s respective journey took him from his native China to study how schools operate there to the United States, putting him in contact with thousands of teachers and school leaders. 

Both have seen many school leaders who felt like they had to be in charge of everything in a school, including curriculum, teachers, students, extracurricular activities, budgets, community relations and more, the authors said. In “Focused,” they aim to help school leaders excel in their roles while empowering others. 

The book is presented in three stages:

  • How to build a leadership paradigm for outstanding schools.
  • What are the most influential elements for collective success?
  • How to avoid the pitfalls that prevent success.

The book’s opening chapters provide guidance on how principals can focus on what they can do to be the most effective principal possible without trying to also be the best teacher or best person in any other role. Stage I shares chapters on how leaders can use a system the authors call “the inverted triangle of influence” and creating game plans for success and leading a renewed purpose of education.

Stage II focuses on how leaders can achieve collective success by leading students, teachers and other players in the school environment. The authors point out that students can be given a larger role as school leaders than that with which they are usually entrusted.

“Students are not only learners, they are also leaders of learning for others,” Zhao said. “Schools rarely treat them as leaders of their own learning. We have organized schools so students are only considered learners, but they are and can be change-makers.”

Teachers are also learners, and the book’s second stage contains vignettes and examples of leaders who have successfully engaged teachers as self-determined individuals who can help shape the vision for a school. 

Stage III shares strategies to avoid pitfalls that can prevent success, including leading through formative accountability and sustainability. Action steps are included to help leaders embrace hope instead of fear or risk aversion and how to innovate without simply making changes for the sake of change.

“As a principal, do you want to focus on the past, present or future?” Zhong asked. “We propose school leaders invest in a new future. But you can’t wait for the system. Systems don’t innovate; they follow and respond. People and leaders innovate.”

Watterston and Zhao wrote that if leaders trust and empower all the players within their institution, they can guide the kinds of change and improvements that enable all students to succeed.

“You are the bus driver, but you’re not the bus, as Jim often says,” Zhao said. “The idea with this book is to use examples to inspire people. The stories all come from people we’ve met and the successes we’ve seen them have.”

Thu, 02/15/2024


Mike Krings

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