Leading Systemic Change at Poughkeepsie Day School

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Leading Systemic Change at Poughkeepsie Day School

One school started the new academic year with back-to-school faculty professional growth day yesterday, and there is a good chance this school will never be the same.  When Josie Holford, (@JosieHolford) head of K-12 Poughkeepsie Day School shot me an email two days ago about this, I could see a dense web of critical leadership examples and urged her to post the story on her blog.

You should read Josie’s full post.  My work is to find the common threads of innovation processes that are helping to shape our schools of the future. The process Josie developed contains important pieces of the template that we can all learn from.

Josie invited her faculty to sign up for one of a group of cross-divisional teams organized around five major themes: Cultural Competency, Digital Citizenship, Learning and the Brain, Project-Based Learning, and Wellness.  Though there was no compulsion to participate, the majority of her teachers joined the group that they found most interesting.

“What started it all was a series of conversations.”

This is the first aspect of leadership that jumped out at me.  A good leader sorts through the myriad inputs of a complex organization and sees important opportunities for creating positive momentum. Josie combined several disparate themes from around her school, with inputs from her knowledge of what others are trying around the country, and set up a general topology within which her faculty can take on important new topics that may lead to new ideas that will generate real value for her school..

“I took this as a personal challenge. And here we are, ready to roll.”

Her five teams are formed, due in large part because the leader took it on as a personal challenge.  Organizations do not take on change unless the leader takes a personal and visible position in support of it.  And, importantly, that commitment turned into action.  Talk without action is poor leadership.

“The basic idea is for affinity groups – not groupthink tanks – but interconnected, cross-divisional teams interested in some of the same big ideas. And for those teams to make change within the school by identifying what matters, what we can do about it and then getting started.”

Wow; there are a big handful of critical steps in organizational structure through which innovation will be fostered at PDS.  These teams bust silos; they share common interests of their own choosing; they have authority that has been distributed from the head out across the organization; the teams are responsible to not only come up with ideas, but to get started acting on those ideas.

“As a head, for me this is a step in creating systemic change that starts with charging the people who can handle it the best: teachers. I want to see what a bunch of creative teachers can come up with when given the charge of innovation.  I want to see teachers taking the lead, getting excited, stepping out, reaching out and reaching in to lead innovation.”

And there’s another handful of intentional, powerful steps.  Joise means for this to be “systemic change”, an alteration of the school’s cultural DNA.  The teams are charged to be creative and innovative, and she recognizes that she has the talent in her own organization to do this if they are given the time, resources, and support.

My view from a distance is that Josie is setting up a self-evolving system of organizational innovation.  This year or for the next few years the topics may be those five stated above.  But when the next five topics come along, her school will have the cultural DNA to tackle them as part of the normal course of business.

I am excited to be able to visit, share and learn with Josie and PDS in October on my Journey of Learning.  Share this blog site with your colleagues for many more similar examples of dramatic innovation at schools around the country.

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