Change Leadership
Mariandl Hufford

I am on my way to Washington D.C. for a workshop on leading change in independent schools, hosted by EAB.  In the accelerated pace of life (all aspects of it), this is a topic that all of us are paying close attention to. Ironically, even in these harried times, where the rate of change can create a culture of urgency that demands immediate action, I believe that meaningful change happens, not overnight, but through careful planning, thoughtful consideration of culture and readiness, and bottom-up, collaborative action.

Maybe it is because our article on the leadership programming we created in our lower school was just published in the Journal for Research in Childhood Education , but I have been reflecting a lot recently about how our thoughtful approach to that initiative was a foundational component of its ultimate success. Living Leadership in the Lower School, or L3, was not the result of one person’s vision or creativity, but an exemplar of a powerful collaboration between faculty, staff, and administrators to build a program that, five years later, has become an integral part of our lower school’s culture.

When my colleague, Lower School Director Donna Lindner, and I present on the topic of L3, we often remark that one way we could have approached the development of a leadership program is by the two of us spending our summer writing a curriculum. This would have been an efficient use of time, and change would have been ready-made for faculty upon their return to school in August. However, Donna and I both argue that this approach would  have resulted in understandably uneven teacher buy-in.

And so, we went to the faculty and staff in our lower school with the kernel of an idea; we wanted to explore what leadership in young girls looks like and how a school like ours, which is built around what is best for girls, can harness this leadership potential and ingrain in each girl the knowledge that she has the capacity to lead. A small group of teachers and staff members signed on with us. Our work together, with guidance from the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, took an entire academic year. It also took an unwavering commitment to the process, which was by no means smooth. There were times when we felt we were spinning our wheels, and that real progress was elusive.

It was the sharing of one story by a PreK teacher that helped us to become unstuck in our process. The leadership story of Lilly helped us reflect on how we, as a school, understand leadership. We believe that every girl has the capacity to lead, and that it is our job to develop her identity as a leader so she can exercise it when she so chooses. This was a galvanizing a-ha moment for all of us and, from there, the components of L3 fell into place almost without effort.

In the five years since we have launched the program, it has become a defining characteristic of our lower school, but, more importantly, an ever-growing  group of teachers have expanded its application throughout the division.  For example, teachers have  linked it to our wellness curriculum, and our librarian has collected a bibliography of children’s books that highlight the leadership traits we emphasize.  

Fundamental change, as I mentioned before, takes careful, deliberate planning, and consideration of culture and readiness. Our idea to explore leadership development in young girls was not accidental, but grounded in the knowledge that leadership development is an essential value our school holds dear.  Fundamental, meaningful change also takes collaborative, bottom-up action, which was on full display in our L3 work. It was a teacher who told the story that got us unstuck, and a different teacher who imagined the quintessential part of L3, the leadership toolkit. And if there is one essential take-away from this project that has influenced my own leadership and my approach to change, it is exactly this: the collaboration with our teachers and staff members is a most powerful ingredient in forging transformational practice.

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