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September 19, 2023
ASCD Blog

Creating a Vision: Adapting, Not Adopting

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How a small shift in leadership approach makes a meaningful difference.
Leadership
Creating a Vision: Adapting, Not Adopting Header
Credit: Paul Craft / Shutterstock
Setting the vision for what a school or district should do or be is part of the excitement of a new year—and the beginning of a new leadership opportunity. It can also come with challenges for principals, superintendents, and others in formal leadership. First, there can be pressure to set a single vision for success even when educators know that differences in needs within our schools can be even greater than those between them. This complexity makes it challenging to set a course. The second challenge is simply to start along that course by gaining buy-in or adopting the vision across a staff—a notoriously difficult process.
Over the four decades that my colleagues and I have served as and worked with educators, we have also collaborated with researchers hoping to find a simple solution to make these and other common challenges for education leadership easier. What we found was that there is no silver bullet—but there are a lot of simple, small, practical shifts that any leader can use to move important efforts and meaningful changes forward. Telling the stories of real schools and districts, we captured that learning in our book, Small Shifts, Meaningful Improvement, to illustrate the power of small, practical shifts both in an immediate school year and future ones.
When it comes to the question of setting a vision and strategy, leaders can shift a single letter: Rather than thinking about what to adopt, consider how to adapt. Adopting a vision and strategy from outside of your context does not allow contributions from various perspectives of your specific learning community. Adapting, however, allows for the unique needs of your community to be shared and integrated into the idea for where you are headed (vision) and how you plan to get there (strategy).

When setting a vision and strategy, leaders can shift a single letter: Rather than thinking about what to adopt, consider how to adapt.

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This shift from adopting to adapting removes the too-heavy weight placed on principals and others in visible leadership roles to have and execute on all the right answers—a factor that may negatively influence leadership pipelines and attrition. This shift also allows leadership team members to expand their circle by inviting more educators to co-own the changes we co-create now, and building more leadership within our schools and teams for the future.

A Small Shift in Creating a Vision

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to design the vision and strategy for what would become a new school in a historically underserved neighborhood in the Denver, Colorado, metro area. This neighborhood had its own unique perspectives and priorities that included immense pride in the cultural and racial diversity of the neighborhood and the desire to have a school that viewed and leveraged that diversity as an asset (rather than a liability). It was important to the community that the school help instill in students a sense of pride in their history and heritage, as well as the ability for students to carry cultural assets into their daily lives as they developed the skills to succeed in a rapidly changing world. I, as the formally appointed school leader, had the chance to set the vision for how the school would align with the community’s perspectives and priorities.
Though tasked to me alone, it was important that the vision was informed by local context and community needs. Instead of charging ahead on my own or recommending a model that worked in another location but might not fit the needs of this location, I met with community members to get a sense of what they wanted from their local school. Rather than having them adopt my vision, I invited them into the co-creation process, which allowed for adaptations of the original idea to better suit the perspectives of those within the community. I also sought the support of trusted external partners like the local teachers’ association and national nonprofit organization Mira Education (formerly known as CTQ), whose team coached us through thoughtful decision-making. Together, we crafted a vision compelling enough to receive unanimous approval for the opening of the school.
The next step was to hire staff. Instead of trying to get staff to adopt the school’s vision, we engaged in a process of adapting what had been approved as we specified how to make the vision work to support learning within the context of our student community’s needs. Adapting our vision included working together to clearly articulate and define what our school tagline—Where everyone is a learner, teacher, and leader—looked like in action. In smaller teams, we worked to identify what the tagline would look, sound, and feel like when embodied by students, teachers, and families. These teams also defined what students should know and be able to do as a result of being a learner at our school. The teams then worked together to coalesce all input into a single vision and strategy.
Yes, this work took time. But it took no more time in my school leadership schedule than other “buy in” and “roll out” efforts that I had seen or been part of in the past. It simply changed how we spent that time.

Instead of half-hearted compliance, we created a vibrant, diverse, and successful school community that thrived.

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And the results were far more rewarding. Instead of half-hearted compliance, we created a vibrant, diverse, and successful school community that thrived. Because our team co-created the vision, everyone understood how to adapt what they were doing in their classrooms to align with our larger collective vision—one they played a direct role in crafting. This collective, functional vision guided everyone’s work as a learner, teacher, and leader.

A Tool for Adapting

Whether this is your first year leading a school or your twentieth, leading a large district in a big city or overseeing small-town district consolidations, all of us are bound to face the challenge of forming new visions and directions for our schools.
When you do, consider how you can shift from adopting to adapting. This facilitation tool from Small Shifts, Meaningful Improvement, outlines the process our team used and will help you assess how to focus the vision planning process and lean into an adaptive approach to leadership this year. This tool is one of many resources outlined in the book that can be used to guide your team through shifts that can result in meaningful impacts on the leaders and learners in your school.

Small Shifts, Meaningful Improvement

A practical guide packed with stories of real schools and districts that have implemented small shifts for big impacts.

Small Shifts, Meaningful Improvement

Lori Nazareno is the Design Lead at Mira Education. She is a former science teacher with 25 years of experience at the high school and elementary school levels. During this time, Nazareno led a team of educators that designed and launched a collectively led school in Denver that served some of the district's most historically underserved students and families. She has National Board Certification in Science for both Adolescents and Young Adults and Early Adolescents.

She served six years as a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards board of directors, was a member of the National Education Association's Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, and served on the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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