Like a new school year, a new calendar year elicits the excitement of new beginnings and a renewed energy for all the possibilities ahead. That is especially true for us at The Leadership Academy as we kick off 2024 with insights gathered over two decades of cultivating outstanding education leaders. They are learnings that are also meaningful for every educator who, like us, believes in the power of culturally responsive leadership and ensuring every child has what they need to achieve academic, social, and emotional success.

We closed out 2023 – our 20th year of supporting and developing education leaders to create transformative schools – by examining our impact, spending time with our incredible alumnae, and reflecting. Intent on continuously strengthening our commitment to this important work, we asked ourselves: What had we learned to be true over the past 20 years? And what could it mean for how we approach our work with school leaders and school systems over the next 20 years?

The lessons we’ve distilled from our work with 14,000 culturally responsive education leaders across 40 states are invaluable.

Clear definitions create shared understanding. School and system leaders may all agree that it’s critical to create conditions necessary for every child to thrive, but if they don’t agree on what those specific conditions even are, creating better school experiences for all students will never progress beyond an aspiration. Education leaders need clear, shared, and practical definitions for culturally responsive leadership at all levels. The Leadership Academy’s extensive suite of tools includes detailed guides outlining how schools and school systems that are intentionally built for every student should look – schools where all students feel safe, seen, and are held to the highest academic standards. Agreed upon definitions and language must be the starting point, and they must be accompanied by frameworks, clear examples of what success actually means, and roadmaps to get there.

Double down on experiential learning. At The Leadership Academy’s inception in 2003, we focused on recruiting, training, and fast-tracking the development of countless education leaders to shift the status quo. Every aspiring leader completed intense training in addition to an off-site leadership residency. Their learning was incredibly rich – full of simulations and role-plays that placed learners in real-time scenarios where they received valuable, honest, and often brutal feedback from instructors and peers. Today, when we talk to some of those same leaders about our work, they vividly recall challenging moments of cognitive demand and tell us that – even two decades later – they frequently draw from those learnings and experiences. Adult learning opportunities must challenge existing belief systems while building new leadership muscles applicable to real life.

Context always matters, learning never stops. No one approaches culturally responsive leadership having all of the answers, regardless of their classroom, school, or system tenure. Even the most skilled and experienced leaders must embody a learning stance. Context matters and learning partners’ shared history is critical. Truly getting to know the community and people you’re serving grounds the work in our shared humanity while creating understanding of issues unique to neighborhoods, systems, towns, cities, and states. Long-term relationships, commitments, and connections can deepen leaders’ ability to stay and prevail, in a way that ultimately co-creates sustainable solutions to the community’s greatest challenges.

High expectations, high care. There is no job more important than helping children to succeed, and it’s easy to understand how the incredibly demanding work of school and system leadership can be all-consuming. However, it cannot be a badge of honor to sacrifice your life for your work. Commitment to this work includes finding balance and practicing self-care while serving in demanding leadership roles. It is fundamental to being able to take your work to the next level.

Change your approach to change the system. Our current system is designed to keep us in siloes and in competition with one another, but it’s important to recognize that it is no longer about any one leader as a sole superhero. It’s about a supersystem. Systems-level change requires a new approach to collaboration and partnership, one that is rooted in participation, transparency, and leaders allowing people to get to know them personally – beyond their title – before following their lead.

As The Leadership Academy enters our 21st year, these lessons are playing a pivotal role in shaping both how we work with school systems and leaders as well as the tools we’re creating to support them moving forward. We’re leveraging what we’ve learned to make school systems better, smarter, and more agile – at multiple levels, over multiple years, and through multiple entry points – so that change sticks across the tenure of multiple school principals, system leaders, and school boards.

We challenge all of you to join us in turning these lessons into action and working together towards deep, systems-level change – creating a world where every single school affirms and supports every young person while holding them to the highest of expectations. Our children deserve no less.