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Aurora Institute

Preparing for Leadership Lifts

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Lead Change and Innovation

airplaneThis is the seventeenth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

The transition year(s) is the period of time when people use the phrases “building the ship in the water” and “constructing the plane in the air.” Educators are doing double-duty setting up the new system while also educating students within the traditional system, which makes this a time of excitement, nervousness, challenge, and frustration. Below are a few of the major activities that districts undertake during the transition year(s).

The leadership demands are high during the transition years—it is crucial that the culture of learning is reinforced, as teachers may feel that they aren’t succeeding in either the traditional system or the new one being put into place. Moreover, as teachers begin to focus more sharply on helping students learn rather than delivering a curriculum, their own gaps in skills will become evident. Leadership will find that the shared purpose and guiding principles emphasizing learning and collaboration can become a shield to minimize the disruption caused by top-down policies that emphasize evaluations of individual teachers.

Oliver Grenham and Jeni Gotto of Adams 50 in Colorado warn that districts converting to competency education need to be ready for a “bumpy journey,” as it is impossible for everything to be perfectly designed. Their advice is for educators to:

  • Start from where they are and prepare to learn and improve along the way,
  • Think differently and help others think differently regarding student learning,
  • Seek ways to better align the system as it progresses, and
  • Remember the compelling purpose and the learners, and focus on the shared goal.

District leaders and principals will need to turn to the shared purpose and guiding principles to help make decisions both during the transition year and in the years to come. Virgel Hammonds, previously Superintendent of RSU2 in Maine, states that he is often asked about the Lindsay story (he was a high school principal in that California district) or the RSU2 story, as if there is a step-by-step process that other districts can follow. “It’s not about one method,” he says. “Every district and school has its own history and culture. They need to be able to tap into the assets of their communities and schools to develop the vision, guiding principles, and process that is right for them.”

One thing superintendents have to ensure is that decisions are being made in the best interests of students. Adult issues or traditional ways of doing things—contracts, bus schedules, and athletics—can easily drive decision-making if superintendents, districts, and school leaders aren’t vigilant. With all the complexity of how schools operate and the incredible number of small decisions that need to be made daily, Hammonds warns that leaders can get stuck being a manager rather than a leader. Leadership is needed to take a step back and ask, “How is this moving our kids along their learning progressions? How is this providing learning opportunities that are meaningful to our kids?” Hammonds emphasizes that superintendents have to consistently role model how to make decisions in the best interest of learners.

In a culture of compliance, leaders rarely talk about courage. After all, educators don’t need to if they are only following directives from above. In competency education, leaders often talk about their fears and the need to overcome them (i.e., courage). Leaders will describe the courage it took to give up power within a distributed leadership model. They describe turning to a burning desire to do better for children as the force that lifted them over the fear of failure.

It also takes courage to be honest about how students are achieving. In his presentations about the transformational process that Lindsay Unified School District has undertaken, Superintendent Tom Rooney found that district leadership had to have the courage to recognize that they’d betrayed students, parents, and the community by graduating students who did not have the skills to go to college. District leaders need to nurture courage in their teacher workforce, as well, as they will be the ones who will need to have honest talks with parents, often for the first time, about where their students are in terms of academic levels rather than in terms of completing assignments or behaviors.

Something to Think About: Transition time is one of substantial discovery for the adults in the system—keep the focus on the growth mindset and celebrate learning. Teachers will often need time to unlearn practices before they can integrate new ones.


Meetings are the most important way to bring people together to discuss issues arising in implementation. Invest in building up the capacity of the organization to use effective facilitation strategies. Build a tool kit to create structures for process, input, and decisions depending on the purpose of your meeting—problem-solving, continuous improvement, or reflection.


Consider placing a poster of the shared purpose on the wall of the conference room used for school board meetings and other decision-making groups. Point to the poster at critical decision-making points to ask how the shared purpose impacts the decision being considered. The practice will eventually transfer to other members of the school community and help you remain grounded in your shared purpose.


Meetings are also important in developing ownership for the new system. Make sure that input is acknowledged, addressed, and used. If leaders don’t routinely ask for input and deliberately use it, it is easy for stakeholders to become discouraged. Each interaction is an opportunity for building trust…or not. Strategically communicate about who has offered input and how it has been used to build the new system. Share the credit.


For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency

Blog #8 Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Blog #9 Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

Blog #10 Constructing a Common Language of Learning

Blog #11 Creating a Common Language of Learning: A Continuum of Learning

Blog #12 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Rubrics and Calibration

Blog #13 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Habits of Learning

Blog #14 Policies for Personalization: Student Agency

Blog #15 Policies for Personalization: Levels, Pace, and Progress

Blog #16 Empowering Teachers