In the United States, we spend more money than most countries on education, often have smaller class sizes, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new initiatives each year to improve. So, why aren’t we getting better results? Why aren’t more of our students successful?

We believe it is because of “sound barriers” in our thinking about education. As you may already know, the sound barrier refers to a point in which an aircraft moves from transonic to supersonic speed. In the 1940s, scientists believed that the drag on the aircraft caused by the approaching speed made it impossible for it to reach or exceed the speed of sound without being destroyed. But in the 1950s, through advancing technology and experiences of courageous test pilots, aircraft were able to finally break the sound barrier.

Likewise, each school year, parents entrust their children to a school system that is supposed to prepare them for a better future. But, in many of our communities, this dream has fizzled because mental barriers build up around hopelessness. This blocks students and educators from breaking through the sound barriers of limiting beliefs to reach the next dimension of possibility. These limiting beliefs include barriers such as:

  • Kids from poverty can’t be expected to do “rigorous” work.
  • The union contract ties our hands.
  • Zip codes predict a child’s destiny.
  • We don’t have enough money to do the things we really need to do.
  •  With all the dysfunction these kids live with, they are doing well just getting to school—they can’t be expected to learn anything of real substance.
  • If we want our test scores to improve, we just need to recruit more doctors’ kids!

We are at a critical juncture where educational leaders are being invited to break through the barrier of providing a “keep-them-out-of-trouble-during-the-day” kind of educational experience to creating an empowered education experience where everyone thrives-not only the students, but also teachers, staff, parents, and even the larger community.

Succeeding Through Adversity

Sound barriers sometimes arise from natural disasters. Joe Nelson is the principal of Pass Christian Middle School in Pass Christian, MS. He was there in 2006 when Hurricane Katrina hit. Their town was ground zero for some of the worst devastation. Ninety percent of the families at the school lost their homes. The property tax base was completely wiped out. Everything was destroyed!

But Nelson did not use this as an excuse for losing focus on student learning. He set up an office in the trunk of his car. He rallied staff and community to access mobile classrooms with FEMA money. Once classrooms were in place, he brought staff back together and held them and the students to the same high learning standards as before. Hurricane Katrina was not going to be a reason for students to slide by at his school! In fact, that year began his dream of earning the school a Blue Ribbon School designation by the U.S. Department of Education.

Nelson continually held up the vision and goals for his school as a motivator for students and staff. He celebrated every little step along the way, using stories to inspire spirit and facts to show progress in overcoming their adversity.

The level of student achievement began to steadily rise and continued for six successive years. Pass Christian Middle School earned Blue Ribbon status in 2012. And the school continues to be among the top-rated middle schools in Mississippi. Nelson and his faculty are a model of how to turn the barriers brought on by a catastrophe into a story of renewed hope and rebirth using grit and resilience.

Steadily Building School Culture

Another example of breaking the sound barrier and creating a thriving school culture comes from Carol Conklin-Spillane, who at the time was principal at Sleepy Hollow High School in New York.

Sleepy Hollow High was recognized as a Breakthrough School in 2014. But 22 years earlier, things had been quite different. Prior to Conklin-Spillane’s assignment, no principal had survived at the school for more than four years. Attendance polices were stacked against students in favor of hard rules and regulations that often made getting needed credits for graduation very difficult. Many school practices favored teacher interests rather than student needs. With the parade of principals before her, union contract rules filled the vacuum for leadership. 


Conklin-Spillane was undaunted by what she found at the school. She intuitively understood that leadership starts with one’s own mindset. And with her strong teaching background, she believed in sharing leadership, personalizing learning for students, and sharing the power of good professional learning.

So, she started the school turnaround by using the tools that she had available through union contracts to take the first steps toward changing the school’s culture. At the first faculty meeting, Conklin-Spillane asked lots of questions and listened deeply. She looked at where people sat, who spoke, and who the “power brokers” were. Then, she negotiated a deal with union leaders to change faculty meeting time from the contractual one hour per month each for faculty meetings and for department meetings to one and one-half hours per month for faculty meetings only, thus eliminating the departmental meeting requirement. Instead of the mandated departmental meetings, she promised to be available five days per week after school for anybody who had questions or concerns. 

Next Conklin-Spillane surveyed the staff to see what their learning needs were, and she began to use the faculty meeting time for professional learning. She changed the seating arrangements in the meeting room to show how learning could be collaborative and cooperative. She clustered the naysayers into one group so that information from reports that came from the different faculty groups was proportional and other perspectives could be heard.

Modeling new teaching ideas during faculty meetings was also important. Conklin-Spillane listened to teachers’ insights and what motivated them. She recruited teachers to try out new ideas and added enticements for them to work with her. For instance, she conducted voluntary book studies and collaborated with the members to discuss the ideas, experimented with them, and shared the experiences broadly with their colleagues, which helped them become experts in the topics.

In our upcoming book, Releasing Leadership Brilliance: Breaking Sound Barriers in Education, we use the metaphor of the four forces of flight—weight, lift, thrust, and drag—to demonstrate that when leaders understand these forces, they can overcome the “sound barriers” of educational inertia. It’s time for educators to fly at supersonic levels above educational inertia to create a culture of empowered education. 

Simon T. Bailey is CEO of Simon T. Bailey International in Windermere, FL. Marceta F. Reilly, PhD, PCC, is founder of Reilly & Associates in Topeka, KS. Meet these authors at the 2017 National Principals Conference, July 9–11, when they present “Teaming: The Emotional Glue for School Culture.”

Making It Work

Overcome Limiting Sound Barriers

Here are four forces you can use to disrupt the status quo and create an empowered environment to positively impact your school and the broader educational system. 

  1. Know your weight. Weight is the force of gravity toward the center of the earth. You unleash the weight of your personal brilliance through self-discovery. Self-assess who you are as a leader and educator. Know what strengths you bring to the table and what you believe. In doing so, you will better understand the “weight” and power of your calling.
  2. Give others a lift. Lift is the force that acts at a right angle to the direction of motion. Expand your collaborative brilliance to identify, engage, and energize your stakeholders. No different than your engagement of students in the classroom, this force allows you to begin to rally teams to effect positive change and move your sphere of influence beyond the whiteboard.
  3. Thrust into action. Thrust is the force that propels a flying machine in the direction of motion. Engines produce the thrust. As a leader, you become the engine for team brilliance by encouraging smart risks, designing potent changes, and prompting others to action. This becomes easier as you learn and operate within your own strengths and figure out what works best in your environment.
  4. Reduce drag in student learning. Drag is the force of resistance that acts opposite to the relative motion of any moving object. It slows down and impedes acceleration. Now it’s time to reframe and clear barriers to student brilliance. Be sure you are the catalyst for continuous progress, rather than impeding it. You do this by unleashing grit, resilience, and hope in students first. Others will follow.