VUCA is an acronym the Army uses to describe the current state of world affairs—volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. In recent years, schools have found themselves in uncertain and complex times. Fiscal constraints, pressures to increase standardized test scores, and changes in political and public support have left educational affairs volatile and ambiguous. Many educators feel like they’re under attack and driven to fight for respect.

Schools and educators have reached a tipping point. In the past 15 years, there have been more changes to education with mandates, accountability measures, and technology than during the previous 100. So, how do administrators lead through these tumultuous times?

For several years, Ridgewood Public Schools’ administrators have journeyed to West Point, NY, for a two-day summer retreat to learn the secrets of military leadership and apply them to school administration. Many of the challenges that confront both institutions—financial, personnel, reorganization, and defining success—are similar. Each year, Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) has inspired us with stories of military life and missions, educated us with strategies to work through challenges, and pushed us using team-building activities that helped form bonds when we returned to the district. The former cadets and retired army officers have invigorated the administrators and given us the tools to inspire our teachers when the school year begins.

The Army believes the motto “Mission First, People Always” is the right balance to get the job done while also taking care of its soldiers. To be successful in education, the same motto can be employed. The mission, educating the whole child, must come first, while simultaneously taking care of our people—students and teachers.

Mission First

At West Point, we learned that soldiers live by the code—duty, honor, and country. Similarly, educators have a strong sense of duty and honor, while also having an allegiance to their schools.

It is the duty of educators to provide a quality education to their students regarding the four A’s that comprise a student’s educational experience: academics, athletics, arts, and activities. The key to a successful educational experience is to balance the four A’s with the values and goals of family and community. Together, an effective learning environment is developed to produce an educated young adult who will be a lifelong learner, able to contribute positively to society.

To educate a child effectively requires a tremendous amount of collaboration and effort from the child, family, school, and community. These relationships are the honor educators bring to the profession. Honor, formed through relationships with students through an educator’s craft, helps mold students into the model citizens and virtuous people we want them to be.

Schools are more than bricks and mortar. Each school has a pride-filled history of the teachers and students that previously walked the halls of the building and went on to pursue future endeavors. Educators must work cooperatively with the community to inspire and implement a shared vision of student success.

Willing Alignment

According to Thayer Leader Development Group, high-performance Army teams acquire members who want to do their best. They have a willing alignment to the mission. These teams—or for our purpose, schools—have leaders who promote six key points that align teachers. They:

1. Demonstrate clarity of purpose. Teachers work long hours and sacrifice much because they find meaningfulness in their calling. Their purpose—to educate and nurture children—aligns with their soul, or calling, and they feel fulfillment as an individual, as a member of a department, and as part of the school.

2. Lead from the front. School leaders of today do not lead from the rear; they lead from the front. They are the tip of the spear and are willing to face hazards to protect the teachers and students from outside forces.

3. Exhibit mastery. Teachers want to become masters of their craft. Master teachers are able to get “in the flow” and teach artfully constructed lessons. Offering relevant professional development and allowing them to meet with colleagues at conferences or in the building allows them opportunities to develop lessons that best serve their students. Leaders need to encourage and accommodate teachers by letting them experiment and fail without consequences. This will lead to mastery.

4. Form a family. Teachers feel that the people they work with are more than co-workers. They are family. The relationships formed at work go beyond the workday and into their personal lives; there is a sense of belonging.

5. Grant freedom of action. Give teachers the freedom to pursue what they believe is best for their students. The faculty and staff were given instructions that empowered them to take action on a decision after answering the following four questions:

  • Is it legal and ethical?
  • Is it beneficial for students?
  • Am I willing to be accountable for this decision?
  • Is it consistent with the mission and vision of the district?

If the answer to all four questions is “yes,” then faculty and staff do not have to ask for permission; they already have it.

6. Find fun. The most important component to a successful school is that the teachers enjoy coming to work. If they are not having fun overall, their misery will eventually seep into the classroom. Allow teachers ample opportunities to enjoy what they do.

People Always

We are inspired through the relationships formed at work that help us get through tough times. We are honored to give to a community, educate the next generation, and be a part of the long line of educators that came before us. We enjoy success because of our teachers from the past and the teachers we currently work with, and we look to the teachers who will be joining us in the future. Teachers and administrators have a common purpose of developing children, building strong relationships with colleagues along the way, and enjoying their time in the schools educating the citizens of tomorrow.

Thomas Gorman, EdD, is the principal of Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, NJ.