From survival to opportunity

By Jennifer Ahn and Elizabeth Shafer
October 2021
As schools grapple with the daunting challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders are galvanizing their staff to maintain focus on instruction, while others are overwhelmed by the operational logistics of constant change. What makes the difference? And what types of support can help struggling leaders to thrive despite the challenges? Through our work at Lead by Learning, a nonprofit organization of Mills College’s School of Education that partners with schools and districts to provide educator professional learning, we have identified three essential capacities that are key to school leaders’ ability to lead effectively through change. These capacities are learner, partner, and visionary. These capacities emerged primarily through working with two large urban school districts in the San Francisco, California, Bay Area: West Contra Costa

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A leader who is...

A learner:

  • Publicly models a learning stance (curiosity, vulnerability, trust, flexibility, adaptability);
  • Uses data to make adult and student learning visible;
  • Adapts and improves by deepening self-awareness; and
  • Leads collaborative learning by experiencing and reflecting on conditions that have supported their own learning.

A leader who is a partner:

  • Values multiple perspectives and seeks thought partnership;
  • Listens deeply with empathy and care, looking first for assets and connections;
  • Builds relationships that cultivate a culture of professional respect, trust, agency, and distributed leadership; and
  • Supports rigorous learning steeped in social and emotional learning.

A leader who is a visionary:

  • Puts students at the center of learning by identifying and returning to high-leverage goals that target students’ needs;
  • Communicates purpose and progress in humanizing, authentic ways to build awareness and support continuous improvement;
  • Creates space to move beyond transactional compliance to curiosity and collective efficacy; and
  • Is driven by a moral imperative.

+ posts

Jennifer Ahn ( is director of network partnerships at Lead by Learning.

+ posts

Elizabeth Shafer ( is director of strategy of influence at Lead by Learning. 

The Learning Professional

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