Turning Over a New School Year: School Leaders as “Context Setters”

There is an ebb and flow to every school year; as one school year comes to an end, the results of self-reflection on the former school year are the impetus for growth and innovation for the upcoming school year.  August marks that time of year, on traditional school calendars, when leaders and teachers are gearing up for the beginning of a new school year and citing those areas for change.

Defining what needs to be changed is a process of thoughtful discernment.  Grounded in the mission of the school, engagement by the school leader in reflective practice is vital and leads to defining exactly what needs to improved or newly designed in the upcoming school year.  For example, the school leader may choose to innovate teaching and learning by incorporating the use of iPads in the classroom or determine that writing must be a greater and more intentional focus of classroom instruction and student practice, given the implementation of the Common Core English-Language Arts standards.

“What needs to be done” and “how it gets done” are two very different things.  As a former principal, there were always plenty of problems to be solved or innovations to implement.  Yet, I didn’t always have an answer at the ready when it came to incorporating technology or implementing a new writing program…as a principal I didn’t know everything. The school leader cannot know everything and “there is a sense of liberation in realizing that” (Untener).   In order to be an effective instructional leader, I had to look to the teachers as tremendous resources, partnering with me to determine the best course of action.  Michael Fullan describes the school leader as the “context setter;” that is, “the school leader is the designer of a learning experience, not the authority figure with all the solutions.”

Therefore, “how it gets done” by school leaders, should involve engaging and working collaboratively with those on the frontlines of educating students – the teachers, especially teachers who may resist.  Fullan writes, “We are more likely to learn something from people who disagree with us than we are from people who agree.” We need these resisters for two reasons:  first, they have ideas we may have missed and second, they are crucial to ensuring effective implementation.

The most effective path to change means creating a culture wherein a school leader is the context setter, who is willing to facilitate change through collaboration and consensus building among all teachers.  It takes humility and courage for a school leader to acknowledge that they don’t know everything; or, that they don’t know the solution to every problem or that they don’t know how to implement a new educational advancement.

As school leaders we must be the “context setters,” then facilitators and collaborators, working with and for our teachers in order to bring about effective and lasting change for the greater good of all students.  Through collaborative change efforts, we are all able to serve our students better this year, than we did last year. Embarking on a new school year brings excitement to fulfill the yet-to-be-fulfilled promises in order to greater meet the needs of our students.

Fullan, M. (2001).  Leading in a culture of change.  San Francisco:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Untener, K. (1979). Prophets of a future not our own (The prayer of Oscar Romero).


Dr. Abelein has served as a teacher, principal, diocesan administrator, and consultant in parochial and private Catholic education for twenty years. Prior to her position as Associate Superintendent for Leadership and Recruitment for the Archdiocese of New York, Dr. Abelein served as President and Principal at St. Aloysius in New York, Principal at Verbum Dei in Los Angeles, and Principal of St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada, California, as well as, a Teacher in Guam and California. Dr. Abelein earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Planning and Administration from the University of Southern California, a M.Ed. Leadership from the University of Portland, and a B.A. in English with Secondary Education from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She holds New York State permanent certification in English/Secondary Level and School Admin/Supervision. Dr. Abelein has taught numerous graduate courses at Loyola Marymount University, Fordham University, St. John’s University, and the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Abelein currently serves on the Board of Directors at America Press, Inc. and supports One Home Many Hopes a non-profit whose mission is to “find, rescue, house, love and educate orphaned and abandoned girls in Mtwapa, Kenya and equip them to be the future agents of change in their community.” Dr. Abelein was awarded Fulbright Specialist Scholar roster candidate status in March 2011.


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