The No-Nonsense Nurturer Leader: Behaviors for Transformational School Leadership
A healthy culture is the essential foundation for any high-performing organization. While it is the collective responsibility of all adults in the school to develop, share, and protect it, the process of building this foundation is anchored heavily in the behaviors, habits, and mindsets of its leaders (Coyle, 2018). All leaders feed the culture of their organization in one way or another, yet No-Nonsense Nurturer® leaders understand their beliefs and mindsets must be exhibited through daily behaviors and habits in order to impact and directly influence teacher development and student performance.
As a No-Nonsense Nurturer leader, one must be intentional about developing and nurturing the culture of the organization, beyond strategic improvement plans. How leaders focus and commit their time can significantly impact teacher efficacy and student achievement. Prioritizing certain high leverage habits starts a process that can transform organizations, over time (Duhigg, 2016). On the following pages, we share the habits that aspiring No-Nonsense Nurturer leaders need to weave together to cultivate a school culture that supports all stakeholders and sets the stage for academic and emotional success in our students.
The No-Nonsense Nurturer Leader…
- Models humility
- Sets high expectations
- Creates a culture of coaching
- Builds collective efficacy
- Uses precise language and communication
- Recognizes and develops growth mindsets, always striving to be asset-based
- Solicits voice and perspective
- Generates culture (and systems) of accountability
- Builds trusting relationships
“Everything good in leadership begins with humility” (Rockwell, 2018). Humility is not an event or activity. Humility is a practice – it is habitual. As the leader of any organization, it can sometimes be a challenge to leave pride, and even arrogance, at the door. Leadership carries a delicate responsibility of confidence, assertion, and strength, while balancing it with a true sincerity of a humble mindset. When one leads with humility, they admit their mistakes and gather opinions. They are willing to do the things they ask others to do. Humility enables leaders to learn and grow while building relationships, credibility, and trust. Credibility is built, not through having all the answers, but by knowing when to ask for help and support. Trust is built by following through on your commitments and humanizing those you work with and yourself. By modeling humility, others are encouraged to take on similar mindsets.
Consider the following behaviors and habits to practice humility:
- Do things that aren’t your job: Pick up trash, take on recess duty, offer to be the substitute in a class.
- Share the limelight: Allow others to lead and be celebrated for team accomplishments.
- Own your failures: If you make a mistake, own it, and identify and model for your team how you will adjust future behaviors.
Sets High Expectations
The art and science of establishing high expectations can have a powerful impact across the organization. By definition, No-Nonsense Nurturer leaders expect a lot because they believe and trust that their teachers can perform at high levels. At the same time, they ensure these expectations are achievable, scaffolded when necessary, and come from a place of high care. Leaders demonstrate and model high expectations for themselves as well by being consistent, reliable, and an incessant learner.
Leaders can set high expectations by:
- Being purposeful: Leaders who provide the “why” behind expectations gain more buy-in and authentic motivation by stakeholders because they understand the impact or benefits to them or their students (Heath and Heath, 2010).
- Getting specific: Define desired behaviors you wish to see that shifts the organization from its current state to one of rigorous expectations. Precise communication is an essential habit of a No-Nonsense Nurturer leader (Klei Borrero, 2018).
- Co-creating: When appropriate, the No-Nonsense Nurturer leader solicits voice and collaboration in the process of defining high expectations for self, staff, students, and community.
- Being intentional and reliable: Just as you would expect your teachers to be prepared and dependable, be sure to do the same for all scheduled interactions and deliverables with your stakeholders.
Creates a Culture of Coaching
When done well, quality feedback is directly correlated to successful organizational culture (Coyle, 2018; Smith & Smith, 2018). Great leaders understand that frequent, high-quality, asset-based feedback can result in increased trust and high achievement for all stakeholders. The No-Nonsense Nurturer leader takes the time to thoughtfully craft a process for defining and giving in-the-moment feedback, as well as teaching, modeling, and even role-playing how certain behaviors look, sound, and feel (Sprankles, 2018). The No-Nonsense Nurturer leader knows this process may create some discomfort at first but becomes the “normal” and is expected when feedback is frequent and supportive.
Consider the following as you create a culture of coaching:
- Be reflective: The No-Nonsense Nurturer leader seeks feedback first, then offers feedback to others.
- Differentiate: Meet staff (and students) where they are when delivering feedback. This may require you to scaffold feedback, knowing that the high expectations you set may need to be achieved over time.
- Be systematic: Introduce and use consistent feedback protocols that teachers understand and accept as the agreed-upon approach. Using new tools or taking new approaches without buy-in can compromise culture. Make time in your calendar for providing feedback to your team.
- Be specific: Precise language in your feedback is key. Ambiguity does not sit well with folks when they are trying to improve or replicate a practice. Modeling and role-playing during feedback can support your precise communications.
- Ask/tell balance: There are opportunities to ask questions and reflect, and opportunities to teach or tell team members the best approach or next step. A No-Nonsense Nurturer leader is strategic in asking thought-provoking questions versus telling the staff how to approach a situation or topic. Intentionality and planning are required to create a strong ask/tell balance.
Builds Collective Efficacy
Collective efficacy is a staff’s shared belief that by working together through collective action and with empowered mindsets, they can impact student achievement for all students (Hattie, 2017; Hattie, 2012). Building a team with the belief that all staff members can and will impact student achievement can radically impact your culture and effectiveness as a No-Nonsense Nurturer leader (Lupoli, 2018). In fact, collective efficacy, as an intentional strategy, has been proven to make a significant impact on student achievement, with the potential for almost four years of growth in one year’s time (Hattie, 2017).
To empower teachers to develop their collective efficacy, consider:
- Providing the why: With so much evidence on the power of collective efficacy and its impact on student achievement, help teachers learn what it is, why it is important, and how you will work together to achieve it.
- Inspiring and motivating: Principals leading teachers reported high levels of collective efficacy modeled behaviors, such as risk-taking and cooperation, with a focus on building trust among their teams. These leaders also lead to inspire group purpose through a common cause (Protheroe, 2008).
- Naming powerful practices: Developing efficacy in teachers can be built by providing vicarious experiences, such as peer observations, as well as through social persuasion, normed behaviors of asset-based language, pep talks, giving feedback to each other, and developing a culture of coaching (Hoy, 2000).
Uses Precise Language and Communication
Careful, thoughtful, and specific language is needed when communicating to multiple stakeholders throughout the organization. Because teacher clarity significantly impacts culture and achievement (Hattie, 2017), the No-Nonsense Nurturer leader understands that they are the organizational role model, articulating the expectations, purpose, and vision for teachers to develop, grow, and improve for their students.
Consider the following:
- Clarity and frequency: Clarity requires specificity and mechanics, while frequency requires informal dialogue, as well as planning for systemic communication processes.
- Set norms: Set expectations and norms with your teams and for yourself about how you will act around each other, and what will be said when behind closed doors. Trusting, positive culture and communication takes shape when the leader assumes the best in others and models that in every interaction.
- Normed language: Challenge, invite, and expect your staff to begin using and defining the same language. Language drives culture, and it is important to be explicit about how you and your teachers talk with and about students, as well as with and about each other and your practices as professionals.
Recognizes and Develops Growth Mindsets, Always Striving to be Asset-Based
The No-Nonsense Nurturer leader knows that teacher mindsets are at the core of developing the desired culture and outcomes of the organization, while realizing there is much to improve in our schools – huge gaps to close, achievement levels to increase, district and state policy demands to consider. No-Nonsense Nurturer leaders take these challenges head-on with an asset-based approach. They don’t focus on outside factors that can become excuses, nor do they try to “fix” the deficits of their students, teachers, and situations. Rather, they choose to recognize and celebrate the assets that the team and community bring to the school’s culture on a regular basis, to build momentum toward targeted improvements. Empowered mindsets are the foundation for strong relationships, high expectations, accountability structures, cultural relevancy, grit, and overall job satisfaction. Leaders need to be intentional in identifying, naming, and supporting these concepts and habits for their staff.
Consider the following habits when developing and unpacking mindsets:
- Empathy: Recognize all teachers are human and will struggle with certain situations. Use these opportunities to help teachers grow, and to further develop relationships with them.
- Coaching: Don’t try to fix, hide, or cover up a disempowered mindset. Instead, leverage strengths and data to help teachers acknowledge, overcome and work through their challenges.
- Solutions-based thinking: Instead of allowing yourself or your staff to focus on the factors that are causing problems, encourage solutions-based conversations that allow you and your team to look for bright spots, and build off them for scalable success (Heath and Heath, 2010).
Solicits Voice and Perspective
The No-Nonsense Nurturer leader is an active listener that values the perspective, insight, cultural backgrounds, and the voice of everyone in the organization. From the veteran teacher, to the custodian, to brand new students, to family members and beyond – they make time to understand the world through the lens of the people they are serving. Amplifying the voice of stakeholders builds bridges, establishes trust, and motivates stakeholders to contribute at deeper levels, and shifts classroom culture from basic participation to more advanced levels of engagement.
Consider these habits when soliciting voice and perspective:
- Listen to understand: People seek to be heard and understood, and taking the time to listen builds empathy, opens your mind to other perspectives, and empowers others (Covey, 2004).
- Repeat back: Process back what you heard the person say. This will validate who you are listening to and may impact how you see situations in the future.
- Make connections: Draw on unique connections that show your team you trust them and are being thoughtful about their perspective and its impact.
Modern organizations need innovation to grow and survive. No-Nonsense Nurturer leaders are willing to take calculated risks for their student body and staff. Through intentional planning, frequent solicitation of stakeholder voice, and development of empowered mindsets, innovative practices will emerge to press on the structures, systems, and policies within the school’s culture. The No-Nonsense Nurturer leader, however, understands the process of change management and how important it is to intentionally provide clarity, motivate, and in doing so, remove barriers and build trust.
Consider these types of innovation when leading change (Terwilliger, 2015):
- Incremental and breakthrough: The school leader knows how to make small changes and improvements over a sustained period of time, thus creating ongoing progress. In addition, the school leader collaborates with stakeholders to combine services and products in order to create a better return on investment for students, staff, and the community.
- Transformational: The school leader takes a pre-existing structure of service and repurposes it to create added value elsewhere in the organization. Teachers will need support and a clear understanding of direction, purpose, and resources for this to be successful.
- Disruption: The school leader introduces an entirely new method, tool, product, or system to create better outcomes for students. Such disruption requires a significant understanding of how to manage the change process effectively.
Generates a Culture (and System) of Accountability
For No-Nonsense Nurturer leaders, accountability is not about scrutiny and pressure, rather it is about building professional and institutional capacity (Noguera & Noguera, 2018) to support one another’s work and drive toward individual and organizational goals of equity and inclusion for all stakeholders. When well-constructed, accountability systems demonstrate high care and trust for individuals’ contributions to the organization’s goals – celebrating successes and engaging supports when needed (Klei Borrero, 2018). Structures of accountability are delicate, transparent, require care and trust, and rely on team members’ contributions to remain effective. Without accountability, schools fall to status quo, or worse, do not serve the needs of their community members.
Consider the following when generating cultures (and structures) of accountability:
- State clear expectations: Use precise language and communication when communicating vision, goals, and expectations for the organization (Klei Borrero, 2018). Identify outcomes, measures of success, how and when transparent feedback will be given, and celebrate benchmarks as they are met (Bregman, 2016; Smith & Smith, 2018).
- Create detailed work plans: When engaging in new bodies of work, create work plans that note how, when and why the body of work is necessary and how those on the team will rely on one another’s deliverables. Walk toward problems, when they exist (Coyle, 2018).
- Calendar everything: Keep shared calendars for larger projects so team members understand how their work impacts that of others on the team and the overall project. If you see someone struggling to meet a deadline, reach out to lend a hand or expertise.
- Model accountable talk and structures: As the leader, model the behaviors, habits and language you expect the rest of the team to use. Resist excuses. Build trust. If workflows need to change, bring folks together to discuss why and how this will happen. If capacity is lacking in some way, note it and create a structure to support that person or team at the school.
Builds Trusting Relationships
Building authentic relationships with all stakeholders is essential to being a No-Nonsense Nurturer (Klei Borrero, 2018). Authenticity, transparency, building trust, and supporting your teammates are the keys to a high-functioning culture. When relationships and bonds are positive, achievement and success are limitless. Although the behaviors already noted in this article will innately build authentic trust and consistency, which will in turn build stronger, more positive relationships with staff, consider these additional behaviors to build upon that foundation:
- Plan for powerful moments: Powerful and memorable moments can greatly enhance relationships and should always be intentional. Moments where staff feel authentically appreciated should be a regular part of your practice. How are you supporting staff members when they are stressed? How do you recognize them? Incorporate surprising, uplifting moments, like covering a teacher’s class so she can take a break. Powerful moments can resonate with people and authentically strengthen relationships (Heath and Heath, 2017).
- Take the time: There are too many things on our list and not enough minutes in the day to do them, but one of the most important things to make time for is engaging in conversations with people about their lives. Plan time to follow up on conversations so your staff members feel cared for and important.
- Share yourself: Do your stakeholders know about you outside of your life as a school leader? You are a human, and your students, teachers, staff members, and families should all be able to see who you are and what’s important to you, outside of school.
- Work from a place of trust: Name loudly and often that you trust (and expect) people to meet expectations and execute their work at high levels. It reinforces your high standards and helps people see you as someone who can be trusted since you hold trust in high regard.
All people desire to be part of a culture that recognizes their contributions and supports them in their practice. As you assess the behaviors and habits above, notice many of them cannot be done in isolation, but are exponentially more impactful when layered together. People are loyal to each other, as well as to the culture a leader sets in the school. Strategy alone won’t breed loyalty and trust for sustainable change and desired results. It is, however, an essential piece of the puzzle, as it allows stakeholders to know where the organization is going and how they are going to get there together. Strategy will get “eaten for lunch” (Coffman & Sorenson, 2013) if not encapsulated in a strong, positive, and collaborative culture.
The behaviors and habits of a No-Nonsense Nurturer leader have proven to be the approach that applies what research and experience tells us works. When these leaders not only intentionally work to practice these behaviors, but also solicit feedback on their growth in these areas, the foundation is built for schools to be truly transformational for all stakeholders.
Kristyn Klei Borrero, Ed.D.
Carrie Lupoli, M.A., M.Ed.
William Sprankles, M.Ed.
For further reading on creating a culture of coaching, click here. Click here to read more about the consequences for not giving feedback and here to read more about establishing a culture of high expectations, and what exactly to look for to make sure that is happening in your building.
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