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Five Lessons in Problem Solving for School Leaders

An inside look at how California’s Long Beach school district transformed its learning and improvement at every level of the system
January 26, 2021 7 Min Read
black and white student looking at laptop

​​​​​​​​The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) is known for its leadership practices and the internal development of its employees. The district was the focus of two webinars for the Digital Promise webinar series, Education L​eadership for a Digital World, funded by Wallace. Both conversations are rich in leadership lessons and worth a look. 

Here, we recap five key takeaways from the webinars, with further commentary from Jill Baker, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District; Kelly An, the district’s director, equity leadership and talent development; and Nader Twal, program director in LBUSD’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development.

Lesson 1: Start with Empathy

Put simply, empathy is defined as the ability understand and share the feelings and perspectives of another person. Empathy helps build strong relationships, and in Long Beach, Baker says, it provides the anchor for all of the district’s work. “We develop trust by making decisions based on the lived experience of our leaders at every level of the system," she says. 

Twal seconds her assessment: "Because we are a human-based ​organization we have to design around the children, adults and community we serve. We lead with this idea in mind: You have to understand the needs of another person before you begin to serve them.

“For example, if we are making a tool for principal supervisors, we include principal supervisors in the process. We define every problem together so we can take collective action. This keeps us on the same page and helps us learn together. We constantly seek to understand work and challenges from one another's perspectives in an effort to find common ground and common solutions."

As intuitive as it sounds to put yourself in another person’s shoes, doing so in your professional practice takes work. It helps to have a framework for personal relationships.

Lesson 2: Employ a Districtwide System to Solve Problems

According to IDEO, a global design firm steeped in the principles of human-centered design, design thinking is a process for creative problem solving that encourages leaders to focus on the people they are creating for. In a district, design thinking can help teams identify opportunities, learn together and engage in collective problem solving using a structured approach. Long Beach has adopted the process as a districtwide approach to problem solving.

In the webinar Building Capacity in Crisis: Using Design Thinking to Lead, Twal provides a detailed overview of how Long Beach uses design thinking to build and strengthen relationships. He breaks down the process by which the district creates teams to interview and shadow practitioners to better understand what they are experiencing in the field. These teams then use the data gathered from the shared practitioner experiences to frame solvable problems of practice. Next, solutions are brainstormed, prototyped and implemented by practitioners who agree to test and provide feedback.  

Twal cautions that learning to use this method of design thinking did not happen overnight in the district. In fact, leaders became proficient over the course of many years, with investments from a number of foundations. During that time the teams learned to apply design thinking to problems ranging from mathematics instruction to professional development.

A few sample solutions have included:

  • A lab day protocol for principal supervisors to help guide learning from school visits
  • A leader tracking system aligned to professional development, which enables leaders to receive customized support and development
  • A rapid virtual learning response to COVID-19, where the curriculum department created model units of study designed for virtual instruction
  • As the recent example of the pandemic shows, the model can be applied to almost any of the challenges that arise.
Lesson 3: Make Coaching and Learning Part of District Culture

More than a decade ago, LBUSD began the process of incorporating coaching as a strategy for supporting new principals through the induction phase of their leadership journey. In its infancy, this strategy included a small number of former principals who were trained externally and certified as coaches. Gradually, LBUSD developed its own principal coaching program, which is now part of the professional development sequence for all principals. This reflects the belief that coaching is essential to help principals become effective supervisors of teachers.

According to An, who runs talent development, having a long-term focus for a principal’s coaching enables one to learn from one’s own experiences. It’s also important, she says, that PreK through high-school leaders understand that they are part of a larger system. “The ability to lead with the entire system in mind is developed through school visits, deep study of districts problems of practice and modeling how to approach engaging stakeholders in the work of improving the system,” she says. 

The district has leadership development programs for roles ranging from teacher leader to central office director. At every level there is an initial training period, then learning and development continues through coaching. The district has been honing its coaching model for more than a decade, emphasizing its importance in leader development.

Lesson 4: Involve Leaders at All Levels in Problem Solving and Coaching

For the past five years, LBUSD has focused on developing the relationship between principals and principal supervisors as part of Wallace’s Principal Supervisor Initiative. This has allowed the district to work with its supervisors so they can help increase the reach of its high-quality teaching and learning practices. Supervisors also learn to employ design thinking for problem solving and coaching as a means for helping one another continuously improve.

“We are very fortunate that over the last five years, we’ve built a strong coaching model for our principal supervision practices,” Baker says. “Why is that important now? Because the relationship between our principal supervisors and principals now has a coaching foundation. This coaching foundation makes it easier for leaders to move into unknown territory, especially when faced with a crisis. Our principal supervisors have been right on the frontlines with principals, coaching them, asking good questions, advocating for them and bringing the lived experience of principals back to central office.” 

What have the principal supervisors been doing that have made a difference? Baker shares some examples from LBUSD:

  • Continuing to focus on equity while supporting and coaching principals through pandemic 
  • Advocating for school needs to central office decision makers 
  • Focusing coaching on principal well-being and empathic connections 
  • Helping principals design solutions with their staff

It is important to note that the system is not perfect, Baker says, but that the district is continuously improving and increasing the use of leadership practices, coaching and design thinking. The principal supervisors have been, what the district calls, “multipliers,” because they find ways to empower school leaders to design their schools and cultivate leadership in others throughout the system.

Lesson 5: Work Toward a Culture of “Systemness"

Long Beach works collaboratively though a system of teams that include the community, central office staff and school-based staff. The aim of this work is to make sure all stakeholders feel ownership of district progress and work towards what Baker defines as, “systemness.” In the Digital Promise webinar Assuming the Superintendency in the Midst of a Crisis: A Hearts and Minds Approach, Baker explains systemness as a way of thinking about the district’s preK through high-school approach. “Systemness requires commitment to a common vision and aspiration for learners,” Baker says. “You need shared goals, a high level of trust among participants, a focus on “we” and not “me” at all levels, a focus on support and inherent values of sharing and collaboration. While this definition is highly focused on students, in Long Beach we extend this thinking to the work of all adults [academics and business] across LBUSD.”  

Twal adds that in LBUSD, “everyone is clear in their purpose and we can weave in and out of each other’s work. We have a clear path and we share our work, which contributes to having collective efficacy and our focus on systemness.

“The leaders are prepared to lead the entire system, not just think about their role. This is fostered by using design thinking to solve problems as a cross functional team on our K-12 steering committee. We collaborate regularly and coach one another to think about the entire system and design with the people we serve in mind. This behavior is documented in our evaluation system, so we are evaluated on how we contribute to the improvement of the overall system by collaborating with our peers to solve problems.”

In short, problem solving is a top-to-bottom process—and LBUSD leaders agree that it takes a lot of learning and work to operate fully. But for Baker, An and Twal it is a worthwhile effort, as the district’s long-term focus on systemness, with leaders using design thinking to create effective practices has helped them make schools better, one day at a time.

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