Foreshadowing and not Foreshadowing: Strategic School Options for Sailing Across a Troubled Sea

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy
with Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

In an environment of accelerating challenge, foreshadowing is a key to high quality communication about school change.

Heads should think of foreshadowing as necessary because communicating change too late can make strategic steps look like reactive ones. By giving community members glimpses of what may lie ahead, school leadership can:

  • Gauge the potential response to changes that may occur.
  • Begin to create partnerships necessary to successful implementation of strategic steps.
  • Position the change initiative to be transparent. Even the best idea can fail if constituents feel as if it has landed without warning at the very moment when momentum is necessary for implementation.
  • Position conversations regarding the change to be inclusive, while defining the boundaries of the conversation. By foreshadowing, the institution can name the goals and create the context for the discussion to follow without disenfranchising important voices in the conversation.

Schools have traditionally had difficulty foreshadowing successfully because such disclosure forces a dialogue about an initiative before the school leadership knows exactly what it will look like as an end-product. This can feel, and in some cases may be, risky; however, without this step, getting requisite support for change may be impossible and thus represent a far greater risk. In the time of Covid19 and the national reckoning with systemic racism, we have an opportunity to reinvent the traditional approach as there is no hiding the fact that schools must prepare for what Moira Kelly, President of EXPLO, calls, “multiple futures.” In such an environment, waiting for certainty will inevitably sound an institution’s demise. By foreshadowing and by seeking input, leadership invites a wide range of constituents to the table, while making it clear that standing still and allowing the status quo to hold is off the table.

Thus, foreshadowing is central in getting the wheels of progress to turn. At times, however, cultures need the opposite of foreshadowing–instead of foreshadowing, we need action that is out in front of conversation and certainly any sort of consensus. There are moments when a leadership needs to get out first and ask for others to catch back up later. (see “Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture”). Particularly when there is an opportunity to illustrate a strategic vision and take an opportunity that would disappear if there is too much delay, leadership must be willing to move ahead decisively. Note: it is vital here to ensure that key decision-makers are dialed in—the Executive Committee of the Board and the Administrative team, for instance.

If leadership waits for everyone to be ready for each individual move and foreshadows each small step, the organization will not go far enough fast enough to stay ahead of the entropy, which is bound to be clicking at its heels. It will also subtly send the message that it is too tentative and lacks the assertiveness to navigate the challenges of implementing vision. Sometimes leadership has to go ahead and make a move in order to prove to the culture that it is ready for it and in order to illustrate a strategic objective that has already been chosen by the organization.

Sometimes leadership has to go ahead and make a move in order to prove to the culture that it is ready for it.

Interestingly, this approach is not as far from the foreshadowing model as it might first appear. Indeed they are both tools to the same end—strategic progress. Taking some steps forward before creating broad-based support is from one angle its own kind of foreshadowing of a culture that will be lighter and more fleet of foot. It also announces through real action that there is the institutional resolve requisite for the occasion. Taking action first on some of these small-scale decisions creates an expectation of its own borne of the fact that the organization has changed the way it goes about creating strategic progress. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, such steps can illustrate through action the strategic vision of the organization. In this way, an individual action, relatively small in the context of the larger strategy, can itself serve as a way to foreshadow future and likely larger steps going forward.

Consider, for example, Headmaster at Austin Prep, Dr. James Hickey. When schools shuttered in March, Dr. Hickey was already looking ahead to the learning loss students may be experiencing in the summer months and how that would potentially be exacerbated for incoming students to his school who were currently not attending Austin Prep. Dr. Hickey worked quickly across his team to invite fall matriculated students to join the school early (providing a prorated tuition). Many of them accepted this early enrollment and the school quickly set up the systems to support these students and their families in becoming part of the Austin Prep community. In making this swift decision, Dr. Hickey communicated to the school that they were committed to offering high quality remote instruction – enough so that even new students could join the school at what seemed like the most difficult time of the year.

Getting out ahead in this way is not built to be a lasting strategy–it is tailor made for the period of time when the scale of change requires speed and decisiveness focused on a nuanced and thorough understanding of the strategic direction. A metaphor from the beach might help sort this out. Imagine that the organization is on a boat faced with trying to go from the beach to the spot beyond the breaking surf. We would not ponder each individual step that propels us forward because the only option other than moving forward is moving backward–and we cannot move backward if we ever hope to get beyond the waves.

An example common to myriad schools this summer is relevant here: grappling with the fact that their school does not feel fully safe for their Black and Brown students. Schools are at a point where they need to move forward, but they don’t know all the individual steps to get them to the destination that will serve all students equitably. Leaders must go into the space with openness and honesty, naming explicitly that the school will deepen culturally responsive teaching practices where they already exist and create them where they don’t in order to support their students of color. Such steps are requisite because they are right, and they are overdue. Now that the resolve is there, leadership, as well as the community as a whole, have the opportunity and the demand to reflect on what this commitment means for their community. Thus, they will be better able to move forward together.

Once we get beyond the surf, we can engage in lengthy reflection on our path as we strive to refine our course toward our strategic vision. In fact, staying with the initial strategy of preemptive moves at that point would be misguided; however, until we get by that last set of big waves, we must do everything we can to preserve momentum forward, or we may find ourselves roughed up and thrown back on the beach.

Until we get by that last set of big waves, we must do everything we can to preserve momentum forward, or we may find ourselves roughed up and thrown back on the beach.

Particularly as schools face the demand for organizational transformation along several different fronts, families and students are likely to remain stuck in an assumption that what schools need is to get back to pre-Covid normal as soon as possible is not actually among the directions open any longer. To use the wave metaphor, schools that allow themselves to stay in this impossible space will remain in the churn near the beach. Foreshadowing, and not foreshadowing are useful tools to help bring school communities along into the strategic conversation rather than an unhelpful reactive, and perhaps reactionary, one.

Final thought:

So much of the discomfort Heads of School are facing this summer relates to the fact that they currently have to operate so far ahead of their communities. Such a position feels, and often is, precarious. Heads of School should be equipped to lead from the back as well as behind. Ideally, on many of the best days, Heads are leading from behind, a bit like shepherds. However, there are times (we are living through just such a time) when Heads have to spend far more time than usual leading from the front. It is exhausting up there, and it is not a sustainable model in the long term. That said, it is part of the truth of the moment.

However, using foreshadowing and not foreshadowing allows a head to bring the community closer by involving its members, by leaning into transparency, and sharing the burden of sustaining and growing a great school. Keeping all of one’s cards too tightly to one’s chest deepens an unhealthy isolation of leaders during the most difficult moments of leadership. Foreshadowing should both lighten the burden and allow for a better chance of success.

To read more of Ross’ writing, visit his blog.