While looking at the night sky one evening, I saw a starry man looking down at me. Orion, with his familiar belt of stars, and his arms and legs outstretched in the darkness, hovered above me just beyond the urban glow. In that moment, I realized that I had taken him for granted—until I put him in the frame of middle level education and leadership.
I had a conversation recently with a good friend about “teacher superstars,” and in the midst of that chat, we questioned certain educational gurus who posited that an educational leader’s prime responsibility was to populate his or her school with these superstars.
While we chatted, I thought about Orion and stars in general. Orion, as a constellation, is not made of “superstars,” instead it is an enduring image of unified points of distant light created by a visionary mind, an artful heart, and keen eyes. This kind of creativity and visionary leadership is what will keep our middle level skies bright. In fact, I declare a new theory of middle grades educational leadership: Constellational Leadership.
Constellational Leadership begins by knowing our stars. We can list the characteristics of a superstar middle grades teacher. We can dream of a school with classrooms festooned with pedagogical brilliance. And we can and should try to hire those stellar instructional individuals. But the reality is this: Everyone who works to improve the lives of young adolescents is a star. Anyone who shines a light for others in the name of adolescent progress is an essential point of light, even if he or she isn’t a superstar.
But how well do we know our teaching stars? Can we say that the same amount of time and care has been afforded to the study of the pedagogical stars around us? A Constellational Leader in the middle grades knows what makes their stars burn—the incendiary contents that make them shine. And to be clear, this goes beyond knowing a teacher’s content area specialty, knowing where his or her classroom is located, or which club he or she sponsors. The Constellational Leader reaches past surface knowledge by cultivating a relationship with each star in the school.
So how do we do that? Just like an astronomer collects data, the Constellational Leader observes his or her stars. We listen, and we talk, not as administrators, but as caring people interested in other people. We ask about their lives, remember what we are told, and follow up. We use our feet to move to places—and then we use our hearts, our words, and our patience when we get there.
And we do this every day; not just on spirit days, not just on teacher appreciation days, and not just when the mood strikes us.
Constellational Leaders observe, collect, connect, and reflect every day because that is how we know our stars. When we know our stars and what makes them burn, we can better support them when the burning becomes difficult.
The Constellational Leader also works to connect his or her stars into a consistent, enduring vision, working together for young adolescents. The early astronomers used their vision to create constellations like Orion. They found points of light and used their minds to string them together. They did not look only to superstars; rather, they used every star to complete their designs. And just like the early astronomers did when they looked at the night sky, the Constellational Leader can step back and see the critical patterns amongst all stars.
So what pictures do the stars in your school create? How do they complement, co-exist, and support one another in their efforts to shine? The Constellational Leader must be able to recognize the naturally occurring groupings and networks that happen in the school. The leader must see which teachers connect for student relationships, which teams work together for student engagement, which content areas connect most for interdisciplinary learning, which teachers complement for inclusion, and more.
Searching the horizon of the school house and looking for those patterns are essential tasks. Just like astronomers see clusters of stars grouped together in the darkness, the Constellational Leader recognizes similar patterns in school and works to connect them or strengthen the connection they already share.
Finally, a Constellational Leader has a picture in mind that answers the question, “What do you want the stars in your school to create?” It is not enough, then, to know our stars and to acknowledge the patterns they form. Leaders must also marry that knowledge with their own passionate, artful vision for what the stars can create together. Great constellations, like Orion, did not form on their own. Likewise, great teams of teachers and glimmering middle schools are not necessarily naturally occurring. Both take visionary, Constellational Leadership.
This We Believe Characteristics
- A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision.
- Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration.
- The school environment is inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all.
build and form burning art
that guides and inspires