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The Agricultural Model of Education Leadership

“It is not what is poured into a student that counts but what is planted.” - Linda Conway

“The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” - Carl Jung

“If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.” - Sir Ken Robinson

Teaching students and leading teachers, because they involve living beings, are two endeavors that have far more in common with farming than they do with manufacturing, yet those who profess to have the answers about how we should go about improving our education system typically take a manufacturing-based approach. In today’s educational leadership training programs, the agricultural model probably most closely corresponds to the servant-leadership model. I’ve often felt that those who have had the fortune of growing up in a farm family learn several lessons early on from their interactions with nature that have the potential to prove useful to educational leaders. In any case, my agricultural upbringing has led me to view the world of education from a certain perspective, and I’d like to share this view because I think it might serve school leaders well.

Before successful farmers plant a field of crops, they do lots of research to ensure the seed variety they choose is appropriate for their soil, the amount of rain and sunlight the seed will receive in that locale, and in alignment with their yield goals. For instance, if you plant a low-yielding variety of corn designed for a wet field in Pennsylvania, no amount of fertilizer will make it produce 200 bushels/acre in dry climate and no irrigation. You have to choose the right seed for the climate in which you farm. In the same way, it is vital to identify and choose and hire the right people for the right place. I’ve been teaching for well over 20 years, and during that time the following has become evident to me: The right people (the right teachers) for the right place are far more important than the right initiatives, curricula, or programs. Initiatives, curricula, and programs are important as unifying goals, but they are not as important as the people who make them happen. Further, some of the great teachers you encounter in your educational career will be great in another setting, this is no judgment on them as professionals, it’s just recognizing that identifying the right fit is critical to success.

Farmers understand that it is critical to properly prepare the seedbed to receive the seed. This may include plowing and disking the field or a no-till approach, applying fertilizer, some manner of weed and insect control, regular monitoring of the fields, and a willingness to make adjustments in response to ever-evolving conditions. These are things we can control. However, there are a lot of factors that farmers cannot control whatsoever, such as temperature, sunlight, humidity, rainfall, wind, and storms. It is a lot of work to be a farmer, it includes significant risk, and every experienced farmer will tell you that no two years are exactly the same. The key takeaway here is that farmers work very hard to optimize conditions, but ultimately they have to let the plants flourish. You cannot manufacture a cabbage, but you can make it possible for one to grow. When you work with living organisms, even when you have their best interests at heart, you have to humbly accept the limits of your ability to control their outcomes.

Effective education leaders have a lot in common with successful farmers. We don’t simply make others into better educators. Instead, we create the conditions under which people flourish, both teachers and students. This is a vital role in the ecosystem of a school, but it is far more complicated and less under our direct control than any manufacturing process known to humankind.

It is absolutely vital that we identify, recruit, and retain the best teachers possible. They are our seed, and they might cost a little more money. But the increased yields far outweigh the costs. The best teachers have the personality traits, often referred to as “soft skills”, that make them open to collaboration, lifelong learning, and the ability to respond in positive ways to feedback from both students and leaders. They are dedicated, skilled, humble, patient, and kind. In turn, we need to nurture them, especially in the early phases of their development by providing them with welcoming and successful experienced teachers who serve as their mentors. Student needs come first, teachers are hired to meet them, but whenever possible assign teachers schedules that closely match their specific talents. Provide all faculty with a clear and compelling vision, so they know what they should grow towards. We need to encourage and guide them as they assimilate into a vibrant school culture that encourages the sharing of teaching and learning resources. Foster good morale by making it clear you value their efforts. All teachers need constructive feedback, conversations that simultaneously promote growth and provide encouragement. Observe their teaching and meet with them afterwards to discuss their performance. Have rich and thoughtful and challenging conversations, but surround constructive criticism with positive reinforcement and supports for growth instead of insinuations of unemployment. Honor the time of your teachers by keeping large-group meetings as focused and short as possible to accomplish specific goals. Minimize the time allocated for bureaucratic responsibilities (such as state paperwork requirements), but don’t be afraid to ensure they invest time on activities that will authentically help the faculty improve their teaching practice, even if they don’t want to do them at first. True leaders lead their people to better places they would otherwise not go.

Then, and this is the hard part, get out of the way and let your people grow. Let them do the work you hired them for: forging positive teacher-student relationships; instructional planning and delivery; development of curriculum, learning resources and assessments; fostering a positive classroom environment; professional collaboration; and of course communication with students and their families. It is humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time, and it recognizes the realities of humanity. People need significant freedom in their professional lives if they are to truly flourish and reach their potential. Contrary to the base impulses of human nature and “being in charge”, research has clearly demonstrated that higher levels of autonomy are correlated with greater employee productivity. When it comes to leading educators, freeing up their time so they can do what they deem most important is the most important task.

Let’s extend the analogy: the healthiest and most vibrant farms tend to raise diverse crops and livestock, and they complement each other. On my family’s farm, we raised apples, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, Christmas trees, chestnut trees, chickens, beef cattle, sheep, horses, and a whole host of garden vegetables. In the same way, the healthiest schools embrace a tapestry of teaching and learning styles, celebrate and benefit from each of them, and recognize that they are complementary. A student is academically stronger, more flexible, open to new experiences, and resilient when they have had exposure to a wide variety of effective classroom experiences. We should nurture a broad view as to what constitutes authentic and effective teaching.

The most common models of educational leadership in practice today (transformational, transactional, and emotional) often get undermined by the desire for efficiency. The sheer number of faculty and staff in a school system overwhelms the best intentions of even the most dedicated professionals. In practice, they can feel like an industrial process with a focus on inputs (rules and procedures) and outputs (standardized test scores) or a fast-food restaurant (there are 8 value meals, choose one). In contrast, the focus in the organic farming model is on nurturing learner’s talents, and on creating the conditions needed for the individual’s talents to flourish. This allows school leaders the freedom to focus on macro factors and requires a certain amount of relinquishing of control. If you sit in a country diner or at the kitchen table of a farm family in the late spring, you will inevitably hear farmers saying phrases such as “We’ve done our part, it’s up to the Sun and rain now”, “Time to wait” or “It’s in God’s hands now” that capture a humility learned through repeated past failures balanced by successes and years of reflection on what caused each. They couple this with the sheer will to persevere no matter what comes. It has been my observation that the older a farmer gets, the more deeply they understand what is and what is not under their control, and the less anxious and happier they become.

Make no mistake, the best farmers engage in practices that consistently produce far better harvests than their neighbors, yet they humbly recognize that the harvests are not fully (or even mostly) their own doing. They have some years that are better than others. But the essential role of school leaders is to optimize micro conditions so that we have the best year possible in the given macro circumstances.

Great school leaders work very hard in the service of others, and great school leaders consistently get better results than poor ones. Yet success is not a linear trajectory, and school leaders shouldn’t claim the lion’s share of the credit when it comes. Every member of the school community, including students, teachers, families, and school leaders, get to share that.

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