Being the Change

Melissa Dahlin
Topic: Early Childhood, Federal policy, Governance and Accountability, Outcomes

Nationwide, in states, professionally, and personally, 2017 has been a nonstop barrage of changes—leading both myself and other early learning colleagues to ask how we can be active agents shaping change rather than passive receivers enduring it.

Listening to session facilitators’ insights and my colleagues’ collective wisdom during the 2017 Roundtable’s exploration of leading for change, I realized how my understanding and sense of leadership has evolved through my work at CEELO. Heading this fall to start a doctoral program, I’ll soon become a reader of this newsletter rather than a contributor. So while I still have this opportunity, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about leadership skills.

If you had asked me back in 2012, when I joined CEELO, what leadership was, my response would involve “innate talent” and a list of “leader” positions/titles (a director! a chief! a president!). Today, I understand leadership skills can be acquired and leadership is possible at any level. No matter what role I’m in or where life takes me, I can seek out ways to promote and cultivate change. What prompted this shift into awareness of agency? CEELO’s Leadership Academy!

As documenter for all three cohorts of CEELO’s Leadership Academy, I shared the experience with our enthusiastic and inspiring Fellows. The curriculum supported development of leadership through strategic approaches—results-based leadership, systems thinking, and strategic communication. Each offers strategies and tools to identify and define avenues for achieving the positive outcomes we want for children and families and each can help us navigate toward those goals even in times of uncertainty.

Results-based leadership (RBL) cultivated competencies and equipped us to effectively and efficiently use data in our work. We practiced identifying trends, factors that influence these trends, and strategies to address those factors to “turn the curve” in the desired direction. Issues we try to address can seem incredibly nebulous, but RBL provided strategies to get specific and get moving.

Systems thinking introduced the Habits of a Systems Thinker and tools to turn systems thinking into action. The cards prompting reflection on each habit are now my constant companion. A concept that resonated deeply with me is the understanding that you can’t change people, but you can create conditions that make them more likely to change. It may not be easy, but the tools we learned offer ways to achieve it (to get a sampling, see here).

Strategic Communications provided tools to understand context, create a plan, and implement it, along with crafting effective messages. As I reflect on these approaches, I find many parallels with early childhood. We stress the importance of relationships in early childhood constantly and my takeaway is that relationships play critical roles in our work. Leadership also requires many of the skills in the social-emotional and executive function domains that we promote.

Moving forward, the Leadership Academy format will change as CEELO re-imagines how best to expand its training and technical assistance to the widest audience. Participating in CEELO TA gave me a front seat for observing leadership in so many states. I’ve witnessed the tenacity of state specialists thinking “outside the box” to find solutions and have been wowed by the adaptive leadership among members of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE). I have been inspired by the enthusiastic lifelong learners at CEELO and encourage you to contact your CEELO state liaison to tap into their leadership development expertise.

During this time of transition—for me, along with the early childhood education community—it’s comforting to know that no one really “leaves” this network of knowledgeable, caring and dedicated colleagues. And so, as we adapt and learn, change and grow, I look forward to  continuing to lead for change with you, my early learning champions.

Melissa Dahlin is a research associate at the Education Development Center with responsibilities spanning technical assistance to operational support. Previously, she worked on a number of projects at the national, state, and local level, including technical training and assistance to support early childhood policy and practice, monitoring and evaluation, and classroom instruction. She holds an MA in International Educational Development from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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