Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Authentic Leadership in Education: Heather Rintoul
October 2019 greetings and cooler weather from beautiful Muskoka. Please enjoy this article derived from the work of the Consortium for the Study of Leadership and Ethics in Education– our 2018 Paul Begley Award winner, Robert Sortino.
Overcoming Obstacles in Transforming School Culture and Climate through the Practice of Contemplative Transformations
Robert Sortino believes that all students deserve the right to an excellent and equitable education. An educator since 1997, he holds an Ed. D. in Educational Leadership from Cal Poly Pomona. His honors include: Teacher of the Year Award, NAACP; Golden Key International Honor Society Award. Currently, Robert resides in California.
A phenomenological research approach was used to illuminate the voices of six administrators to discern how their spirituality supported them in overcoming obstacles in transforming school culture. The data revealed that the participants relied on spirituality, through contemplative practices, to make decisions to overcome obstacles in creating positive school culture.
Educators have a moral and ethical obligation to treat all students with dignity and respect and to make decisions that serve the best interests of students (Starratt, 2004; Starratt, 2005a; Starratt, 2005b; Stefkovich, & O’Brien, 2004; Stefkovich, 2013). When discussing ethical and moral decision-making, Driver (2013) suggested, “Every human being thinks about … how to make the right sorts of decisions” (p. 7). Given that educational leaders are faced with a plethora of daily ethical decisions that either directly or indirectly affect student achievement and outcomes through the shaping of school climate and culture (Gruenert, 2008; MacNeil, Prater, & Busch, 2009; Stolp & Smith, 1995; Thapa et al., 2012), it is imperative that these leaders have a strong moral base and foundation to make sound ethical decisions (Dantley, 2005a; Fullan, 2010; Houston, 2002).
Over three decades ago, Greenleaf (1977), explained, “The requirements of leadership impose some intellectual demands that are not measured by academic intelligence ratings, [but rather], the leader needs to have a sense for the unknowable and be able to foresee the unforeseeable” (p. 35). Furthermore, according to Roenpagel (2015), “The last decade in particular has generated a growing engagement with spirituality in both popular culture and different academic discourses, including education” (p. 40). In addition, Fry (2003) proclaimed, “Spiritual leadership is necessary for the transformation to and continued success of learning organizations” (p. 703). Furthermore, according to Bredeson (2005), “Principal leadership has a moral dimension at its core” (p. 4). In the book, The Moral Imperative Realized, Fullan (2010) stated, “All effective leaders combine resolute moral purpose with impressive empathy” (p. 6).
The purpose of this phenomenological study was to discern how an educational leader’s spirituality supported her/him when struggling to overcome obstacles in achieving change for school improvement. The research question that I used for this study was: How does an educational leader’s spirituality support him/her when striving to overcome obstacles towards bringing about change in creating a positive school culture?
According to Duffy (2003) transforming a school’s culture and climate from a negative to a positive culture requires leadership. To lead a whole-system change in a school district requires having courage in the face of fear and doing the right thing in spite of that fear. Kulkarni and Amale (2015) pointed out, it is the leader who “uses spiritual intelligence to overcome [their] fears” (p. 2). Likewise, Robertson’s (2008) study of principals in the Southeast part of the U.S. revealed, “principals with higher levels of spirituality tended to have higher levels of resiliency” (Robertson, p. 97). Finally, Sorvaag (2007) suggested, “Spiritual leadership and sustainability of excellence in public education are directly related” (Sorvaag, p. 47).
Greenleaf (1977) believed that the central tasks of leadership go beyond just the natural order of things, but also connects to the spiritual, or what he refers to as an “awareness or perception” of the unknowable (p. 29). Greenleaf (1977), suggested, “The forces of good and evil in the world are propelled by the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of individual beings” (p. 28). More recently, Sergiovanni (1999) spoke of leadership as a moral craft and that it is the “inner characteristics of leadership [that] brings about successful schooling” (p. 3). Additionally, Kouzes and Posner (1992) claimed, “Leadership is more than the affair of the head” (p. 479), but suggested that it is, “love that constitutes the soul of ethical leadership” (p. 480).
A study conducted by Magnusen (2001) revealed that spiritual leaders are individuals with unique beliefs, actions/styles, and characteristics whose faith was the central component of their leadership. In addition, Magnusen declared, “This landmark study became a catalyst for changing the standards of effective schools” (Magnusen, 2001, p. 1). Magnusen (2001) went on to suggest, “Faith was the single, most highly rated characteristic of all [leadership] items” (p. 109) in her study of educational leaders.
Furthermore, Santovec (2013), speaking of Delaney’s (2003) research found that some principals of Blue Ribbon Schools (schools nationally recognized for overall academic achievement and/or progress made toward closing the achievement gaps among student subgroups) were faith-based individuals. The characteristics of the principals in this study were: spiritual leadership, truth, integrity, wisdom, meaning, serenity, self-knowledge, and transcendence (Santovec, 2013). Likewise, Hooper-Atlas (2002), in her qualitative research of six principals serving in urban schools in Milwaukee discovered, “Spirituality influenced the participants’ decision-making by giving them courage to make difficult decisions and by providing them guidance in the direction their schools should take” (p. 145).
Consequently, it seems imperative that educational leaders with deep moral and ethical convictions (Bolman & Deal, 2011; Dantley, 2010; Dewey, 1997; Donaldson, 2001; Duffy, 2003; Friere 1998; Fullan 2010; Muhammad 2009; Starratt, 2005b) emerge to bring reform to our education system to create positive school cultures that promote learning to high levels for all and overcome obstacles that are prohibiting attainment of that goal (Kim, Losen, & Hewitt, 2010; Kozol, 2012; NEA, 2015).
The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has called for educational leaders to utilize “self-awareness, reflective practice [and] ethical behavior” (CCSSO, 2008, p. 3-4) to make better-informed decisions to overcome obstacles. Dantley (2005a) suggested that through “critical self-reflection” (p. 42), where leaders embrace their “true spiritual selves,” (p. 43) a leader could develop an ability to make sound decisions. In addition, Whitney (2014) suggested that individuals could build spiritual awareness to help guide them in decision making through the practice of silent listening, prayer, and personal reflection through connecting to a Divine Source. In conclusion, leaders can possibly awaken their spirituality through the practice of contemplation and personal reflection to “inform one’s personal and community life” (Vaughan, 2002, p. 10-11) to better solve problems in overcoming obstacles.
The idea of contemplation, according to Louth (2007), can be dated as far back as Plato. One author, Merton (1972) boldly declared, “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of the Source [where both] reason and faith aspire” (p. 1). Furthermore, Plato described contemplation as the practice where “the soul realizes its kinship with the divine” (Louth, 2007, p. 14). According to Merton (1972), “contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellect and spiritual life” (p. 1).
Finally, according to Hodes (2014), contemplative practices are a broad set of activities that facilitate a state of calm centeredness and aid in the exploration of meaning and values that “can have a positive impact on problem-solving” (p. 1). Contemplative practices can be transformative (Hodes, 2014; Merton, 1972). As Merton (1972) explained, these contemplative practices can be described as an experience where a person feels they have “been touched by God” and spoken to in the “depths of [their] own being” (p. 3), thus compelling them to be transformed and act out of gratitude. It is through theses contemplative practices that leaders can find the answers they are searching for to overcome the obstacles to transforming school climate and culture.
I used the phenomenological approach to conduct research for this study because it was “well suited to studying affective, emotional, and often intense human experiences” (Merriam, 2014, p. 26). The purpose of my study was to illuminate the voices of six principals who self- identified as educational leaders who use spirituality to guide decision-making to overcome obstacles by transforming their school’s climate and culture.
Research Design: Phenomenology
The qualitative approach chosen for my study is what is referred to as phenomenology (Husserl, 1976). Furthermore, Moustakas (1994) explained, “what appears in consciousness is an absolute reality” (p. 27). Finally, phenomenology is a type of qualitative research with philosophical roots that emphasize the “study of lived experiences” (Lichtman, 2013, p. 245) or as Merriam (2009) pointed out as “a study of people’s conscious experience of their life-world” (p. 24).
According to Lin (2013), it is important to use the phenomenological methodology when the study goals are to “explore concepts from new and fresh perspectives” (Lin, 2013, p. 469). As a result, I chose the qualitative approach known as phenomenology as the research design (Husserl, 1976; Moustakas, 1994) due to the unique nature of this very emotional, personal, and intense study of researching the private spiritual practices of educational leaders (Merriam, 2014).
According to Moustakas (1994), the first step in collecting data for a phenomenological study is for the researcher to examine and reflect on their first-person reports of his or her own personal lived experiences in the area in which they are conducting research. Moustakas (1994) further suggests that personal reflection is what makes phenomenological research valid. This kind of personal reflection, an epoché, Moustakas (1994) is what allows the researcher to find the freedom from suppositions needed for this type of research. Moustakas (1994) explained, through the use of an epoché, the researcher can examine his/her own perception to find the truth.
After I examined my own personal biases and perceptions through the use of an epoché, I utilized the interview process to collect data. Merriam (2009) referred to this process as, “the phenomenological interview [which] is the primary method of data collection” (p 25). Alcalay (2001) further explained, “Phenomenological interviewing allows for the transcendence of putatively dichotomous explanatory constructs” (p. 207). Therefore, the data I used for the purpose of this research study were collected through semi-structured interviews with each individual participant (Patton & Cochran, 2002). Furthermore, I employed member checking (Merriam, 2014) to strengthen validity of the research efforts.
Research participants were chosen using snowball sampling (Merriam, 2014). Snowball sampling is a very purposeful sampling method where the researcher chooses to interview participants who fit the criteria established for the research, and then these key participants refer the researcher to other participants who fit the research criteria and who are interested in being interviewed (Merriam, 2014). I obtained written consent from the participants prior to conducting the interviews (Patton & Cochran, 2002). In addition, for confidentiality purposes, I have participants and places pseudo-names (Patton & Cochran, 2002). Finally, in an attempt to triangulate the data and to provide a rich and thick description of the phenomena (Merriam, 2014), six educational leaders were individually interviewed three times (Patton & Cochran, 2002), and the use of a member checking method (Merriam, 2014) and an epoché (Moustakas, 1994) were included.
In analyzing the data, Bednall (2006) said the researcher ought to “allow the voices of subjectivity to emerge authentically” (p. 124). The process of analyzing the data for this study included: using a digital audio recording device during the interviews to record the data (iPhone), translating the recorded interviews into written transcripts (Transcriptionpuppy.com), reading the transcribed interviews and identifying significant quotes, identifying themes, developing a coding scheme, coding the data (using a codebook and Atlas-ti), and allowing the data to emerge until the true essence was understood (Patton & Cochran, 2002).
The first step in analyzing the data was through the process described by Merriam (2009) as epoché. In this first step the researcher explores his/her own experiences, in part to examine dimensions of the experience and to become aware of personal prejudices, viewpoints, and assumptions. According to Lichtman (2013), the second step is bracketing, which “involves placing one’s own thoughts about the topic in suspense or out of question” (p. 80). Prior to conducting the interviews, I created a conceptual framework using deductive codes which allowed for the biased themes to surface (setting those ideas aside), which resulted in the emergence of inductive codes (Lichtman, 2013) or new themes.
Further, Moustakas (1994) explained that a researcher should practice the process of phenomenological reduction (suspending judgment), in order to gain the essence of experience. Moustakas (1994) notes that through the process of horizontalization, the data are laid out, where themes and clusters begin to emerge. Finally, through the final process of imaginative variation (reducing the phenomena into its necessary essences), the researcher will arrive at the essence of the phenomena (Merriam, 2014).
Trustworthiness and Validity
I triangulated the data. Patton and Cochran (2002) explained, “Triangulation is one method for increasing validity of findings, through deliberately seeking evidence from a wide range of sources and comparing findings from those different sources [and] member checking” (p. 27). Secondly, in triangulating the data, I pointed out the deviant themes and accounted for why they might differ (Patton & Cochran, 2002). Triangulating the data can “strengthen [the] analysis” (Patton & Cochran, 2002, p. 27). In addition, the data was triangulated by taking all six participants’ annotated interviews and making one inclusive codebook to see where patterns started to emerge (Patton & Cochran, 2002).
Furthermore, I used four methods to strengthen the validity of the research: (1) an audit trail provided a transparent account of the procedures, (2) an analysis of the cases that fit within my conclusions provided maximum validity, (3) I compared data between and within cases in the data set, and (4) I used a reflexive approach to account for the role I played in the research (Patton & Cochran, 2002).
To strengthen the validity of the study, the following steps were taken: (1) I conducted extensive validity checks and analyzed the themes by listening to the recorded interviews and reading the transcriptions multiple times to check for accuracy of the transcription notes, while cross referencing these notes with the codebook and interview analyses; (2) all interviews were recorded using a recording device (iPhone) and then sent to an email account that was password protected that allowed me to listen to the recorded interview multiple times to record the exact words and phrases that the participants used in their interviews; (3) a data collection tool, called a codebook (Atlas-ti), was used to identify deductive and inductive codes; (4) each participants’ first two interviews were conducted face-to-face to provide both verbal and nonverbal cues for greater understanding (the final interview of each participant was conducted over the phone); (5) a holistic process of collecting data from the interviews was used to examine the data through the interview analysis process; (6) then an analysis of the data was used through the use of a codebook and personal reflection (Maxwell, 1996).
Finally, I used a recorded interview, the interview transcript, codebook (Atlas-ti) and personal reflection in two ways: cross-examining personal codes with the conceptual framework and then writing an analysis of the findings (Patton, 2002). In addition, the participants were provided with the written transcript to review for accuracy. Furthermore, I interviewed four females and two males from different ethnic backgrounds (one African-American, one Asian, one Hispanic, and three Caucasians) and educational experiences (two elementary school principals, two alternative education principals, one traditional high school administrator, and one K-12 education administrator) in order to provide a diverse range of perspectives.
Seven themes emerged as obstacles in transforming a school’s culture and climate: (1) overcoming issues of poverty, (2) broken systems, (3) inequitable policies, (4) staff deficit mindsets, (5) lack of time, (6) challenging student behavior, and (7) overcoming parents’ resistant attitudes. The themes that emerged for these principals attempting to overcome the various obstacles were: precise observations, positive affirmations, positive attitudes, positive expectations, positive perspectives, power of God, and patience.
Precise observations. A recurring theme that emerged from the interviews was that five of the six principals stated that before they could start solving the problems that were presented to them, they first had to understand the challenges by making precise observations about the circumstances that surrounded the obstacles they faced in strengthening positive school culture. Katie expressed that it was important for her to keep her “eyes and ears open” so that she could “diagnose what’s really going on.” Tammy’s comments were similar to Katie’s when she said, “I think you need to look at the people you have. You need to look at the students, the clientele that you have on campus, and then make a decision based on that.” Jasmine stated, “We have to understand where they [staff and students] are coming from [before any decisions or actions are made].” Finally, Paul explained, “We try to determine what’s going on below the surface of the water with a student’s behavior before any decisions can be enacted.” In Pamela’s interview she explained that she looked “at data to make decisions” and she also looked at the “personalities of the people [she] served and the people that serve my students” to began to bring solutions to the challenges she faced in strengthening a positive school climate and culture.
Positive expectations. The second most common theme for five of the six principals in overcoming obstacles through their spirituality had to do with creating positive expectations. Pamela stated that in facing obstacle, such as poverty, she said, “I trust my people, and they trust me.” Katie expressed these same ideas by stating, “I think for me, tapping into spirituality and bringing people who are of the same mind and belief [system] . . . We expect God to do good things for us.”
Paul stated that he believes that it is imperative to “make hope happen” by setting high, but realistic expectations, for both his students and staff. Katie expressed that the way she sets positive expectations is by “training students today for the jobs of tomorrow” and helping the staff “to buy in.” Finally, Pamela elucidated that she reminds herself, and her staff of their “past successes”, and she believes that this helps people see beyond the current obstacles.
Positive affirmations. Positive affirmations, was another way these leaders overcame obstacles. Simply and concisely put, Katie made clear, “Teachers want to have a good day in the classroom. They don’t want to be cranky. They don’t want to send students out.” She believed that internalizing that belief and affirming teachers in their desire to have positive relationships with students translated in that perspective becoming a reality. Furthermore, the work of educational leaders according to Caleb is, helping [students] realize that they have a potential and that, “let’s work on doing things that move you towards that potential.” Caleb stated, “I think that that’s what being a leader is, it is helping [students] realize what they’re capable of doing, and then supporting them in how they do it.”
Jasmine stated that when she thinks about students or talks about students to her staff she says, “He is not a bad student . . . We don’t have any bad students at our school. They may have made poor choices, but we don’t have bad students.” Caleb expressed that he communicates to students by saying, “I’m not here to beat you down. I’m here to lift you up.” To sum up positive affirmations, Paul stated, “Influence, positive rapport, connection and influence is worth a lifetime because you’ll remember it forever. It will last you a lifetime.” Finally, Caleb declared, “I love seeing what students are capable of doing!”
Positive attitudes. Another way these leaders identified, as an element of their spirituality that helped them to overcome obstacles, is what Tammy refers to as being a “positive individual, trying to make sure that my positive spirit kind of latches on to everyone else around me. If I’m not happy, they’re going to tell that I’m not happy. They will become unhappy, and then we have a corrupt ship.” She added that having a “positive spirit and an outgoing attitude, in order to keep everybody afloat and happy, so that we run effectively.” Pamela expressed having a positive attitude in this way, “I feel
very blessed that that’s not hard for me. The part of me that I have to keep in check is the arrogance.”
During the interview with Tammy, she inferred multiple times that what helps her and her staff overcome various obstacles are what she simply stated as having a “positive attitude.” Katie declared that she must be willing to put her attitude in check by making an effort to “address [her] spiritual needs, which, greatly…impacts [her] attitude” to stay positive. Finally, to maintain a positive attitude, Pamela reminds herself of the “many physical challenges” that she has had to endure because of “a spinal injury,” and this keeps her humble and positive to face any challenges that she has to encounter.
Positive perspectives. Having a positive perspective, as influenced by their spirituality, was very important to four of the six principals. Pamela stated, “I just think that a happy spiritual life no matter how happy, busy, or crazy is essential.” Paul revealed that he doesn’t “take anything personal. If a student cussed you out today, don’t take it personal tomorrow [understanding] that it is not about you.” Jasmine explained,
For me, that’s being at peace knowing that, no matter what comes my way, I put my faith in God, because there’s going to be things thrown my way that I have no control over, and I can choose to make a big stink . . . or I can say, ‘Okay I will take it as it is. Something good is going to come out of this’, and so, I always look at it from that perspective.
Like Jasmine, Tammy reported, “Even in the midst of things going wrong, I think it’s important that I continue to keep a positive mindset . . . It’s okay for us to go through trials and then still be triumphant at the end of it.” In addition, Tammy posited, “As long as I’m happy in my personal life, that kind of bleeds over into what I do here at the school and being a positive individual.” Finally, Paul declared, “I’m content in what God is doing, and I’ll serve to that capacity and say, ‘He’ll take care of the rest.’ He’ll make happen what needs to happen in our midst.”
Power of God. Three of the six principals included this theme in their interviews with certainty. According to Paul, “When spirituality is truly enacted, God may begin to work on their behalf orchestrating other factors that would yield a greater effect in the circumstances and surroundings that would only prove a work of God is being done.” He later added that he believed, “the greatest contribution is His [God’s] grace working on your behalf. It will appear as if God is supernaturally working through your life, and in actuality it will be Him producing these results.” Finally, Pamela declared, “Well, I often joke with other educators that, only the Lord knows, I couldn’t do this job without Him, and that’s the truth.” These three participants seemed convinced that God was intimately involved in their daily activities to bring about positive school reform on their campuses.
Patience. When speaking of overcoming obstacles towards transforming a school’s culture to a positive learning place for all, Katie expressed, “I need patience, because I want to just tell people, I already figured it out…It needs to be done this way.” She added, “You hate to say slow down, but that’s what I have learned I have to do.” It was Pamela that stated, “You can’t learn if you are always reacting.” She continued by adding, “As a leader, I get to choose how it [the program] rolls out. I get to choose how much I roll out and when I roll it out.” Pamela believed that patience was key in rolling out her literacy program. Finally, Paul stated that he “waited a whole year” to introduce an initiative, because his staff just was not ready. For these individuals, their patience was strengthened by their spirituality.
My study explored the possible implications of a new approach to using spirituality as a way educational leaders can improve school culture (Dantley, 2010; Magnusen 2001) by making good judgments when addressing personnel, as well as personal, and organizational problems (Kheswa, 2016). The four personal arenas directly affected by the decision-making of leaders tapping into their spirituality through the practice of contemplative transformations included: (1) perspectives – how they understand and interpret issues and events, (2) attitudes – what they believe and think about themselves and others, (3) passions – how they feel about the people and problems they encounter, and (4) actions – what ethical choices they consistently made which were influenced by their attitudes, perspectives, and passions (Brown, 2014; Dantley, 2011; Greenleaf, 1977; Magnussen, 2003; Mezirow, 1990; Zohar, 1997).
I sought to understand what contemplative transformation practices (i.e. meditation, self-reflection, reading, etc.) (Walton, 2015; Wigglesworth, 2015) helped shape and transform the ethical decisions of theses educational leaders who tapped into their spirituality (Amram, 2007; Emmons 2000a; King, 2008; Vaughn, 2002; Wigglesworth & Change, 2002; Zohar, 1997) to make decisions to help them overcome obstacles that affected the shaping of school climate and culture on their campuses (Bolman & Deal, 2011; Duffy, 2003; Fullan, 2010; Hoy & Miskel, 2013).
My study illuminated that, through contemplative practices (i.e. prayer, meditation, self-reflection, deep-breathing, research, singing, silence, and listening) the six educational administrators found wisdom and strength to change their personal perspectives, attitudes, passions, and perspectives to overcome a variety of obstacles to establish a more positive school climate and culture (Cohen & Geier, 2010; MacNeil et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2012) on their campuses through the power of the Seven P’s (precise observations, positive affirmations, positive attitudes, positive expectations, positive perspectives, power of God, and patience).
One key finding from the study was that contemplative practices led to personal transformation that invigorated the six educational administrators to muster the internal fortitude to make positive change at their schools. The six principal participants explained that this task was made possible, in part, as they connected to God through prayer, meditation, self-reflection, deep-breathing, research, singing, silence, and listening, to help them develop the appropriate perspectives, attitudes, passions and actions to overcome the obstacles that they faced to aid them as one of the key components in the decision-making transformational process to create a positive school climate and culture at their schools (Cohen & Geier, 2010; MacNeil et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2012).
There is an emerging call at the national, state, and local levels to develop all educational leaders (CCSSO, 2008; CPSEL, 2014; CTC, 2011; NEA, 2015; NPBEA, 2018) with the competency, character, and courage to make the right moral and ethical decisions to create positive school climates and cultures where students will flourish in their educational journeys (Cohen & Geier, 2010; MacNeil et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2012). My research study contributes to the theory that educational leaders who tap into their spirituality (Dantley, 2005a; Fullan, 2010; Houston, 2002) may be one of the solutions used to enhance and catalyze this needed transformation on our school campuses to create more positive school climates and (Cohen & Geier, 2010; MacNeil et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2012).
According to Dantley (2005a), these moral and ethical frameworks can be developed through critical self-reflection. Mezirow (1990) added, “By far the most significant learning experience in adulthood involves critical self-reflection” (Mezirow, 1990, p. 4). Consequently, as this study revealed, all of the participants in this study practiced some form of self-reflection through contemplative transformations. As demonstrated through this qualitative research study, in order to develop strong moral and ethical leaders who have the strength to face the challenges of creating positive school climates and cultures, an emphasis should be given to prepare, develop, and nurture leaders who practice self-reflection through contemplative transformations.
The findings of this study reveal that administrators require support in the following areas: (1) K-12 administrative credentialing programs where future administrators learn how to utilize contemplative transformation practices such as deep breathing, meditation, listening, prayer, or singing, etc. to clear their minds and hearts to focus more clearly on making sound moral and ethical decisions; (2) K-12 district level professional development, where administrators are provided a staff development day to practice a variety of contemplative transformative practices, journal what reflections they have and will put into practice to positively affect school climate and culture; (3) National and state legislative policy to address the need at the district level to provide opportunities for self-reflective practices for all administrators to be a part of their job roles and responsibilities; and (4) Further research needs to be conducted to understand how people of all faiths, and also those who claim references to spirituality without a reference to God, tap into their spirituality to make decisions to promote positive school climate and culture.
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