A Graduate Student’s Perspective from the Civil Discourse Dinner at Pepperdine University

March 2020

Talking through our differences with one another to reach common ground is critical to finding solutions for a way forward. However, getting the ball rolling is easier said than done. That’s why the Frontline Research & Learning Institute is dedicated to fostering an environment for civil discourse through our biannual print publication The Line, Civil Discourse Dinners and the articles we feature here. Through our Civil Discourse Dinner series, we bring together education leaders and advocates to exchange ideas and information about K-12 education’s most critical issues.

At our recent Civil Discourse Dinner at Pepperdine University, participants explored big ideas on how we can better prepare and empower the future generation of education leaders. As an aspiring leader herself, Pepperdine University graduate student Anastasia Aguas occupies a unique vantage point on this issue. The following contribution is her perspective from the Civil Discourse Dinner’s evening of conversation.

Education is the American gateway to opportunity. Invaluable at every stage, education has only progressively increased in its primacy and centrality as a means of accessing the promises of the American dream. As a nationally shared experience and unassailable feature of society, the sphere of modern education demands much of its leaders. In November 2019, a collective of some of the boldest and most innovative education reformers from around the country gathered in Southern California to engage in a robust civil discourse on some of the most pressing issues facing K-12 education. Perhaps most essential, however, was their directed focus on exploring how best to prepare the next generation to inherit the weighty mantle of leadership in education. As a graduate student at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, and student of esteemed reform leader and The Line Editor-in-Chief Hanna Skandera, I had the unique privilege of joining a handful of my colleagues in attending the Civil Discourse Dinner and joining the vibrant conversation.

Reflecting on the evening, particularly as a policy-driven individual with a vested interest in the future of education in America, I gleaned some refreshing insight regarding the role of leadership in an environment as complex and challenging as education. My first key takeaway is that education leadership must be dynamic. It is not merely a pursuit of principle or pragmatism, but a balanced blend of both in complementary synchrony. In terms of principle, leaders have to first and foremost know the purpose in their position. To be impactful in education leadership, leaders must know the values that ground them and realize that they are not in leadership for themselves, but for others. By definition, a reformative career as an education leader is one dedicated to public service over self-preservation, with one being nearly antithetical to the other.

In a principled sense, leaders must also be committed to transforming their spheres of influence. This entails the capacity to transform both systems and people alike. To do this with any measure of effectiveness demands the ability to imbed transformation into local culture. Cultural integration is the vehicle by which revolutionary ideas become reformative change. Consequently, this means leaders must also serve as coalition builders. An ecosystem of supportive coalitions is instrumental in promoting lasting transformation in education. This can be an arduous and exhaustive task for leaders. This is particularly crucial when it comes to standing firm in the face of vicious backlash. Change always makes waves, and often they are crushing. A carefully nurtured ecosystem, fortified by like-minded coalitions, is a powerful mechanism in the sink-or-swim game of education reform policy.

In terms of practicality, leaders must be more than visionary facilitators of change. The bread and butter of education reform is found in the details of decentralization, local empowerment, finance, accounting and a realistic perception of limitations. In a similar sense, breaking down the mechanisms of change into their physical forms enables leaders to implement policy cogently and with sophisticated grace. Leaders coming into education also have to understand the limitations of the system in which they operate. In practice, this means realizing that you, as a leader, have a limited amount of time to achieve goals. With a limited window of opportunity comes an unparalleled sense of urgency that can focus efforts in a meaningful and potent way.

As we think about what an education specialization will look like at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, the discussion should be spearheaded with a balance between the dimensions of grounding principles and implemented practicality through the lens of real-world examples. Leadership is hardly something that can be purely taught from a book. Success of such a specialization will likely be predicated upon the astute recruitment of some of the fearless leaders who have fought on the frontlines of education and live to teach from their lessons learned and victories won.

Anastasia Aguas is currently a Master of Public Policy candidate at Pepperdine University

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The Line’s purpose is to offer new ideas and insight and encourage civil discourse on the most significant K-12 issues we face.

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