Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rethinking School Leadership

"The role of the school principal in Canada is increasingly multifaceted and complex. Beyond the foundational administrative and managerial roles they are expected to master, principals are also expected to be innovators and agents of change -- all of this in a culture that increasingly challenges traditional conceptions of leadership."

In June I wrote a post on 5 ways teachers can demonstrate leadership in the classroom.

Here are 5 ways school administrators can exhibit and inspire leadership in their schools and school districts.

1. Good leaders stick around. We know that high principal turnover often leads to greater teacher turnover and initiative fatigue. Sometimes these moves are made by the choices of senior administrators from the school district, however, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan reminds us that "regularized rotation of principals by their districts every 3-5 years has more a negative than positive effect on improvement efforts". Other times these moves are initiated by principals who "use schools with many poor or low-achieving students as stepping stones to what they view as more desirable assignments". When leaders come and go in search of their own self-promotion, it's hard to see them as allies with the community. This is no more evident than in New Orleans, a city that is 65 percent black, where the corporate education reform movement is almost entirely white led. In the US, average tenure for urban superintendents is just three years, while education secretaries in England and France tend to turnover after only two years. Albertans have had 4 Ministers of Education since 2011, and we know that Canadian principals are, "at risk of burnout in an increasingly ramped up culture of performativity".

This shouldn't be our society or our schools.
2. Good leaders distribute leadership without stepping on others. Most education systems, school districts and schools are built on hierarchal systems where well intentioned fidelity too often becomes code for do as you are told. Andy Hargreaves reminds us that the best leaders "uplift those they serve by uplifting those who serve them". The best leaders know that they don't know everything, so they reject cultures of compliance built on confirmation bias and instead seek dissent to liberate the conversation. The best leaders reject comforting lies and embrace unpleasant truths. The best leaders reject the seductiveness of efficiency via fear and conformity through standardization and fatalism. Good leaders don't merely accumulate and exercise power while reminding their inferiors to follow along. Good leaders share power to grow leadership among all.

The worst leaders are Decepticons.
3. Leaders don't enslave -- they support. Some leaders empower and inspire teachers to work with children in ways that leave life long impressions while others create instruments of control to separate the powerful from the powerless that makes compliance the gold standard. Teaching is a highly relational and complex job that cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all standardized approach. If teachers are to have any hope in accomplishing what many people admit to be an undesirable and impossible job, they require servant leadership that puts "the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible."

4. School leaders are teachers. In his book Finnish Lessons 2.0, Pasi Sahlberg reminds us that, "Some countries allow their schools to be led by non-educators, hoping that business-style management will raise efficiency and improve performance." Most Canadians wouldn't understand how an non-teacher could possibly lead a school or school district while our American neighbours have already embraced this as common practice.
 If you haven't taught, you can't give teachers the feedback they need to improve. If you haven't taught, you can't lead teachers. Period.

I found this written on my whiteboard
on the last day of school. 
5. The best leaders don't value what they measure -- they measure what they value. In their book Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, Andy Hargreaves and Micheal Fullen layout how, "great schools are made up of three kinds of capital: human capital (the talent of individuals); social capital (the collaborative power of the group); and decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise to make sound judgements about learners that are cultivated over many years".

At the end of this school year, my grade 6 students wrote Provincial Achievement Tests. Their multiple choice scantrons were promptly shipped off to our provincial capital to be counted.

At the end of this school year, I found this message on my whiteboard that counted formally and officially for nothing -- but meant everything to me and to that student. Good leaders would care about this emotionally intelligent piece of data at least as much, if not more, than spreadsheet-friendly test scores. Albert Einstein said it all, " Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts".

Such a nuanced approach requires us to temper, if not abandon, our mania for reducing learning and teaching to numbers. While so many forces work to sterilize and standardize our schools, Hargreaves and Fullen lead the way to humanize education.

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