In my first teaching position, I was overjoyed to work for a principal with real vision. This is why, among the offers I had, I chose to work at that particular school. The principal articulated and enacted a vision of social change by setting the priorities of the school, in the way he spent his time and how he talked about the work. This did not change throughout my six years in that school. What did change was the ability of the school to function on a day-to-day basis. This was because the principal was ineffective as a leader. In the years when he assigned someone the role of assistant director, the school functioned well and had a visionary leadership. In the other years when this was not the case, it was a real struggle to stay positive and engaged in the work because schedules, classes lists and expectations were disorganized. Contrast this to my time in Alaska when I worked for a great manager of details but had no vision. It was clearly not a place one could spend long working because nothing was ever going to improve under his leadership.
It used to be the case that it was the school leader’s job to manage the building: have a fire drill schedule, ensure the buses arrive and depart on time and make lunch run smoothly. It’s still the case that principals and other administrators have to get this work done. But they are also charged with increasing equity through raising the performance of typically underprivileged groups. However, lagging reading scores don’t call three times a day about an unfair punishment delivered to a particular child. Low graduation rates for students of color don’t set budget deadlines that must be met. Students well below the poverty line don’t require contract negotiations. These examples of typical administrator work are real and must be addressed but never to the detriment of the those on the wrong side of the achievement gap.
Mike Scott, the award-winning superintendent of Hillsboro School District, emphasizes the importance of not allowing urgency, perceived or real, to derail the important work we hope to do as school leaders. He also draws a line in the sand, “We’re going to stop talking about the achievement gap and starting closing it.” It’s no coincidence that a school leader who emphasizes ethical leadership also values effective leadership. Being an ineffective leader makes it impossible to achieve high value goals like closing the achievement gap. Educators don’t move into administration so they can become excellent at paperwork. But we must create systems to get that sort of work done if we’re going to achieve our loftier goals. How to do this well is the question.
Part of the work of not being a manager but a real leader includes the message this sort of leadership delivers. As Deal and Peterson assert, “How principals spend their time sends a powerful symbolic message” (Deal & Peterson, 39). If we are seen in our offices most of the time, we are suggesting to students and staff that instructional practice is not a central concern of ours. If instruction is not a central concern of ours, we cannot effect educational change.
One component of being an effective leader is making sure we have the right people around us. We need a strong team around leaders in order to have a system in place to manage the workflow as well as empower and create buy in. “Research on distributed leadership suggests that effective leadership is “stretched” over the staff – not just formally delegated to a few. To work, distributed leadership must be deeply embedded culturally, not just sketched in a structural blueprint” (Deal & Peterson, 11). With a model of distributed leadership, every issue does not become a crisis that has to be run past leadership. Rather, it can be dealt with by others so the administration is free to engage in higher level work.
Our priorities speak to our values. “Formal and informal leaders articulate path and purpose through their words and deeds” (Deal & Peterson, 48). We have to balance the work. “Rigor and relationships, expertise and engagement- all of these things matter” (Hargreaves & Fullan, 23). If we are effective leaders we create the opportunity to be ethical leaders. And that is where the real works lies.
Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (2009). Shaping school culture: Pitfalls, paradoxes, and promises. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.