A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Principals' Life Lesson 24: Inspired Leadership

Just as so many schools of education and teacher training programs provide NO real-life, practical instruction for classroom management besides some packaged, theoretical or dated programming, it seems many principal-certification programs also lack instruction on how to guide and mentor teachers. One would think that anyone with a passing knowledge of life would understand that an atmosphere of teamwork, respect, and shared expertise foster the best chance at success in a school as well as in the business world. One would think that, but one would unfortunately often be wrong.

All too often, in my experience in the business world, the retail world, and the education world, "teamwork" has been a sham concept when mouthed by one's boss, interpreted as treating employees as mere tools. One in authority can bludgeon his or her followers with fear and intimidation, or can pursue one's own agenda without providing leadership at all, or can utilize one's employees as resources and professionals engaged in a common mission. I've had bosses who were fluffy kittens gamboling innocently within the coils of a rattlesnake poised to strike, I've had bosses who emulated George C. Scott as General Patton; I've had bosses who were Michael Scott, I've had bosses who were Ulysses Everett McGill, and I have had bosses who were doing their jobs not for joy but for money. But no matter what kind of boss one has, the boss sets the climate in the school.

Climate change isn't just something Al Gore is talking about. Climate change in schools is necessary if we are to keep up with the ever-increasing demands being placed upon the educational system in this country.

So just what do inspirational leaders do? What can truly inspirational teachers and principals and superintendents do? The most basic answer is: inspirational leaders share the burdens of the task at hand, they act as a resource for their employees, and they dedicate themselves to success by being real facilitators for their employees. From the UK, I found this in a report from the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and I have tweaked this a bit:

1. They sincerely care for their people
Try to know WHO your staff members are as people. I will never forget how, when my grandmother died and I had to prepare to drive eleven hours across the country, my principal came to me and checked how I was. He put aside everything else and was there for me, and it only took five minutes. I also remember one day, when I hadn't slept for more than 3 hours at a stretch because I had a baby who couldn't sleep, my assistant principal intercepted me, saw the dark circles under my eyes, and drove me home. She then taught my classes herself until the sub arrived. When the principals model this, the teachers will do this for each other, too. And that's the way it should be.

2. Cooperate/involve everybody
A principal needs to trust his or her staff to be professionals (If someone is not a professional, deal with them rather than crafting punitive measures to be applied to everybody, please!). The principal job is incredibly demanding, and there are lots of balls to juggle. Learn to delegate, and be grateful for the help you receive. One of my greatest peeves is the way that many principals withhold important information from teachers (and, by the way, that is a violation of federal law), and how they huddle in groups in an attempt to ward off anyone approaching them. Principals who play favorites or ignore the input of the staff are shooting themselves in the foot. A principal must be willing to be a problem-solver and facilitator.

3. Name and appreciate the contributions of everybody
This flows from my comments on numbers 1 and 2. If you hide in your office all the time, you will be unable to appreciate what is done in the school. I once worked for an administration who came up with this adorable slogan: "It's not about the teaching, it's about the learning." After the English teacher in me got over the comma splice, I was incredibly insulted by this slogan. If it's not about the teaching, then why are teachers blamed for everything that happens? Then I got started making up sarcastic riffs on this stupid idea. But morale was the lowest I had experienced at this school after this little gem was published.

4. Create a climate of fun and create a space for enjoyment at work
If nothing but criticism-- and worse, disdain for teachers-- leaves your mouth or pervades your body language, everything will suffer. Try to knit the staff together as a team. Encourage teachers to form a softball team-- and show up for the games if you won't play yourself. Buy snacks for periodic happy hours. Have a hot dog roast after school. And for God's sake, on teacher appreciation day, don't throw trinkets at our heads, no matter what. I've had principals push the "Have Fun!" mantra, like from that FISH! book, but remain completely aloof from the staff.

5. Demonstrate authentic trust
I see this as two things: building trust and demonstrating trust.
A great administrator doesn't expect his or her staff to do anything he or she isn't willing to do. I once had a principal who expected every teacher to volunteer for two after-school duties each semester (for free) but he was never there. I have donated my musical talents for fundraisers for various student activities (requiring untold hours of practice after school besides the actual event)-- and seen the principal skip the event, not even making a token appearance. That sends a bad message. You're not expected to show up for everything, but rotate the events you do show up for each year, so that the people doing them can feel valued, at the very least. I also resent emails reminding us to enforce a certain policy and then watch principals not say a word as students walk by them or even hold conversations with them while violating the policy.
Likewise, to demonstrate that you do trust your staff, you have to give them substantive tasks to accomplish. Let go of the reins a bit! You'll make yourself happier and more healthy in the long run, believe me. Above all, don't be afraid to ask for help. We are all in this together, and we have to do the job of educating students together.

6. Never avoid an opportunity to listen
Examples of this would be: make eye contact when talking to people; don't read email during a conversation; endeavor to know what each of your employees has done/is doing; talk to your employees at times OTHER than when there is a problem, and be relaxed and comfortable in leaving your office and moving around the school. Don't use your secretary as a guard dog. Respond to emails properly, and promptly. Try walking up to a different person every day and asking how things are going, and if they have any needs you can meet. Then actually listen to the answer. Support your staff in the community-- and that includes in front of students and parents, even parents that are on the school board.

If you didn't love teaching, please don't become an administrator. If you taught for less than five years, please realize that there are teachers who are more experienced in instruction than you are, and utilize that and celebrate it. If you really want to create a great school, manage your staff with the intent to motivate them to excellence, and create a situation in which that is possible. Anything that interferes with that mission should be curtailed. Have a realistic, positive attitude, and that attitude will spread.

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At 2/2/08, 6:23 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chili said...

SO! Being a good principal (boss, leader, pick your noun) means, hmmmm? Being a good PERSON! WHO KNEW?!

I'm linking you, my dear - this is an important post and lots of people need to read it.

It makes me sad, though, that these kinds of principles have to be spelled out. Isn't a lot of it Golden Rule stuff?....

At 2/2/08, 7:38 AM, Blogger Mike in Texas said...

Its interesting that you would write this post as I've been mulling over a post on something my boss and the administration has done that is really a slap in the face.

Maybe now I'll be inspired to put it into words.

At 2/2/08, 9:12 AM, Blogger Dr. Bad Ass said...

This is some important (and somehow common-sense!) stuff. In my 12 years of teaching high school, I NEVER had a principal who did these things. What a different environment it would have been if I did. Thanks for writing about this.

But can I just say a word about the furthering of negative ideas about teacher education evident in your first paragraph? In our defense, we do a) provide preservice teachers with lots of opportunities for classroom experience; b) give practical ideas and strategies on classroom management and teaching techniques. Some of our students (preservice teachers) pick those up and use them. Others don't. And yet we can't get away from the picture of teacher education as it was 20-25 years ago. Teacher education has changed, at least where I work; perceptions of it have not.

At 2/2/08, 1:13 PM, Blogger Dan Edwards said...

Great post! Should be required memorization for all educational administrator wanna-be's.

My first principal, at a very rural high school, actually taught a class because there was a need. Every day, he taught a math class. He knew what his teachers experienced and delt with. And no, he didn't have a class full of high achievers. It was the lowest level math class at our small school.

There are good administrators out there.....but like the obnoxious student we get in class, those are the ones that stick out.

At 2/2/08, 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to hang this in the staff lounge -- no, the athletics office (since that's where the admins really hang out). Bet they still wouldn't read it, no matter that they give us teachers numerous development things to read weekly.

Well written, and well thought out.

At 2/3/08, 10:25 AM, Blogger Janet said...

I'm constantly appalled by the lack of communication. It's like once people get some power, they immediately forget the importance of this skill. Oh and interest itself. How can you comment on the betterment of the classrooms if you don't even know what's going on in them to begin with?

I'd say don't get me started, but I think it's too late for that.:)

At 2/3/08, 1:03 PM, Blogger ms-teacher said...

Morale has rapidly decreased at the middle school where I teach. The sad fact is that he is actually a nice guy, but lacks any type of leadership qualities. He has not sought out help from those of us who were in leadership positions when our previous principal was there. Instead, we seem to be a threat to him, so he relies on his buddies and the sense is that many people will be leaving next year.

At 2/3/08, 4:13 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Dear Dr. Bad-ass: All I can say is that 'round here, and in the program in which I received my training, practical and simple advice was completely lacking. And from the student teachers I have had I have seen much the same thing.

Then there was the guy I knew who was allowed to do his student teaching UNSUPERVISED as a first year teacher and who continuously force-fed the students his political views-- and who is now an administrative intern. Holy Crabcakes!

Sadly, perceptions have not changed because many of the instructional models have not changed for the better. Instead, it's the same old misinterpretation-of-Howard-Gardner stuff.

At 2/3/08, 4:33 PM, Blogger Dr. Bad Ass said...

I absolutely agree that there are bad teacher education programs. All I'm asking is that we not tar all programs with that same brush. There are some bad teachers, too, and some crappy schools. But I (as a teacher educator and former high school English teacher) would never go around assuming that because I know some bad teachers that all teachers are bad, that all schools are crappy, and that education is going down the toilet.

I do see that our graduates -- who are certified to be teachers -- are still just beginning teachers, with much to learn. And I wonder what the perception of teacher education would be if we could get past the negative stereotypes of the past.

But anyway I do love the writing you've done here about the importance of leadership in schools. Thanks for posting that.

But anyway --

At 2/15/08, 6:31 AM, Blogger loonyhiker said...

I have had a principal like this and it made me glad to be a teacher. I think having poor leaders is part of the problem with retention of good teachers. Great points made in this post!

At 2/17/08, 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny; I hear a lot about teachers getting figuratively smacked in the face with some of the insulting propositions they get from admin. If only we could have a list of things that teachers actually want from their principals specifically, then we'd be so good. You think you could help out in that matter? :-)

At 2/17/08, 11:04 PM, Blogger danw said...

Before becoming a Principal, I worked under several different leaders who didn't quite focus on building the type of school culture you've described so well. I vowed to set a different tone for my school and I have aimed to do that. Your post is a great reminder to lead with integrity, character, and mutual trust.

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At 3/8/09, 9:34 AM, Blogger bhattathiri said...

Your BLOG is beautiful, informative and Excellent.The Western idea of management centers on making the worker (and the manager) more efficient and more productive. Companies offer workers more to work more, produce more, sell more and to stick to the organization without looking for alternatives. The sole aim of extracting better and more work from the worker is to improve the bottom-line of the enterprise. The worker has become a hirable commodity, which can be used, replaced and discarded at will.
Thus, workers have been reduced to the state of a mercantile product. In such a state, it should come as no surprise to us that workers start using strikes ( gheraos) sit-ins, (dharnas) go-slows, work-to-rule etc. to get maximum benefit for themselves from the organizations. Society-at-large is damaged. Thus we reach a situation in which management and workers become separate and contradictory entities with conflicting interests. There is no common goal or understanding. This, predictably, leads to suspicion, friction, disillusion and mistrust,


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