“It’s all about the kids.” That’s the rationale given by high-profile education reformers and policy leaders for decisions that largely dismiss or ignore the importance of teachers in the process. “It’s all about the kids” is often thrown around to set up a false dichotomy that interests of teachers stand in opposition to the interests of students.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of politicians and education leaders, but if they really want to best serve students without spending time in a school, the only way to do so is by supporting the teachers who do.
I’ve worked with several different types of student leadership groups. When pressed to answer the question “why do you want to be a leader?” most students answer honestly. They want to influence decision-making, have a say in matters that affect them, design projects to help others in the school and community—rarely do they reflect on the reality that leadership is about facilitating growth and maturation of those they serve, creating the best environment for others to reach their potential. “You’ve already proven you can make something of yourself, the next step is to make something of the other guy.” That’s one of the first lessons I use in the leadership class that I sometimes teach.
We need more of this in educational leadership. Adults who want to empower other adults to become better at what they do; not adults who want to exercise control or power to push their own agendas.To effectively lead in that regard, three things are needed.
1) Leadership must come from within. A leader is a part of the system, not above or outside of the system. Our most recent post mentioned a request from the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to the School Board that they consider merit pay for teachers. To the Board of Supervisors I would say, “thank you very much for your financial support of our schools, but you don’t know what is best for our system.”
I can see some bristling at that remark. Isn’t it like a child telling his or her parents “why can’t you just give us money and leave us alone”? It’s nothing like that at all. It’s like a lawyer telling the client "I know you're paying me, but you don't get to tell me how to do my job."
Large districts increasingly turn to outsiders like Joel Klein and Cathy Black to “lead” their schools. Other leaders like Michele Rhee and Arne Duncan are only marginally connected to classroom education through a few years of experience before moving into leadership positions often beyond the building or even district level.
One of the ugly issues of the last four years of Presidential politics came from the question of citizenship by birth. All of our elected political leaders must be citizens, and the President, a citizen from birth. You can’t make decisions about what’s best for America if you’re not American. You shouldn't make uninformed decisions about what’s best for education if you’re not an educator.
2) Leadership requires competence. Competence is demonstrated only through consistent effective performance. Recently, my colleagues and I have discussed two principles and how they relate to education. The Peter Principle is a belief that, in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organization's members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. Most districts do not promote teachers based on competence. The notion that rewarding teachers with pay for good performance continues to float, but rarely do systems promote teachers beyond the classroom for consistent effective performance.
Beyond the classroom, an additional degree will place an individual on the promotion ladder-- from the building level administrator (a step sometimes skipped) to division-level responsibilities involving finance, human resources, building services, and many other diverse positions.
There are many effective and competent leaders in education beyond the classroom. I’m lucky enough to work with many of them. But, while conventional wisdom likes to point out how “bad teachers” are killing education I would argue that we’re more likely to find competence in the classroom than outside. Teachers work up to their level of competence. Once they reach it, they continue to perform in the classroom.
3) Leadership requires self-awareness. A second idea we’ve talked about lately is the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” Through a series of studies at Cornell University, Dunning and Kruger demonstrate that incompetent people typically don’t recognize their incompetence and fail to recognize competence in others. It’s analogous to the student who thinks he’s prepared for the test until he starts to study. Only then does he recognize how little he truly knows on the subject. Furthermore, subjects who display competence are more likely to show less confidence in their abilities.
This idea is dangerous for education when highly confident individuals, unaware of their incompetence push reforms and policies without understanding the impact. The inability to recognize competence explains why so many merit-based plans or other evaluation systems are flawed.
Subjects recognized the severity of their incompetence when exposed to appropriate training for the skill. Higher levels of educational leadership become more isolated from this exposure. In the classroom, my incompetence results in immediate exposure through confused students, inappropriate behaviors, complaints from parents, etc.
At higher levels, from where can this exposure come? Unfortunately, when an administrator, superintendent, state official (keep moving up the chain) makes an incompetent or bad decision, the only way they will find out is from a subordinate. Two problems here: 1) for a superintendent to stand up to a state official, a principal to a superintendent, a teacher to a principal—takes a lot of nerve and risk. 2) If the subordinate has the nerve to question a policy from a superior often it is dismissed as a complaint. (remember, incompetence doesn’t recognize competence in others)
What does this mean for teachers?
1) Embrace and support effective leaders. Do everything in your power to make sure they understand how necessary they are.
2) Remember your primary client- the student. Sometimes you have to jump through hoops, but you’re in the classroom with your clients every day. Use your good judgment and do the right thing.
3) Build credibility and legitimacy by showing competence in your job. Parents and students will become evidence of your ability giving greater weight to your voice beyond the classroom.
4) Stay informed. Pay attention to legislative actions, express your opinion, and educate the public through your network of friends and colleagues. (Or just refer them to The Teaching Underground if that’s too hard).
5) Remember that even when you feel like others see you as a cog in the wheel, that everyday YOU exercise the true power of leadership: You have the power to create the environment that allows each person you interact with to become the best person they can.