Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Educational Leadership-Part III Advice to Leaders

PART III and final of series on Educational Leadership

Any fool can open a computer and explore the wealth of resources on leadership to improve themselves or others. But what sense does it make if those of us not necessarily in a leadership "position" don't throw in their 2 cents?   Enter the TU and our advice to education leaders everywhere.

First and foremost start by picking people as leaders who want THAT job. Not someone who wants to use it for advancement. Those types usually have agendas and will need to show quick signs of progress to move on.  They act more like a bull in a china shop than a leader.  National education leadership is rife with examples of people that fit this mold.   If you are a teacher you likely know a few closer to home. They are not all bad. But they are far from all good.   If I got their ear for a few minutes I'd bend it and offer some advice.  How honest I'd would depend largely on whether I thought it would do any good.

Another piece of advice for leaders is to listen to people before they listen to data.  What's lost in the data driven education landscape is good common sense built on years of experience. Valuing tests more than people creates exactly the test driven world many fear. The healthy tension that exists between those inside a classroom and those that direct them doesn't have to be bad thing.

As a leader you must yoke your strengths.  In education that is good teaching.  So one of the best things you could do is allow teachers the freedom and flexibility to teach well.  Support them, value their time and protect their ability to function by insulating them from anything that interferes with the process of teaching and learning. 

Start not by telling, and not necessarily by asking. Start with proposing and then listen closely. Unlike a true politician who recognizes they will have to compromise if they want to get anything done, educational leaders don't have a "loyal opposition" to keep their poor ideas in check.   Honest feedback is too frequently neither welcome nor sought in the process.  Imagine if we had decisions made only by ideology in politics. It'd be a less than ideal scenario.

Teachers, counselors, principals and other staff in the school buildings often have to negotiate very delicate situations. This requires an equal amount if not more political skill than an actual politician. Difference being, they work to always keep in mind the goal of what is best for the student, not what is best for themselves. Assuming all act as professionals and not in their own self interest, the results should be positive.  But not always.  That's because education is not an exact science.  The good decision makers try to balance all interests and arrive at compromise as appropriate.  We can't do only what students want(there are obvious flaws there).  We can't do only what parents want.  We can't do only what teachers want.  We shouldn't do only what educational leaders want.  That last bears repeating.   We shouldn't do only what educational leaders want.

Leaders should actively seek feedback use it to guide their decisions and future direction. They should recognize that experience in the teaching field and education brings a certain amount of wisdom worth listening to.   They might benefit from bringing everyone to the table when needed. Including critics who do not see much of what today's schools do as successful. Their different perspective might provide an alternative to status quo.  But it is also key to separate theory from practice and remember who has their feet on the ground each day.

Leaders must avoid self fulfilling prophecies. Finding what they are looking for either before or after their actions may be an outgrowth of selective evidence. This grows increasingly common with data driven decisions. A change is made and then data selectively harvested  justifying the course of action and confirming what they seek. Belief can be a powerful thing.

Leaders should hold themselves accountable to their goals. I and my colleague face this each year. Not just with benchmark tests but each time we know there will come a reckoning when we assign a grade. We must be able to justify it or make it right by the student and their parents. We mustn't forget the individual nature of education. The formalized process has been this way for thousands of years and enables individuals to survive in an increasingly diverse and complex civilization. Online classes and other increasingly common means of "instruction and learning" differ little in that all the data, science and research will never change the fact that in there is a student and there is a teacher.

Leaders must build relationships with people at different levels who can speak openly and honestly.  That as much as anything would be a key help guide a successful leader. Avoid the cursory "walk among the troops" or anonymous opinions and instead try to establish a network or pipeline to help guide innovation and improvement. This should be built from the bottom up and as more of a partnership. Too many "yes men" insulate leaders from the realities of the front. I personally favor internal promotion which seems to have fallen out of favor in the networks of leadership. While risking stagnation it affords a more collegial system of relationship among leaders. There are some weaknesses of this approach but good leaders can overcome them.  Certainly there are exceptions and most effective leadership skills transfer well to other settings.

Of course everything said here should be taken with a grain of salt. I am after all just a teacher. But those who have that thought when speaking with me without first listening to what I say have proven they know less than I do about leadership.

We at the Teaching Underground World Headquarters endure and succeed(that is debatable) because we make a point and manage somehow to avoid the vitriol and rhetoric that takes over almost any current debate on education.

The last bit of advice I have to leaders is they could follow the lead of our nation's greatest teachers.   Keep an eye on fixing what's broken and simply helping others do, and be, their best. I read recently a comment on a blog that said the following of educational reform:  
"A reform movement that assigns no responsibility to students, parents, administrators, school boards, state and federal legislators, universities and taxpayers is doomed to failure." 
It would seem that instead of including and listening to teachers, too many are simply blaming them.

I will leave you with some images meant to have you consider how they relate to leadership.  As you consider them ask some simple questions  "Why should anyone be led by you?  Why do you really want to be a leader?  Are you really making things better?"

How and why are people able to do extraordinary things? 
How and why is it possible that people at the top can see farther and reach higher?

ROYGBIV  Which color leads?

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