Posted by: principalsintraining | December 11, 2015

2016: The Year of Supporting Your School Administrator

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Begin each day with a good breakfast, a bit of exercise and a driving question.

2014 was the year of being Transparent.

2015 has been the year of moving beyond agreement and friendship to something deeper.

In 2016, educational culture initiates its next tentative step forward when school communities take site and district administrators under their wing. At first glance this might seem like an attempt at being cheeky. Usually I do not pass up a good opportunity to be cheeky – however, in this case, I am not being cheeky at all. Don’t get me wrong – this premise does sound funny; in our industry parlance we support kids and we support teachers. We don’t view school administrators (site, district) as people that need support; they are the ones that provide it. That is why they exist.

This kind of thinking dehumanizes the administrator, and, paradoxically, I believe it contributes to a leadership mindset that teachers and community members often complain about in administrators: a feeling that school leaders take on the role of being in charge and talk a big game about growth/change (etc., ad nauseam) without doing the work (or demonstrating the vulnerability) to grow/change ourselves. Broadly speaking, school culture has developed a powerful tradition of backchannel complaint about leadership while doing little to develop open, honest, transparent means by which school leaders receive, consider and reflect on feedback. As Dennis Sparks wisely asserts, we are in grave danger when the most honest conversations happen in the parking lot.

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Like David Hockney’s York landscape videos, we must nourish good leadership through inclusion of multiple perspectives. 

Part of this is the responsibility of school leaders to create opportunities for this kind of open, constructive critique (and – as may sometimes be the case – praise!); part of it is the responsibility of teachers, staff and community members to communicate their ideas, challenges, concerns – and support – openly, publicly. So often school leaders try with every earnest ounce of their being to generate and sustain enthusiasm for healthy relationships, inventive teaching practice and equity mindset – to be the positive contagion spoken about by Michael Fullan. When they feel shot down, it often isn’t because a majority of staff doesn’t support them…

…rather because a majority of staff won’t speak up to express that they DO support these ideas. When an organization is more worried about maintaining friendly social relations (see post for 2015) – when people decide to not speak what they feel/believe for fear of losing friends/status – the creative lifeblood of the organization loses fluidity and vigor.

I’ll offer different ideas about how to support your site and district administrators – accompanied by complaints/concerns I often hear about school leaders. The way we improve as organizations – and as a broader culture – is by taking ownership of our individual responsibility to take our concerns to the source in a solution-oriented frame of mind. And we improve by not replicating archaic notions of hierarchy – we all commit to coaching UP

“I almost never see admin in my classroom – they don’t know what I’m doing (and how hard I’m working) every day.”

Invite school leaders to your classroom. Better still – make an appointment for them to come on a specific time/date. Yes, admin are usually “busy,” but the way we support administrators’ growth is by having them spend more time in our schools’ learning spaces. Share with them the context of what they will be seeing; sit down with them afterwards to debrief what they saw. Ask for their input while also sharing your vision for what you are doing in your classroom.

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Images from a week of school; leaders often need YOUR push to get out of their office and see the magic.

“It’s been forever since they (admin) were teachers; they forget what it’s like to teach.”

Invite admin to teach your class. For this to be successful, sit down with them ahead of time to plan (maybe right after they come observe your class!). Rather than make the lesson something different from what you are working on (a “special” lesson that might come off more like a parlor trick), have them deliver a lesson that is a natural part of your course’s evolution. Observe them teach (and suggest that more teachers join the observation) and debrief afterwards. Help your administrator continue to grow/reflect as a teacher and help them experience first hand new/emerging methodologies and curricula that have come about since they “left the classroom.” (Another interesting semantic choice that can be misleading; great school leaders, like Tim Lauer in Portland, are in more classrooms more frequently than they ever were as teachers)

“I hate staff meetings. They are unproductive and demoralizing.”

Meet with your administrative team and bring ideas about how to make meetings better. Maybe they need more celebration, more community building, more time/opportunity for staff to learn from each other. Maybe you need to have a meeting outdoors. Suggest ideas for how they can gather formative feedback (most admin probably do not do this after meetings/PD – a huge lost opportunity). Volunteer to help build and agenda and facilitate. Don’t have time to do any of these things? That’s an excuse plenty of admin use to not visit you in your classroom.

“I’m afraid to speak my mind; I’m afraid of retribution.”

There ARE leaders that damage the trust their organization has in them by being defensive, angry, arrogant or (perhaps the worst of all) indifferent to critical feedback. There are examples of teachers that have been punished/fired unfairly for being leaders in their own right and speaking their mind to important issues. That said, I believe that the majority of school leaders operate with integrity and with (varying) degrees of emotional intelligence. Some of my proudest moments as a leader have come when staff (and students) have shared with me their concerns – whether more broadly associated with the organization or more specific to my work. But leaders will operate in a vacuum – and assume all is “well” – if no one opens up to them. 

Yes – leaders must create opportunities for this kind of feedback to happen in a variety of ways (my first trimester “report card” survey is hereand the people in the organization must meet them halfway. Sometimes “fear of retribution” becomes a knee-jerk excuse for not doing the right thing – and using the “admin as dictator” archetype to defend more complaining done in the parking lot.

“They think what they are doing is more important than what we are doing.”

This may sometimes be the case – but don’t make easy assumptions. Shadow your school leader for a day. See and experience the work they do. Ask to fill in for your site administrator when they are off-site. Walk in their shoes.

When a new teacher first steps into the classroom, they begin crafting the story of who they are as an educator – how they wish to be seen and experienced by their students and the community that extends outwards from the students. The same is true of the new school leader. Leaders in those first few, formative years are especially vulnerable (as are teachers – 50% leaving the profession within five years); they are weighing the question offered at the beginning of this post. Veteran leaders experience a different kind of danger (as do teachers); the certainty of expertise and the comfort of authority.

Ultimately, the most confident leader is the one that engages in continuous reflection on their work – the same mindset they ask of (and expect from) teachers and students.They must always tiptoe the line between “arrogance and despair” (Kanter) in their leadership while maintaing a sense of humility, curiosity and humor.

Teachers, staff, students and extended community must make it their work in 2016 to help them do so.

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