Saturday, April 17, 2010

O Captain! My Captain!

Without a strong administration, a school will capsize and teachers and students alike will be left to swim for it. In that case the students are encouraged to swim to shore where they would have disembarked, but the teachers are left to tread water and save as many as possible for as long as they can. The frustrating thing is that the captain(s) don’t necessarily go down with the ship in these cases.

What I’ve heard…

I spoke with several superintendents while in the School of Ed, and each said that the most difficult job they’ve ever run up against is that of a high school principal. Between all of the public appearances expected, the equivalent to running a business as well as being the leader of teachers and ensuring the emotional and developmental well-being of hundreds of students, the job demands every ounce of one’s energy as well as the vast majority of one’s time. Personal time is a term referring to the small amount of sleep they get. The principals I’ve spoken with in NYC have said that the most difficult job they’ve bashed into has been that of first-year teacher in the city. Perhaps they’re just being modest.

That said about the difficulty of the position, the leaders of the school- Principal, Assistant Principals and Dean of Discipline- are vital to the success at the school. Without competent and talented people in these positions it’s nearly impossible for a school to be very successful even with master teachers. These people need to be able to maintain morale, recruit like mad and rake in sponsors to support the ranks holding the line. They must keep the confidence of the community and they must understand the trials, tribulations and successes of the community so they know what the students will face during their tenure at the school and thereafter. They must also boost the morale of their troops while maintaining the support of parents- two groups notorious for infighting. Good administrators are also expected to know the names of most of their students, and increasingly the needs of each student- especially as NYC moves to a small school model.

And that’s just some of it. In spite of the fact that the job is gargantuan, the sort of people being commissioned as administrators varies widely. Some are great, some are driving education into the ground, and some seem simply to be holding on and waiting for something- at times either a paycheck or someone else to fix the problems they face in the system.

All of that said, I’ve tried to categorize as best I can the administrators I’ve seen during my short tenure in the field.

Killers of the Classroom

The Corrupt
These range from those who are administrators for the paycheck to those who embezzle from the school system. After a year and a half in the field it’s frightening how often I’ve heard instances of the latter happening. Colleagues have described storage closets full of school supplies that were off-limits to the staff. They’d be filled with expensive supplies and then emptied into non-descript white vans at the front of the school.

The Incompetent
To be a strong leader you must be able to demonstrate what it is you want those following you to do. For a lot of reasons, the default attitude of teachers is skeptical when talking to anyone who is trying to tell them what should be done in the classroom. A principal who does not radiate the idea that she herself is a master teacher will simply not inspire confidence in her staff. Unfortunately many incompetent teachers who do not want to quit the field, but who are not making it in the classroom, decide to move up the ladder to an admin position. Also unfortunately, many of these are promoted by their superiors simply to get them out of the classroom. While I respect the urgency of removing the incompetent from the classroom, promoting people because it’s impossible to get rid of them is not promoting the health of the system. To be sure, this is not the only way the incompetent get into these leadership roles.

The Tyrannical
Sometimes the responsibility of being an administrator goes to the head of those at the helm. While they may fall in the category of incompetent as well, these folks try to make up for the lack of leadership skills by flexing all of their muscle both with students and with staff practically all of the time. If you are unaware, schools can really do very little in terms of punishing students. Flexing and flexing is good and fine if you’re looking in the mirror, but not necessarily when trying to impress your staff and students simply by demonstrating your legal ability to tell them what to do.

The Insane
My girlfriend was oftentimes at odds with one of these at a school she used to work in. That AP was arrested for stabbing her boyfriend with scissors. The incident actually made the newspaper, but because the boyfriend dropped the charges the AP was re-instated without recourse almost immediately.

Follow them to the Front Line

When it comes to administrators and teachers, it’s oftentimes easier to spot the bad ones, rather than the good ones. Perhaps that’s why we concentrate so much on them. If you take any time to look, however, it’s easy to spot the great leaders. They inspire real confidence, show you what they expect and demand excellence. If they're good at their jobs their staffs will follow them in their entirety (or nearly in their entirety) and will be able to hold the line far more successfully.

Great administrators certainly have different styles and generally land somewhere on a spectrum between a very top-down, directive management style and the more bottom-up, allow the staff freedom to succeed sort of style. It seems that the most successful of them strike a balance somewhere in the middle, perhaps on an issue-specific basis. By that I mean that there are specific issues on which administrators must hand down their decisions with an iron fist, and others that must be resolved organically by lower-level staff members. Regardless, its tough to categorize them other than saying they’ve struck an effective balance somewhere on this spectrum.

This might warrant another post altogether as well, but in a nutshell, I believe that as with teachers, there is not a large enough pool of highly-trained, experienced and brilliant people vying for these jobs. These are our captains. They should be the ones directing us and determining how to best utilize our resources as a cohesive unit in order to give the best education possible to our students. Without strong leadership teachers are left to shut and lock their classroom doors and slug it out themselves. When they march off to war in isolation teachers might put up a great fight, but the students suffer tremendously in the long term. It’s also far more likely that a teacher will one day drown when this is the case.

The leadership of a school cannot be taken lightly. Unfortunately, great leaders are difficult to find. Principals vary from those young, bright individuals starting up their own schools to those who have PhD’s, a century of experience and are simply taking over for established schools. These people must be leaders, politicians and great educators. Their jobs demand that they work essentially without pause the entire time they hold their position.

As with teachers, we need to be able to get rid of the bad ones, attract more applicants to the field and applaud those that are successful in their positions. Unfortunately I’m not sure we’re doing any of these things effectively, nor will we in the near future given the way people are determining the success of these leaders.

Today's Wine: Maipe Malbec, 2009. The description at that link was pretty spot-on. It's fruity, not too dry and well-balanced. Very acceptable for a bottle around ten bucks and it went well with some cheap but amazing Mexican carry out.

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