Surveys of school administrators consistently place a high priority on the role of instructional leadership. On these same surveys, however, school administrators also admit that their managerial duties leave them with little time to perform the functions of instructional leadership: supervision of teachers, curriculum development, staff development, staffing, testing and evaluation, school improvement, technology, cultural diversity, exceptionality. This admission by school administrators is confirmed by daily desk calendars crowded with managing budgets, supervising building projects, completing governmental compliance forms, writing a community newsletter, ordering school supplies, adjusting bus schedules, conferring with attorneys on a new board policy, reviewing a grievance with a union representative, and solving the managerial crisis of the day.
Included in these desk calendars are what I term managerial Bents. A managerial Bent is an activity or set of activities that school administrators possess a personal interest in or aptitude for. Some enjoy the knowledge and skills associated with various sporting programs. Some are interested in the details of budgets and finance. Some have a love of the arts. Some are attracted to processes for writing policies. There is no end to the number and variety of Bents school administrators bring into their offices each day (see the charts below).
Bents satisfy the three longings of school administrators. First, they serve as a diversion from becoming involved in the messy world of classroom supervision. Discussing the purchase of a new tractor is far more gratifying than working with a poorly performing teacher.
Second, they allow administrators the satisfaction of skillfully performing a task well. Balancing a budget is far more gratifying than working with team of teachers on low test scores.
Lastly, career advancement in building and central office hierarchies is based on past performance on managerial functions, and, in particular, a candidate’s experience with a Bent they have listed on their resume. All schools have an issue that established managerial tools have been unable to resolve. The problem, however, does align well with the knowledge and skills that may have developed in pursuit of a particular Bent. A perspective candidate will pick up on this issue when asked specific questions about how they became interested in the Bent, what they know about the Bent, and how would that Bent will resolve the particular problem that, so far, routine managerial tools has been unable to resolve.
Rarely, if ever, are their questions related to the Educational Bent, which at the beginning of the interview, the Superintendent as already proclaimed is world class.
The Erosion of Instructional Leadership
No doubt there exist in every school problematic issues that match the knowledge and skills of a particular Bent. Over time, however, the inclination to look at all administrative functions through the lens of a particular Bent will erode the role of instructional leadership. The erosion begins with resumes thick on developing a particular Bent and thin on a developing expertise in curriculum and instruction. Without a deep understanding of research driven teaching models and curriculum designs, school administrators lack the expertise required to educate, facilitate, and coach the theories and practices driving what the literature terms, ambitious teaching.
Further erosion occurs when main offices divert human and material resources from the classrooms to enhancing a personal Bent. The reassignment of resources to a particular interest of an administrator sends a subtle message to teachers that what they do classrooms is secondary to whatever Bent shows up in main office conference rooms.
What remains of the functions of instructional leadership completely pass away when building and district administrators disappear from teacher workplaces, only to reappear as fixtures in main and district offices, garages, board rooms, governmental offices, conference lodgings, and whatever spaces best house the pursuit of a particular Bent. Without the presence of building or district leadership, teachers see no urgency or commitment to learning and practicing new pedagogies.
Although the pursuit of Bents marginalizes the role of instructional leader, for the most part, they do no direct harm to an instructional program. There is one Bent, however, that is particularly toxic to any educational program. Administrators, whose sole goal is climbing up school administrative hierarchies, calculate which administrative functions will advance or will stall their administrative careers. As mentioned already, building and district offices tend to favor and reward administrators who demonstrate the competent performance of managerial functions. Climbers understand this managerial bias early on in their careers and skillfully navigate assigned administrative tasks in ways that allow them to devote their entire attention to efficiently executing favored managerial Bents.
The inattention to supervisory functions is rarely detected in main offices focused on the hard skills of management—budgeting, purchasing, inventorying, scheduling, negotiating, allocating, inspecting. Hard skills possess identifiable inputs that can be manipulated in ways that produce identifiable outputs. The soft skills of supervision—educating, facilitating, coaching—involve countless known and unknown human and organizational variables interacting in ways that produce unpredictable and often unexplainable outcomes.
Given the bias towards attending to managerial bents over educational functions, Climbers that reach leadership positions carry with them three behaviors that will marginalize any schools instructional program. First, whatever instructional initiative lands in a Climbers in-box, they will reduce the theories, concepts, and practices of the new curriculum design or teaching model to a managerial format—checklists, protocols, plans, projects—that will compromise the full understanding and application of new models of teaching and learning.
Secondly, Climbers will see in a new instructional initiative an opportunity to enhance their particular Bent. The goals, theories, and practices of a new instructional initiative will become the rationale for purchasing a new data processing program or constructing a media center, or employing an additional administrator, or developing a new managerial system.
Lastly, Climbers avoid the messiness and uncertainties of implementing a new instructional initiative by a policy of salutary neglect: program specifications will be loosely interpreted; program resources will be unevenly allocated; training will be sporadic and amateurish; program outcomes will go unreported or become muddled. Salutary neglect breeds a school culture of cynicism towards any form of organizational or instructional innovation.
The Public’s Bent on Bents
The pervasiveness and resilience of Bents in main offices is largely driven by a school communities’ attraction to the observable outcomes each Bent produces. The yearly open house event is always punctuated with the mention or tour of this year’s newest Bent-–a pool, a media center, a coach, an extracurricular activity, a source of revenue. There is no mention or tours of new approaches to teaching and learning. Not only are the outcomes of innovative instructional programs impossible to observe, but, the theories and practices supporting these programs involve terminologies and concepts that is well beyond the interest and educational backgrounds of open house attendees.
Bent Out of Shape
At this point in the blog, some readers may ask: “what is the big deal about administrators pursuing a particular interest of theirs, which maybe tangential to the instructional program, but, at the end of the day, enhance the schooling experience? The big deal lies with school organizations shaped around the pursuit of the goals and functions of a Bent rather that shaped around the educational mission of schooling.
Main offices that achieve the educational goals listed in their mission statements shape organizational structures and systems in ways that facilitate the learning, understanding, and practicing of new teaching models and curriculum designs. Main offices that pursue personal Bents shape organizational structures and systems in ways that value the forms over the substance of schooling.
DrawingsPunch listsLeviesDistrict funds
|The Climber||Listening tours|
Adoption of programs
In state certification
The program/technique of the day
Social media (blogs, web pages)
|The Educator||Instructional worldview|
Adoption of teaching model
Reflection on practice
|The Enforcer||Student code of conduct|
Police Liaison Officer
|The Financier||District budget|
Solicitation of vendors
Preparing financial statements
|The Governor||Writing policy/procedure|
Aligning systems with polices/procedures
Thinking out of the box
|The Technocrat||Employ specialists/consultants|
Develop merit pay systems
Establish measurable outcomes
Establish valued added measures/evaluation instruments
Establish data driven instructional program
|The Technologists||Needs assessment|
Write a tech plan
Employ IT personnel
District adoption of technologies
Attend tech conferences
5th, 6th, etc. generation