Reluctant Leaders

If the literature on school reform places instructional leadership as the number one contributor to effective schools, why are school administrators reluctant to embrace that role? What follows institutional realities that work to constrain school administrators from assuming responsibility for the functions of instructional leadership.

Training
Graduate schools offering advanced degrees in Educational Administration are thick on managerial offerings—finance, law, administration, building and grounds, technology, special education, human resources—and thin on course offerings in curriculum, instruction, and supervision. It is no surprise then, when teachers move to main offices the instructional functions of their offices are delegated to more junior administrators.

Career Advancement
The inconvenient truth of school administration is career advancement is based on resumes filled with managerial accomplishments: balancing a budget, implementing a technology plan, passing a referendum, lobbying governmental bodies, bringing in a building project under budget, negotiating contracts, resolving special interest disputes. Rarely do you see Principals or Superintendents with resumes filled with instructional accomplishments: writing of a teacher evaluation plan, designing of a quality staff development program, the development of innovative alternative instructional programs, the implementation of theory-based pedagogy.

A review of any line and staff chart in main offices confirms what functions advance careers in school administration and what functions leave a school administrator at the bottom of the chart. To begin with, the men and women at the top of the chart are no longer considered Superintendents—they are now CEO’s. Below the office of CEO are job descriptions dominated by titles representing managerial functions: finance, personnel, building and grounds, technology, data management, security. At the bottom of the chart are Assistant Principles and Department Chairpersons assigned the responsibility for some form of teacher supervision.

Even instructional jobs that were once at the top of the line and staff chart—Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction—have been retitled to represent some form of instructional management: Assistant Superintendent for Data Analysis or Assistant Superintendent for Annual Performance Data.

You Don’t Bother me and I Won’t Bother You
The egg crate design of institutional schooling places teachers into self-contained classrooms that are largely walled off from any form of collaboration, collective sense making, or collegial coaching. What this isolation breeds is an attitude amongst teachers that their classrooms are private domains that no parent or administrator has a right to enter or comment on. Parents or administrators who dare to cross the classroom threshold will be met with an attitude ranging from suspicion to outright hostility—especially if the conversations move towards teaching performance.
School administrators employ the following managerial strategies that circumvent uncomfortable conversations about teaching and learning:

  • They fill their calendars with managerial functions that leave little or no time for classroom supervision;
  • They delegate supervision to newly employed administrators;
  • They complete mandated supervisory responsibilities attending to the forms of supervision—completing check lists, brief observation visits, writing gratuitous comments on evaluation forms, but not the substance of supervision —educating, conferencing, coaching, remediating.

Morale
School administrators are extremely sensitive to the charge by members of the school community that the staff is suffering from low morale. Even the most seasoned administrator stays awake at night when informed that staff morale is low. Nothing lowers morale faster that disrupting comfortable teaching routines and asking teachers to adopt uncomfortable teaching routines.

The Community
For the most part, parents are pleased with the forms of schooling: the seven-period day, grades, subjects, tracking, six hour days, honor rolls, building configurations. As long as the forms of schooling are performed well, parents will believe their local school is a good school.

Parents become upset with school administrators who question the substance of institutional schooling: course structures, grading, ability grouping, time allocations, role of extra-curricular activities. The introduction of an interdisciplinary program, the reduction of tracks, the implementation of alternative grading systems, the elimination of weighted grades will produce open hostility from a community who wants their school to mirror the schools they attended.

Job Satisfaction
Finally, managerial functions involve organizing and monitoring the objects of schooling: budgets, buildings, materials, technologies, grounds. After a day of managing objects, administrators can point to tangible outcomes for their efforts: a budget is completed, classes are balanced in the master schedule, a computer lab is installed, a contract is signed, grades go out on time.
School administrators will not experience the same managerial satisfaction in supervising the subjects of schooling: teachers and students. The countless external and internal variables that swirl around classrooms and the inability to define or quantify educational abstractions written into school mission statement make it all but impossible to connect supervisory moves—teacher observation—to student outcomes—critical thinking.

School administrators who assume the role of instructional leader will leave school buildings each day never really knowing if a post-conference, a curriculum proposal, a hallway conversation, a teaching assignment, or a new technology will result in a quality learning experience. In fact, quite the opposite, instead of knowing they have completed a job well done, they will keep replaying in their mind how they could do their job better.

Budgets, Boilers and Boosters

One of the primary goals every school leader should be striving for is strong instructional leadership.  That is, to develop quality instructional programs focusing on discussion, debate, deliberation and deep thinking rather than the mere transmission of principles, facts and procedures.

Even though research indicates that effective schools are lead by strong instructional leaders, surveys of school administrators show that their time is spent more on school management functions; budgets, boilers and boosters.  The goal of a Principal is to keep their eye on the teaching and learning ball;  curriculum development, teacher evaluation, staff development, mentoring, coaching, reading research.

In my journey to understand and practice strong instructional leadership, there are questions to think about and barriers to overcome in order to focus on building an effective learning environment for kids:

Why do school administrators end up managing the routines of schooling rather than confronting the complexities of classroom instruction?

What are the barriers to implementing new and more effective approaches to curriculum and instruction?

What knowledge and skills must a school administrator acquire to effectively drive effective teaching strategies?

How do school administrators persuade skeptical teachers to adopt substantive changes to curriculum and instruction?

How do school administrators work with legislation and regulations in education that disrupt substantive improvements to curriculum and instruction?

How do school administrators work with teachers in classrooms to make collective sense of theory-based pedagogies?

These are the questions we must answer in order to create a quality classroom experience for optimal learning.