Aug 16

Leaders Stand Up

This is a post for Scott McLeod’s #LeadershipDay14. Thanks, as always, Scott, for providing a forum for us to push our thinking.

So, there’s a funny thing that has happened with a bunch of SLA teachers over the years. There are several folks who have come to SLA after spending time at schools with leadership who they felt were sub-standard. And, I think, after eight years, I am comfortable with the idea that, while I still have lots to learn as a leader, I’ve passed the “Doesn’t Suck” test. At least most days. So as a result, several teachers have come to me and had some version of this comment:

“Before I came here, I thought I might want to be a principal, but after watching what you do every day, I don’t want to be a principal anymore.”

And here’s the thing… leadership is hard. It just is. Every year we deal with the financial crisis of the School District of Philadelphia, I know that the teachers, students and parents of SLA are counting on me to figure out how to navigate the challenges we face while keeping the school intact.

Because leaders stand up.

And it gets harder at the next level. I was at an event around advocacy for the district recently, and a reporter asked me what I would do if I were facing what Dr. Hite was facing, and my first reaction was, “I’m thankful it’s him, not me.” He has dealt with financial challenges, and he keeps coming out, being visible, talking about the choices he’s making, and owning them all.

Because leaders stand up.

One of the incredible things about leadership is that it lays you bare for who you are. There are rare moments when I am 100% sure of my course of action, but what I have learned is that I have to listen to a lot of people, consider as many variables as I can, and then take action, even when it’s hard. Even when there isn’t a clear path of action.

Because leaders stand up.

And the thing about it is… if you want to be a leader, you have to learn that while you are always searching for the win-win, there are also moments where you have to make unpopular decisions. It’s lonely. It often sucks. And even the folks who you go to to figure it all out aren’t the ones who have to live with the decision after its done. The people you asked for advice… the folks you sought out… they all have the ability to say, “It wasn’t my decision to make.” And they are right. It was yours. If you listened to bad advice, that’s your fault, not theirs. No one holds the kitchen cabinet accountable. Only you.

Because leaders stand up.

And as educational leaders, when there are challenges that affect our kids, we send a message with our actions and our words. If we are unwilling to act, if we are unwilling to speak, our kids will take notice. But when we listen, when we speak, when we are willing to show our kids we care,  when we make sure our kids know that their issues are our issues,  we can be the educational leaders our kids and our teachers need us to be. And because of that, even if it is hard, even if we don’t feel like we know exactly what to say or do, even if not everyone will like what we do or say, we have to be willing to take the risk to do what we believe to be right.

Because leaders stand up.

Sep 03

Thoughts on Leadership: Better v. Different

“Well, it’s not the way I would have done it.”

One of the things that can be difficult about working toward a distributed leadership model is that people do things differently that you would. And yes, that’s also one of the best parts of distributed leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When I sit down with a teacher or a group of teachers, and they are a point where they have worked on something and now want to get feedback on it, I have to be thoughtful to make sure I look through the lens of the work that has been done, not the work that I would have done if it were me.

And that’s true, not just for administrators, but for everyone involved.

Oftentimes, committees are given the task of taking apart an idea and coming up with potential solutions to problems. Our committees are all open, so that any teacher can join any committee. When we come together as a faculty to examine what a committee has done, we have to be sure to respect the work that was done. I

It is easy to suggest different conclusions than what a group of people have come up with, but different doesn’t always mean better. There are times when a new idea or a new direction really is better than what is being proposed, but more often than not, a new idea is just different.

One of the ways to get around the better v. different challenge is to use critique, rather than brainstorming. When we ask questions of the idea or proposal in front of us, we are able to examine the idea on its merits, not in comparison to the idea in our own head. When we offer honest critique, we give other people’s ideas the airing they need before implementation. And when we allow ourselves to be open to the solutions other people come up with, we honor the work of others and create a more empowered school with truly distributed leadership.

For us to give up our ideas in those moments requires us to understand that there is, oftentimes, not a right or wrong way to do things, but different ways to do things, and that we – whether we are teachers or administrators (or parents or students) – do not have a monopoly on the right way to do things. And as a principal, if I want to empower leadership beyond the walls of my office, I have to understand that will people come up with different answers than mine, and that the honest critique of those ideas by multiple voices will often create answers that are far better.

Aug 14

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Simplify

I’m reading Up the Down Staircase right now, and far too much of it rings true than it should, especially when it comes to the arcane administrative details of the teaching life. And that brings me to tonight’s post – Simplify.

As much as I like to think of being a principal as being the “principal teacher,” there’s a significant portion of the job that is about management. In fact, a 2010 Calder Study suggests that organizational management may create greater change than instructional coaching. And that makes sense. Most of our schools are filled with crufty processes that make the whole add up to less than the sum of its parts. There are binders covered in dust that are filled with forms filled out by various members of the school community. There are legacy processes from forgotten initiatives – to the point where some schools still make teachers do Taylor Time-Studies.

And this isn’t exciting, but one of the things a new administrator can do is come in and simplify the lives of everyone else in the building. When we strip away the processes that are least effective, when we look to create efficiencies so that the things we have to do are easier, we allow teachers to focus on what really matters – the time they spend with students and the time they spend with the students’ work. If we have to ask teachers to take time away from that, we should ensure that we’re doing it for good reason, and we’re making it as easy for teachers to do the task as possible.

Anything we can turn into a Google Form instead of a Word Doc to fill out is a win for teachers. Any time we can link something to our internal faculty site instead of printing it out to be filed away and hunted for later, it’s a win. Any time we make it easier for parents to sign up to volunteer or meet with us, we increase good will. Any time we make the structure of school easier for students to understand, they will have more energy to invest in their learning.

So, here’s a thought for the first meetings with the various stakeholders… ask these questions:

  • For teachers: How can we simply the processes of school so that you can maximize the time you spend on teaching and learning? What do we not need to do? What can we do more easily and efficiently?
  • For parents: How can we make communication between home and school easier? How can we make sure that home and school both get the information we need in a timely fashion?
  • For students: When does the “game” of school get in the way of your learning? How can we make the structure of school more transparent, so that it is easier to focus on learning?

What would you simplify?