I was speaking with a principal about leadership about his years in education and what he thought he did best in the many years he held that position. He told me that there are very few people that can do his job for as long as he has because of the rigors of life as an administrator. He talked about how difficult the hours, paperwork, decisions, etc are. I asked him how he thought he made it this far and he said that he “knew people”. I asked what he meant by that and he said that you have to know how different people work, how they work together, and how to make them all paddle the boat in the same direction. He said that if you know how to do that, you have become a leader who can stick around for a long time. I have a feeling that it takes much more than that to be a leader, but it is truly a great start. My philosophy of leadership in education requires the leadership to be daring, compassionate, experienced, dedicated, and involved. I believe that the educational leader must have all of those attributes wrapped into one person, or a group of people working together. Our students, community members, staff, and other administration members need the leadership to have the above attributes, but also have the ability to adapt to new situations. I do not believe that educational leadership has to come from only one person, or have a formal position or name attached to it. The natural leaders will almost always come to the forefront when they are needed, but can step back and let their plan run its’ course after they have put it in action.
I have observed too many people in educational leadership just continue to operate with the status quo. As long as the budget was balanced, the test scores were good, the teachers were happy, and the students were learning, everything was fine. People believe that those involved in leadership need to maintain homeostasis within the schoolhouse. I actually believe that people who only maintain the status quo are just that…maintenance people. I feel that real leaders stretch themselves out beyond the status quo to see how to turn good from great, or good enough into something better. In an article about switching learning disabled students from basal readers to novels, Lynne Chalmers (1992), a teacher of the learning disabled (LD), writes about how the former LD teachers would just continue to work with basal reading strategies with the students, even though they were not totally effective. Chalmers decided to be a leader and break from what was not working. Through the use of novels with her LD students, she was able to get them to leave the LD program and complete all of the high school level English requirements before they graduated, which was a first in their district. Chalmers became a leader when she decided to move away from the status quo, take a risk, and work towards the betterment of her students. Her leadership status was also increased because she brought her idea to other classrooms, and found change among those teachers and their population. A teacher does not have to have the results that Mrs. Chalmers did to be considered a leader, but her ability to read the situation, adjust to it, and make a change is critical to anyone involved in leadership.
When I have felt most successful as a teacher leader it is when I was able to transform the thoughts of the other teachers, and really get them to see that there was another path that we could take to making the school successful. I used to teach in what some people would refer to as a “tough school”. It fit every demographic the typical tough school fits into. It was a historically low achieving school with a population that was mostly low socioeconomic class minorities from single parent homes and it is located in a post industrial town. The approach teachers had in this school was to punish the students and continue to add more and more complex rules that were at the core, an attack on any derivation from the school house rules of old. This was supposed to improve our school and make us test better. Of course, many students ran afoul of the rules and they had to deal with the consequences, which is how it should be, but our problem was that the rate of recidivism was almost one hundred percent and the rate at which students were “getting in trouble” was off the charts. There was not enough time to keep up with all of the rules and still be an effective teacher. I saw that we were not making our school better, but we were actually regressing. In a team meeting, I suggested that we start to reward the positive behaviors while relaxing the number of bad behaviors we saw in a day. Some people were hard lined against it, but I felt that I needed to turn them around. I do not know if it was because I was so stubborn, we were in such a bad place, or they did not want to fight, but I got them to agree to make a change. The system was working for two years before I left that school, and there was a different feeling in the building with the new discipline roles we put into place. Through research I found that other people believe that what I did is a quality of an effective leader, although I did it just so I could make my school day flow a bit better. A formal term for what I did is called a transformational leader. According to Bushner, and Harris (1999 pg. 3), I am a transformational leader because I was able to make an “impact upon the culture to change it”. I believe that being a leader requires the ability to transform the beliefs and the ideas of people so that the culture can improve, but I know from very early experience that it is extremely difficult to do, and does not happen over night.
Sometimes the person in the leadership role needs to make a tough decision, or they need to adjust to the feelings of any group from the students to the community or even the staff. Too often a good leader is looked at to be a hard nosed, tough person who follows along with what they want to do and have everyone follow along with them regardless of how they feel about it. Leadership of that variety is rarely truly successful. There is often an appearance of leadership because people will comply with their directives given from a leader, but if we were to strip back the layers, we would see that there was a disconnect among the groups affected by that type of leadership. That is why I feel that leadership needs to include a certain amount of compassion and understanding for those who are affected by the actions of the leaders. That compassion and personal understanding will lead to an increase in the functionality of the school. This is clearly stated by Michael Fielding (2006) in his article Leadership, Personalization and High Performance Schooling: Naming the New Totalitarianism, where he writes, “The high performing school is an organization in which the personal is used for the sake of functional”. Good leaders who realize that the function of the school is increased when the feelings of those affected are taken into account will be most successful. The school community is greatly affected by decisions that leaders make, so the leader needs to take the personal feelings into consideration when making their decisions.
I feel that to be an effective teacher leader, the teacher needs to have a great deal of background in their subject area. This can come from formal education or from field experience, but it is a crucial component to effective leadership. In the article …New Blueprints, Joseph Murphy (2002) writes “…educational leaders will need to be more broadly educated in general and much more knowledgeable about the core technology of education in particular”. I feel that the breadth of the education of a leader is more important than the depth of education because many times a teacher with very deep knowledge can not relate to the other teachers in the building, and also have a hard time creating a cross curricular program, or leading a wide range of educators. If there is a wider education in the leader, they can lead much more effectively because they can relate to a wider range of the staff.
Even though the teacher that can relate across the curriculum can be looked at as an effective leader because of their broad range of knowledge, they may also be looked upon as ineffective because of their lack of knowledge of nuances of each field. In the view of some experts on the staff, the teacher with a broad knowledge base who becomes a leader may be more of a curse than a blessing. In the article Building Bridges pg. 34 (2000) the author quotes a researcher who says “The first price…one pays is a loss of credibility in terms of people who are really involved, and rightfully so, in their particular disciplines.” I have witnessed the generalist who comes in to a school and starts to talk about a topic and is either questioned, dismissed, or ignored by the experts, but more often than not, the specialist is looking to forward their agenda, or loses the rest of the staff if there is any indication of bias towards the experts department. It often appears that the specialist has a hard time relating to the broad range of teachers in a building, where the generalist is usually able to bridge the necessary gaps on the way to being an effective leader.
Many times, the teachers in a school look to the principal, superintendent, or other person named as a leader. I do not believe that we only have to look at one person to be the leader. I believe that a large percentage of the school faculty can be the leader, or they can take a shared responsibility for leadership. In the article, Building Collective Efficacy, How Leaders Inspire Teachers to Achieve; Dana Brinson and Lucy Steiner (2005) write about a concept called collective teacher efficacy. In the school studied, the teachers and all staff were empowered by the leadership to take charge of the curriculum and feel equally responsible for the wellness of the students and school community. I feel that this is the true mark of leadership because the formal school leaders were able to share the responsibilities with other trusted colleagues and those colleagues take the reigns and the responsibility of leadership.
The leader that I feel school should look to are not those who may have an air of democracy where they superficially look for outside input, but are really going to follow their own agenda, or the agenda set forth by upper administration. To be an effective school leader there has to be a certain amount of honest and sincere discourse with other professionals in the building. The successful leader needs to get people to talk and see what needs to be done, then take the suggestions from the staff and actually add them to the choices of decisions they will make. In taking the ideas of the staff, and adding them to the decision making process, the leader will add many sources for fresh ideas to the process, versus making themselves the primary source for new ideas (Peck 1991).
There are some researchers that believe that adding the ideas of too many leaders will spoil the decision making process. They think that a large group of leaders because may muddy the waters of responsibility. When there are too many people who think they have a stake in the leadership of a school, people some staff may lose sight of who is actually in charge. When explaining some of the problems with the distributive leadership plan Jeff Gould (2004 pg. 76) writes, “Attempts to exert influence can be met by counter influence”, meaning that teachers who want to share the leadership duties may feel some negative pushback from people who may not actually be their formal superior, but part of the leadership team of the school. I feel that to avoid or mediate this situation, we need to have strong formal leaders and training in how an informal leader approaches a colleague, or other school staff when they have criticism. I have had the experience where too many “leaders” in the school made the people in formal leadership roles look like marionettes with too many strings attached. They were pulled every which way except for what was the best for the kids and the district, but this was because they were poor leaders to start with. No matter what the situation, when it came to leadership outside of their formal position scope, or in a truly critical or crucial decision making role, they fumbled regardless of who was around, so to say that all leaders who rely on any type of distributed leadership will have problems in maintaining order is not fully accurate.
When teachers become involved with the school community and the development of other teachers, they exhibit leadership qualities that will affect the development of the entire school. In the article Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion (2007) write about the teacher leader being an instructional specialist as well as a mentor, among other roles. When the leader is a mentor for other teachers, they are able to pass along their knowledge and experience to another generation of educators, and also lead the development of the rest of the school community. The role of instructional specialist is also very important because this most directly affects the students in the classroom. The teacher leader who is the instructional specialist can help many students, which in turn can help the entire community.
I feel that an often-overlooked component of leadership is the ability to manage the mundane tasks of administering a school, classroom, or any real undertaking while still working toward change. Sometimes the job of the teacher, principal, coach, etc is mired in administrative tasks that cannot be delegated down the chain. Sometimes there are just things that need to get done, and there is nothing the leader can do about it. I can have the most effective classroom in the world where all students are learning, progressing, exposed to new ways of thinking and relating, but if I can not get the attendance to the main office, or fill out my supply request form for next year, I might as well be outside cutting the grass, because I am not fulfilling the role of true leader. If the paperwork and mundane things do not get done, the school does not run. I can have the nicest car in the world, but if I have no gas or a flat tire, it has the same effectiveness as my two feet. This relates back to the school leader who cannot get the day to day done. As much as we like change, there is still a school to run. I struggle with this all the time. I have grants, and ideas that I want to implement, but I need to make sure I can get the day-to-day stuff done first. To truly be a successful leader they have to work to maintain the status quo as well as find an effective way to balance change with the necessary day-to-day work. (Spillane, et al. 2004).
For a teacher to truly be am effective leader they really must posses the attitude that they can go out and make a difference in their school and they know that sometimes the are going to have to stick their neck out to make the changes that they see as important. They also must strike a balance and understand that the status quo should not be sacrificed for change for change sake. The teacher leader should have a vast background in their subject matter and be willing to share the experiences and strategies that made them the leaders that they are. Being a teacher leader is often a solely volunteer job with no extra perks and almost always much more work added to a plate that is already overflowing, but the real teacher leaders are not taking on that role because they will get noticed for it or have less responsibility. They are doing the job that needs to be done to make their school more effective, productive, and ready to face the challenges of educating the youth of today.
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