Who Leads in our Schools?

I saw this quote this morning. It is not a new idea, but it is certainly worth a discussion. As I continue to look for topics to write about, I continue to come back to leadership issues.

There are lots of people writing about leadership – there always has been. Sometimes I wonder how much experience these writers actually have working in a school dealing with the day to day difficulties that come with running an education institution. These days to get good ideas I usually go to my PLN on Twitter. There is a great deal of collective wisdom out there.

I put out this prompt to my PLN this morning.

I would like this to become another rolling blog, written by the members of my PLN. It worked once, and I hope there is some interest in discussing leadership as it happens in our schools. Is it simply the ‘frightening conclusion’ reached above by Jennifer Gonzalez?

I hope not. For me the best leaders are those who are almost invisible, silently encouraging others to have a voice.

Is this a difficult topic to talk about? I don’t know that many active administrators on Twitter, so it is hard to get their perspective. One very active member of my PLN  writes:

The collective whole sets the mood, culture and tone of a school. There are many leaders within any school. When teachers start seeing themselves as leaders in education and admin empowers such leadership that’s when education will change

Great to see this contribution, it makes me feel more positive about things. I truly worry when I hear that a school is defined by its traditional leader. I could write more about this, but I would love to see if others will add to this comment.

The contribution above also speaks to the need for change. Maybe if we can move away from the top down system we have now we can see the sparks of innovation really begin to light a flame.

Later in the day, Derek Rhodenizer sent me a note about a podcast conversation he had with Debbie Donsky on education leadership. This is one of the great things about developing a PLN on Twitter. You ask questions and great people get back to you with interesting content.

This is a really interesting conversation and worth listening to. Debbie Donsky makes some good points about taking a more collaborative approach as a leader in the school. Change should be able to take place in a school as a collective experience that reflects the needs of a wider community. This is harder to do, but this is an important element of effective leadership.

This is one of the great things about podcasts. In 40 minutes Debbie and Derek covered so much about how to be a different leader, one who is not the leader on the hill. Their podcast would be great for teachers interested in becoming an administrator. I can think of many administrators who would also benefit from this conversation. There is no way I can do justification to it here, but it is a rich conversation and really worth listening to.

It is great to hear from my PLN as I work through some of these questions on leadership. I hope for more to come!

 

What Do We Really Value in Education?

Sometimes the hardest questions in education get danced around and never answered.

Like all institutions, the education system is imperfect and the biggest problems never really get looked at. Right now in Ontario, there is a very worthwhile consultation taking place on assessment. Voiced Radio and other commentators are doing an excellent job at promoting and participating in this on-going discussion. This is really good news.

We look at portions of the system because we can’t look at the whole thing.

Recently I have listened to former colleagues talk about the situations in their schools. These conversations are not uncommon and they make up the ‘war stories’ that all educators share.

While we despair when we hear about poor and sometimes unethical management in our schools, nothing is ever done about these situations. We never ask the question – what do we really value in education? If we really asked this uncomfortable question would we continue to protect adults who clearly have no idea how to manage schools and the people in them?

There are a whole set of rules, conventions and practices that exist to protect individuals, especially those in privileged positions of power in the education system. A huge amount of energy is put into sustaining these rules and conventions.

Not everyone deserves this type of misguided practice. When we protect these people, we certainly put students, staff and parents in the back seat.

Our lack of action displays a lack of concern for the people we are supposed to serve. Maybe we think incompetence is OK, or maybe it is just too hard to swim against the bureaucratic tide that protects those who are simply not up to the job.

The best we can say is ‘wait them out’. But what does this do to the mental strain staff members have to put up with every day? If we really want to take mental health seriously in our schools we really need to get our own house in order and call to task those individuals who are really not up to the responsibility of properly managing a school.

I write out of anger and frustration about what I hear. It is very frustrating that some school administrators are allowed to act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that their authority will not be questioned and that they will always be supported by school board staff who really do not want to rock the boat.

Our students, staff and parents deserve better. We will never have an excellent system while we continue to look the other way and support poor governance of some of our schools.

Good for Ontario to take on the EQAO while elephant, but let’s broaden our scope and take a really serious look at how our schools are managed.

The End of School Resource Officers in Toronto District Public Schools

Black Lives Matter activists called for an end to the school resource officer program in June, during a meeting at the Toronto Police Services Board. (RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

I have been watching and reading about the surprising decision taken this week by the Toronto District School Board to end the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in all Toronto District School Board (TDSB) schools. I call it surprising because as a school administrator for over ten years here in Ottawa, the SRO program has been nothing but positive, especially in our elementary schools where the SRO was a truly positive presence in the schools I worked in.

I realize that the situation in Toronto is different than that in Ottawa and that the program needed to be reviewed. The article in the Toronto Star notes that a full-year review by Ryerson University was taking place and that SROs had been pulled from schools for the first three months of this year while the review took place.

I would imagine that there is no need for the review to continue as the TDSB Chair noted in an interview that the program will not be returning to schools (see 2:40 of the interview).

It is hard to understand how decisions like this get made. As a vice-principal in a very busy intermediate (Gr. 7-8) school and as a principal in two elementary schools, the SRO was always a key ingredient in our school safety plans. They helped us with our lock-down drills, talked to students in assemblies and in the classroom and even took in recess duty – the kids really loved this.

There is no question that the SRO always did a good job of making the police more visible and more a part of the community for our students. In cases where the school population was mainly made up of students new to Canada, the SRO may have been the first friendly police officer these children would have encountered.

I have written and spoken about this before. For our schools to really do a better job we need to build positive partnerships within the community. Whenever you cut out a partner without first trying to repair a long-standing relationship you are making a mistake.

Last week there was a national debate on violence in the schools. I am not sure how we are making schools safer by taking out the schools’ most significant partner invested in keeping our schools safe.

To me, this seems like a step backwards. While the majority of students said they had no problem with SROs in the schools and while a significant review was taking place, staff, then trustees decided to end a significant community partnership.

While 57 per cent said having police in school made them feel safer, 46 per cent said they weren’t sure they wanted the program to continue. But 1,715 (11 per cent) said the presence of an officer intimidated them and 2,207 — or 14 per cent — said they felt watched and targeted as a result.

Toronto Star – TDSB votes down police presence in high schools

There are certainly problems in Toronto between the police and some local communities. The rhetoric can get heated (note the photo taken from the Toronto Star), but we don’t solve problems by building taller silos. I hope this is an issue that gets further discussion in the near future.

It would be so instructive to hear what teachers and administrators think about this issue. Their opinions should matter on such an important topic.

Should You Have Challenging Conversations?

I saw today that there was a workshop on challenging or ‘fierce’ conversations at my former district.

This always makes me smile or more accurately, grimace.

I guess the idea behind challenging conversations is that we need to have them, we need to be honest and we need to get at the root of the issue. All great ideas, but what is probably never addressed at these workshops are the consequences of having these conversations.

Yes, you can have these conversations and as an administrator, I have had my fair share. I once had one of these conversations with an irate mother who was upset because I disciplined her son for being abusive to one of our educational assistants. At one point, I had to say to her that I was surprised that while she could easily see how her son might have been upset about my actions, she couldn’t understand how his actions had affected one of our staff members.

This is what happens with ‘fierce’ conversations. If the other party doesn’t like how things are going, there is always another authority they can go to. In this case, the parent went to my superintendent with a letter asking for my removal from the school.

The superintendent’s only response was ‘what did you do to create this situation?’

Not very helpful. This all led to another conversation where I – on my own – met again with the parents who in the interim had discovered that their child actually liked me and was not at all upset about the incident. I am not sure how the staff member felt.

This is the big thing about doing a presentation on courageous conversations. The presenters seldom have to do these. Also, the question never comes up – what if people go over your head at the end of the conversation?

If they do, what happens to your ability to have further conversations?

A few years later, in a different school, I had another one of these conversations. This time it was with a member of the office staff who had put out a note to teaching staff which was inappropriate.

Again, the conversation went well over my head. The disgruntled staff member went to her union, to the head of human resources and eventually to the superintendent of human resources. The staff member developed a whole case against me.

Administrators in Ontario do not have unions. People can make baseless accusations against them and there is really no defence against these. In my case, the school board decided that they needed to investigate all these claims and I was suspended with pay for three weeks while the investigation continued.

There was never a formal end to the investigation. I was told that everything was OK and I could go back to work (right after the Christmas break). The office staff member was removed to another school. She never missed a day of work. While all the accusations remained unproven and certainly unfounded, I never received an apology for how I was treated by a school board I had worked with for over 20 years.

All to say, let’s be a little more honest or “courageous” when we pronounce about difficult, courageous or even fierce conversations. Who believes in you and has your back when your position requires that you have these conversations?

When you call for courage, first model courage.

 

Freeing the Minds of School Administrators

OK, today I admit I am entering the world of fantasy posts, but I am still going to give this a try.

We have seen lots of Twitter traffic and great blog posts in the last two weeks about how educators are stifled in what they can write on social media by school boards who do not want to read dissenting opinions from their employees.

The best posts are coming from Andrew Campbell. This post is great

So, we know what the problem is – the overarching authority of school board bureaucrats and senior admin to stifle all thoughtful opinion but their own. But is there a solution?

Only if you live in the world of fantasy!

I think this is really an issue of governance. Education in Ontario is really controlled by a small number of senior administrators who are in no way overseen by anyone else in the province. Yes, there are lots of ministry directives, but there is no oversight on the overbearing behavior of board admin.

I write board admin because I don’t mean school administrators – principals and vice-principals.

These are the people who have trained for years to become administrators and put everything on the line every day to keep things going in their schools. It is a tough job and there is little or no support for the hard work that they do. There is also little protection given to them in they run into conflict with parents and even worse, board officials.

Many believe that they are agents of their school board first and that the decisions made by the board, decisions they have no say in, must be supported without question.

This is the incredible thing. School administrators are seldom asked for their opinion about how things should be done at a district level. These decisions are made by superintendents and program coordinators who have little connection to the schools they oversee.

School administrators need to have a voice. They need to be consulted in a meaningful way and they need to know that if they speak out they will be protected by a higher authority than their own school board.

If this were to happen we might actually read some interesting and useful comments on how schools can become more effective. Right now, the best we can expect from a school administrator on Twitter is cheerleading – the useless tweets that are designed to make the school look good without conveying any useful information.

So, again firmly in fantasy land, this is my solution. Free up school administrators from the heavy drag of district officials. Let them speak on the record so we can hear from a very effective group of front-line workers who may actually have some ideas on how to bring about effective change to our schools.

This shouldn’t be a fantasy.

 

 

Response to George Couros: 4 Ways To Not Let Others Dim Your Light

One of the great things about walking all day is that you have lots of time to think. This latest post has been on my mind and I think after walking such a great distance, it is a good idea to put this out there.

Again, George Couros is an inspiration, but this is something that was on my mind throughout our West Highland Way trek. I would encourage you to read his entire post. He makes a great deal of sense and I just wish more people in senior administration would do more than just retweet his work and ponder what he is saying.

I hope that what George writes and what I am writing here will help people who are going through similar experiences. If this is you, read carefully what George writes and don’t let anyone ever dim your light!

The reality of our world is that people get threatened when other people shine their light on the world.  This bothers me even more so when it is educators doing it to educators, as our jobs are to empower those we serve, not try to bring them down.  If you are doing this to a colleague or peer, would you do it to a student? Would you do it to my daughter if she was in your classroom?  In education, this is unacceptable.

Here is my response to the post.

Thanks George, a very good post and excellent advice. There does come a time however when you need to consider leaving the system when those in positions of higher authority have made the decision to block you any way they can. I guess this come under #3 ‘move on and ignore’.

You are right to point out that it is strange that educators can treat other educators poorly, but my experience tells me that with a few notable exceptions, educators forget who they are (or were) the higher up the corporate eduladder they climb.

They can be very cruel and unforgiving to the point where on my case, they suspended me for three weeks without cause. While I was later vindicated and invited back into the professional fold, they never apologized which to me is inexcusable.

A year after my suspension, I retired from my board and I am much more at peace. I still have a great community of positive fellow educators that I work and correspond with, but I no longer have to suffer the negative soul destroying authoritarians who made my life so difficult.

Coming on to two years now after the suspension, it still rankles and this is something that could still be solved with a simple ‘sorry’.

How can we expect to make real progress in our education systems when the people at the top expect blind compliance. To forge a different path means that you could be punished with impunity.

That was the end of my comment today.

I don’t expect ever to hear from my former employers. It would be good if they took responsibility for their actions. It was shameful, but I have certainly moved on.

I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have had the privilege of assisting my partner through major surgery and I have trekked more than 100 km through the Western Highlands with my daughter.

I have left the past behind and I love the exciting challenges that the future presents.

Thanks George and the West Highland Way for getting this post written – finally! Now on to more great positive adventures in the future.

Fostering a ‘why not’ Mindset: Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin

Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin
WE Day Conference speaker, New York Wednesday, September 20

You often speak about adopting a “why not” mindset. Can you explain what that means?

The “why not” mindset is a mindset of possibilities for almost anything, for community partnerships, for the ability to do more than what we are expected to do. As a principal, I was tired of just getting things that we needed. I wanted to have things that our scholars – I refer to our students as scholars – wanted, and also that they deserved. In other words, why should not we deserve the best? That type of thinking changed our attitude of what we deserved. My perspective is for us not to just think big, but to think even bigger.

My partner Heather read this quote to me yesterday and it has stuck. I am always trying to figure out what really good leadership is all about and why it is such a rare commodity. Rare at least in my definition.

I think it has something to do with courageously adopting a ‘why not’ mindset. I have seen these type of leaders in the past, people like Carol Hunter a now-retired principal in the Ottawa Public Board and Lorne Howcroft, my first principal in the Dufferin-Peel Board. Both of these individuals were striking in the sense that they had a real vision of what was possible and neither felt confined by the narrow strictures of the district bureaucracy.

This type of leader is an inspiration. They have real courage and do not define themselves by the current mandarin mantra.

The important line in the quote is ‘why should not we deserve the best’. Getting the best for your students will mean working outside the confines that your school board wants to put around you. How many leaders are comfortable with doing that?

Most school leaders believe in alignment – the idea that the main ideas that govern the school are seamless with what the school board and by extension what the ministry believes in.

No really strong leader was ever praised for doing alignment really well. To do the best for your staff and students, especially in hard to serve areas you need to be an unconventional thinker and look outside your district for partners that share your vision. School board administrators want you to support their vision – I don’t think you can do both. To really serve your community you have to find a new way.

Most school leaders will not accept these ideas and I have had discussions with administrators who certainly not hold these views and who actually judge my thinking on non-alignment to be disloyal.

My question is, who are we supposed to be loyal to? Why were we hired to lead if not to think on our own and advocate always for our students? If we have the courage to do this we must accept the enmity of those who believe our actions must always align with those of our district.

The school leaders I have the most respect for all had difficult relationships with their district supervisors. To me, that is a sign they were on the right path. I am sure it has been the same for Dr  Sanderlin.

We don’t need to be proponents for the district mantra. We need to say ‘why not’ and act for our communities. If we don’t, who will?