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.

Leaders as Servants First

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Everyone in education has heard the line that the principal is key to the success of a school.

I have never been comfortable with this, more so after 12 years as an administrator in a variety of schools.  The administrator plays a key role, but the overall success of the school depends more on the leadership style of the principal.

It is difficult to teach a leadership style and to be honest, I am not sure how you would do this.

As administrators, we are well trained in a number of areas.  We take a whole host of courses that prepare us to deal with the administrative side of the job.  We are well equipped to deal with ministry regulations, curriculum expectations, school finance and management practices.

We are not well trained on how to deal effectively and compassionately with staff and the wider community.

I say this because over the years I have heard so many stories of administrators fumbling relationships with staff, parents and the wider community.  I have worked in several schools where I replaced administrators who had run roughshod over the emotional landscape of their school.  To be fair, I have also replaced excellent administrators and in these cases, I have done my best to continue to support their excellent practices.

The problem seems to be that you can’t teach ‘heart’.  You can’t teach a principal to lead from the back, to empower their staff and to make themselves the servant leader in the school.

Years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about how to test for true servant leadership:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the last privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

This is not new.  Greenleaf wrote about Servant Leadership over 40 years ago. However, this essential ingredient in teaching people to become effective leaders is entirely lacking.

The result is troubling.  Administrators regularly act as if the teacher, educational assistant, custodian or parent do not truly matter.  Administrators routinely believe that their way of leading is the only way and what they know is what is best for their school.  The idea that they should stand back and play a supporting role is lost on many people.

This is not to say that there are no great leaders out there.  I have met many of them, some in our own district and many more at conferences I have attended and learning groups I have joined.

“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It will be seen by many that writing about this smacks of disloyalty to other administrators.

This may be true, but I sincerely believe that we are not put in these positions to support other administrators, we are here to support our staff, students, and community.  We are here to create the conditions for the best learning environment possible.  We are here not to put our stamp on our school community, but to get out of the way and allow others to thrive.

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I love reading the work of George Couros.  He is a true leader when it comes to innovation in schools and the use of technology in education.  Most importantly however, he is a true believer in the importance of building healthy relationships.

When I talk about “innovation in education”, creativity in schools, or meaningful use of technology, I always begin by saying that nothing I say matters if you do not build relationships in schools. There is no “culture of innovation” if there is no positive culture. It is the foundation of which we build things upon.

George Couros

Maybe this is one reason why schools are failing to become centers of innovation.  If everything depends on the ‘vision’ of one individual, how can we expect innovation to take place?

How do we expect our staff to really express their creative voice?

This is what I see.  I am happy to hear from others with an opposing view. Whatever the case, we should consider the role of the leader and the enabler, the true servant of their community.

This is where true growth and innovation will flourish.