Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Leadership and Taking Risks

Nancy Flanagan had a great piece last week at EdWeek. "Defining Teacher Leadership" kicks off with her reaction to this handy meme:

She finds the first part is right on point. But the second part?

Most of the school leaders I encountered in 30 years in the classroom were good people, but the overwhelming majority were cautious rule-followers and cheerleaders for incremental change. The principals followed the superintendent's directives and the folks at Central Office looked to the state for guidance. Most recently, everyone has experienced the heavy hand of the feds--for standards, assessments and "aligned" materials. "Successful" leaders hit benchmarks set far from actual classrooms.

That sounds about right. As does this:

If I had waited for my school leaders to be risk-takers before feeling comfortable with change in my classroom, decades could have gone by.

I'm not sure we need school leaders who are risk takers; it's not the modeling that is most important. The biggest power that principals and superintendents have is not the power to demonstrate risk, but the power to define it.

School leaders get to decide two key aspects of risk-- what constitutes going outside the lines, and what possible consequences go with it. Principal A may run a school where getting caught with students up out of their seats in your classroom may win you a chance to stand in the principal's office while you're screamed at. Principal B may run a school where you can take students outside for an unscheduled sit on the lawn session and all that happens is you hear a, "Hey, shoot me an email before you do that the next time." Principal C, unfortunately, may run a school in which I'd better be on the scheduled scripted lesson at 10:36 on Tuesday, or there will be a letter in my file.

School leaders also get to decide how much they will protect their people. If you're teaching a controversial novel or running a project that may bring blowback form the community or from administrators at a higher level, will your principal help protect you from the heat, or throw you under the bus?

In other words, school leaders don't have to take risks -- they just have to create an environment where it is safe for teachers to take risks.

And teachers do share some responsibility in this risk-taking relationship. I have always had a pretty simple rule (like many rules, I figured it out by breaking it early in my career)-- if I'm about to do anything that could conceivably lead to my principal getting a phone call, I let him know what's going on, and why, and how, ahead of time. He can't support me if he doesn't know what I'm up to.

And of course, risk definition has been partially removed form local hands. Teachers now have personal ratings and school ratings and a host of other reformy accountability consequences riding on teacher choices. It makes leaders more risk averse, and that means clamping down on teacher risk taking as well. The last decade has not exactly fostered a risk-taking atmosphere.

The reformy movement has muddied the water on the other element of risk-- what, exactly, we are risking. Reformsters have tried to move us from , "Oh, no! That lesson didn't actually help my students master the concept I was teaching, meaning we lost a period of school and will have to try this again tomorrow" to "Oh no! We have low scores on a standardized test and must now lose money or be closed or fire somebody." Accountability and new standards and the Big Standardized Test have convinced too many administrators that teachers that take risks are now taking huge risks for enormous stakes and maybe we had all better just take it really, really easy and play it super, super safe and get back to those nice new test prep materials we just bought.

So I don't need my school leaders to model risk-taking for me. I just need them to provide me with a workplace where it's okay safe for me to try a few things and see if I can find interesting new paths for success. Which, ironically, is exactly what I am supposed to be providing for my students. If doing my teaching job is like changing a flat tire in the rain, I don't need an administrator who is changing another one of the tires on the car. I need someone who will make sure my tools are handy while they hold an umbrella over my head to keep the rain off me.


  1. Well said, as always.
    And I'd add: "I just need an administrator who understands why the tire needs to be changed in the first place, and won't suggest driving with a flat tire, rather than bothering with a silly thing like changing a flat in the first place."

  2. The new three R's of education: risk, rigor, and reform.