Friday, April 21, 2017

Leaders, Character, and Policy

Many of us spend huge amounts of time discussing and debating education policy. But where the synthetic rubber meets the recycled asphalt, policy is not the most important thing. In every school, in every district, what really matters is the character of the leadership.

In the same way that workers do not quit workplaces so much as they quit a boss, teachers are influenced by the administrators in their building. District administrators are influential primarily in how they affect building administrators. Policy decisions on the state and federal level are most influential to the extent that they influence the behavior of actual educators in actual leadership positions.

Put another way, a sudden implementation of actual good education policies by state and federal governments (boy, what a dream that is) would not suddenly transform a bad building principal who makes staff miserable into a great principal with a happy staff.

In fact, a good principal, given the chance by her superintendent, can seriously blunt the impact of bad policy choices. In Florida, a state that is a champion producer of bad education policy, there are schools where principals actually find reasonable, humane, decent solutions to problems created by stupid policies.

A good manager in any business or institution really has just one job-- to create conditions in which her people can do their best work. If it's raining, a good manager is out there holding an umbrella over the front-line worker; not yelling at that worker for being wet.

It's important to have an administrator who has classroom experience, who knows the regulations, who has a broad understanding of education, and all the other things search committees look for. But one of the most critical issues is character.

At this point in my career, I've worked for many administrators, and I don't remember the various policy decisions and implementations nearly as well as I remember whether they were decent people or not.

A principal might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, might not be on the cutting edge of education, might not even have a clear picture of what's going on in the classroom, but if he's a decent person who treats his teachers with respect, listens to what they have to say, and puts the needs of the students first, I can be happy working for him. Even if he wants to implement or support policies I disagree with, we can work things out. I can advocate for my students without having to watch my back. On the other hand, if he is mean, vindictive, selfish, distrustful, and spiteful, it doesn't matter what policies he supports-- every day is going to be miserable, and I am going to use up a chunk of my energy just deciding which battles to fight and how to fight them and what to do when I lose.

Of course a leader-staff relationship is a two-way street, and teachers can make things better or worse by their own choices. But administrators decide what rules we'll play by and will ultimately decide whether to share power or grab onto it with both hands. Administrators have a huge hand in setting the tone, in creating an atmosphere for their schools.

I write all this to remind myself-- I read and read about schools where things really suck, and often the administration is an invisible hand in that picture-- because I'm privileged to work for a principal who's a decent guy, and while he's not perfect and we don't always agree and I've worked for some pretty not-good examples of the breed in my career, it is easy to forget just how grindingly rough it is to work in some school buildings in this country. It's easy to forget how hard it is to work for a powerful jerk every day when you aren't living it.

Bad policy certainly arms and enables bad administrators, but one of the great undiscussed questions of both ed reform and resistance to it is the question of how to get good people in those front offices. Certainly some reformsters have some cool ideas about how to make a buck putting any warm body in there, as long as it shares their same bad values (looking at you, Relay GSE and Broad Academy), but all of us need to remember that without a decent person in the administrator's seat, it's really hard to drive the education bus anywhere productive and useful. And while we're talking about all the big picture issues, all across this country there are schools whose Number One issue is that they've got a dysfunctional jerk behind the steering wheel.

Can this be addressed on the policy level? Sure-- some. Being a principal and superintendent kind of sucks these days, in that you have all the responsibility for everything short of the weather, and very little power to control any of the outcomes you're responsible for. We talk about the teacher shortage, but mostly smart and capable people in education know better than to get into administration, and so a vast pool of people who could be good at it avoid it like the plague because what ethical decent educator wants to be responsible for implementing state and federal mandated malpractice? So we end up with a handful of good, decent folks, some others who figured they'd like a raise, another handful who just don't understand what the job is, and a bunch of peripatetic egos wandering the country collecting big bucks before they end their three-year local dance.

In the meantime, it takes local action to find local solutions for the problems of bad administrators. It is perhaps a conversation that more people should get involved in.


  1. Yes yes yes! I've worked for some principals who were egregiously underqualified, underprepared, and just BAD, and I've worked for some who did their best to help us all be the best teachers we could be. :-)

    I just have one comment in addition to agreeing with your thoughts in general, though: you've only described principals with male nouns ("decent guy") and pronouns (I'm guessing because you've only had male principals to date?). Some of my best AND worst principals have been women. :-/

    1. "In fact, a good principal, given the chance by her superintendent, can seriously blunt the impact of bad policy choices."

  2. CrunchyMama got to my exact comment first, re: the reflexive use of "he" in the front office, including the fact that women do not necessarily get it right when they move in.

    Generally, when I point out this automatic male pronoun thing, the writer gets defensive. Women are completely used to this, and we only mention it when we like the writer and feel his arguments are sound and his character worthy.

    1. It's a legitimate point. I went with "her" the first time. "Decent guy" appears in the graph about my actual principal; the rest of the time I went with "decent person." The long paragraph (8) I went back to "he," mostly because I had my own experiences in mind. I considered toggling between the two, but that created an effect of making one gender seem good and one bad. And I can't bring myself to freely use the newly-approved singular "they." Ultimately I stayed with "he" for personal reasons. Now it will serve as a reminder to me not to get lazy.

    2. Thanks, Peter. The first "her" didn't register with me for some reason, so I missed it and that's on me.

      The "singular they" bothered me for quite a while, really REALLY grated on me, but as my high-schooler and I each currently have friends who aren't cis and don't use either "he" or "she" with regard to their own genders, I've gotten more comfortable with it just from using it more frequently out of respect to them. :-) I still have an occasional tic over it, don't get me wrong - but it does get easier.

  3. This is a key item in the list of Stuff Every Teacher Knows But Nobody Outside the School Understands. Good teaching is enormously difficult work. The decision to push yourself beyond reasonable expectations to do it often comes down to your building principal--or whatever administrator controls him or her.

    I have worked for vindictive jerks before and they only motivated me to do one of two things. Either figure out how to stay below the radar or if that didn't work, figure out how to keep my ass thoroughly covered for the inevitable showdown. Accomplishing either of those goals almost never involves doing what's best for kids.

    Right now, I am fortunate to work for a generally clueless, but really nice guy. He is not an educator or a leader--more of a cheerleader. So he'll never lead our staff to higher levels of performance, because he can't envision what that would look like. But he likes us and trusts us and stays out of the way, so we don't have to play the vindictive jerk games, which frees us up to be the best we can individually be.

    The other side of this issue is that the general public believes that all administrators are decent and fair and value what's good for kids. So when they hear stories about teachers who "can't be fired" it automatically colors that picture one way, when in fact that teacher likely "can't be fired" because he or she works for above-mentioned vindictive jerk and was competent at playing above mentioned cya game.

  4. So much truth here, sir. Thank you. I've worked for both the best & worst sorts of principals (do all teachers with long experience say that?) and know that the ones who are decent, honorable humans will always be better to deal with than the fools & power-hungry sorts. My experience also indicates that this is true with district-level admins as well. It's always seemed odd to me that people in other fields understand this when it comes to their industry, but seem to think that anybody can be an effective principal or district administrator.