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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are We Asking Too Much Of School Leaders?

By Peter DeWitt — July 29, 2018 5 min read
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As we approach another school year, we once again focus on the possibilities that a new year can bring, and worry about the challenges that we may face as a building school leader. There are leaders reading this who have a few years under their belt and they’re ready for the school year to begin, and others who are beginning their first leadership position and they’re scared out of their minds. They wonder whether they are prepared or not.

It’s to be expected...

Leadership is challenging and frightening all at the same time. After all, leaders have a lot on their plates these days, and some of those leaders are met with the attitude that they left the classroom and went to “the dark side,” so they feel alone as they try to accomplish what is on their plate.

Sometimes I feel as though there is more expected of leaders than ever before. As we all know, leadership used to be more about management, and now we ask that leaders be instructional leaders...collaborative leaders...or both.

It’s not that management isn’t important. In her seminal work, Viviane Robinson (2011) found the most important elements of school leadership to be (1). establishing goals and expectations, (2). resourcing strategically, (3). ensuring quality teaching, (4). leading teacher learning and development, as well as (5). ensuring an orderly and safe environment. Clearly, a few of those could be considered the job of a manager, so management is still important.

Additionally, we also ask that leaders have a deep understanding of educational research and how to put it into practice in their schools, at the same time they may have to teach teachers about that research. So, leaders feel as though they are supposed to become experts around topics that they may have never taught, which puts their credibility at risk with teachers within the building.

On top of all of that, leaders are tasked with taking that expertise they may or may not have, and use it to observe and evaluate teachers within their building, which is meant to help ensure quality teaching, but can create a barrier between the leader and teachers they observe. Tyre writes (Hechinger Report),

Spurred by new state laws that call for improved methods of teacher evaluation, many districts across the country are looking for principals to serve as instructional leaders and talent judges -- helping teachers improve, rewarding those deemed "most effective" and firing those who aren't.

This, as well as the other numerous responsibilities of leaders leads to burnout or marginality. Marginality takes place when the leader doesn’t feel they fit in with the district office, nor do they feel like they fit in with teachers within their own building, and it can lead to a sense of loneliness. No wonder so many leaders leave the position.

In the Hechinger Report Tyre states that, The new role, though, has come with new expectations, pressures, and risks. This is one reason nearly 30 percent of principals who lead troubled schools quit every year. By Year 3, more than half of all principals leave their jobs.”

Leadership Self-Efficacy
All of these tasks that building leaders face in the position pose more problems than just finding the time to accomplish them. There are some tasks where leaders merely don’t have the self-efficacy to take them on in the first place.

Bandura (1977) defines self-efficacy as the, “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.” However, Tschannen-Moran and Gareis (2004) found that, “Self-efficacy beliefs are context-specific, however, people do not feel equally efficacious for all situations.” With all of the challenges that leaders face day to day, they cannot possibly have self-efficacy in each situation.

Bandura (2000) also found that, “When faced with obstacles, setbacks, and failures, those who doubt their capabilities slacken their efforts, give up, or settle for mediocre solutions. Those who have a strong belief in the capabilities redouble their effort to master the challenge.

This, of course, has profound implications when it comes to how leaders move forward in these complicated times. Some leaders move into becoming more collaborative, where they work with teachers, staff and the greater school community to solve their issues or take on challenges together. Other times leaders get involved with a leadership coach and work through goals together. The coach works as an outside expert to help the leader work through potential issues and the everyday challenges that comes with being a building leader.

On the opposite end of the leadership spectrum, this lack of belief they have in themselves prevents them from moving forward in a positive direction. Some leaders may become more insecure and tighten the reigns in their school, and begin make one-size-fits-all rules that all staff must follow. And in other cases, which the Hechinger Report focuses on, there are leaders who leave the position because they find that the job was merely too much for them to handle.

In the End
What do we do? The easy answer to this question is to stop putting so much on their plate (and stop dumping so much on our schools). Can leaders really keep up this pace? No. This is an issue that districts have to care enough about to decide to take on. I have met leaders are the 5th leader in 4 years, and are left to clean up a mess where they don’t get support. Clearly, in these cases districts really have to find a way to better prepare leaders for those roles, and not just fill them with the next leader who comes along.

However, there are a multitude of proactive and reactive remedies that we need to focus on if we really want our leaders to reach their full potential. Some of the following are ideas you have read before, while others may not. Those are:

  • Make sure universities and colleges are held accountable for preparing high quality leaders. What do their programs entail? What real life situations are potential leaders facing, and how are schools of education helping them meet their challenges?
  • Educate leaders, and foster the mindset in districts, that leaders cannot do it alone. For too long we seem to be ignoring the self-efficacy research and telling leaders they need to take on their challenges alone.
  • Teach leaders that mindfulness and social-emotional learning are as important for them as leaders. There is a great deal of research about leadership mindfulness.
  • Encourage leaders to be coached by high quality coaches. Coaching can provide many benefits to leaders, as we have seen it provides to teachers through instructional coaching.
  • Practice collective efficacy. We need leaders to understand how to build collective efficacy among staff, and use it to take on their greatest challenges.

Building leadership has wonderful possibilities, but incredible challenges. We need to better prepare our leaders for the challenges they face, and provide them with support when they are at risk of dropping out. If there is a dark side to leadership, it’s that we seem to be ok with so many of them leaving the position.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.