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Define Roles and Then Stay in Your Lane

By Guest Blogger — November 18, 2019 4 min read
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Michael Sonbert is the founder of Skyrocket Educator Training, an organization that trains teachers and leaders in 300 urban and turnaround schools. Before this, he was a teacher, director of strategic partnerships for Mastery Charter Schools, a head-banging singer, and an author of dystopian fiction.

I fly a lot. Sometimes, those flights are delayed. Oftentimes, it’s because of bad weather or a mechanical issue. However, every once in a while, my flight is delayed because the pilots aren’t there yet. The gate agent explains that their connecting flight is late so our flight will be delayed as a result. Some people groan when they hear this, others complain, and others just sink deeper into their chairs, staring at their phones or books.

What never happens, however, is that the gate agent gets on the intercom and says, “It’s OK, everyone. Don’t worry about it. I’m going to fly the plane. Everybody hop on. We’ll be outta here in no time.” This doesn’t happen because this isn’t the gate agent’s job. He knows it’s not his job, and we know it’s not his job. The pilots who are en route know it’s not his job, and the airline certainly knows it’s not his job.

If the gate agent tried to fly the plane, chaos would ensue. People would be confused, frightened, and annoyed. The pilots would show up and have no idea what happened. And dozens of other people who work for the airline would have to clean up the mess made by the gate agent, who, while trying to be helpful, made everyone else’s job significantly more difficult as there’d be no gate agent for upcoming flights, the late pilots wouldn’t be able to fly people back from the city the plane was heading to, and the PR teams would have to explain to the whole world what happened.

But the gate agent doesn’t ever try to fly the plane. This is because it’s been made crystal clear to him and to everybody else that it’s not his job. So he stays in his lane, and because of this, despite the flight being delayed, everything is in order.

But in schools, people often find themselves doing things that aren’t actually a part of their job descriptions. Because of a lack of clarity about who does what, school leaders and teachers make decisions as things come up, that, while less dangerous than someone flying a plane without proper training, can lead to that same level of confusion and chaos.

We work with school leaders from coast to coast who haven’t clearly defined for themselves and for their team members who actually does what. So everyone kind of does everything. When an issue arises, often, no protocols exist, no processes are followed, and no one person steps up to solve it because they know it’s their responsibility. Whoever gets to the issue first, usually handles it. So when the furious parent arrives at the school without an appointment, or when students are being sent to the office without passes, or when teachers are taking off during blackout days around holidays, whoever sees it handles it in the best way they see fit. To be clear, sometimes the solutions are spot-on. But often, they’re not. And because no one else on the team was aware of what was happening, other people are left to clean up the mess if the solution isn’t aligned to what they would have done or what’s best for the school.

This lack of clarity exists for things that come up as well as things that happen more consistently. Years ago, I was working with an assistant principal in North Philadelphia. There was a field trip upcoming, and a teacher asked the AP if she could drive her own car to the field trip and then go home right afterward. The field trip location, while 45 minutes from the school, was blocks from her house, and she didn’t want to take the bus all the way back to school to then have to make that trip again to get home. The assistant principal, while very understanding of her situation, declined her request. He told her that part of her job is to support students on the busses and that if he granted this request, teachers would be asking for things like this all year. The teacher, dissatisfied with his response, immediately made the same request of the principal (without telling her she’d already gotten a no) who promptly granted it.

The AP was mortified and humiliated. He felt totally and completely undermined and asked for my coaching on what he should do now. I told him I could coach him through this, but my bigger question was around how to make sure this didn’t happen again, so I asked, “Who handles field-trip logistics?” He replied, “We both kind of do.” Which is another way of saying, “We have no plan and no process for this. Whatever happens, happens. Our lack of preparation leads to anger among us and a perception amongst staff that we’re misaligned.”

To be clear, in schools, people should step up when someone else needs their support. They should embrace the idea that they’re all part of one team and do whatever it takes to help out when needed. But that’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m referring to a lack of defining almost anything, which leads school leaders and teachers, in the same buildings, having very little idea about what either they or their teammates are responsible for.

School leaders can avoid this by clearly defining for themselves and everyone in their schools who does what. And then, when and how everything should happen.

Protocols must exist for everything from calling in sick, to calling home to parents, to writing referrals, to submitting lesson plans, and so on. One person should own every different thing that happens (even if others are brought in to support sometimes). Even in schools where it’s just a principal and one administrative assistant, grade team leaders, content leads, and master teachers can all own different pieces.

And once these things are defined, everyone must stay in their lanes to ensure they happen consistently. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of gate agents flying planes when we’re not supposed to.

Michael Sonbert

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


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