Education Opinion

Should Leaders Stay or Go?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 02, 2017 5 min read
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Often, the signs are right in front of us and are ignored. Other times, we simply refuse to recognize them at all. The will to pull our heads out of the sand and face the reality of what is happening is a survival choice. It comes with risk and courage. Facing the reality does not require that once we see view the landscape with unveiled eyes we must take a particular action. Not taking in the information, seeing it, feeling it, and deciding what to do or not do is a far more empowering route than ignoring what is happening. Being disrespected, ignored, overturned, divisive, unhappy, and isolated are all experiences that can be part of the consequence. But, there is never nothing to be done. Sometimes simply recognizing and speaking the truth of the situation, out loud, is, itself, freeing. Sometimes, our action can help only a few but it is still valuable. Other times mustering the courage to leave is the best decision.

Educators Tend to Be Risk Averse

Education is a career choice that attracts those who are risk-averse. Tenure for teachers and school leaders creates a culture that invites those who seek stability. We don’t believe tenure actually does that but perception matters. The decision to become a leader involves a willingness to step out onto the stage, become exposed and more vulnerable in the arena of educational and local politics. But, even so, we al know leaders who remain risk averse. It is that attribute that can limit one’s willingness to truly see things as they are, meet that reality with controversial conversations and actions and embrace change for our systems and/or for ourselves.

In a small study, done at the University of Arkansas,

They found that prospective teachers were consistently more risk averse than their peers in other career tracks. On average, MAT students picked 5 out of 10 safe choices, while non-MAT students picked only 4.3.

Being risk averse presents a problem, especially for educators. The responsibility to learn and grow and lead in a learning environment and to try new ways of practice is undermined by hesitation. When leaders do not create the environment in which risk is welcomed and supported, teachers will surely hesitate. Many educational leaders were teachers first, so they bring remnants of risk-aversion with them into their leadership role. Think of how it gets communicated. Relationships are disrupted when one makes a decision to leave one district for another. Families may have to be uprooted. Colleagues question what we’ll do if it doesn’t work out. We ask for leaves of absence to create a safety net. The old adage “its better to be safe than sorry” runs through our heads. There are times when leaders will chose to stay, even though relationships are bad, support is lacking, stress is high, and effectiveness is gone. Others argue if things are pleasant and the surface is calm, a leader should stay. But, that decision begs the question about what is happening for the children. Do they suffer in a complacent, risk aversive system? Can they feel the energy of an environment drain away? Do they know schools and classrooms focused on getting the task done rather than generating energy that spreads throughout the system?

Some moves are motivated by the wrong reasons (e.g., taking a worse job for better money). Some are wise career moves designed to achieve maximum potential and help more kids. And, unfortunately, some are involuntary (e.g., staff reductions or elimination of jobs). Some moves are away from something (e.g., a toxic culture, conflict of values, or an irreconcilable personality clash). Others are toward something (e.g., more opportunity, a broader audience, or a better use of talents)... Being stuck is not a permanent condition unless you allow it to be. There are always other opportunities if you have the nerve to take a leap of faith...The school leaders who last the longest and contribute the most know when it’s the right time to change jobs (Ramsey, R.D. 2010).

Location Matters. Courage Matters More.

Of course, where in the country one lives makes a difference. More densely populated areas like cities and suburbs can offer alternatives and other job opportunities that won’t require personal disruption of family. In more rural areas, changing jobs can certainly mean uprooting and moving a family. So the internal tension builds. Does one choose to leave a stagnant, toxic environment or choose to protect the family with security and lack of disruption? In this moment, how does one prioritize their own professional aliveness and desire for meaningful professional engagement in a community of colleagues that are ignited and learning? Something inside begins to atrophy. Yet, staying in a school or system where a leader feels ineffective or where conflict is about who’s up and who’s down not about moving forward for children can become toxic for the leader and the organization.

Too often when threat is perceived, a natural, biological response is to withdraw and seek shelter. The opposite response of attack is less often seen in our work. An effective leader is one who is able to balance their own well-being with the well-being of the organization they lead and the learning of the children they serve. We cannot come to our work tired, or sick, spiritually or physically. We must, like good athletes, take care of each part of us that is required daily in our work. If we fail to acknowledge and take care of our bodies, minds and spirits, we will bring an exhausted, discouraged self to work. The best we can do is the task. We present as a balloon losing altitude and air quickly. We cannot hold vision, inspire others, and fuel the system if all we have left is our swirling thoughts. As leaders we have a responsibility to hold a certainty that there is an absolute interconnectedness between our own well-being and the well-being of the organization in which we serve. Every time we step into an airplane we hear the instructions that we seldom take to heart and transfer to our workplace. If the oxygen masks come down, take care of yourself first; then take care of those with you. It isn’t act of selfishness. It is the acknowledgment of competence and of wisdom. Healthy, committed, honest leaders are good for children.

We are coming into the holidays and the year is well underway. Spend a bit of time by yourself and check your professional temperature. Are you working in a place that values you and where you are really making the difference you want to make? If yes, be happy every day. If not, decide what you can change for the better or start the consideration of where you might need to go. But, don’t put your head in the sand and wait until someone else....a superintendent or a board or an angry community....tell you it’s time. Real leaders who care about children don’t do that.

Ramsey, R.D. (2010) Lifelong Leadership by Design. Thousand Oaks: Corwin. p.80).

Photo by Jacek Dudzinski courtesy of 123rf

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.