Education Opinion

The Leadership Path Less Taken

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 09, 2014 5 min read
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Guest blogger Leigh Byron has worked in what he calls “the leadership trifecta:" Superintendent in Public Schools, Headmaster in Private Schools, Founder and Head of School of STEMCivics, a Charter High School in Trenton, NJ.

When it comes to inspiring students toward success, you are the answer. That’s right. You. And There are two paths you can take that lead to your being that answer. Let’s focus on the first path now.

You have to do one thing at the start. It’s obvious, intangible, and seemingly elusive: forge a connection with each person in your sphere. Administrators have to reach other administrators and teachers, and teachers have to reach other teachers and their students. Without a connection, there is little hope of having any effect on anyone -- especially disaffected, unmotivated, and low-achieving students.

Model and Encourage
It seems so obvious. To reach someone, to have an effect on someone, you have to connect with that person, whether it’s in your personal life or your professional life. However, it’s as difficult as it is obvious. It can’t be taught, though it can be modeled and encouraged. The ability to make connections really depends on who you are and how you relate to people.

Your making connections with others is the fundamental element in inspiring others in schools. Focusing on this secret sauce is seemingly avoided at all costs in schools, as it touches on educators’ personalities, and even the most gentle and constructive commentary on one’s personality is usually as welcome as Ebola.

So what do educators do? They dress the same needed-but-not-sufficient constructs like instructional leadership, high expectations, accountability, etc. in different outfits, from the Effective Schools Movement in the last century to whatever today’s trends are called.

Everything is wordsmithed, as if changing words alone changes results. Look at some job titles: schools now have lead learners, CEO’s, and executive directors instead of superintendents/principals, and mentors and learning curators instead of teachers. Change agents are no longer reformers. They’re now transformers. Seriously?

Look Inward
This first path takes you on the road to looking inward, to knowing and understanding yourself, and to recognizing your strengths and limitations. Almost sixty years ago, in When Teachers Face Themselves, Arthur Jersild wrote that to gain in understanding of ourselves, teachers need the courage to look inward and the humility to accept what they might find. No surprise that this urging hasn’t made its way around the construct carousel, but it’s the Holy Grail to making connections in schools.

Making connections transcends public and independent schools and people; it spans decades. Think back to your days as a student and to the teachers who connected with you. I know, you were a different student than the disaffected and unmotivated students in front of you today. Just don’t get caught up in the psychological deathtrap of thinking students should behave as you did. You’re wasting your time and energy. Just focus on what it takes to reach your students today.

Leading a respectful environment goes a long way toward changing the learning behaviors of the students. A detective who focuses on gang-related matters recently told me he gets even the most hardened gang members to talk with him because he shows them respect.

Leaders must model respect and likeability. Teachers follow and then when students tend to like teachers who feel good about them, they become more engaged in learning. Respecting and liking students go a long way in the learning process.

Students can sense when you don’t like them, and that is a surefire turn-off. OK, you think students should be interested in learning regardless of their feelings toward you. There’s that should poison, rearing its ugly head again. It’s time you recognize reality and, in the vernacular, deal with it.

Making Connections is Personality Dependent
Making connections is so important, yet it isn’t given its due in teacher observations, and understandably so. Observation instruments tend to focus on behaviors that are, no surprise here, observable. Given some of these instruments, it’s possible for a teacher to achieve a positive observation score on these inspections, especially if she or he re-contextualizes multi-dimensional learning structures across spatial and temporal zones, or does some other Esperanto-sounding nonsense.

Professional development programs that emphasize how to motivate students are somewhat misguided unless they consider how to make the teacher’s personality motivating. It requires forcing teachers to look inward at themselves, as Jersild said, not outward at their students. Can you imagine teachers signing up for a professional development session on How to Make You Interesting?

Making connections is personality dependent - we relate to people according to our personalities. Rarely do administrators or teachers welcome suggestions from supervisors on how they can improve their personalities.

The Interview Challenge
When you’re in the position of picking your entire staff, or even one teacher, focus on getting to know that person. Questions such as: “How do you use data to inform your instructional decision making?” or “How do you differentiate instruction to meet the needs of different learning styles?” are useless. Those pedagogical skills can be taught. How to make connections is a very different skill.

The greatest challenge for interviewers is determining who are these candidates as people, as who they are governs what they do and their ability to make connections. Some good questions include, “Tell me about a time you were under stress. What caused it and what did you do?” and “Why do people like you?” You might even cut to the chase: “How do you make connections with people?”

Of course, the problem many times is who is doing the interviewing. A-rate players pick A-rate players, B-rate players pick C-rate players, and C-rate players pick F-rate players. You are who you hire.

Making Connections is Only the Beginning
I’ve always found that I couldn’t teach administrators or teachers how to make connections with others. I could only do my best to emphasize the importance of connections, to model how to make them with others, and to encourage looking inward. Again, making connections is necessary but not sufficient. It’s just the channel through which everything else will flow.

At the start I wrote that there are two paths you can take to your being the answer. We covered the first. If you can’t make connections with students, or even make an attempt, you have to take the second path, and let somebody else try on the first.

Jersild, Arthur (1955) When Teachers Face Themselves. New York: Teachers College Press

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.