School & District Management Commentary

Doing Things Right, Or Doing the Right Things?

By Tom Hoerr — May 10, 2000 8 min read
The authority given to school administrators has not kept pace with the demands and responsibilities assigned to them.

These are not pleasant times for school administrators. We are moving faster than ever before, but often aren’t sure of our destination. Cell phones, faxes, and e-mail have changed the definition of “accessible,” so that we are never truly away from our jobs. Not only are we never truly away, but more is expected of us—and it needs to be done faster. We are expected to be instructional leaders, disciplinarians, campus security officers, and representatives to the larger community. The demands on us and the responsibilities assigned to us have increased, but the authority given to us has not kept pace.

Teachers’ roles have changed, too, and they have not gotten any easier. A shockingly high number of children live in poverty, and the intact family seems to be a statistical rarity. Our students fall short on international comparisons, and parents are, justly, demanding more from schools and educators. An increasing amount of the time that children spend outside of school is in front of an electronic baby-sitter. As a result, students’ attention spans have diminished, and their ability to work collaboratively with others is often underdeveloped. This formula leads to teachers’ jobs being filled with pressure and tension. Too often, the faculty stress leads to internecine battles and teachers’ being distrustful of principals, the very people whose job it is to help teachers teach.

Principals find themselves in the middle, pressured from above and below, trying to satisfy competing urgent demands, coming in earlier and staying later, but not making any discernible progress. The top of the desk is as filled with stacks of paper on Friday evening as it was Monday morning. The result, if we are not careful, is a loss of priorities, in which we wind up focusing on what can be easily measured, tallied, and checked off at the end of the day and week. Unless we guard against it, pressures can move principals to focus on doing things right rather than doing the right things. After all, there is a strong sense of satisfaction that comes from checking off those tasks that have been accomplished, moving a paper from the “in” to the “out” box, and responding to all of the day’s e-mail messages. These kinds of tasks are important, but successfully completing them is not what makes a school thrive and grow.

Good schools aren’t just buildings with caring teachers and nice kids; those qualities are important but not sufficient. Rather, good schools are collections of people working together with a common vision. Good schools are communities of learners, many younger and some older, but all learning with and from one another. In good schools, learners of all ages create knowledge and gain understanding. Good schools are built upon the quality of the professional relationships that exist within the building.

The principal’s role in developing and fostering these kinds of adult-child and adult-adult relationships is crucial. But as with any goal of value, progress is neither easy nor smooth. If principals are unaware, relationships within the school become the casualty of spending time doing things right instead of doing the right things.

Cell phones, e-mail, and faxes won’t disappear. Likewise, parents and teachers are not likely to become less demanding or critical in their needs and expectations. Under the best of circumstances, our challenge is not easy, but it is possible. If we want a community of learners, we must begin by focusing on relationships. What can be done?

First, we must focus on building and maintaining trusting relationships with our teachers. Although most administrators became educators and remain in the profession because we enjoy being around youngsters and helping them learn, we must realize that they are not our primary constituents. Yes, it is fun to visit classrooms, and play chess with students or chat with them in the halls. And we should do that. But students aren’t our primary audience. Good principals are teachers of teachers. It is with our teachers that we should concentrate our efforts. This means spending time with teachers, talking with them about their students, instruction, and curriculum, watching them teach, giving them feedback, and asking for their input on issues and feedback about our performance.

Roland S. Barth’s notion of “collegiality” is relevant here. He says that if students are to grow and learn, everyone in the building must be growing and learning. Our job is to create a setting in which teachers and administrators can grow and learn together and be part of that learning. Time is the enemy, but it is also the solution. It is far easier to sit in an office and write a memo or complete a form than it is to stroll down the hall and stop in a classroom. After all, the classroom can wait; the memo and form must be done today! But it is visiting the classroom, inserting ourselves into the learning process— watching, learning, and teaching—that moves a school forward.

By setting priorities on how time is used, by ensuring that a portion of it is spent doing the right things, everyone grows and the institution moves forward.

Faculty committees can be a valuable tool in doing the right things. Administrators should be integrally involved in them, chairing, serving on them, and being a contributor. In good schools, important business takes place in these committees. Teachers and administrators work together and talk about common concerns and issues. Whether the topics are teaching for understanding, multiple intelligences, a student dress code, or Advanced Placement classes is less important than that the dialogue take place.

Unfortunately, the educational norm runs against these sorts of exchanges. Teaching is largely an autonomous profession in which most of what happens takes place behind closed doors. Faculty committees are opportunities to reverse that isolation, a time for teachers and administrators to learn with and from one another. Faculty committees are forums for interactions, building relationships, and developing trust between teachers and between teachers and administrators. Every minute that an administrator spends as a member of a faculty committee is an investment that will pay dividends.

Faculty committees are only one strategy. Doing the right things to build relationships means being accessible when things go wrong, not just when they’re going right. It means accepting responsibility for mistakes, letting teachers know that we’re not perfect either. It means routinely soliciting feedback about our performance from our teachers. Doing the right thing means leading from within, not mandating from above. All of this takes time, but it is time well spent.

It is equally important that we develop a relationship with ourselves—that we come to know ourselves and appreciate our strengths and needs. When was the last time that we closed the door and spent 15 minutes reading an article in an educational journal? When was the last time we left work “early,” say at 4:30 or 5 p.m., in order to do something we enjoyed, something that would help us be fresh in the morning when we returned to work?

Doing the right thing means taking care of ourselves. As many have said, our job is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. September to June is a long time, and if we want our teachers to end the school year looking forward to the next one, we must feel that way, too.

Developing a relationship with ourselves means that we must know how we work, what we do well, and where we fall down. Knowing this, we can make accommodations for our weaknesses and capitalize on our strengths. By brainstorming and working with others, by skillfully delegating, or simply by being more proactive, we can often overcome our liabilities.

The starting point is understanding and being realistic about our weaknesses. Those same trusting relationships with our faculty that allow us to help teachers grow and learn can be used to give us the feedback we need, however painful it may be at times, so that we grow and learn as well.

We must realize that our job is not to make others happy. Our job is to create an environment in which everyone in the building grows and learns.

Finally, we must realize that our job is not to make others happy. Happiness is important, and happy students and teachers will no doubt learn and work better than unhappy students and teachers. But having happiness as our goal is an easy path to disaster because it invites decisions to be made on the criterion of ease rather than what is right for our students. Our job is to create an environment in which everyone in the building—children and adults— grows and learns. Sometimes that means being supportive and sometimes it means being challenging. Occasionally, it means confronting others. In all cases, though, it is doing what is needed to help teachers grow, so that students will learn.

Happiness comes when teachers are growing. Focusing on the adult-adult relationships within our building, working to do the right thing rather than just doing things right, is the key.

Yes, paperwork is important, and yes, someone needs to be sure that the overflowing commode on the second floor is being taken care of. For sure, the milk needs to be ordered and the new block scheduling completed. Those are the right things, and they’re attractive because even though the list may seem infinite, every item is finite and completion of each task yields a small victory. Do them or delegate them, but don’t dwell on them; their completion is not the key to a good school.

Instead, take the time to listen and know others, starting with the faculty, and consciously working to develop faculty collegiality and create a setting in which everyone learns and grows.

That is the right thing to do. It isn’t easy, and each success presents greater challenges. But time spent on building positive, trusting relationships with the faculty is an investment, one that will result in benefits to everyone in the school.

Tom Hoerr is the director of the New City School in St. Louis and the author of Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Press. This essay is based on his experiences and reflections on school leadership as a member of the Klingenstein Fellows Visiting Heads Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. He can be reached at trhoerr@aol.com.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Doing Things Right, Or Doing the Right Things?


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