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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Administrators Can’t Lead From ‘the Confines of Their Office’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 18, 2019 12 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here; and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen an administrator make (or, if you are an administrator, that you’ve made)? What should have been done, instead?

Commentaries from Anne Vilen, Marcy Webb, Dr. Jason Kotch, Roxanna Elden, Baruti Kafele, and Dr. Manuel Rustin “kicked off” this five-part series. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Marcy, and Jason on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dr. PJ Caposey, Sarah Said, Amy Fast, Andrew Miller, Anthony Kim, and Edward Cosentino shared their observations.

In Part Three, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Harvey Alvy, Michael Haggen, James Erekson, and Michael D. Toth wrote about their experiences.

Today, it’s time for Julie Hasson, Ryan Huels, David Bosso, Cindy Terebush, and Kelly Wickham Hurst to contribute their thoughts.

Response From Julie Hasson

Julie Hasson is a former principal and is currently a professor in the School of Education at Florida Southern College. She is a co-author of Unmapped Potential: An Educator’s Guide to Lasting Change:

Since leaving my role as a school principal and becoming a professor who teaches educational leadership courses, I have had ample time to reflect on my days as an administrator. Lucky for me (and all other administrators), teachers are generous with forgiveness and second chances. Believe me, teachers know that those who sit in the principal seat are human, but they still appreciate a sincere apology when warranted. Even administrators who spent decades in the classroom can easily lose sight of what it is like to be a teacher, especially under the current political climate. The pressure to make a significant difference in student-achievement scores lands squarely at the feet of our teachers.

During the past three years as a professor, I had the opportunity to research a burning question: What difference do teachers really make in students’ lives? After hundreds of interviews with people from ages 18 to 80, it is clear that teachers have a lasting impact, but that impact is not always quantifiable and measurable. The biggest mistake administrators make is the relentless pursuit of what can be counted at the expense of what truly counts. The people I interviewed mentioned passion, compassion, and high expectations, but none of them mentioned test scores. Yes, we need to be accountable for the academic growth of all children but not at the expense of the well-being of the children we serve (or the well-being of their teachers).

Constant worry about high-stakes testing takes up a large amount of mental bandwidth. Teachers have a limited amount of time and energy to spend on their students. Persevering on scores and things they do not fully control depletes their ability to focus on the things that matter most. Yes, administrators must let teachers know when the data indicate an area for improvement, but we also need to notice evidence of a positive classroom culture. Administrators need to acknowledge evidence of the ways teachers are growing the social and emotional dimensions of students. We need to attend to the ways teachers are engaging students and integrating life lessons with academic content, because these are the things that have a lasting impact.

This political climate is tough for administrators, too. Often we are required to implement policies which were created without educator input and we feel a relentless pressure to increase test scores, just like our teachers. But administrators set the conditions in which teaching and learning happen. The whole school focuses on the things to which we give our attention. So, let’s not confuse the things that can be counted with the things that really count.

Response From Ryan Huels

Ryan Huels is the assistant principal of Oregon Elementary School in Oregon, Ill. He spent five years as a 1st grade classroom teacher prior to entering administration:

The biggest mistake I have seen administrators make is leading by title and position alone from the confines of their office.

Gone are the days when an administrator can be effective if they are glued to their office chair all day long every day. Our job is to serve others, namely the students and staff we are blessed to work with on a daily basis, and we cannot do that effectively if we do not spend a majority of our time working alongside our constituents. Develop a daily schedule that allows you to greet students as they arrive in the morning to start each day with a positive tone. This is a great way to form relationships with students. A quality administrator should be in classrooms on a regular basis, depending on the size of a building 1-2 times per week if not more for smaller buildings. This will allow you to gain a greater understanding of the instructional practices being implemented, identify themes of strength/areas of growth, and to learn alongside our staff and students!

Implementing a daily calendar does provide breaks within the day for you to return to your office to complete necessary paperwork, return phone calls, and tie up any loose ends. After visiting classrooms first thing in the morning, provide 30 minutes to an hour to work on projects with an aim to be back amongst students and staff throughout the lunch period. This will allow you to assist as needed, whether it’s a shortage of help in the lunchroom or at recess, or to help monitor behavior in the form of building more relationships with students and staff. Do not hesitate to jump into a game at recess or crank up the tunes in the lunchroom—students will enjoy seeing their principal is in fact human and they can help build a positive school culture full of joy.

Too often administrators are resigned to the fact of remaining in their office waiting for something to come to them and to be readily available for the phone to ring with a concerned parent or for a student to be sent down to the office. We can proactively solve problems and help promote a positive building culture by going where the action is and working alongside students.

Response From David Bosso

David Bosso, a social studies teacher at Berlin High School, is the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year and 2012 National Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Over the course of his teaching career, Bosso has traveled to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as part of educational delegations for global understanding. Bosso holds master’s degrees from the University of Hartford and Central Connecticut State University and a doctor of education degree from American International College:

Years ago, on more than one occasion, an administrator stated to me that “if teachers don’t like it, there are plenty of job openings at McDonald’s.” The “it” was, of course, anything that the administrator felt was necessary for teachers to buy into and carry out—some policy or mandate that was ill-advised and to which teachers responded in a manner that was not irrational or unjustified, but not what the administrator demanded. There are so many ways that the statement was particularly troubling. Aside from the disrespectful perception of those who work in low-wage jobs and related socioeconomic dynamics and challenges present in our society, the flippancy by which the administrator used the statement was reflective of a deeply rooted view of teachers and their expected place in the educational hierarchy. It is one thing for a teacher’s relative at a holiday gathering to bemoan the proverbial “summers off” and other stereotypes about teachers, but it is another conversation altogether when such views are held by an apparent leader within the organizational establishment.

The callousness of the sentiment suggests that, even when faced with poor (and unilateral) decisionmaking, teachers should just remain quiet, never question authority, and accept whatever changes are made. Such a paternalistic attitude debases the importance of teachers’ work and professionalism and insinuates that asking questions and engendering discourse are unnecessary resistance. It perpetuates the submissive role that teachers are expected to assume in a service-oriented profession. Importantly, it is an affront that only serves to undermine teacher motivation and morale. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to the administrator’s suggestion and all that it may entail, but in a profession that demands a large amount of emotional energy and the stresses that accompany caring for children, ensuring students’ academic and social development, and being unfairly scrutinized by community members and politicians, I cannot apologize for being taken aback.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that individuals who are in positions of authority yet insecure in their sense of self are more likely to resort to such juvenile logic. For those who become administrators without a good amount of self-reflection and a core educational philosophy that informs their views and guides their decisionmaking, such attitudes are bound to become more pronounced. The discrepancy between values, actions, and words only widens in such instances, contributing to a toxic culture characterized my mistrust and strained relationships. Certainly, if we in the field of education truly believe in the importance of our work and understand the critical role carried out by teachers, some administrators can make more of an effort to ensure that their language and behaviors are reflective of their priorities and values.

Of course, the majority of administrators are exceptional and respectful of the faculty, staff, and students with whom they work. A good administrator is like a good teacher: authentic, inclusive, emotionally intelligent, and transformational. A good administrator knows that there are many variables that comprise and impact teacher identity and strives to create a trusting, engaging, and collaborative environment in which all feel a part. Expectations of teachers, daily demands, and policy pressures consistently challenge teacher morale, motivation, and professional identity. It is hard enough as it is without people in positions of authority exercising it so carelessly. Being a leader and being a boss are very different. Effective leadership is less about status and power and more about selfless service and the collective good.

Response From Cindy Terebush

Cindy Terebush is an early-childhood consultant, presenter, and author of Teach the Whole Preschooler: Strategies for Nurturing Developing Minds:

The biggest mistake I’ve seen administrators make is hesitating to make necessary staff changes. As a consultant, I have had many conversations with administrators about teachers, assistant teachers, and/or paraprofessionals who simply don’t work well together. We all agree; yet, administrators don’t necessarily make a change at the first or even second opportunity.

People tend to like the status quo and dislike the conversation about having to change someone’s work. Unfortunately, poor communication or cooperation among people who just don’t fit where they have been assigned does have an impact on students. Needing to make a staff change can be approached as a positive, but too often, we fear the reactions of others and don’t manage to frame the conversation well. We don’t listen enough to that inner voice that tells us a situation isn’t working. Remember, if you see that something isn’t working, so does everyone else: students, parents, other staff members. Effective leaders lead. No one ever said that leading is always going to be comfortable.

Administrators should be transparent. Let the member in question know that you need to make a change so that they will be in a situation that will allow them to be at their best. Explain that, as the administrator, you need to be planning for the larger picture and you believe that the change will positively impact your school.


Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

Well, considering that I had to leave a district because they were upset that I kept bringing up our systemic racism issues, I’d have to say that the biggest mistakes are the ones where administrators claim they’re “color blind” while continuing to harm black and brown students at similar rates across the country. Ignoring race or the foundational history of our schools is a huge mistake that has yet to be reconciled.

Thanks to Julie, Ryan, David, Cindy, and Kelly for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Five in a few days.

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