I love a good question, and am absolutely enamored with great ones. This week, I received the latter.
Having recently and frequently written about the inherent shortcomings of the current principalship model that is employed by schools across the country, I was asked this morning, “What about schools where the principal really is an instructional leader, has those talents, and applies them regularly? Should they be reticent to share that leadership? What would your message be to the principal who is the building’s instructional leader?”
Well first, I would say, “Bravo!”
This is an astutely identified point of discussion, and its consideration leads me not to one conclusive “answer to rule them all,” but rather towards a series of relative points.
And, of course, I’m eager to share them.
It is critical to note that there is no single answer to what a model of teacher-leadership should look like; what actions are supportive of the school’s mission will vary by local context, the nature of the professional capital, and perhaps most importantly, the current reality of the school’s culture. As one principal recently suggested, “The success of our school’s model of teacher-leadership is that we were allowed to develop it based upon our context. Our strengths. Our areas of need.”
That said, I believe there are some fundamental considerations regarding institutionalizing teacher-leadership, particularly at sites where the principal is a master-teacher, possesses the skills necessary to effectively coach, and fully understands best practices:
- The model must be designed to survive the departure of such a principal. Too often, school effectiveness, particularly in the area of instructional leadership, topples much easier than it was painstakingly built. Even more often, this is due to a leadership change. A principal must ask herself, “Realistically, will our instructional excellence outlast me?” No matter how effective that principal is, how astute she is about quality instruction, or how much she inspires those around her to follow, success is often fragile, tenuous, and balances entirely on the back of the leader. This principal, in essence, can become a cult-of-personality; a larger than life figure who exemplifies a rare gift. But, if the true test of great leadership is ensuring that an organization survives the leader, what has this person done to guarantee that this wonderful environment carries on?
- As Michael Fullan convincingly argues in his recent book, “The Three Keys to Maximizing Impact,” the primary role of the principal should be to build large-scale capacity in teachers. Although this is a broad term, I believe we can narrow our definition of this action as:
- Using those leadership skills to define the mission and vision of the organization and ensuring that everyone identifies success in the same way.
- Focusing the team on actions that support this vision.
- Providing systems that measure progress.
- Training staff on identifying Big Ideas and Essential Questions, to borrow terminology from Grant Wiggins. Essentially saying, “What is it we’re trying to do? What stands in our way?
- Empowering staff to experiment with self-directed strategies to deal with challenges, but making sure that those pilot tactics are being measured. An experiment without measurement and tracking results isn’t science, it’s an affirmation of a predetermined belief.
- Relying on staff to assist in the identification of needs.
- Leading the larger discussions about the “why” of the organization’s actions, but then assisting in the design of frameworks that support the “what.” This, however does not mean the leader must design each stage. For example, I am working with a school that is looking to institutionalize leadership roles within their building. As part of this initiative, the school is seeking to develop a fluid list of roles that are available as a sort of “leadership menu.” The principal is integral in the design of this menu, including suggesting that each role includes a list of scaffolded skills and trainings that are suggested for success. She does not need to necessarily decide upon those skills; her leadership team can take the lead on this task, and then she can review their product. Thus, her role was to define essential components of a successful menu, not exploring, discussing, and defining what material filled each component.
- I’ve never met a principal that said she was, “done with instructional leadership for the week.” In other words, you can never have too much, regardless of how effective that leader is in the role. It is critical, however, that the view of quality instruction is aligned, as this then allows congruent feedback among building’s “leaders.” If we know that, as Robert Marzano states, “dollops of feedback,” are the most important component in learning, why would we not wish to empower others who know effective instruction to provide such valuable input? In short, the hoarding of opportunities to provide feedback is not the action of someone interested in broadly impacting instruction. Contrarily, such behavior serves only to minimize the effect of the leader; in her attempts to control improvement, she actually minimizes its likelihood.
We must remember that sharing leadership does not mean ceding leadership. By sharing it, we are spreading leadership’s reach into more classrooms, more frequently, and more specifically. We recognize that we, no matter how talented we might be, cannot be at all places, at all times, with consistently the best feedback. We understand that every opportunity where a teacher could have lead but did not, is an opportunity lost to share in the actions supporting the school’s mission. Too often, teachers are at the table to author long-range plans that characterize this mission, yet never get to guide the steps taken to achieve its aim.
Schools face enormous challenges ranging from budget to behavior, bullying to basics. But as an administrator builds the staff she wishes, she should recognize them as allies who all have a role to play. The real skill of an effective administrator is finding the courage, strength, and strategic purpose to leverage what each has to offer.