Governance in the School Trenches

peter dewitt 2My friend, Peter DeWitt, is a public elementary school principal in upstate New York. He is a thoughtful and caring person, and I think probably represents the best of his public school principal profession, and I think any of my teacher friends would be happy to have such a leader for their school.  He writes a daily blog for Education Week magazine online, and his pieces generally wrestle with trying to be a humanistic educational leader within a bureaucratic system of standardization, high-stakes testing, and other mandates and strictures from above.

In his recent blog piece, “Why Would Anyone Want to Be a School Leader?”, Peter writes…

School leadership is hard…especially now. There are point scales to contend with, evaluations based on test scores, and budget cuts that result in the lay-offs of teachers and administrative colleagues. Some leaders who have been in the position for a few years have seen cuts to programs, and have a constant need to find creativity in a very uncreative time… On top of that leaders have students living in extreme poverty, an increase in the students with social-emotional issues, and in some cases are expected to take on the role of parents to students…and their parents…

Peter paints a picture that allows me to at least try to put myself in his shoes, though I have never been a school teacher or principal myself.  He and the teachers that he supervises are the key agents in a high-stakes societal exercise in social engineering by an array of institutional forces, including all levels of government, big business, labor unions, and other interests that are all part of what has been coined as the “education-industrial complex”.

When poor standardized test scores flag a school as underperforming, it is the school staff that most suffer the consequence, so they bear the weight of increasingly coercive and controlling authority of the state government.  School staff bear this increasing weight while having to manage the expectations of parents, plus the frustration of young people who must spend so much of their time and psychic energy in this institution.  An institution that is increasingly forced to put forward a standardized, even regimented and “uncreative” educational environment rather than be a fun place to learn things.

I think Peter’s challenge as the school principal, the onsite representative and mouthpiece of a faraway educational bureaucracy, is the most daunting of all.  He has the responsibility and authority to execute the orders from on high, but not the broader authority to always apply his best judgement as a caring person and skilled educator.  Here’s how he puts it…

Why would anyone want to be a school leader these days? Trying to do the right thing at the same time we are being guided by some education departments (i.e. state, federal) to do the wrong thing doesn’t seem to be worth the stress. If that is the way you feel, run away now. Schools need leaders who will fight the status quo at the same time they fight policymakers making education worse. Students and staff deserve better.

I can feel the passion, mitigated by frustration, of someone who wants to be of assistance to the teachers and the students in his school.  The strength of his own commitment to what he acknowledges is a very important but daunting task.  The level of his discomfort that this does not feel like the right approach to things.

Leadership – Mandate from Above or Consensus of Peers?

In our political institutions we follow a democratic approach to governance where we generally don’t assign leadership without the consent of the governed.  This is a foundational principle of our country, beginning with our revolutionary war mantra, “No taxation without representation!”  Though we still wrestle with plenty of inequities of privilege and power, this is at least the ideal we strive for.

Yet in our public educational institutions we follow the “enlightened despot” model of governance.  We convey power to our meritocratic experts, who we put at the top of a command and control structure where we rely on them to determine the “best practice” and then use their position at the top of a hierarchy of control to force everyone below them in that hierarchy to execute the determined “best practice”.

Just as with “taxation without representation” that led to the American Revolution, this top-down approach is problematic in schools, as exemplified when a public school gets a new principal.  Peter writes about the problems when a new principal comes to a school…

When new leaders enter a position, there are many staff who are ready to support them and others who do not trust them at all. It seems unfair, especially if the leader is new to the district. Shouldn’t all staff trust their new leader? As unfortunate as it may be, it happens and new leaders should understand why it happens.

Sometimes the lack of trust occurs because the staff had a previous leader who did not treat them well at all, and others times it happens just because of the title. There are staff, parents, and even kids, who don’t trust a leader because they have the title of principal… That has to be ok with new leaders if they plan on running a building. They can’t take it personal.

Unlike Peter, who is a paid employee and agent of the state, I have the luxury as an outsider in the peanut gallery to say that in my opinion this is a profound problem of the command and control “enlightened despot” governance model.  Some people will cheer a new “despot”, a new “sheriff”, if they feel that person is truly enlightened and making the right decisions.  But others will grumble.  Some of the grumblers respect the imposed authority but disagree with the decisions made.  Others feel that imposed authority is fundamentally disrespectful of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

 As a principal within the “enlightened despot” governance model, as Peter points out, this goes with “running the building”.  And given that a majority of teachers in a school have willingly or at least grudgingly surrendered their own authority and accepted this governance model, the task of the leader is to demonstrate that they will act ethically and they are willing to be in relationship with their subordinates.  The best mitigation for leadership not granted by the led is trust.

Trust is something that is built one conversation and one action at a time. Every time a leader acts on an issue and every time they have a conversation with a one faculty member or the whole faculty, they are building trust. These conversations go into our emotional bank accounts.

Covey says, “We all know what a financial bank account is. We make deposits into it and build up reserves from which we can make withdrawals when we need to. An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being”.

Peter uses the metaphor from leadership “best practice” guru Stephen Covey, looking at leadership as a transactional exercise of making “deposits” and earning interest before you can make “withdrawals”. Peter writes…

It is [un?]avoidable when working with staff that we make deposits and other times we make withdrawals. Deposits happen when we support staff members through a tough time or cover their class when they need to run out for an emergency. Deposits happen with kids when leaders engage with them and show they care. Deposits also happen when kids are treated with respect during times of discipline. If students see a school leader as “human” they are more likely to trust them.

But when it comes to the “withdrawal” part, I read the subtext about the underlying authoritarian governance model being completely problematic…

Withdrawals also happen and they can be devastating. They occur when leaders have to make decisions that staff does not agree with or when the leader makes a major mistake. School leaders are the bridge between the central office and the staff they lead. That bridge is not always clearly defined and school leaders will feel in the middle. There will be times when school leaders see both sides and other times when they don’t but have to follow through anyway.

Being in a situation that ends with a withdrawal of the emotional bank account is hard. However, if leaders did the work before these issues arise and built trust with their staff, the times they make withdrawals will not be as devastating as they could have been if the leaders did not do the work at all.

Peter accepts this governance model as the reality that he must live and work with.  I don’t think I could in his shoes, but then I would probably be quickly fired and replaced by a new principal that would accept it, and probably not one as humanistic as either Peter or I would strive to be.

Things to keep in mind

Peter then calls out his own set of seven habits (ala Covey) for school principals that I would heartily second…

* Be human

* Have tough conversations

* Instill laughter into your everyday practices

* Surround yourself with good people

* Check in on people

* Complete teacher observations with integrity

* Encourage teachers to be who they are

I posted a quick comment on Peter’s piece attempting to call out the underlying problem with the governance model that I thought he was not addressing…

I think we are missing the boat here, trying to run schools in an undemocratic “command and control” kind of governance rather than employing the governance model that our society was built around, democracy… There should rarely if ever be a case where “leaders have to make decisions that staff does not agree with”. Nor ones that students don’t agree with. Get students and staff in circles as equals, tell them the reality of standardization and high-stakes testing, and put it out there for general discussion, “so how are we going to make this place work?” Let students and teachers be key participants in that discussion and make it their business (not yours as the principal) to craft a solution. Leverage the beauty of our American system, democratic process!

I’m always appreciative when the blogger responds to the comments they receive.  Here’s Peter’s to mine…

Although I understand your unschooling model there are times as the school leader when not all staff will be happy with decisions that are made, even in a democratic model. Many staff and students may understand but not everyone will be happy, which is what I meant when I wrote that piece. For you to say that that should “rarely if ever” happen is a bit off the mark. I’m afraid I will have to respectfully disagree with this one. Even in democratic systems there are times when we do not always get what we want.

Rereading my comment, perhaps I overstate the power of a democratic consensus to at least satisfy people that they had a say and a vote, even if the majority voted against them.  Peter is right to say that good democratic process does not always satisfy people.  But I think I am still right in pointing out that being heard and having a vote, that is the democratic process, would be transformational.

2 replies on “Governance in the School Trenches”

  1. Hi Coop,
    Thanks for the thoughtful piece..although I hate that picture! I often feel a struggle in the public school system. I try to encourage risk-taking on the part of staff and students, and I always encourage my students to talk with me when they have a problem with a rule in school. I feel that students need to be heard, even if they are saying things we don’t want to hear.
    That being said, I also feel a great deal of frustration as a principal. There is way too much accountability and mandates and it is killing creativity. However, I still have the hope that we can find creativity in those constraints and can’t give up. Too many kids are counting on us.
    Thanks for always stretching my thinking Coop. I’m trying my best, and it’s because of guys like you that I want to continue.

  2. Thanks Peter… appreciate your comment and particularly that last sentence. Now that my kids are raised, I’m really focusing my “life’s work” on championing egalitarianism and the “circle of equals” in all out institutions and even between adults and youth.

    Though I am a pretty constant critic of the school system that you choose to participate in, I appreciate that you are fighting the good fight from the inside while I and others work on the outside and challenge the whole system outright.

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