A “sense of mission” sparked Stephen Hawking. Harry S. Truman popularized: “The buck stops here.” Effective leadership evolves from inspiration and ends with accountability. It is such vision that initiates, and, it was such Presidential taking of responsibility that culminates. How we get from inspiration to culmination, then, is the story of leadership itself.
ADVOCACY, BUT FROM WHOSE EYES?
For a Chief School Administrator, a sense of mission needs clarification. Schools have unique charges and responsibilities. Expectations vary according to one’s position in life, resulting in diverse ideas for educational improvements. Frequently, conflicting points of view need reconciliation and the superintendent is the person who can best pull people together, marshalling their energies in a single direction.
We are well aware of the General Systems theory caveat on interrelatedness: that a system will not survive if its output is unacceptable to the environment (Bertalanffy, 1969). School systems do need to be dynamic, adjusting to society’s needs. An example of responsiveness is the increase in public school pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs. However, these accommodations are not necessarily improvements. Whether or not they are depends on whose perspective is taken in designing and implementing them.
An educational leader should view himself as the chief advocate for children. The
clarification of this mission is to focus on “what’s good for kids” and only one view consistently zeros in on them: the study of child development. Knowledge of child development needs to be at the core of every decision touching on the educational process. Returning to our heightened interest in pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten classes, we need to question their developmental appropriateness. David Elkind warns against the woe-begotten adult rush to burden young children with excessive structure and formality (Elkind, 1981). Some of this debate involves the needs of working parents for child-care. Some involves an attempt to raise academic standards by providing more earlier. Schools cannot ignore societal needs, but how educators respond should be determined by what we know from child development.
It is the superintendent’s role to deal with such controversies, trying to recommend actions that deal with the conflicting demands without violating the principle of developmental appropriateness. For example, support your teachers who promote creative play and socialization skills. Recognize a concern for achievement and share copies of Elkind’s book. Unfortunately, many adults and schools no longer recall a child’s point of view and rush to impose inappropriate expectations . There is a fear that children will not have the knowledge to handle imposed tests. Be sympathetic to such anxiety and discuss a concern for developmental readiness.
The late constitutional lawyer, Alexander Bickel, championed the flawed benefits of democracy because it “reconciles the irreconcilable.” (Bickel, 1975). Superintendents face this challenge, leading a school community to value its children based upon the perspective of child development. To do this, bring issues out into the open via newsletters, speak at PTA meetings, seek local newspaper coverage via interviews, and be sure to include one’s board of education members. A wise strategy with them is to invite members to attend educational conferences. That is an effective way to bring curricular and instructional matters out in the open.
“Everything vital in history reduces itself ultimately to ideas, which are the motive forces.” (Nisbet, 1975). The vision of how a community’s young can best be educated requires specificity and a powerful articulation. To motivate a faculty is a formidable task because, as professionals, teachers have their own training, commitment and sense of pride. It is foolhardy to exclude teachers from the decision-making process. In fact, an important ingredient of motivation is the decentralization of certain aspects of authority. Without the genuine delegation of many instructional decisions, initiatives will not be taken and a climate of professionalism will be lost.
Cornell University Professor of Organizational Behavior, Karl E. Weick, has encouraged large districts to: “centralize on key values and decentralize everything else.” To implement this, key values such as creating a learning community, collaboration, courage, and respect for the individual need an articulate spokesperson to be shared district-wide. Approaches to teaching, communicating with parents, and use of materials are examples of items to be addressed by each individual school community. Weick also exhorted administrators to: “get out of the office and spend lots of time one to one, both to remind people of central visions and to assist them in applying these visions to their own activities … to interpret what they (teachers) are doing in a common language.” (Weick, 1982)
Obviously, visions remain private unless they are publicly expressed. To be a leader, one needs to articulate one’s visions. Merely conceiving is not enough! Tom Peters and Nancy Austin stress the need for intensity and passion in articulating a sense of mission. They describe dozens of instances of visions dramatically expressed and of the use of symbols “… (V)ision made visible!” (Peters, 1982)
Buck Rodgers, IBM’s former vice-president of marketing, writes in The IBM Way (Rodgers & Shook, 1982) that: “The only sacred cow in an organization is its principles.” Accordingly, a vision is successfully given life when everyone involved is inspired to share in its ownership.
RAMBO, NINJA AND TOUGHNESS!
Styles of leadership have been extensively studied and discussed. Field experience has highlighted a cultural preoccupation with toughness. American notions of leadership have been popularly depicted by the image of John Wayne. Macho perceptions clash with the role of child advocate, motivator of professionals and sympathetic listener to parents. Boards of Education are entitled to a take-charge leader, but a clear understanding of assertiveness is necessary.
The explosive style of Rambo seems a slight overkill for a school system! There are times, surprisingly often, when toughness is called for. People bring personal agendas to work, to parent conferences and to Boards of Education. It is essential that superintendents recognize, empathize with wherever possible, and redirect such pressures. Times occur when staff negotiations strive, understandably, to meet the needs of equity. Children’s needs must weigh heavily, critically in the balance.
Dale Mann of Columbia University has commented on reactions to his “effective schools” research that: “… the politics of education is about adult working conditions, not children’s learning conditions.”
An effective superintendent will temper such an adversarial position with Tom Peter’s findings: “We are emotional creatures … Our life is a drama to each of us. The winners are institutions and leaders that own up to that reality and live with us as humans – not as automatons.” He believes that leadership comprises a paradox: “tough and uncompromising about our value systems but at the same time caring deeply about and respecting our people.” This view surpasses cynicism by accepting a paradox, choosing neither toughness nor softness. His resolution is passionate vision with empathy for the employee as a human being.
The incongruence of a Rambo style is that it gruffly disrupts as “a bull in the china shop.” On the other hand, is a Ninja style any better? Surely the silent assassin fails to use the due process of progressive discipline, let alone to openly face his intended victim! Trinity University Professor of Education, Thomas J. Sergiovanni succinctly summarized real assertiveness: “When observing highly successful school leaders at work, we see that they know the difference between sensible toughness, real toughness and merely looking tough and acting tough. Real toughness doesn’t come from flexing one’s muscles simply because one happens to have more power than another. Real toughness is always principled… Successful leaders expect adherence to common values but provide wide discretion in implementation.” (Sergiovanni, 1987). Assertive anger follows violation of the common values. The values are the districts’ goals as well as our profession’s ethics – the articulated vision.
One form of assertiveness is most powerful and effective. It is the ability to privately confront staff members who no longer belong with children. Educational leaders need to walk hallways and visit classrooms to monitor staff members’ preparation, relationships with students, approaches to teaching, etc. By actively and consistently walking the walk, one can become aware of adult behaviors that impact children.
“HOLD FAST TO DREAMS”
Poets remind us of the value of dreams and the wonder of childhood. A spark fades in each of us as soon as we forget “the eye of the child.” Superintendents can sparkle as educational leaders. Bosses, negotiators, referees, organizers, planners, evaluators, public relations experts – all these we must be. Yet, none has true meaning if we are not first and foremost child advocates seeking to sensitize and inspire our Boards of Education, teachers, pupils, parents, press and media, community members, business people and teacher preparation colleges. This formidable challenge, in the best of us, is driven by an impassioned concern and reverence for children and family life.
William Wordsworth’s poetry embodies this drive:
“My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each in natural piety.” (Wordsworth, 1802)
Leadership is fraught with contradiction, conflict and controversy. Its accomplishments change lives, impact on communities and cultivate institutions. Poets and children sing its rewards alike!
About The Author:
Dr. Andrew Rose was the Chief School Administrator for 25 years of the Norwood Public School District in Bergen County, New Jersey. He retired in 2009 after 42 years in public education. He is currently an author, having published his award-winning debut novel: With schoolteachers, not James Bond, in a romantic thriller. His website is:https://www.drandyrose.com
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- Elkind, D. (1981). The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
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- Wordsworth, W., Liu, A., & Muir, J. (2003). William Wordsworth. New York: Sterling Pub.