Let me get right to it: I believe that we have to shift our thinking about the whole “leadership versus management” concept in K-12 leadership for our schools. More specifically, we need to think differently about what drives us to say:
“I want to be an INSTRUCTIONAL LEADER, but all I get to do is MANAGE.”
In your own context as a school leader--what are the things that you enjoy doing the most? If you are like most administrators, your answers are likely centred around activities with teaching and learning, such as visiting classrooms and working with teachers to design engaging classroom environments. You probably enjoy solving problems, collaborating with colleagues, learning new things and trying different ideas. And most of all, you like leading! You like helping to chart the course for the school and the learners within it, and to develop and implement the initiatives that will improve learning for all students.
Unfortunately, the work of a school leader can often seem to bear little resemblance to the title itself. In 2013, the Alberta Teachers' Association and the Canadian Association of Principals conducted 40 focus groups with 500 principals from across Canada over the span of two years, and created a document called the "Future of the Principalship in Canada". In this document, school leaders reported that they spent less than 15% of their time doing leadership-related tasks! The bulk of their day was spent on internal administrative tasks, teaching or covering classes, meeting with students, parents, or external agencies, or responding to requests from their districts, the province or the Ministry of Education. When I was working with a group of administrators at a leadership retreat a few months ago, a Vice-Principal of a large high school summed up these findings when he proclaimed “I took this job to be an educational leader, and now I just put out fires. I have a Master’s Degree in locker assignments!”.
And while the group laughed, the message was clear: Principals and Assistant Principals want to be leaders for their students, teachers, and school communities, yet the majority of their time is spent running, reacting and responding to the day-to-day operations and management of the school. And while I wish that I had better news to report, I don’t think that the tilted balance of management over leadership will ever change. In fact, I think it may actually get worse.
But what if we flipped that whole concept on its head? What if we planned staff meeting activities that used the management tasks that we are required to ‘cover’ as the content to model the skills we want for our teachers and classrooms so we can be the instructional leaders we want to be?
In British Columbia we are asking teachers to shift their approach to teaching and learning through the new BC Curriculum, and I could not be more excited. When I reflect upon my days as a teacher of Senior Biology, I remember looking with bewilderment at the hundreds of outcomes that I needed to cover for my students so they would be prepared for the government exams at the end of the semester. How was I going to get the kids through this stuff? And while I wish that it were different, I know there were too many lessons when I would tell my students something like “Sorry gang, this is going to be like drinking from a firehose today--we just need to get caught up!”. The kids would lock in, get their pens ready, and I would blast through as many outcomes as I could in the shortest period of time possible. My focus was content coverage: regardless of how much I would have liked to have been an instructional leader and taken more innovative and creative approaches, I felt like I was just barely managing the time it would take for me to get through the content of the course. Things like the 4 Cs’s of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication--were distant afterthoughts behind “the number one C”-- CONTENT!
The new BC curriculum is asking teachers to take an entirely different approach. Rather than just teaching content, teachers are being asked to teach the competencies of thinking, communication, and personal and social responsibility USING the content as the vehicle to get there. The content has become the means to help students learn to think critically and creatively, and communicate their learning as it relates to their own identity and their surroundings. As school leaders, we are asking teachers to move from a place where they have had to manage class time to cover content to now becoming instructional leaders who use their content to teach the competencies students will need to be successful in the future. In other words, we are asking teachers to use their content to teach skills.
If we are asking teachers to be instructional leaders who use their content to teach skills, school leaders must do the same. It’s just different content.
If we think for one minute that students find kinetic molecular theory in their science classes any more engaging than our teachers find covering the latest District policies in our faculty meetings, we are simply fooling ourselves. If we expect teachers to use kinetic molecular theory as an opportunity to teach communication and critical thinking to their learners in their classrooms, then we must hold ourselves to using policies and ‘administrivia’ as opportunities to teach OUR learners in OUR classrooms--our faculty meetings. If we expect this of teachers, we must expect this of ourselves: if we continue to say “I would like to lead, but I am too busy managing!”, then it would follow that our teachers should say “I would like to teach the competencies, but I am too busy covering content!”. We can’t do that anymore.
Leaders don’t make excuses about why they are unable to lead. They just lead.
The art of school leadership is not just about leading when we are ‘supposed’ to lead. It’s not just standing in front of the school at school assemblies, or in front of the parents at the Parent Advisory Council meetings, or introducing the guest speaker at PD days, it’s about relentlessly seeking out opportunities to model leadership, even when it is least expected. And it starts when we can take our managerial ‘content’ and turn it into instructional leadership.
But how do we do this?
Any educator knows that one of the keys to instructional success is planning. In my recent work with school leaders, I introduced them to an Experience Planning Template that was co-designed with Learning Experience Designers and Principals. Within this planning template, along with standard things like ‘learning intentions’, there are several other key pieces for leaders to consider, such as:
There is never enough time. But perhaps an alternative thought might be this: If a topic is important enough for us to have on our staff meeting agenda, should we not want to use it well? If these are so-called ‘management tasks’ that we must do, is our goal not for our teachers to be learners, not only about the managerial task, but about their practice as a teacher? And is it not incumbent upon the instructional leader to find the opportunities to lead, even when they could simply just ‘manage’?
But from a more pragmatic perspective, here is another thought. As school leaders, we actively encourage our teachers to collaborate, to share effective lesson plans and share resources. “Why re-invent the wheel?” we say, “Make it easier on ourselves!”. So why don’t we share effective staff meeting lesson plans? Why is it so common for us to plan the staff meeting by ourselves the day before, or with our small leadership team on the Friday prior to the Monday of the meeting, working from a ‘collaborative agenda’ that a few staff members have contributed to with issues from around the school?
This template was not only designed WITH Principals and Learning Experience Designers (who are teachers, of course), it was designed FOR Principals and their staff to co-design their learning. And it was designed using a collaborative document that will be shared in a repository for all of our administrators to access so people would not have to ‘re-invent the wheel’.
Ask yourself this--how much time do you spend planning your current staff meetings? And with all of that planning, are there times when you feel like you are just ‘covering content’? For most of us, the answer would be ‘yes’.
But if there were a way that you could use that content to be an instructional leader, would you choose to do that? And even better, if a school leader had already used that content (or similar content) to model competencies for their staff and was willing to share their ‘field-tested’ plan and reflections on how to make it better with you, would that be something that would help you be less of a ‘manager’ and more of a ‘leader’?
Whether we like it or not, the minutia of day-to-day operations is something that school administrators must do. While we might hope, it would be naive to think that the ‘administrivia’ will change or diminish in the near future. But if we can take even some of these pieces and turn them into instructional leadership opportunities and share them with our colleagues, we can re-think the whole ‘leadership versus management’ dilemma.
We can be leaders without excuses and just lead.
from the desk of an educator:
It's education: there is no more time, but we DO have time. There is no more money, but we DO have money. So let's put the learner at the center, and conduct ourselves accordingly.