We Don’t Need Good Leaders…We Need Great Ones

My post asking Who Would Want to Be a Leader has received a great many responses both on my blog but also in conversations with leaders. It’s not hyperbole to say we are in a leadership crisis. The conversations on my podcast almost always explore succession challenges and the continued struggle to find good school leaders, particularly at the principal level.

I know many districts have and continue to have programs and initiatives designed to develop leaders internally. I also know many who are struggling to make these effective and produce the desired results of more great leaders. What I do know is that unless school districts are actively working to develop great leaders we are going to be facing a further acceleration of burnout and teacher shortages beyond what we’re currently witnessing. While there are multiple reasons and factors creating dissatisfaction, one that is referenced either directly or indirectly is the degree to which they feel supported and valued. More specifically, this is about leadership. Leaders who actively support, encourage, and work to reduce workload and stress are going to have a huge impact on teacher burnout and teacher retention.

My oldest daughter has a teaching degree and spent a few years as a classroom teacher. She had 2 early short-term contracts at high schools. The first one had a principal who was “okay” but when she was struggling with a few students, didn’t get the support she was hoping for. The second experience was with a principal who checked in on her daily and let her know regularly that she was doing a great job. After those contracts ended she began looking for another position. She was far less concerned about the role but very concerned about which school it was at and who the principal was.

When I look back at my 14 years as a classroom teacher I didn’t have a bad principal. I had mostly good principals. I didn’t really need much in the way of support. They were for the most part good administrators. I don’t think I needed a great principal, just a good one. Today, I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think the vast majority of school leaders are good. I think most teachers are good. I don’t know how many are great. The job has become more demanding and the need to have colleagues that have your back, can keep you encouraged, and provide you with the things you need to be successful is critical and perhaps the linchpin to recruitment and retention. Don’t get me wrong, we do have many great leaders it’s just that we need more and that good leaders just aren’t good enough anymore.

There’s no magic solution to addressing this challenge. There are those who are naturally gifted leaders and inherently do the things that make leaders great. But I’d argue that most of us have to learn what it means. As I mentioned in the aforementioned blog post, teachers play a role here as well. They need to be able to step up on occasion to support and encourage their leaders. The one piece of advice I would give that is certainly easier said than done, is that leaders need to act like their having fun. While the job is certainly not always fun, the view from the outside often suggests that it’s not only not fun but it’s drudgery. The message that is sent to teachers and students is “I don’t want their job”. For many, it may be drudgery but I also think that for many spend too much time talking about and focusing on the difficulty of the job and not nearly enough time on the good stuff. As my friend Joe says, “Start and end your day with joy” We have to begin with those already serving in leadership and help them be conscious that others are watching and wondering if they should pursue leadership. In the same way teachers model to their students that while their job is hard they love it. Again, I know not everyone feels this way and those are the ones struggling. But we do have principals and teachers who are choosing to stay in the profession because they think it’s worth it and they find joy and satisfaction in their work. Many of those aren’t actively modeling that disposition to others and my argument is they need to in order to encourage young people to consider education as a profession. Many will talk about managers vs leaders. That’s part of it for sure but I think it’s more than that. There are those who are leaders more than they are managers but they aren’t excellent leaders.

How are you working to find and create great leaders?

Who Would Want To Be a Leader?

I’ve been privileged to work in and with leadership in education for much of my career. I’ve been around so many great leaders and admire their various qualities and approaches to leadership. While it’s easy to think there are essential characteristics that make up a good leader, the truth according to the research shared within the book “The Nine Lies About Work” is that leadership is not a thing. The only real measure of leadership is followers.

I don’t think this is a new concept. Good leaders, lead and their followers help with implementing and supporting their leaders. What seems to be different today is how leaders are perceived and treated and it concerns me.

Successful leaders don’t necessarily seek to do good work but rather gain followers. That’s a neutral statement in that, that can be good or bad. Today you see many successful leaders with a lot of loyal followers who aren’t necessarily aligned with your values. It seems that many of today’s leaders, particularly those in politics have to define an enemy and target them relentlessly. Much like sports, leadership in many circles is about competing against other leaders and working simply to defeat them as opposed to actually leading the pursuit of meaningful and purposeful change.

While it’s easy to point the finger at leadership, I think we forget that as followers, or potential followers, we have more influence than we might think. As you scroll through your social media feeds, most of the commentary about leadership is negative. While critique is an important part of the process and organizational health, vitriol is not. As I write this I think about my own tendency towards vitriol. I’m not even thinking about my own contributions but also my complicit acceptance of others’ hatred of leadership. I have many friends who are politicians, some at the local, provincial, and federal level. Occasionally I look at what others are saying about them and it’s disturbing. I know many of them have developed strategies and thick skin, but it’s still a lot. Every time I’ve done this little exploration, it makes me glad I’m not them. But it also makes me wonder who would want their life.

It’s not just politics either. I have a friend who pastors a large church and is nearing retirement. While he’s been there for 40 years and has a relatively stable and healthy congregation, he says, no one wants his job. In this case, it’s not exactly the same challenge that politicians face but it is the observable opinion that the challenges and difficulties that accompany the job are not worth it.

There has been a rash of school superintendents leaving in many regions. The pandemic and recent political issues have contributed but I also think the general lack of respect and suspicion of leaders makes it a hard job to keep. I do know of many outstanding school leaders who have faced many challenges and no matter their skill or character, leadership continues to become increasingly difficult. The ones that have been able to overcome typically have done so because of their work and efforts to build social capital. That’s a super easy thing to write and much harder to do.

It’s nice to be able to write about problems and try and offer some solutions. I don’t really have many to share except perhaps one: be kinder to leaders. I’m thinking specifically of the way we speak about our politicians. They are often simply caricatures of our imagination and the zeitgeist. It’s become sport and while I enjoy a great comedic take down of those in power, it’s a dangerous and thin line between witty repartee and hate. As educators and parents we need to be better. I know many who read this engage in a great deal of banter online and aren’t afraid to share their viewpoints. There’s nothing wrong with that and in fact it’s commendable in many ways. But that line gets crossed more often than it should even by well meaning folks. You might argue the stakes are high. I’m not arguing but I think most of us as educated “leaders” know when someone has been vilified beyond what is humane. And while you might again justify the stakes, the reality is that kind of vitriol bleeds into leadership positions where the stakes aren’t particularly high. The net effect is that young people who might potentially have the aptitude and disposition to lead, will choose other options for fear their ideas become that of public ridicule. Because all sides of all issues seem to exhibit the kind of behaviours that make leadership an undesirable career choice.

All I’m asking is for us to be careful. To celebrate and honour and respect the positions of leadership and at the very least, credit all leaders for attempting to be successful. Start with those you serve under. Make sure you know they are appreciated. Our schools are and have been challenging for teachers and they are looking for and are thriving under good leadership. But even if you aren’t completely satisfied, letting leaders know you are grateful for them isn’t necessarily about endorsement but an acknowledgment of their efforts. This doesn’t mean you relinquish your voice and needs but in fact is another way to build your own social capital. Once you get intentional about the way you treat leaders you see and work with, hopefully you’ll begin to apply those same principles with those in greater positions of power. If we do want to see great new and young leaders emerge we are going to have to do a better job in making these positions more appealing and meaningful way to spend a life.

Joe’s Videos

It’s hard not to like Joe Sanfelippo. Despite his annoying habit of posting the Packer logo after they win, he’s a good man, doing good work. He also uses video in a pretty unique way. As part of a workshop I was doing with some local administrators, I wanted to share Joe’s approach and thinking around how and why he uses this content. I was intending to have him share during our live session but he wasn’t able to make that time so he graciously agreed to sit down with me via Zoom for a quick chat. Here’s the edited version of our conversation.

Lessons Learned from 10 Podcasts

My new podcast (I’ve been podcasting for 10 years, just not very regularly) was born out of curiosity and the realization that there may never be a better time to do this. I’m well aware that many others are jumping on the bandwagon and that’s fine, in fact, that kind of sharing should be encouraged and applauded.

I’ve always said that if I have any strength, it’s my large network that has been built for the past 15 years. I know a lot of people, a lot of smart people. So with some extra time I decided to try and capture as many different people, places and roles around the world to share the impact of Covid19. I share with them these questions as a guide to our conversation:

1. What are you and your fellow teachers being asked to do with regards to your new duties?
2. What supports or messaging are you most grateful for?
3. What challenges are you most concerned about?
4. What does your new daily routine look like that you’re finding either delightful or odd?
5. What good are you hoping results from this crisis?

Thus far I’ve published 10 podcasts and have 3 more ready to edit and publish. I also have at least 5 more scheduled. Here are 2 things I’ve learned so far:

The message of care and grace are leading the way. I polled folks on twitter a few weeks ago a general question relating to how teachers were being messaged and was pleased with the results:

Essentially 80% of educators of the 150 or so polled were at best being told to do their best or at least had decreased expectations. Certainly not hard evidence but a hopeful sampling. The educators I’ve spoken to have all shared how messaging has focused on connecting with kids and taking care of their own families. The Chris Kennedy episode highlights a superintendent’s clear message that speaks to a focus on mental health and well-being. Carla Pereira also talks about her role in Communications on the importance of letting teachers, students and their families understand they are prioritizing their basic needs above all else.

The second lesson I’ve learned is just how great the gap is when it comes to equity. I wrote about this early on, even before I started the podcast but hearing the variety of stories and challenges has me more aware than I ever have been. While poverty, race and access have perhaps been the most prevalent inequities, we get to mask them and address them to a degree when everyone shows up at school. But even access is more complicated than just get everyone a laptop, but it does help. Chris Layton talks bout how their district was better prepared than many districts because of their investment in technology. And yet, as Monise Seward told me, the approach to online learning for students with special needs reveals another set of challenges.

Spending 15-20 minutes with smart people is such a great investment in my own learning and growth. They are forcing me to think about many issues and that I miss. This is why we have networks and why the now old saying of “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” is more salient than ever. Whether or not anyone else listens to these is not that importan to me, however, I would hate for you to miss a chance to learn from smart and caring people. The world of education, at least my network is full of them.

The Achievement Gap Will Grow

I had some thoughts on it a while back but in the light of our world today and my most recent post I think it’s worth acknowledging further. While the recent post was intended to shed light on the opportunities that exist, I did address briefly the equity issue but wanted to expand a little on that idea.

I’ve never been a big fan of the term achievement when it comes to learning. It seems like a term that invokes competition and constant goal setting, and for someone who’s hobbies are generally more playing games that pay real money instead of hobbies in competitive environments – it’s not appealing to me. Not that those can’t be useful perspectives but it makes learning sound like a mountain to climb rather than an environment to live in.

Equity has become an increasingly important conversation in education. Whether it’s economic, physical, racial, cognitive or other, education has equity problems. Physical classrooms and spaces can address some of these but now with all our students at home, the differences among our students are fully amplified. Classrooms and schools while certainly far from perfect do many things to give all students opportunities to learn and grow. Teachers in general work hard and have some influence in addressing gaps and providing extra support to those who are disadvantaged. While this article focuses on higher education and the financial barriers, much of it is also relevant to K-12. With undisclosed debt monitoring, you can help applicants stay on track by receiving automated monitoring of their credit activity during the loan file process.

“I would like to think there will be a call for radical social change now, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said. “The gap between the super-rich and everyone else will widen.

We’re already seeing the range of response to this new reality from parents. Everything from “leave us alone we’re trying to survive” to “why isn’t the school doing more”.

This leads me to two conclusions: First, we will not be able to do much to address the equity issues right now. What we can do is fully acknowledge and identify them so that when we reconvene we will be better equipped and aware to act. Second, the gaps will grow. Tied to the inequities that exist and can’t be fully addressed, gaps will grow. Parents with means will potentially be able to give their children the opportunity to pursue passions and learn more than ever. Those children who are facing poverty, abuse and other issues will fall further behind. While there may be small ways to address this, we are going to have to come to terms with this harsh reality.

These issues are relevant to all students but in particular, when we consider students with special needs we have added pressure and gaps. Many students and families rely heavily on the teacher and specialists in schools to maintain a sense of control and growth with our most challenging and needy students. When these supports that require proximity, patience, special tools and resources and expertise are removed, we will have parents and students that will be put in unthinkable positions. I’m certainly not an expert in this area but can only empathize and appreciate the burden many are feeling now and likely will not be able to address things with any degree of fidelity. I appreciated being able to talk with Monise Seward to understand better the challenges of special needs students.

All of this is hard for those of us who care deeply about children which I say is the vast majority of those who have chosen education as their life’s work. Certainly, we will use all the tools and time at our disposal to support them but it’s not going to be enough. I don’t say this as an excuse to give up but this I believe is a fact we have to accept. Teachers and schools should not feel guilty about this. It also speaks to the power and value of coming together every day to help children escape, even for a few hours their lives that may be filled with trauma. Hopefully when we do return it will create a greater sense of urgency to change this reality and realize what a gift and privilege it is to have children and adults spending time together in the same space.