Leadership Hierarchy — #EdChat Summary: 02/14/12

Topic: What would be a better alternative to present leadership hierarchy we’ve come to accept in public education?

This week’s #edchat topic was an especially welcome change of pace for me, because once again I was forced to really think about an aspect of teaching that I, as an “outsider” and non-teacher, had never previously considered. I like topics like that. They force me out of my usual style of thinking and put myself in the shoes of someone else.

As someone who studied business in college, I sort of took it for granted that schools would have the same structure and hierarchy as businesses. There would be a couple big-wigs at the top, several layers of bureaucracy below them, and then a legion of teachers (“employees”) that were managed relatively closely but given the appearance of autonomy.

It turns out, I was at least partially right. There are several layers of bureaucracy above teachers, and there is a prevailing sense that teachers don’t exactly have as much autonomy as they need. But the point that I was missing was this: why should schools function the same as businesses? Why should it be this way?

I guess I had figured that the school my father teaches at was the norm. I would hear him complain about all the bureaucracy at his school regularly over dinner. It was just the same type of complaining I imagined I would hear if my father worked in an office or in a factory. There’s always a big boss who has forgotten what it’s like to be an employee. And there’s always stuff to complain about.

The point is, though, it doesn’t have to be that way. There were a few #edchatters this week who said that they were quite happy with their schools’ hierarchy and leadership. They were well supported and those at the top knew how to communicate and prioritize.

Unfortunately, we all know that this is not the norm – not in business and not in education either. The question is: what can we do about that?

Main themes from the discussion:

  • Things are too hierarchical. One prevailing theme I saw this week was that there is too much of a division between teacher and administrator. Administrators got to make the decisions, but it was teachers that had to abide by them. That makes teaching really difficult because teachers know that the rug can get pulled out from under them at any moment and they won’t have any say in the matter. That’s not a good way to do things. We need more communication and more collaboration. Decisions need to be made together. In fact, we should even be making more of an effort to involve students and parents in the making of important decisions.
  • Administration is out of touch with the needs of teachers. Even though the majority of teachers were very sympathetic towards administration, I did see quite a few complaints that administrators have forgotten (or never knew) what it was like in the classroom. That’s never a good thing. When those in charge of making decisions are out of touch (and collaboration across hierarchical levels is discouraged) they are not likely to make the right decisions. The solution? Have administrators spend more time in the classrooms for observation purposes only. They shouldn’t only show up briefly to judge a teacher and make an arbitrary decision. The “cream of the crop” administrators seem to know this already.
  • The way things are is a hold-over from the industrial age. I have heard it said before (and I really do believe it) that many conventions in education were created during the industrial revolution to prepare children for factory work. America has moved way beyond that for the majority of workers, yet still we continue to do things in much the same way as we did “back in the day.” Apparently the educational hierarchy is no different. Why should there really be such a division between principal and teacher? Shouldn’t it be the administration’s job to support the teachers, and not the other way around?
  • Is there too much weight on the principal’s shoulders? I was surprised to see so much sympathy for principals during this week’s #edchat. I would have thought that teachers would be ruthless, complaining that these folks get more money for doing less difficult work. Instead, I saw a lot of teachers pointing out that there are simply too many responsibilities for the average principal. And while delegation and prioritization can solve some of those problems, they can’t solve all of them. The solution that I liked best was to split the job in half (or in thirds) and have one principal look after education and the other(s) look after the business side of running a school.
  • Sometimes, the current system works very well. It should be mentioned that more than a couple #edchatters seemed genuinely happy in the way their schools ran day-to-day. They felt like their administrators were in touch with their needs and had not forgotten what it meant to be on the front line. This, I think, is a very good point that gets lost in #edchat from time to time. Sometimes, things work out really well. Let’s not forget that there are a lot of great teachers and administrators out there right now, and that in general things are only getting better. The tendency for the elite is to focus on the negatives, but we need to remind ourselves that there are plenty of positives as well.

My favorite tweets from the discussion:

tomwhitby I believe the leadership of schools was set up as an industrial model.

USCTeacher Perhaps we need to look at hierarchy as more of community; something we have access to and can collaborate with?

John_DAdamo I would argue this is not a phenomenon exclusive to public education. Private schools all have layers of bureaucracy as well.

cybraryman1 I personally agree with more collaboration. Must include students, parents, and community in this process.

Mamacita When opportunities for parent input do occur, VERY few parents bother to show up. They seem to prefer whining after the fact.

MrBernia Many schools around the world have a lead teacher rather than a principal. Is our setup just closest to the industrial model?

ShellTerrell Current model has a few make decisions while those who are expected to implement them aren’t included in the decision-making process.

drdouggreen I don’t think superintendent, principal, teacher structure is the problem. It’s all about the vision in this food chain. Principals and superintendents should view teachers as customers whose needs must be met.

PrincipalPC It’s not the model — it is the poor implementation of the model. We are talking about the symptoms, not the disease.

cybraryman1  I always felt there should be two leaders in a building. One for curriculum/learning  and the other for business matters.

rliberni  Much of what principals do is buildings, payroll, and everyday business that all schools have to do, so it would be easy for one “business principal” to do 2 or 3 schools.

John_DAdamo I have seen the 2-headed dragon (two principals) fail because no one was held accountable.

A few resources that were shared:

delta_dc Schools would benefit from structures like this: http://t.co/WF2rKMeC

cybraryman1  Walkthroughs are good ways to learn but I would like to see more modeling by administration. http://t.co/i7LDUk5x


To follow the complete discussion, look for the full archive here.  They’re usually posted up by the end of the week.

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3 Responses to Leadership Hierarchy — #EdChat Summary: 02/14/12
  1. John,

    I guess what frustrates me most about some of these discussions is the “so what” factor–now that we have decided there is too much hierarchy in school districts, where do we go from there? I am sure teachers would by and large like to gain autonomy and have more impact in the decisions that affect them (I sure would!) but I’m not quite sure change can start from the bottom on this one…there are just too many layers above you to shut you down.

    Then again, I’m kind of a pessimist!

  2. John

    I think you hit the nail on the head. There is a lot of work to be done after all these great #edchat discussions. I look at them as two things: learning devices and as motivation for most people. You come, you participate, and you leave with a few new ideas and a lot of motivation/support. The rest is up to you!

    And hopefully there are enough participating admins that will make changes at their schools.

    On overhaul of this industry is going to take a lot of time — make no mistake! There are a lot of interested parties; a lot of ins, a lot of outs…

  3. Pingback: Recent #Edchat Discussions January and February « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

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