Thing #2: The Conductorless Orchestra (The Vitriolic Version)

Note: The opinion expressed below is meant to provoke discussion and is not necessarily (or at least not entirely) one I espouse.

For the last decade or so educators have been barraged by “Leadership” advocates… the pushers of “leadership-porn”. It’s practically become an article of faith that a good school requires good “leadership”. Book after book, study after study increasingly narrows the scope of what constitutes “leadership”. Increasingly that scope in its everyday application is being restricted to mean administration: Principals, VPs, Head Teachers, etc.

Yet I wonder if, like me, you’ve noticed that when a school’s administration is out of the building the school tends to run more smoothly? Teachers handle their own problems, on-going or more grievous disciplinary problems are handled expeditiously by the teacher-in-charge, progressive discipline is followed, planning and collaboration get done and… well, the school just seems to run better. You can feel it in the air.

Alternatively, as is the case with most, if not all hierarchies, when admin is present educators will defer and refer problems, planning, decisions and the ins and outs of running the school to the people “deemed” responsible: the “leaders”. I mean, after all, they’re the ones “in charge” aren’t they?

Imagine if you will a school without central administration or at best itinerant admin. The role of disciplinarian (sadly, the main time consumer of vice-principals) can be shared on a rotating basis between various staff members providing protocols are in place to ensure continuity of documentation and communication between staff. Planning becomes a collaborative process of mutual interest and mutual benefit rather than dictated from above. (The recent PLC craze is a case in point: the notion of mandatory professional learning communities is not only an oxymoron, it is absurd. Rather than actually read Dufour, or Argyris, or Schon, most school leadership skipped right to the executive summary.) School improvement plans develop organically to reflect the real needs and interests of the school community as opposed to the artificial “leader” driven hoop jumps (woof… good dog) they so often become. Formal “admin”, if there need be one, can evolve into itinerant facilitators/mediators…. The “change agents” they dream of being…. taking care of the paper work, facilitating discussion, etc.

Increasingly students and teachers alike are ill served by the top down hierarchical administrative practices of a centralized educational bureaucracy. Wave after wave of educational buzz words heralding yet another reform movement waft down and envelope teachers to the point they are ignored as so much background noise in a “library”, oops I mean “resource centre” ooo damn I mean “learning commons”. Learning commons? Really? Librarians are now “learning commons informationists”? Seriously, I’m not making this up!

I mean let’s think about the history of educational reform and it’s top down implementation. For instance, take a trip back to the 70s and the “open concept” school. Hey. I went to one. Didn’t really work and no surprise really. The “open concept” movement in North America was much enamored of reforms conducted in British primary schools in the late 1960’s. Much training and preparation went into the reforms which at last allowed students to move at their own rate through grade levels and focused on a more experiential pedagogy. Or at least in Britain it did….

Unfortunately something got lost on the trip across the pond. The first implementation went well. A school system in southern Florida sent a whole boat load of teachers over to Britain where they were immersed in the process. The Board of Ed even built a new school for their return. Things would have turned out better if they hadn’t. What’s the cheapest way to cool a large space? Remove the interior walls. Thus, when educational “leaders” from across North America visited this “open concept” showcase, what did they take away with them? Not the pedagogy, not the work and training that went into the teachers. No. Sadly, “open concept” became an architectural innovation rather than a pedagogical one. Little or no PD was put into the teachers who would populate these “new” schools. What was the first thing they did? Yup. They put up their own walls so they could get on with teaching as they had always done.

So, do let’s talk leadership. Who knows more about the curriculum, the department head or the principal? Who actually innovates? The front line teacher with a passion for teaching and learning or the “administrator” grasping for ways to look busy, to be “seen” as leading? Who knows more about pedagogy, the classroom teacher or a careerist admin who graduated from teachers’ college with guidance, spec ed, and coop in an effort to get out of the classroom as quickly as possible? Honestly… take a quick survey of your educational landscape… is it the cream that rises? I look around on Twitter and Facebook and find the words “aspiring admin” as part of many teacher bios. It makes me sad and not a little worried.

Indeed, much these days is made of leadership but let’s move our focus back where it belongs: dedicated, innovative, inspired teachers who, believe it or not, really do know what’s needed to make a school great.