Learning Matters

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

School Leaders and Working Conditions

Posts expressing disappointment in one’s administrator or noting outright leadership failures are a staple of the EduSphere. In recent examples, girlonthescape has chafed under the supervision of her petty AP, Polski3 has written about double standards and a lack of disciplinary support in her school, TeachWonk has described the intrusive ways of “administrator with attitude” Counselor Clueless, and Ms. Frizzle has wondered, “How do you get smarter administrators? In response to Jenny D.’s post on NYC funding, teacher Bea denounced nepotism, corruption, and a complete breakdown of discipline in her old school. And then there was extensive coverage of the Colton Walkout, which was eventually attributed to changes imposed by an arbitrary principal.

A few days ago, I posted on Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin’s Revolving Door essay, where they suggested that monetary incentives take a back seat to working conditions in explaining teacher turnover and migration from high need/low capacity districts to lower needed/higher capacity districts. Due to the limitations of their data set, Hanushek et al could only describe working conditions in terms of student achievement and demographics. The authors acknowledged that the data did not permit an examination of factors like support, discipline, and bureaucratic environment.

Does school leadership make a genuine difference in the quality of working conditions and school effectiveness, or is the ideal of the super supe or the principal as instructional leader an idyllic Great Man (or Woman) pipe dream that defies realization? And is leadership still centered in the main office, or can teacher leaders like mentors and department chairs exercise distributed influence in the classroom?

My conviction is that good school leaders contribute substantially to good schools. To me, effective school leaders are characterized by technical competence, or expertise, professional ethics, and political skill.

The technically competent administrator is expert in subjects like assessment, intervention, differentiation, budgeting, and personnel. When coupled with actual teaching experience, they own a balance of theory and practice that teachers respect and supports instruction. The ethical administrator develops trust, maintains a positive learning environment by being a consistent disciplinarian and fostering an invitational tone, supports teachers and students, and doesn’t flinch from presenting bad news to parents of staff. I’d contend that ethical administrators worked to nurture professional learning communities even before DuFour popularized the concept. They are also into selfless service, although maybe at some personal cost. The politically skillful administrator is a communicator who engages parents, Boards, and the community at large in celebrating successes and identifying needs. They mobilize support to obtain resources for their school. These are the attributes I look for in myself and in my colleagues. But as a practicing administrator, I may be biased. Please share what qualities matter to you.

In sum, my questions are these. What do you look for in a good administrator? What qualities are the most destructive? And what is a good administrator worth to you vs. a big salary bump, or a new, larger classroom with adequate furniture, equipment, and supplies? How do we develop smarter, more effective leaders for America’s schools?


  • Good post with good questions. HOWEVER first of all, I, Polski3, am a "HE". Thanks.

    What do you look for in a good administrator? Someone who knows what they are doing (as in logistics of the day to day operation of a school). Someone who goes to the wall to support their staff. One who goes above and beyond what might be expected of a school site administrator. One who treats all their staff equally and fairly. One who remembers what it was like to teach in a classroom full of kids. One who works to get his/her teachers valuable professional development. An administrator who buys the coffee at least once a week. An administrator with an open door to their office.

    What qualities are the most destructive? One who does not support discipline in their teachers' classrooms. An administrator who plays "games" with their staff, lies and has obivous favorates on their staff. One who hides out in the office all day and does not want to deal with kids, teachers or anyone else. An administrator who is there because they are buddies with the Superintendent or a member of the school board, not because they were the best available for the job.

    And what is a good administrator worth to you vs. a big salary bump, or a new, larger classroom with adequate furniture, equipment, and supplies? While an administrator cannot usually offer a teacher a salary raise, they can bust their butt to see that their teachers have a classroom worthy of a grand magazine spread, as opposed to classrooms/campus that is being investigated by OHSA, the EPA or the ACLU.

    How do we develop smarter, more effective leaders for America’s schools? Make them teach. In secondary schools, require that they teach one real class daily. Make it a law that those who do not teach real kids cannot tell those who do teach real kids how to do their job.

    Just a few thoughts to your questions.

    By Blogger Polski3, at 6:32 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:34 PM  

  • Enjoyed a lot! »

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:31 AM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 AM  

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