Leadership Voids In An Era of National School Reform

Leadership is not rocket science, but rather the science of knowing, understanding, and appreciating people to help change for the better, “How we do things around here.” Leadership is the science of empathy, creativity, accountability, flexibility, humility, levity, fidelity, and sincerity. On the topic of leaders and change, John Kotter (2002) wrote, “They succeed, regardless of the stage in the overall process, because their most central activity does not center on formal data gathering, analysis, report writing, and presentations—the sorts of actions typically aimed at changing thinking in order to change behavior.  Instead, they compellingly show people what the problems are and how to resolve the problems.  They provoke responses that reduce feelings that slow and stifle needed change, and they enhance feelings that motivate useful action” (p. 8).

Leadership is ofttimes lonely and fatiguing, dogged in its efforts, and always selfless by its nature. Being a leader is a hard job. Period. Ironically, the need for quality leadership within our education system has never been greater. Never is a big word, but the hyper-paced nature of our digital society and the high-stakes competition for knowledgeable, skilled workers in a flattened world is unparalleled in our history. Education demands leaders that understand the change process and the impacts of change on people and systems. We’re talking people who have high EQs. After all, change is an emotional process, and it is the leaders with emotional intelligence who are most able to help others navigate the choppy waters of school reform.  As Bolman and Deal (2003) write, “Many change efforts fail not because managers’ intentions are incorrect or insincere but because the managers are unable to handle the social challenges of changing” (p. 176).

We must have educational leaders capable of filtering out the noise and clutter to get at the heart of critical issues and necessary actions. Individuals who have a keen sense of what matters most, and a self-efficacious mindset to implement the difficult changes in our schools that may run contrary to “How we do things around here.” Hell, the whole notion of “How we do things around here” no longer applies in today’s education. Race to the Top, ESEA, the Great Recession, Sequesters, Stressed Pension Systems, Increased Rigor in Teacher and Principal Certification Exams and Protocols, EdTPA, APPR, Student Testing, Online Courses, Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core Standards, Instructional Shifts, Review Rooms, Dignity for All Students, etc. have changed the proverbial paradigm for good.

Peering across the regional landscape, it is worrisome to find fewer individuals willing and able to take up the once coveted torch of district leadership. Superintendent positions are not easily filled, and the ranks of interested applicants are at historic lows with some boards of education reopening searches in hopes of a better outcome. Meanwhile, the increasing burden on principals and the void of teacher leaders are problems that can and must be addressed through some form of teacher leader certification at the state and or national level. We can not expect one person to do the important work of leadership by themselves, and now is the opportune time to reform how we define leadership at the school level.

As our schools move through the final weeks towards graduation, so ends another year of school reform. Next year will bring with it new expectations for teachers and administrators which include implementing protocols for data driven instruction, embedding Common Core instructional shifts with fidelity, improving the writing of student learning objectives, and preparing students for the next round of assessments. With all that lies ahead, it’s urgent our state and national leaders think out of the box in terms of educational leadership. More rigorous, valid, and reliable certification exams are a good step forward, but so is a more concerted effort to grow leadership within the ranks of educators and to make the job of district CEO more alluring. Let’s offer certifications that recognize the value of teacher leaders, and reward district leaders with salaries commensurate to their roles and responsibilities. We can’t afford to do less if we wish to continue the reform agendas scattered across this great nation.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kotter, J. (2002).  The Heart of Change:  Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

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