Reading & Reacting: How New York’s education commissioner blew it big time — principal

Photo: Follow the Leader

Follow the Leader – cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by David Spinks

By Carol Burris @ The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet

Guest writer Carol Burris has been on a remarkable run of excellent criticism of New York state’s Education Department. Commissioner John King has been under her watchful, jaundiced eye with great scrutiny

Thomas Sergiovanni was a renowned international scholar of educational leadership. In his book, Moral Leadership, he explains the differences between subordinates and followers. Sergiovanni argued that educational leaders need followers because followers are not led by coercion, but rather by commitment to beliefs, values and ideals.

While the opening to Burris’ commentary, this is perhaps the greatest endorsement of a book I have seen recently. This statement makes me want to read the late Sergiovanni’s book

Educational leadership is a very peculiar type of skill, which is why so many of the market-driven reforms do not apply. It is a much more complicated role than many outside the field of education understand.

Educational leaders, in the form of administrators always inherit a workforce. They rarely have the chance to hire and fire staff unchecked, like a CEO. This is not altogether bad, especially when you consider the average length of time a principal remains in a position is about three years. That churn rate does not serve any kind of long-term vision or planning. Combined with the turnover rate of teachers, it is impressive that there is any systemic improvement.

Still, there is something undeniably insightful in the notion of educational leaders needing followers. I would submit that this is true in any leadership context but particularly in education. Just because teachers work in a school does not mean that they are in school. Thus, treating educators like children is no way to lead them. In fact, coercive tactics are not even terribly effective with our young charges.

In the real and messy world of democracy it is different. Leaders must listen deeply, learn and respond. They must be willing to consider alternative courses, and even in loud crowds, hear truth. In teaching, we attempt to perfect the skill known as “monitor and adjust.” You can only master that skill by truly engaging learners.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that many educators fail to learn or forget altogether. They do so at great cost. Administrators that attempt to lead without paying heed to this lesson will always fail. How can anyone be called a leader if there is no one there to follow them?

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