Monday, April 4, 2016

Choose Your Crater: Deciding Your Leadership Role

Before I really delve into this blog, I am going to ask you to participate in a brief thought exercise.
If you have said or thought either of these things…

  • “Good principals are rare, I hope I get to work with one some day.”
  • “I can’t become an administrator, that would be going over to the ‘dark side’,” OR “I doubt I’d be a good administrator, I’m too __________.”

...then ask yourself if you even allow for the idea of a good principal in your thinking.

Image by Cynthia Nixon:

We Are Asteroids in the Education Cosmos

I am finishing my second full year as an instructional coach.  The learning curve has been steep in so many areas that sometimes it is difficult to unpack it all.  Despite that, I have done a lot of reflection during this time, and it helps me when I get questions from my fellow teachers and fellow instructional coaches.  Recently in the #TOSAChat Voxer group, there was a discussion about being a coach and how we impact our school communities, and the possibility of going into administration and leadership.

Many in the discussion voiced the, “oh, I could never go into admin…” sentiment,   followed by one of several typical reasons.  They speculated that they are either too introverted/shy/fragile/emotional/reactive/opinionated to be a principal, which is always amusing to me.  Do these teachers think their principals don’t have emotions and  opinions, or aren’t subject to the harder parts of human interactions? We all know administrators aren’t robots, right?  I think this point of view goes hand-in-glove with the jokes that teachers make and hear about “going to the dark side” when one of our colleagues talks about going into administration.  If the people who make those kinds of jokes also claim to be openly collaborative, I tend to  treat that claim with a bit of skepticism.

The other main reason I hear for not wanting to be a coach or administrator is that they would “miss the kids too much.”  Indeed, this was the sibling sentiment to a question I was asked what felt like constantly for the first 6 months of being a TOSA, “Don't you miss the kids?”  Please note the word “the,” not “your.”  Implicit in the thinking behind that question is the assumption that I was no longer working with students.  It is difficult to explain how incorrect that assumption is and how much it says about the person who asks it without the explanation sounding like a rebuke.  Because here’s the thing, and there’s no denying it--I was in classrooms with kids all the time, often several classrooms per day.  I was getting to meet kids in four different and new (to me) schools at grade levels I never would have encountered in my middle school classroom position, to say nothing of the dozens upon dozens of talented teachers I was now getting to work with.

And the truth was, my feelings were complicated on the topic.  I was hired mid-year from my middle school classroom, and some of the kids I left behind were fantastic humans and I missed them terribly; the ones I’d had for 7th and 8th were amongst my favorites.  But as classroom teachers we have to say goodbye to our students every year (or every few years if you get to loop with your kids), so this was nothing new.  On the other hand, I felt like I became the educational equivalent of a grandparent in my role as a TOSA.  Every time I came into their classroom students got excited.  It meant we were going to do something new with fun toys (edtech devices), we were going to do it long enough for them to get really enthusiastic about it, and then I would hand them back to their educational parent--the classroom teacher.  It was the first time that I understood why my mom wanted to be a grandparent.  In any case, I myself was still having a direct impact on kids, and an indirect impact through their teachers.  The difference was that my impact was broader, affecting a greater number of students; it was just not as deep or personal.

Another new aspect to my job was working with site and district leadership in a way I hadn’t had the chance to before, and again on a scale that wouldn’t have been possible as a classroom teacher.  About the work of site administrators as it pertains to this topic, I would say two things.  First, whether it’s in the office, while monitoring lunch or recess, or during classroom visits, administrators generally spend at least a portion of their day with students.  They don’t like doing discipline any better than you do, but interacting with students is a highlight of the day for most of the ones I have worked with.  So, while it’s generally true that they don’t know each student as well as their classroom teachers, site admin generally know more of them by name...and not just “those kids.”  Again, impact that is broader and less direct.  But you cannot dispute the fact that site-based and central office administrators have an impact on students, often through their teachers.  They have an impact on school culture, district culture, spending and budgets, and site and district priorities, to name a few.

Now certainly, these are not the same kinds of impacts that classroom teachers have, and are probably not as fun.  However, I think we’d all be hard-pressed to claim that these items have no impact on students.  And I cannot think of a classroom teacher, or even a TOSA, who has not been frustrated by or disagreed with a decision that has been made above them, and known with every fiber of their being that the decision should have gone in another direction.

So, if this frustration is universal, it seems the best way to abate it is for people who have strong educational points of view or visions to go into leadership.  Become the principal you wish you had.  How many of you had a favorite teacher that you tried (or still try) to emulate in the classroom?  What about non-examples--do you remember a teacher you make sure not to mimic?  Well, why shouldn’t that be true for site and district leadership? Never really had a great mentor?  Why not go become the coach you always wanted?  Meeting the new challenge of working with fellow Teachers is very rewarding, and you’ll find that good teaching is always good teaching, regardless of the student’s age.  And here’s where all this talk of impact comes in.  You have to choose your crater; what kind of asteroid will you be?

All Craters Are Evidence of Impact

In education, no one’s crater is deeper than the classroom teacher’s crater.  Their impact is profound and personal.  They get to spend the most time with their students and witness and influence a child’s growth most carefully.  Without doubt, a great teacher can have a lifetime impact on their students--your school memories prove this.   But, this is always going to be contained and confined to the students in that teacher’s class.  So while deep, a teacher’s crater is narrow.

A principal has a different impact and a different crater.  Principals obviously have an effect on the entire school, so their crater is broader than the classroom teachers’ are, but it’s not nearly as direct or personal.  That said, I have seen some amazing principals make some very real and personal changes in students’ lives.

TOSAs, or instructional coaches, have yet another kind of crater.  Their impact, depending on their assignment, is broad, possibly broader than a site principal’s (if they work with multiple sites), and generally more indirect than direct.  They interact with students through other teachers and, in my case, help principals make decisions that impact teachers and students.  So again--broader, but less deep; and yet, still important.

In the model of this analogy, the higher you go in school and district leadership, the broader, yet shallower your impact on the lives and learning of students is.  So your job delineates what kind of asteroid you are.  There are no better or worse asteroids, they’re just different, and they have different kinds of impact.

And Now, the Ask 

Consider the possibility that your career in education may not end in the classroom.

Acknowledge that you are a skilled and intelligent educational practitioner.  Accept that there is a difference between not wanting to and not being able to do certain jobs. Recognize that the person who can best implement your ideas about education, how to support teachers and schools, and what’s best for kids, is you.  And know that if you choose to be a different kind of asteroid, you’ll still be you, you’ll still get to fly through the cosmos, and you’ll still have an impact.  But you have to give yourself a chance to choose.