by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent
Several months ago, I made a commitment to share some insights on school leadership based on my experiences in various roles in education through the years, using the Alberta Education Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders document as a framework. Specifically I made reference to the seven leadership competencies in the document and I continue with some thoughts on the sixth leadership dimension which makes reference to the school leader’s role in managing school operations and resources to ensure a safe, caring and effective learning environment. The descriptors related to this dimension highlight the importance of good planning and organization and the effective management of the physical and financial resources of the school and ensuring the school operations align with legal frameworks such as provincial legislation and policy and jurisdictional policy directives and initiatives. It is emphasized in the document that principles of teaching, learning and student development should guide all management decisions.
My blogs up to this point have had the emphasis on relationship building, visionary leadership, being visible and authentic, fostering value-added interactions, connecting with people, providing instructional leadership and developing leadership in others – no doubt, many of you reading them have been wondering, “is there not a place in school leadership for effective planning, good organization, maintaining good discipline, careful management of financial and physical resources and, in essence, having a well-run school?”. My response would be, “yes most definitely, these are all critical elements of school leadership”. The role of the classroom teacher is to ensure that there is an orderly, positive climate for learning; similarly, the school leader’s role is to create and maintain throughout the school a positive, invigorating culture for learning and teaching and to ensure that available human and financial resources are being fully utilized. There is a danger, however, in becoming consumed with aspects of management and spending an inordinate amount of time on such things as: overseeing the school budget and financial operation and dealing with emails and day-to-day operational details and a wide range of tasks that can best be described as “administrivia”, which do not have a direct impact on learning and teaching. I sometimes refer to this situation as the very real danger for school leaders of being sucked into the black hole of administrivia.
Clearly, recruiting exemplary teachers and providing ongoing support and professional learning experiences so they are the best they can be is a key element of effective management. As well, the appropriate assignment of teachers to ensure their talents are being fully utilized and, for example, developing a well-designed timetable to promote opportunities for teachers to plan and teach collaboratively are important management functions. In the Calgary Science School the descriptors of exemplary learning and teaching serve as a framework for teacher recruitment, evaluation and professional growth. Provision is made in the timetable for teachers to work collaboratively as teams and to have common planning time. Through the careful allocation of financial resources provision is made for each of the 600 students to have a laptop or an iPad and other tools to enhance learning and teaching. As well, in keeping with the charter goals a significant amount of funding is allocated to environmental and outdoor education programs and learning experiences which go beyond the classroom. The principal and assistant principals have recognized the importance of being authentically visible in the school and working closely with staff members in maintaining good discipline or what could be described as a positive, safe, caring culture for learning with an emphasis on mutual respect among students and staff and creating the sense that, “this is a good place to be and we are all in this together”. These are all examples of effective management which ultimately impacts the quality of learning and teaching in the school.
It is interesting when you talk to people in any kind of role in our society about their work and how things are going, the typical response is one of being very busy and having a hard time keeping up with all of the demands. Frequently, reference will be made to the impact of technology and the expectation, for example, that there will be an immediate response to emails and requests for information. Clearly, we are living in a very complex, demanding world and certainly schools are not exempt. School administrators set the tone for the school. If they appear to be frazzled and overwhelmed it rubs off on others. Teachers observe school administrators dealing with the increasing demands associated with their roles and conclude that they would never want to be caught up in that world of administration and being pushed and pulled in every direction. Individuals in administrative roles who aspired to enhance learning and teaching through working with teachers as instructional leaders, lament that they do not have the time for these important leadership functions because of the multitude of more pressing demands. The literature is very clear about the importance of school leadership and specifically reference is made to the principal as being the key in establishing the conditions for an effective school operation. There is a very real concern that individuals will leave school leadership roles or choose not to pursue them because they are no longer seen as being rewarding and fulfilling and ultimately having a positive impact on the work of teachers and student learning. This is a very significant issue in education which collectively we need to address.
Through the years I have made a special point of asking school leaders, “what are you doing that is giving you the most satisfaction as a leader in terms of positively impacting student learning?” I have found that this thought-provoking question generates an interesting discussion. An exploration of this question focuses the dialogue on what our school leaders are doing to make a positive difference in our schools and it causes school administrators to reconsider how they are using their time. There will never be enough time to do everything that needs to be done, however through setting priorities, eliminating some tasks and delegating responsibilities, I believe it is possible to restructure school leadership and to establish a new direction for school leadership in keeping with the Alberta Education Professional Practice Competencies for School Leadership. I am reminded of the scenario involving containers of sand, pebbles, and stones and the challenge of placing the contents of all of the containers into the confined space of a jar. If you begin with the sand or pebbles there will not be enough room in the container for the stones, however, if you begin with the stones and add the pebbles followed by the sand the spaces formed by the stones are filled by the sand and pebbles and there is room for everything in the jar. This scenario highlights the efficacy of setting priorities and beginning with what is most important (as represented by the stones). For many years I have used journals to maintain a record of what I have done, outline ideas and identify priorities for action. Each day, I list action strategies in the back of my journal which are organized on the basis of priority in terms of what I believe will have the greatest impact in achieving my goals. I make every effort to complete as many of the priority tasks as possible and I take great satisfaction in reviewing what I have accomplished at the end of the day, checking off the action strategies that were accomplished and identifying new action strategies for the next day. I am now using electronic variations of the journal and action strategies, but I haven’t gotten away from the hard copy journal which I have with me everywhere I go. The important point is to establish what I describe as “value-added” priorities and to become proactive in determining what I will do rather than reactively responding to unfolding circumstances during the day. I have found as a principal and school superintendent that there are many forces that we encounter each day which can push or suck us into the black hole of administrivia while on the other hand, if one maintains a focus on what is most important, there are exciting opportunities to have a positive and significant impact on learning and teaching. My thinking has been impacted by a comment from a principal in making reference to the common lamentation -“there’s never enough time to do everything we need to do” who observed that, “there never will be enough time to do everything, but it’s not a matter of having more time; it’s all about how you use your time”.
Just as it is helpful to have a framework for exemplary learning and teaching to guide our actions as members of a school community, there is merit in developing a similar framework for exemplary school leadership which can be used by school leaders in establishing priorities for action. Phil Butterfield, the Assistant Principal in the Calgary Science School involved staff members in a process of sharing their views on school leadership and describing what instructional leadership would look likein the ideal world. There was a great deal of benefit from the process alone of involving staff members in a dialogue about school leadership. The framework provides a clear description of what is important in the school and what those in leadership roles hope to achieve. As I mentioned in my discussion of leadership dimension five (Developing and Facilitating Leadership), the good news is that no longer do we expect the principal to do everything and to be the sole leader in the school. There are many opportunities to build leadership density and to utilize the special backgrounds and leadership qualities of others to collaboratively share responsibility for leadership in the school.
There is another aspect to the sixth leadership dimension related to managing our personal resources which is extremely critical. I have made reference in earlier blogs to the demanding nature of teaching and how dedicated teachers can become consumed in their work and certainly this is also true for school leaders. The teaching profession is both extremely rewarding and at the same time it is very demanding. The key is to find an appropriate balance in our personal and professional lives. Fortunately there is a simple test to determine if you have an appropriate balance in your personal and professional lives. Begin by reflecting on your professional work life experiences and identify three things that you enjoy doing, find rewarding aspects of your role which you feel truly make a difference in terms of enhancing learning and teaching. The second step is to identify three things in your personal life which you find enjoyable, rewarding and fulfilling. Now for the moment of truth; spend some time reflecting on your professional life and your personal life and identify when you have last done those three things and how frequently does this happen. The bottom line is that school leaders need to take care of themselves and to serve as models and mentors for developing a sense of balance, as much as that is possible, in one’s professional and personal life.
In conclusion I offer the following action strategies relating to school leadership dimension six for your consideration:
- Maintain a focus on the fundamental principles of teaching and learning. The best interests of students should guide all management decisions;
- Create and maintain throughout the school a positive, invigorating culture for learning and teaching and ensure that available human and financial resources are being fully utilized;
- Avoid spending an inordinate amount of time on management issues and being sucked into the, “black hole of administrivia”;
- Recognize there will never be enough time to do everything and establish priorities on what is most important as a school leader, eliminate some tasks and delegate responsibilities whenever possible;
- Use time wisely by establishing, “value-added” priorities and maintain a proactive rather than reactive focus;
- Take every opportunity to build leadership density and to utilize the leadership qualities of others to collaboratively share responsibility for leadership in the school, and
- Strive to find a realistic balance in your personal and professional lives and serve as a role model and mentor for others.
In my next blog I will address the last of the seven leadership dimensions – understanding and responding to the larger societal context.