Signing off on the Course Commitments was easy at the time. I had read both of the books on the syllabus over Christmas Break, taken notes on the Course Introduction, and considered how my coursework would fit in with teaching, doing admissions work and travel, tending to my marriage, raising a child, dorm duty, coaching baseball, and the other, unwritten time commitments that are part and parcel to boarding school life. I was all set…at least for a little while. Staying well organized, honoring commitments, and avoiding complacency, as with any position of leadership, is extraordinarily challenging. Less about good management, it’s like working with a puzzle that can’t be solved because the pieces keep changing shape, but the picture can become clear as the pieces are put together in new ways. In this way, like good leadership and organizational development, the course work for EAD 801 had to become a part of me, not because of the Course Commitments, but because of my own commitment to learning.
Ultimately, leadership is not about getting things done at given places and times, but about inspiring a sense that getting things done is our collective responsibility. In this way, leadership is less about authority, more about inspiration and commitment. This point is made quite clear in Fullan’s Leading in a Culture of Change. Commitment based on a coherent blend of moral purpose, understanding of change, relationships, and knowledge making is the key to making more good things and less bad things happen. Through his work, ideas, experiences, and examples; Fullan’s thoughts about internal commitment as an instrumental goal of good leadership made good sense to me. But, absent an authentic context in which to observe and consider Fullan’s thoughts, my understanding was more-or-less academic. My role as a baseball coach helped me to unlock Fullan’s ideas about internal commitment in a real context.
At a school that requires participation in competitive athletics during the spring season, often choosing a team has less to do with a student’s desire to play a particular sport and more to do with some strange internal, interpersonal, and socio-cultural calculus. And, while some students have been playing baseball for more than ten years, others have been playing for less than ten minutes. The gaps in experience and understanding are difficult to bridge. Defining success for a team with such gaps is equally as challenging. And, the internal drive to be successful, however defined, is as varied as the players. In the end, in part because of Fullan’s ideas, in part because the situation necessitates it, my coaching goal this season has been to develop a sense of internal commitment in each player and within the team culture. What this involves is some very hard work coming to understand my players both as athletes and as whole people within the context of the team, the school, and their lives and then to use those understandings to help them build a connection to the team and to the game in such a way that their commitment takes on a momentum that can be sustained toward further future successes. The same is also true at the team level. This is no small matter, but indeed, is much of what matters.
Ends & Means
Further, how things get done is as important as what gets done. The end does not justify the means, nor do the means mitigate unintended, harmful, or unjust ends. Both ends and means must be justified by the same principles. Focusing on the principles that must be upheld by the ends and means exposes as faulty the idea that means could justify ends. Each can only (and must concurrently) be justified by the same principles. This sort of coherence should be the result of good leadership. As before, Fullan’s ideas, this time about coherence making, suggested this point, but reflecting on my past experiences throughout the semester very much made the idea more real. During the final Live Group Chat of this course, I shared a story that illustrates just this point.
As part of its annual academic requirements, Darrow School requires that all students participate in a weeklong Spring Term experience. Students rank their preferences and submit a short written statement discussing what they hope to learn from their Spring Term experience. Options range from local to international learning experiences, each of which carries a price tag, not included in tuition, from $180 to $1800. Students who cannot afford to pay for the experience that they would like to have can ask for financial assistance, which is available on a limited basis. Over one-third of the students at Darrow receive some sort of financial aid, which constitutes just over twenty percent of the annual operating budget. Suffice it to say, Darrow strives to make every opportunity equally available to all students.
Given the preceding paragraph as a contextual foundation, another faculty member and I planned a Spring Term experience to explore the socio-cultural history of Washington, DC. Based on previous years’ financial aid awards for Spring Term, we planned an experience that would be relatively affordable for students at all income levels. That is until the Director of Studies doubled the price. Then, finding his decision unfair to students who would now be priced out of this option, we objected and convinced him to lower the increase, but only by half. Additionally, he agreed that any money that wasn’t spent would be refunded to the students’ families (a departure from the typical practice of covering deficits from one Spring Term with surpluses from another). When we returned from DC with a surplus covering the Director of Studies’ full increase and more, we were told that the money was now needed to cover budget shortfalls in other Spring Terms. We were irate. Keeping the story short, a series of arguments ensued during which I called the Director of Studies a liar and a thief, I was confronted aggressively by the Business Manager, and I threw the budget surplus (over $3000 in cash, wrapped in a printout of the e-mail in which he committed to refunding the money to families) onto the Director of Studies’ chair and stormed out. In the end, I got the central result that I wanted. The money was refunded. But, in the process, relationships were damaged, feelings were hurt, sides were taken, and trust was all but irreparably damaged. Was integrity upheld at a cost to trust and responsibility? Couldn’t all three principles have been upheld at the same time?
On School Leadership
Authenticity is crucial to the success of all in schools. With so many guidelines, so much protocol and political correctness, it is not a stretch to consider the possibility that the real may be lost in translation. Authenticity must run through the school. Students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, and others must be true to themselves, to each other, and to their ideals. Curriculum must be relevant and applicable. And all of it should flow naturally or we risk students’ educations and futures. In his book Ethical Leadership (2004), Robert Starratt says that “the learning achieved by students is generally superficial and largely decontextualized from student experience and the life of the community. In other words it is inauthentic learning, superficial learning, fake learning, make-believe learning, rather than something that intrinsically adds value to students’ lives and prepares them for responsible adulthood” (p. 2). School leaders must consider the ways in which students are connected to the real while inspiring their thinking toward greater-than-before possibilities.
As I go through my days at school, I spend time considering the question about what is real and what is not. In my wonderings I have come to realize a central assumption that I make about authenticity in schools. I assume that all—students, teachers, parents, administrators, community members, etc.—will keep an open mind about authentic learning, because it is much less clean than inauthentic learning. But, assuming a predominance of open minds, or any kind of minds, is a clear step on the road to “assumicide.” At an independent boarding school with many fewer organizational, legal, and constitutional restrictions than public schools, I find that what is authentic both surpasses and falls short of what is authentic in public schools. And the question remains the same for both: How do we approach what is real more fully?
The medium is the message. Context is the “medium” of schools, and has a deep impact on their educational outcomes. All contexts are not equal, nor should they all be the same. School contexts should, however, equally avoid what Fullan (2003) calls “if-only thinking” (p. 19) and promote innovative thinking. In addition to their other work, school leaders must work to build contexts (including contexts of mind) that do so. They must do so by paying close attention to the parts and the whole of their schools—the individuals, groups, community, economy, buildings, climate, and more. School leaders must know their students, their students’ parents, their school’s history and broader community, the local government and economy, the neighborhood and more. School leaders must think strategically in context in order to change it. Fullan (2003) makes this case very clearly: “Changing the context means that what you leave behind at the end of your tenure is not so much bottom-line results (although that too is apparent) but rather leaders, at many levels, who can carry on and perhaps do even better than you did” (p. 10). He finishes by saying, “There is no greater moral imperative than revamping the principal’s role as part and parcel of changing the context within which teachers and students learn” (2003, p. 11). School leaders have an incredible responsibility in this way.
About one month ago, I presented at the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) Annual Diversity Conference in New York City with one senior administrator and four student-leaders. The theme of the conference was “unearned privilege.” The presentation that we made argued that principle-driven community building based on shared experiences, not just shared spaces, is an effective hedge against unearned privilege. Using our school as an example was effective for getting the point across, though differences in the context of our school (a boarding school) and our audience’s schools (day schools) proved to be a tremendously challenging obstacle. “If-only thinking” (if only our students lived closer or had more time available or…, then we could build stronger communities or…) hindered their understanding that together they can change the context of their schools. Our responsibility as presenters was to challenge their “if-only thinking” and to encourage innovative thinking, beginning with their own school contexts and cultures. In this way, I came to understand more fully the difficulty of contextual change in schools as well as the importance of shared leadership that continues beyond any leader’s tenure.
On Organizational Development
Each of the points above—about internal commitment, ends and means, authenticity, and contexts—ought to build toward sustainable cultures. I say sustainable cultures because cultures, more so than practices or procedures, can be flexible and sustainable at the same time. In fact, flexibility is a key component of sustainability. Again taking from Fullan’s (2003) ideas on successful leadership, a leader’s legacy should include levels of leaders throughout the organization. This, in short, is my definition of sustainability—a long-lasting good, approaching self-sufficiency. Applied broadly, sustainability is the primary goal of any organization—sustainable growth, sustainable cultures, sustainable influence, sustainable leadership.
Sustainable leadership can be relatively easy to identify, but extraordinarily difficult to implement. Yet developing an understanding of what can be done to develop such leadership can be very important to the future success of any organization. This understanding helped me to more clearly identify some cultural shifts that I had been feeling at my school over the last two years. Discipline became more lax, expectations became less clear, attendance at community events lessened, the sense of shared purpose and commitment dwindled, the development of teaching practices became less focused, and learning became less important in faculty conversations. This listing is negatively oriented, and many good things continue to happen and to develop at my school. But these things have stood out to me as particularly troublesome because their collective result is a sharp decline in predictability, trust, and faith in the future—markedly unsustainable notions for an independent school. Thinking about Fullan’s idea regarding levels of leadership throughout the organization helped me to understand that the loss of our Assistant Head of School and Athletic Director (after 16 years and 26 years at Darrow School respectively) during the last two years included the loss of their cultural leadership. Absent levels of leadership to continue the development of the culture, the wheel has been reinvented many times over. I came to understand that their leadership was strong and purposeful, but not sustainable.
Shifts in Belief
From My Group to Our Group
Our early work on group development in EAD 801 pushed me to consider group dynamics differently. I began the course thinking about group work only in terms of the immediate interactions of individuals involved. In my mind, the progression of group work would happen something like this: individuals arrive at a meeting with their ideas in mind, individuals advocate for their ideas until they get something of what they want, everyone leaves feeling exhausted and dissatisfied about the outcomes, then the decisions are reworked in backrooms and corridors in order to smooth things over. Admittedly, this is a negative characterization of my previous thinking (and, perhaps, a fair description of how some groups work). But it is also how I approached group work.
The McREL article “Team Building” helped me to reconsider what group work could mean. Surrounded as it was by articles on Emotional Intelligence and synergistic collaboration, I had to change my thinking about what working together could mean. I was able to use these newfound understandings to reflect positively and critically on both past and present team experiences. Considering my team experiences, I realized that my typical approach to the loss or addition of new members was indifference rather than one of respect and recognition, as though they were less deserving of a voice than I or other established group members. As a result of this shift in belief, I believe that I have the tools to get something more than just a balancing act of individual wants out of the groups of which I am a part in the future. The belief that we’re all in this together should result in a collective approach to the good of one and all.
From Overconfident to Open-Minded
One of the most important lines that I read as part of EAD 801 was from Mark Winston’s article “Ethical leadership and ethical decision making: A meta-analysis of research related to ethics education” from a 2007 issue of Science Direct. In his article, Winston says: “As noted, the research indicates that individuals overestimate their ability to make ethical decisions and underestimate the impact of their biases on their decision making, particularly in organizational contexts and managerial decision making” (p. 235). It didn’t take me very long to recognize myself in that statement. With the number of students that I talk to on a daily basis, I dispense advice like candy, rarely thinking about others’ dietary restrictions. In other words, I considered the consequences of my choices only so far as they may impact me without adequate regard for others. And I trusted that I was right.
As I mentioned in a Class Chat, Winston’s statement set me back on my heels quite a bit. Since then, I have spent considerable time chewing on his statement and reflecting on the numerous times per day that I am asked to provide some moral direction to students. In doing so, I realized that far too often my responses were the result of overconfidence rather than open-mindedness. And, while my beliefs about ethical decision making have shifted, I am still only in the beginning stages of my approach to greater open-mindedness. This road, I expect, will be a long one.
From Following the Leader to Leading With the Leader
Reflected in much of what is written above is my earlier sense that leaders led, followers followed, and that’s how it was until a leader needed to be replaced for one reason or another. Leadership, in my mind, was the individual endeavor of one person (or very few people) at “the top” and everyone else below. “The top,” as it goes, is very lonely because that is where ultimate responsibility lies and things need to get done. In my mind, leaders could get things done in different ways, but in the end, if the results were there, that was simply a question of “leadership style.” Throughout EAD 801 these notions of the lone leader commanding from on high have been thoroughly challenged. After all, the leader cannot lead alone as leadership does not exist without other people.
Fullan’s twice-mentioned idea about what leaders should leave behind—levels of leadership throughout the organization—speaks to the heart of this shift in belief. However, there is more to it than just that. The readings in which we were exposed to parallel leadership, group development, and internal commitment helped to round out this belief that the people involved in any endeavor together must feel connected to that endeavor. Among the best ways to help the members of a group to feel connected to the organization’s purposes is to give them some sense of ownership over it. In different ways, then, everyone leads the way together.
From Getting Through the Bad to Working Toward the Good
I was very fortunate during one Class Chat this semester to share Dr. Colflesh with only one other EAD 801 student. I will never forget the realization that I made about myself during that Class Chat when I read the difference between Tara’s response to Dr. Colflesh’s story and mine.
Dr. Colflesh wrote, “I have been working with an absolutely toxic group of teachers since last May……prior to the holiday break, I sent an invitation to join a Book Study….about building a PLC about literacy instruction…told them a bit about it……and received One response from a teacher to join…..everyone else said they were not interested.” I responded, “Seriously??? Only one!” Tara wrote, “Hm. That’s frustrating. Well, at least one teacher responded…that’s a start.”
I realized in that moment, and have been actively trying to prevent any further realizations of the sort, that my sense of optimism was in serious jeopardy, and Tara’s seemed to be fully intact. “How can I inspire growth in anyone,” I thought, “if I can’t find that nugget of hope to build from.” Since that evening, I have been working harder to find the good on which to build, and seeking inspiration in what I find along the way—in books, in people, in the world. There are few world views more difficult to hold than an optimistic one, and almost none more potentially rewarding. Whenever I consider Tara’s statement I look for the start of something good.
Sometimes the question is the learning…at least for a time, until investigation of those questions lead to new questions and new learning. For me, I hope it never ends. Below are a few of the big questions that continue to kick around in the back of my mind:
- How can the concept of authenticity most effectively be applied to school policies, practices, and pedagogy?
- What value does learning from experience have in educational leadership, both relative to and in addition to other forms of learning?
- To what degree are perceptions about educational leadership chosen? To what degree are they learned? How can differences in perceptions about educational leadership best be reconciled?
- What would it mean, and is it possible to develop a sustainable school?
For me, what I learn is only what I think I have learned until I have experienced it. I don’t know if that makes me a skeptic, overly cautious, or responsible. What I do know is that in order to develop a feel for leadership, whether in schools or in my own life, I have to develop a body of both external knowledge and lived experience to make the learning real to me. I have to be willing to take risks based on both for the betterment of all. And, along the way, I have to develop the sense of internal commitment—the sense that this is a part of me—to continuous learning and to inspire such a commitment in others. With a freshly open mind and an optimistic outlook, every day can be the start of something better together.
- Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
- Starratt, R.J. (2004). Ethical leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Winston, M.D. (2007). Ethical leadership and ethical decision making: A meta-analysis of research related to ethics education. Library & Information Science Research, 29(2007), 230-251.