It’s nearly 4:30 pm on Saturday, September 7…at least, in my small corner of the world in Indonesia. Back in the greater Seattle-area it’s barely Saturday morning and really, if you’re a Friday night party-goer, it’s still technically Friday night. But I digress. You see, time is on my mind and I really don’t have much of it to spare. I only have 36 more weeks before I leave Jakarta, returning to the US for a brief interlude before departing for another international destination, another school, another set of challenges, an ever evolving “to do” list…I’ve been on-the-job here for nearly seven weeks and there is so much to accomplish, so much to learn, so much to set right before I leave that at times I’m not sure where to focus my energies first. We’ve made it through the first few weeks of school and now I’m at a point where I’m ready to pause and reflect on how I can improve my own leadership skills to benefit students and teachers. Yet, mindless reflection without an exemplar to reach for is an exercise in futility so I’ve focused this week’s theoretical work on Elaine McEwan’s book 7 Steps to Effective Instructional Leadership (2003) as an entry point for melding theory and practice as I reflect on the work ahead.
“Today’s administrator-in-training must major in instructional leadership, learning how to fulfill essential management functions through skillful delegation and collaboration while excelling in creating a learning community” (McEwan, 2003, p. 5).
1. Establish, implement and achieve academic standards:
Focus on data, communicate student progress to parents, and matching assessments to standards are all ways identified my McEwan (2003) to address her first essential for effective instructional leadership.This is the nuts and bolts work of this next year; my curricular leadership role will come to fruition when we begin a shift in focus from systems to student achievement. In October, our students will take their second Measurement of Academic Achievement (MAP) test to date; this is when I will be able to work in coordination with our Curriculum Director and teaching staff working with MAP results to translate school wide data into professional development that will focus teaching to individual students needs. Standards based report cards are also on the agenda; one of the benefits of being part of the administrative team is the ability to “float” between committees as needed. Our Standards and Curriculum Committee will be tackling issues with report cards and I am looking forward to lending my insight to the discussion
2. Be an instructional resource for your staff:
My big question here is How will I share my pedagogic knowledge, imagination and skills? in terms of being “an instructional resource”? Truly, this is area of my internship where I am on unsure footing, the area where I am impatient to learn the nuts and bolts of being a curriculum director with a capital “C”; Collaboration, Collegiality, Cooperation, and Creative Problem Solving. Our staff is comprised of a mixed group of veteran and somewhat newer teachers, but all seem to be of high caliber; I am unsure how my role as “Curriculum Advisor” will manifest in day-to-day practice but I am confident that I will find a way to navigate these muddy waters by keeping McEwan’s Four Cs in mind. I am reminded that a simple way to know what is happening, which will help me better see where my I can naturally lend support, is by simply leaving my office: “Manage by walking around. Put your finger on the collective pulse of the school, and find out if the heart is still beating” (p. 39). I can be a goal-oriented person to a fault; at times I become so engrossed in my work that I forget to close the lid on my computer and spend time simply walking the halls, lunch room and playground to observe. When I remember to slow-down and spend time walking and interacting, my perspective is widened and load lightened; I am able to make connections that help freshen and inform my work.
3. Create a school culture and climate conducive to learning.
McEwan admonishes educational leaders as ineffective if they are not able to establish high expectations through inclusive classrooms, “The tracking of students of varying ability levels…sends messages to these students and their parents that they don’t have what it takes to make it in the regular classroom” (p. 47). While I believe that tracking students can have deleterious effects on student motivation, the reality of effectively meeting all students learning needs with upwards of an 80 percentile variation in achievement necessitates a stronger response than mere differentiation within the classroom. Truly, the beauty of a small international school is the ability to adjust adult schedules to meet student needs; we expected our Geometry students to be divided into Geometry or Algebra II/Trigonometry sections; instead the wide disparity in understanding achieved the last couple years means all but our strongest students are behind. So, we manipulated the schedule to make two math teachers available; all students within this particular grade level are in “Geometry” but one class is accelerated while the other will focus on filling-in the gaps and getting students at grade-level. I don’t know if one year of remedial work will be enough to put all of these students back in the same math class next year, but I don’t believe they are being done a disservice, rather they are being given the gift of focused instruction.
Another aspect of creating a learning culture and climate is through the development of policies jointly with faculty members that address homework, progress monitoring, remediation, progress reporting, and retention or promotion. At the close of our staff meeting this week, Secondary teachers met to discuss homework policies. Initially, there was a resounding agreement that there would be a “no late work” policy inclusive of middle school. As a middle school teacher with strong feelings regarding the unique emotional and cognitive developmental realities of middle school students, I immediately voiced my disagreement arguing that any policy must be progressive, must be cognizant of the purposes of homework and that we must first teach middle school (and all) students the skills they need to be successful before we can expect them to be held to a high standard, otherwise we would be setting them up for failure. These conversations are difficult and rife with personal philosophies but they are good and necessary, helping us as a staff negotiate what is best for our students.
The reviewing of rituals and ceremonies, and establishing norms is also noted as an important component of culture-building. One idea I expressed to the Head of School is to task the Social Committee with taking the lead (with admin support) in celebrating teacher successes. I feel that we’re asking a lot of our teachers so it’s important to recognize their hard work and dedication. We’re having Open House this Tuesday, always an evening that’s equal parts effort and payback. We will work to recognize the long hours that teachers put in to make the evening a successful event.
4. Communicate the vision and mission of your school:
“Vision is a personal view that provides a more global overview. Mission on the other hand, is the direction that emerges from the vision and guides the day-to-day behavior of the organization” (p. 67). At the first Board meeting I attended with the Head of School, he asked the Board for permission to bring in a consultant to conduct a strategic plan and action plan this year. The Board agreed and the consultant will come to Indonesia in October; I have been tasked with arranging for parent, teacher and student focus groups in addition to arranging his classroom visitations to observe teacher instruction. I will be able to talk with him about the questions that will be part of the questionnaire sent out regarding school culture and I will be part of the admin members present during our strategic planning workshop in November. Through the crafting of a community vision, we will be able to identify our daily mission that will enable our collective vision to come to fruition, and I will play a prominent role in this process.
Another way to communicate the vision and mission of the school is directly to the major stakeholders. This is undertaken with teachers by being a visible presence, through surveys, creating leadership teams, and interaction during staff meetings. As part of my internship, I will be able to observe teachers both informally and during formal observations with the Head of School. Clearly, my observations will not be used in teacher formal evaluations rather they will serve as part of my own professional development as an instructional leader. In the case of students and parents…well, this is an area for growth and continued development. While I have been present during parent-admin meetings to discuss communication issues in one case and an instance of bullying during another meeting, I simply do not have the authority or experience to have these sometimes difficult conversations by myself, at least, not yet. I plan to attend the Head of School’s quarterly coffee hours with the parent community so I can practice the “politics” of education. I already have spent a couple mornings greetings students as they enter school and regularly do after-school duty as students are leaving but would like to find time for more consistent interaction with students since I’m not in the classroom this year.
5. Set high expectations for your staff and yourself:
“Effective instructional leaders model goal setting by publicly sharing their personal goals with the staff. This public baring of the soul serves two purposes: (a) it holds the administrators accountable before their staff for accomplishment o the goal: and (b) it offers a positive role model for risk taking and self-improvement” (p. 85). For many people, myself included, admitting to necessary areas for growth feels vulnerable and open to criticism, yet I agree with McEwan’s observation that we must model that which we desire. In a moment of inspiration (or perhaps desperation) in my late-twenties I wrote a list of goals that ranged from a couple years to ten years from possible achievement, then I tucked the list away in my wallet. I would occasionally pull it out as I switched wallets but mostly I forgot about my list. But, a seed was planted because I discovered around the ten-year mark that I had achieved or approached in some way nearly every single one of my goals; I lived overseas, attended graduate school, gotten married, and began to play an instrument. There are a couple things left on that list that I haven’t gotten to (get my pilot’s license) and a few items that I am still doggedly pursuing (become fluent in another language) but to have achieved so many major life goals is astounding. If allowing myself to be vulnerable by sharing some professional goals with staff members pays off in the same dividends that my personal life goals did, well, I’ll shout my professional areas of growth goals to anyone who will listen.
Case in point; McEwan tells us that “Teachers perceptions of how effective we are as instructional leaders are, for them, reality” (p. 92). I have been pushing myself to present during staff meetings because quite frankly, public speaking is difficult for me . I like to share my ideas, I like to have a voice in the direction of our school and I think I have good things to share but I still get nervous. Last week, when I discussed expectations for committee meetings and open house, the Head of School mentioned later that he noticed my hands shaking; he said I didn’t sound nervous or look nervous but he noticed nonetheless. This is an area of growth for me that is fundamental if I want to be an effective instructional leader; I have to be able to present my ideas to groups without succumbing to nerves.
6. Develop teacher leaders:
“The journey from isolation to collegiality is often beset with obstacles and detours (Mahaffy, 1988), and there are several stopping-off points along the way: autocracy, coordination, accommodation, independence, cooperation, and collaboration” (p. 105). We are actively working to create a culture where teachers have the time, motivation and desire to work collaboratively. One way that I have played an active role in this area is through the creation of 90 minute content-area curriculum meeting and planning time. Once a week, twice a month or monthly, depending upon schedules and anticipated areas of need, teachers are meeting in groups of two or three to collaborate; working solely in isolation is not an option. We have also created a number of committees to promote teacher leadership and transparency in decision making. I proposed that we create an all-staff agenda and make it available as a Google document so teachers have an option to propose agenda topics; again the idea is to create transparency. I have the go-ahead to solicit faculty volunteers to propose professional development topics that they would be willing to lead. In this way, we will be tapping-in to the talent, experience and passions of our own staff as we support and recognize our fellow professionals.
7. Establish and maintain positive relationship with students, staff and parents:
I’ve blogged in the past about the fundamental role that relationships play in education and it seems the McEwan (2003) agrees that when it come to instructional leadership , “…attitude and relationships are the keys to being effective” (p. 117). Effective instructional leaders serve as advocate for students, work to develop their key human relation skills, develop the morale in a school, and actively acknowledge the achievement of others. I think one of the most important lessons I’m learning this year is to make decisions about issues not personalities. I have been given the latitude to make decisions that some teachers simply don’t like and it can be uncomfortable telling someone no. I focus on reiterating that decisions, mine included, are made with what’s best for kids in mind. When I’ve had, or witnessed an uncomfortable or unpleasant conversation with a teacher I remind myself that the next time we interact it is my job to be professional and not hold a grudge, regardless of how I may be treated in return. This stance is working for me and I’m finding that I am becoming more comfortable with confrontation and holding the line; it’s a work in progress but I’m growing both personally and professionally despite the discomfort.
Despite what logically should be a straight-forward approach to instructional leadership, McEwan (2003) identifies the following barriers to effectiveness:
- Lack of skills and training
- Lack of teacher cooperation
- Lack of time
- Lack of support from superintendents, school boards, and community
- Lack of vision, will, or courage
I cannot control all of the factors and personalities in schools and I never will, regardless of the school I’m working in. So, I focus on the basics; my day to day work is setting the systems, culture, learning and teaching in place so that our students can be successful. I have been spending much of my days collaborating with the rest of the administrative team creating the systemic structures necessary to make a school run; writing student and teacher schedules, articulating and communicating a vision of academic excellence, anticipating and responding to needed polices and procedures, creating avenues for teacher collaboration and leadership opportunities. My goals are both professional and highly personal; I need to ensure that I am gaining the skills, experiences and knowledge that I need to move my career forward in the direction that I would like to move, namely into a position of leadership that extends beyond the classroom door. The immediacy of the work at hand though, is at times distracting; initially I thought that my focus this year would be purely curricular yet I’m finding that the ship must be righted before she can sail straight. It would be easy for me to devolve into thoughts of what if I don’t get the curriculum director experiences I crave? but this thinking is one-dimensional and unproductive.
“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time” Abraham Lincoln
At the end of the day I have an opportunity that few have when they first attempt the move from classroom to administration; freedom from lesson plans and roll call to focus all of my attention on tangible school wide improvement that is actually being realized every day. I have an opportunity to try administration on for size, to test myself and learn and grow in a supportive, collegial atmosphere in a school with excellent bones that is quickly recovering from ineffective leadership from the past. I must trust that the skills and training I still need will come, not all in this one year, but will come through continued work on my part and exposure to new experiences. While I keenly lament the lack of time I have here, I do know that much can be accomplished this year as we set a steady course through what will become familiar waters to those that carry the work forward.
McEwan, Elaine K. 2003. 7 Steps to Effective Instructional Leadership, second edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.