Monday, September 7, 2009

Reflections on Effective Leadership: The Challenge of Collaboration and Confronting High Stakes Tests

I have been a teacher for seventeen years. During that time, I have worked in four schools and under nine principals. The one that I thought was the most effective was Mr. Y. His style fit my view of what was necessary to run a school, especially one that was not performing well. He was on a no-nonsense mission to improve the school’s test scores, and in the end he was successful in that endeavor. He ran a tight ship where he expected teachers to do their job and be accountable. He ruled the roost and was very clear and decisive. There was never a question about where he stood on an issue. He did not tolerate griping and complaining and was rarely open to discussion about anything. He got the job done. Staff members either loved him or hated him, and he seemed unphased by either sentiment.

During my teaching career, I have held the positions of department chairperson and team leader and served on leadership teams. I tend to be very organized and pay attention to details, and these traits have served me well in these leadership experiences. The Communication Styles Inventory that I completed supports this self-description; my result was “thinker.” When given a task, I launch into resource and data-gathering mode so that I have everything I need to accomplish the task. I then set out to bring it to completion, sometimes alone and other times with the help of colleagues who are as driven and focused as I am. I get the job done, like Mr. Y described above. As a result, colleagues have often suggested that I would be good at being a principal.

As I reflect on the traditional leadership style of Mr. Y and the leadership traits and communication style of myself, I do not see much of the collaboration and teamwork that have come to characterize effective leadership today. In almost every article we have read in Effective Leadership during this course, we have encountered the notion of how important it is for today’s school leaders to engage in conversations and decision-making with full regard and respect for the input of all stakeholders, including staff, students, parents, caregivers, and community supporters. Without such inclusive collaboration, there is unlikely to be support and buy-in from all who are involved in the community we call our school. I may be a good manager. I might have my building in tip-top shape, publish an impeccable staff and student handbook, and craft a master schedule that runs like clockwork. But without securing the support of my staff and community, without conveying to them that I value their beliefs and expertise, without striving for all of us to be on the same page, I am nothing, our vision is just a collection of words on a page, and our culture is likely to veer off in many different directions.

I believe that this will be my biggest challenge as a principal. I do not think that I have all the answers nor do I possess a cavalier attitude about what others have to say. I firmly believe that I have a lot to gain by listening to the school’s “story tellers,” (Peterson, 14). This includes staff within the building as well as community supporters outside. I know there is value in Fullan’s advice to “respect those you want to silence.” I want to hear all sides; all deserve to be heard. But my proclivity as a “thinker,” one who needs time to ponder, analyze, organize my thoughts, and structure my response may pose a handicap in the midst of so many meetings and discussions. My desire to get the job done and move on to the next project may make it difficult for me to really take the time to listen and try to understand where people are coming from. Patience will be key. Using some degree of Web 2.0 tools like blogs and discussion boards will widen the audience. Embracing that this is “our” school will be essential, for without this espousal, I will run the risk of losing the commitment and contributions of a staff who ultimately wants to help our students to be successful in school and in life just as much as I do.

One of the issues that piqued my interest most during this course was the topic of standards and testing, especially Popham and Kohn’s take on it. Never before have I read authors who take such a strong albeit controversial stand on these issues. Education is being redefined, students are being cheated of solid teaching and knowledge, and teachers’ hands are tied, or are they? What I find most worrisome about the testing conundrum is what students are failing to experience because of the obsession with test preparation. This is particularly true in an era when we are challenged with integrating 21st century skills in our classrooms, like those put forth in Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow - Today. We are supposed to be preparing our students to think globally, to problem solve, to integrate technology, to collaborate and to create. How is this possible if we define precisely what will be taught by what will be tested and push technology to the side simply because proficiency in it is not currently tested?

The issue came up again and again during my years as a math teacher and department chair. The list of objectives to cover per year was a mile long and an inch deep, and it was expected that every student would make the benchmark, in spite of any special needs or language issues. Teachers felt that they could barely “cover” all of the material, let alone assure that their students had “mastered” each and every concept. I would rather have kids know four or five concepts inside out, upside down, and be able to apply them to many problem-solving situations by the end of a school year, than scratch the surface of twenty-five or more objectives without really knowing what any of them mean or how to apply them. But narrowing down the objective list was never an option.

I think what Hawaii has done and what Wisconsin is doing in response to this may be the way to go. Research on math education in Japan shows similar approaches and success with narrowing and focusing how much is taught in one year. Their efforts to reform content standards by reducing the number and clarifying the meaning emphasizes quality over quantity. It is definitely an issue that I wish to study further. When the time comes, I will put it on the table for all stakeholders in my school to discuss and debate. How much power we will have to take a stand against our state and division on this one remains to be seen.