Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools appeared as a guest on Jon Stewart’s “Comedy Central” show the other night. As she talked about her tenure in the nation’s capital, she sounded more like a wild west sheriff than the leader of a school district. In the westerns I’ve watched, sheriffs ride into disorderly towns thinking the worst of the people who live there, pull out their six-shooters, gun down the bad guys, and quickly establish order. That’s an approach that may work in Tombstone, but it has no place in our schools.
Hired to turn around a failing urban system and armed with a point of view that teachers are our best hope for achieving this objective, Rhee and others with this “sheriff” mindset make the mistake of taking aim at teachers rather than engaging them as one key element of a complex solution to our nation’s biggest problem.
This “shape up or ship out” leadership style assumes the worst intentions of teachers – – that they don’t care about the success of their students, and are content to take their paychecks and go home.
School leaders, who don’t trust the people they lead, or respect their intentions and capability, aren’t likely to earn their trust and respect in return. So from the beginning, the objective of achieving higher academic performance through higher quality teaching is in jeopardy before the extent of a teaching quality gap has been measured. There is no argument that quality teaching contributes to student learning. It is also true—though less well understood—that quality educational leadership contributes to student learning, too.
More and more educational research finds that a well-established fact in business applies equally well to schools: The quality of an organization’s leadership contributes to its performance and productivity. Many of our school districts and schools are in need of leaders who can motivate and inspire people to do their best, appreciate them for their contributions and who know that they need the “soft stuff” that comes from creating a great culture in order to succeed.
Sustained best-in-class teaching can emerge from best-in-class leadership. Despite our best efforts, it’s unlikely to emanate from mandates and laws that decree it to be so. We need leaders with the skills to “sell” their ideas for achieving success to many different groups of people, instead of simply ramming mandates down teachers’ throats. It is not quite clear yet, but while a background in teaching may be necessary to educational leadership, it is insufficient.
Effective educational leadership also requires a growth-oriented mindset that enables one to see the glass as half full, not empty; the know-how to listen to other’s ideas and engage their trust and talents; the talent to create and sell a strategy with clearly defied metrics that tell you when you’ve arrived at your destination; the capacity to establish the structure and processes to align and focus people to the goal and the forte to create an organizational culture that becomes the foundation for achieving the hard results we want.
How much more effective at producing results for kids might Rhee and other superintendents be if their leadership was less about bringing order to an unruly, dysfunctional organization and more about getting people on their side to achieve success? How inspiring might it be to work for an educational leader who believes in your capacity to contribute, who respects you, engages your ideas, is committed to providing what you need to contribute, and shows appreciation for your efforts?
By now you’re probably thinking this is impossible to achieve in publicly funded school districts, to which I have just two things to say: Being a leader who believes in the capability of her people to contribute and who understands the importance of motivating them to succeed isn’t against any union or government law. And what have we got to lose?
FaceBook was recently recognized as the 2013 Employer of Choice. Employees cite trust in the company’s leadership, clear priorities, company culture, perks, and the impact they are making as reasons they are happy to be working at FaceBook. With this in mind, I wonder what a survey of DC and other school district employees might reveal about working in these organizations? The unspoken reality is that we don’t seem to care. But didn’t you hear? There’s a new sheriff in town.