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What Does It Mean to Be an Educational Leader?

"If school leadership were a true/false test, we could raise our scores by looking over the shoulder of an unsuccessful principal and choosing the opposite answer to each question." Todd Whitaker

The other night I sat in a conference room with about 50 other educational leaders from the building and district level. We were together for a cohort dinner for the Sage College Doctoral Program. Every year those of us who graduated from the program get together to welcome the new cohort coming in. This year, the Deputy Commissioner of Assessment in New York State was the guest speaker, and he focused a great deal on what it means to be a leader. His presentation made me ponder one important question. What is an educational leader?

It's an interesting question. Those of us in leadership positions struggle with what it means to be an educational leader because we have to maintain a balance between the management aspects we do and the instructional leadership we want to do. Being an educational leader means we have to know a great deal about curriculum and instruction so we can provide guidance to staff when they have questions. It also means that we research best practices and look for the most innovative ways for staff to engage our students. It also means that we spend time getting to know students and working with families. Unfortunately, it also means we have to sort through what is good and bad about all of this accountability we are facing.

I feel that it is my job as a leader to make sure staff are informed and I strongly believe it is my job to inspire staff to speak up and question rules and decisions that they oppose even if that means that I'm on the receiving end. Not every day has to be a debate but in order to become better educators we all have to question the status quo, not just go along with it. The problem is that the same status quo we may be questioning is seen as progressive by those making the decisions.

As I sat and listened to the guest speaker present on educational leadership, I realized that he and I shared some of the same opinions on what it means to be a leader. Where we differed is that his idea of a leader is a person who leads their staff through the new mandates and my idea of a leader is a person who questions those mandates. Leaders do not blindly walk forward. They question their staff, colleagues and most of all, they question the decisions made at the state and national level.

Corporate reformers and some policymakers believe that those leaders who question new mandates are part of the problem and not part of the solution. They believe that leaders should be the ones to make all of this work despite the fact that there might be issues with the mandates. I have always learned that if you cannot take the questions being asked, perhaps your argument isn't that worthwhile. Leadership is about speaking up even if you are going it alone. It is about poking the proverbial hornet's nest, whether that means within your school, community or on a much grander scale.

Moral Purpose
"Leaders need to support, activate, extract, and galvanize the moral commitment that is in the vast majority or teachers. Most teachers want to make a difference, and they especially like leaders who help them and their colleagues achieve success in terrible circumstances" (Fullan. P.4. 2011)

I believe we are in the midst of terrible circumstances. There is a great deal of focus on testing and not enough on creativity. At the same time school budgets are being cut, those same schools are being forced to meet mandates they cannot afford. The dark cloud of negativity for the teaching profession constantly hangs over our heads. However, to be an educational leader means that we have to maintain a focus on engaging our students and we have to find the positives that surround us.

In my experience, I have come across many examples of great educational leaders that push the envelope in their schools despite the distractions coming from the state and national level. Connected educators are focusing on 21st century skills and really meet students where they are and bring them up to a new level.

Educational leaders work hard to make sure they work with their struggling teachers at the same time they challenge their best teachers. True educational leaders do not need new mandates, policies or laws to make sure this happens. They do it instinctively and it is often at the forefront of their mind as they begin their day. When everyone else at the beach is reading the new best seller, educational leaders are reading about new educational practices.

In the End
Just because we disagree with tests or some obligatory point scale doesn't mean we are not good educators, nor does it mean that we are not good leaders. Good leaders think for themselves. I would venture to guess that most of the leaders who do not agree with high stakes testing are outstanding educators who understand that we have lost academic freedom in exchange for textbooks, test prep and tests created by companies who make billions of dollars all at a time when school budgets are being cut.

Before we blame current leaders for the demise of education or plead for them to follow suit on new mandates, we should look at the fact that the U.S. has done progressively worse on international comparisons in the years since NCLB was established and that state education departments have always provided guidance on what we should be teaching and how we should be teaching it. Educational leaders are really tired of following through on mandates that are not good for education.


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Fullan, Michael. (2011). The Moral Imperative Realized. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, California.

Whitaker, Todd. (2003). What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things that Matter Most. Eye on Education. Larchmont, N.Y.

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