12 May 2006

Consider Management vs. Leadership in the Classroom

As the business world is rapidly discovering, there is an important difference between management and leadership. This is an important distinction that teachers need to realize, as well, if they want to be empowered to make a positive difference for their students in today's educational environment. There is a popular axiom that says "management is getting things done while leadership is getting others to do things," and I disagree. The axiom expresses a cynical view that those being lead are unlikely or unwilling to act without the input of the leader. This flippant distinction is also based on the traditional idea that those few people with the authority to make decisions inherently possess all the power in an organization. Of course, teachers are often sympathetic to this axiom because they often feel that if they did not apply pressure to their students then they would probably not do anything. Here's how I distinguish these two ideas:

Management is the control of resources to meet organizational needs, whereas

Leadership is the meeting of individual needs within the context of a group.

My view of management recognizes that decision makers have different responsibilities, but the truth of the matter is that an organization only exists because the individuals who make it up believe that they are getting some of their needs met by continuing to participate in the organization. When those needs are not met, or if the individual believes that they are not being met, then they will leave. If enough individuals leave then the organization ceases to exist, no matter what other resources it may have. Thus every individual has power because not only do they have the ability to leave, but they also have the ability to effect the beliefs of every other individual they come in contact with regarding the ability of their organization to meet each individual’s needs. Morale is the most frequently used term to describe the effects of beliefs in an organization, and individuals without any real decision making authority can be very powerful influences on morale. Teachers know that it only takes one or two students with sour attitudes to bring down the morale of the whole class. And in the K-12 world it only takes a few parents to make life challenging for a whole school.

Leadership, in this way of thinking, is not exclusively, nor even inherently, the responsibility of those with decision making authority. Leadership is in a very real sense the responsibility of every individual in the organization because each of them have needs that they expect to be met in that context. But the measure of the effectiveness of the organization is going to be meeting the greatest number of needs for the least expenditure of time, effort, money and other resources. The more that the organization can apply a small amount of resources to meet the needs of large numbers of individuals (or have them believe that their need are being met) within the organization then they are going to be highly effective at freeing up the attention of those individuals for meeting the needs of the organization (which management is responsible for.) Thus managers probably have the most opportunities to assume leadership, but leadership is inherently distributed throughout the organization and wise managers would take advantage of that fact. For teachers the challenge is the fact that the majority of the individuals they are managing have undeveloped skills, especially in the area of leadership.

The teacher who accepts this point of view about leadership is immediately challenged to discover what their role in the classroom should be versus what it has traditionally been expected to be. The traditional view of the teacher is as a classroom manager responsible for the delivery of knowledge, skills and information (KS&I) to their students. The KS&I are discreet and measurable units that have objective existence independent of any individuals therefore the outcomes required of the classroom manager charged with responsibility for a set of students for a given period of time can reasonably be expected to produce objectively verifiable behaviors on industry standard instruments which measure the presence or absence of those units. (This is the logic of No Child Left Untested.) In the traditional view of teacher-as-classroom-manager the task is straightforward and the accomplishment of the task is merely a matter of inserting units of KS&I into the student. So long as the unit is delivered and that delivery is verified by an objective industry standard instrument then it is assumed to be forevermore present in the student. The accumulation of sufficient units of KS&I are necessary and sufficient to qualify that student as educated and once they are educated then they are delivered into the real world, which is inherently different (oddly enough) from the educational world since they rarely concern themselves with measuring the presence or absence of units of KS&I. [By the way, it used to be assumed that being merely in the presence of a teacher was sufficient to impart education, thus the idea behind funding schools based on seat time. Which is not any better for students, though less intrusive on what some teachers consider their private fiefdom, the classroom.]

In the mind of the teacher there is a whole host of more compassionate and worthy personal goals for their teaching beyond the delivery of KS&I, but given the way that schools exist teachers have implicitly accepted the charge to manage a classroom of students and delivering KS&I by the ways they are trained, the terms of their contracts and simply by accepting the classroom-in-a-school model. The problem arises when their personal goals are at odds with their fundamental charge to deliver KS&I. Teacher retention is best described as; “bring ‘em in, burn ‘em out, and replace ‘em.” [This is how the students are treated, too, since they are sent on to someone else every year.] The management strategies that are being heavily revised in business today are the ones that we learned in school. Even though no one was teaching the lesson, it was learned more thoroughly than any other lesson, which is why it is so hard to unlearn.

Now along comes this idea that managing KS&I (knowledge, skills and information, in case you forgot) is not working as well as promised and, therefore, we should all become leaders in the classroom instead of managers of the classroom. So some clever wit says, “Managers get things done while leaders get others to do things.” Unfortunately, if you simply think of your job as wielding your authority to make decisions that effect your students more creatively (in other words, more creatively manipulating them) to get them to do things, then you are going to find that once the novelty has worn off you are going to end up with the same long term pattern. You will burn out just the same, so long as you are the puppet master having to manipulate everyone in your classroom puppet show.

So now you arrive at the point where you want to change your underlying assumption about the distribution of power in your classroom in order to make real lasting change that will allow you to really fulfill your highest and best teaching goals. The question is, how do you deal with the fact that in your current teaching context where the management of the classroom and the delivery of KS&I are still the dominant reality? Let me first reassure you that it does not necessarily mean you have to quit your current teaching job. You should consider that as a possibility if you discover that you cannot build adequate support for your shift in attitude, but quitting should never be a foregone conclusion.

The first step is getting clear about what is real about your situation, what are the most basic facts that define you and your situation as a teacher. This is not about how you judge your situation, it is about getting to the unequivocal truth that everyone, no matter their opinions or positions, can agree is true. What are the objective realities? Most of what we think about are not the facts but our judgments, assessments, and assertions about the facts.

The second step is to reflect on your fundamental commitment to teaching. What is your bottom line for being a teacher? What is the absolutely non-negotiable experience that you require your school to provide the opportunity for having as a teacher? Notice I said the school provides the opportunity for having, many of us teach for those fleeting moments when we make a magical connection to a student. A moment of magical connection is not something that can be guaranteed by anyone, but it is important that the school provide an environment where it is at least possible. There may be times when it seems impossible, but that is where the third step comes in.

The third step is to assess your needs as a person and as a teacher. What kind of support do you need? Do you have all the support you need? If you need more support, where can you get it? Can the school provide additional supports, or do you need to look for personal support in other areas of your life? Building your support system is the key to success in any endeavor, no matter what you are trying to do. The question is how much support you need and how you will get it. What kinds of support do you get from your family, friends, students, administrators, colleagues, and other organizations in your community?

At this point you will begin to take a new look at your classroom environment. Who are those people that you have to deal with to accomplish your teaching? How do you acknowledge them for being with you in the classroom experience? How do you acknowledge your students, your colleagues, your administrators, parents, staff, and any others that you have regular contact with? As you begin to notice your classroom situation you can begin to also notice your own behavior. Notice when you assert your power. Notice when you diminish or dismiss someone else’s power. It is not necessary to judge these situations, they are happening all the time and will continue to happen, the question is when do use your power to shift responsibility? Given the facts of the situation, when do you manipulate someone because you do not trust them to create an outcome that you want? Have you ever talked to your students about the facts of their situation with regards to power, responsibility, and authority? Have you ever admitted to your students that you are dependent upon them for your job and what that means to you?

These probably do not sound like comfortable questions and easy conversations to have. Admittedly they are not. It is challenging to be straightforward about the facts of the situation when you are so used to conveniently overlooking them to protect your management position. What these questions and conversations do is subtly expose the truth that leadership is not the exclusive province of managers. When you tell the truth about how we are relating to each other through the structures created by our organizations you can begin to relate from one human being to another, regardless of your relative positions within the organization. The fact that you have these conversations will not alter your responsibilities and authority as a classroom manager within a school. The organizational facts do not change because you are able to notice them and speak honestly about them. If you are careful about how and when you present these topics and have done the personal ground work that properly precedes them then your management authority will most likely be bolstered by the addition of your creating opportunities for the expression of leadership as an opportunity to meet individual needs within the group.

Herein lies the rub: When you expose the distinction between your needs as a human being and the needs of your role as a authorized manager of the classroom, you are giving acknowledgement to the real situation and creating an alliance with others in the same opportunity. The students are also human beings with real needs that are distinct and separate from the needs they have as authorized attendees of the school. You and your student are both obligated to meet both kinds of needs. When you have to exert your authority in a situation that you might have handled differently in a different, more personal, context then you can admit to that fact and in good conscience use your power to uphold your organizational duty. If a student has broken a rule that is highly valued by the school but you are aware of extenuating circumstances that cause you to be sympathetic you can still express sympathy and enforce the rule when you have established with the student a dialogue in which you both understand the distinction between the roles we play and our personal preferences.

The shift from merely managing a classroom to leading one is not a simple and easy change to make. Put simply, it requires you to admit that you have needs, observe how you meet your needs currently, and then creating a plan of action if you are currently meeting your needs in ways that are out of integrity with your values and goals. Making the shift requires the ability to take an honest look at yourself and your situation and confront the truth about your role in the “bring ‘em in, burn ’em out, and replace ’em” pattern of schooling. It requires the willingness to take a straightforward look at both your personal and professional lives and relationships so that you can choose to live your life as a leader, rather than living out the inevitable fate of someone who has the job and attendant expectations of classroom manager.

I offer coaching services to assist teachers who are willing to take this challenge to heart. For more information about my coaching services please visit my web site: http://www.Attitutor.com

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