Control or Cooperation
In “No Place for the Hatfields and McCoys” the Teacher Leader opens up a Pandora’s box of critical issues that go to the heart of school improvement.
Culture or Structure – The Teacher Leader astutely points out the importance “creating a positive, productive and trusting relationship between the administrative team and the teaching staff.” When all is said and done, any school improvement effort that focuses on changes in structure is doomed to failure unless the culture of the school changes. When school change is mentioned, many think immediately of reconfiguring bricks and mortar, changing the physical configuration of a school building, altering schedules, acquiring new technology, or purchasing equipment. But schools are not about bricks and mortar. Schools are about people and what they believe and expect, how they think, and how they interact and work together. Structural changes like small learning communities, career academies, professional learning communities, and ninth grade centers all work if the values, beliefs, expectations, and attitudes of the staff support a commitment to raising student achievement—culture. Culture is not for sale. Money cannot purchase a supportive environment or respect and trust. A school can have all the right programs in place but not be a high-performing school if the culture isn’t about continuous, incremental improvement.
Cooperation or Control – The essential question that every school leader and classroom leader must ask is “Do I want control or cooperation?” The answer to that question creates an intention that drives all future behavior. A school leader or classroom leader who seeks cooperation will think and behave much differently than one who seeks control. I contend that, if one has cooperation, control is unnecessary. However, it is the illusion of control or the fear of losing control that drives many leaders to engage in the kind of close-minded, top-down styles of interacting that erode relationships, stifle dialogue, and connote a lack of respect. Are you willing to give up a little control in order to get more cooperation? Are you willing to spend more time making decisions in order to make better decisions? Are you okay with not knowing all the answers? Are you willing to ask more questions?
Mutual Respect and Trust – Ask anyone about the key to successful working relationships in schools and they will say, “I want respect and trust.” The bottom line is that without mutual respect and trust, there is no relationship. Behavior doesn’t lie. It is our actions that speak for us. Leaders who respect and trust their staff will tap into their collective intelligence by taking the time to consult, collaborate, and share decision-making. They will spend more time deciding and less time cleaning up messes from hasty decisions. Shared decision-making leads to shared responsibility and shared ownership. Everyone involved must feel that they are not only being heard, but that their opinion counts. In that kind of school culture, staff members want to attend meetings because they know they have a say-so in the decisions being made.
Role Confusion – High-performing schools make the most use of the resources available to help each and every student succeed. The greatest resource is the expertise and emotional commitment of the staff focused intently on meeting the needs of the students. A staff pulling together for the students is virtually unstoppable. The school succeeds or fails to the extent that the adults work together. When visiting high-performing schools one never hears “That’s not my job.” Everything that supports student success is everyone’s job. Our roles change constantly. Early on in the change process, the school leaders, teachers and administrators, concentrate on the need to develop a clear vision and a focus. As the effort progresses, school leaders may spend more time removing barriers and acquiring resources. Our role is to work together to do whatever it takes to raise the achievement of each and every student.
Our job is inherently difficult – Change is the only certainty in our schools. I don’t see a day in the future in which we will be asked to do less. Even though we may be given fewer resources, expectations will never fall. That is our reality. If we work on the right things, the right way, for the right reasons, and if we appreciate, trust, and respect each other, and if we don’t care who is right or who gets the credit, we cannot fail.
Silos of Expertise – In stark contrast to “sorting students for success,” raising the achievement of each and every student requires an entirely different skill set and a level of expertise that only specialists can provide. Trained professionals spend their entire careers developing the necessary knowledge and expertise in areas such as special education, English-language learners, technology, and literacy, as well as in specific content areas. For example, the Teacher Leader developed his expertise in mathematics instruction over the span of four decades. Raising school-wide student math achievement without that level of expertise would have been impossible. With the complexity of our task—raising the achievement of every student—no one can be expected to know all the answers. Success in today’s schools is about asking the right questions, not in any one person knowing all the answers. In the past, school leaders could simply hire the experts and get out of the way to let them do their job.
Partnerships Not Silos – Today’s schools contain a tremendous amount of professional skill and knowledge that, if allowed to function independently, form semi-autonomous silos of expertise. If allowed to work independently, those silos become small kingdoms that could be working in conflict with the outcomes of the school. For example, a technology expert could be so concerned about security and network integrity that students and staff are prevented from engaging in meaningful and relevant learning experiences. School and classroom leaders must work in partnership to harness the collective intelligence and expertise of the entire staff to focus on student success.
No failure, only feedback – Working together to a common focus is our job. We must stop blaming and making excuses. If we truly trust and respect each other, we will not immediately jump to conclusions. Success is all about finding problems and solving them, not blaming, explaining, and excusing. We cannot be concerned about failing. We can only fail if we stop trying. There is no failure, only feedback toward our goal of continuous improvement.
Top-down or bottom up? – The Teacher Leader correctly points out that schools must be flat. High-performing schools are not about top-down or bottom-up decision-making. They are flat, less hierarchical, student-focused, and collaborative. In high-performing schools everyone shares in the decision-making process and in taking personal responsibility for student success.
Teams not individuals – High-performing schools are team oriented. Gone are the days of the individual, all-star teacher or charismatic school leaders. Today, it is about collaboration and working together toward a common outcome.
Accountability Demands Involvement – There can be no winners and losers in our schools. We either win together or we all lose together. If we believe that everyone must contribute to student success, then we must involve everyone in a meaningful way.