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SG Flight Conversation

The School System is Designed for Mediocrity

SG Flight ConversationLast week on a flight I sat next to a gentleman who is the head/principal of a high school in Ohio. On the middle seat between us (which thankfully was empty) he placed Carol Dweck's book, Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development

As an avid reader myself, right away I realized he is likely either an educator or taking a very interesting class.

Intrigued, I motioned toward the book and said: "Are you enjoying that book?"

He said that he really liked it and was trying to find some more effective ways to motivate his people. Morale at the end of the school year is often lower, but this year was a struggle from the beginning. 

I continued the conversation with the expected question: "So where are you going?"

He said that he has been the principal of his school for over six years and that he is finding it harder and harder to get everyone on board together in order to grow and improve the school. So, he's headed to a conference this week where lots of other school leaders are gathering to work on the challenges of school improvement and particular equity issues in serving a diverse range of students.

He then turned to me and said: "And what do you do for your career?"

I smiled and thought to myself, "Wow, I am so glad you asked! Because I've got something that you might find interesting."

In response I briefly described that we grow schools and the people like him who have the courage to lead them. From our work with thousands of schools over the last decade, we've clearly established that PK-12 schools are extraordinarily complex organizations that require a level of uncommon skills and disciplines to achieve success.

"The ability to build and sustain engaged relationships is especially critical for school leaders like you."

Then came a critical moment. I turned toward his window seat and asked, "Do you want to know why you feel so frustrated and find it hard to motivate your people?"

He instantly noticed the enthusiasm in my voice and face, and then nodded and said: "Sure." 

I began with a direct statement: "Your school system is designed for mediocrity." 

Somewhat taken aback, he asked, "What do you mean?"

I then explained the five factors of most school systems that blatantly limit growth and greatness.

1. The School System Sustains Status Quo

Despite the rhetoric advocating for innovation and leadership, too many schools (private and public) are structured to sustain the status quo and not "rock the boat." Now administrators and board leaders are very comfortable rocking the world of teachers by changing curriculum, evaluation processes, technology, discipline rules, etc.

But what changes are being made to the organizational structure and systems outside of the classroom to achieve growth? Not much!

Contributing factors include the desire for job security, a severe lack of cohesiveness and clarity, elected leadership positions that require accountability to a constituency, and simply a desire to maintain power/authority. 

After some thought, he acknowledged that protecting the status quo is heavily emphasized in their organizational culture. Nothing was verbally stated that way, of course, but it certainly is communicated non-verbally and through actions taken against those who may seek to challenge or change the system. 

2. You Don't Measure What Matters Most

You get what you measure--this fundamental truth is reflective of human nature and proven organizational principles. From our data and experience we've found that schools are far more likely to achieve sustainable excellence when they accurately and consistently measure faculty quality and faculty engagement. 

But that requires going beyond observations of instructional practice to establishing expectations for professionalism, attitude, and alignment with the mission, culture, and strategies of the school. The technical skills of instruction and curriculum are a smaller part of the bigger picture of what you need for a teacher to be effective. 

My new principal friend was willing to admit that his school lacks a comprehensive assessment of talent, favoring a focus on instructional practice that wholly ignores relational aspects that are critical to the success of the school. He went to acknowledge that the primary difference between his high performing and low performing faculty was attitude--not technical skills. 

3. Human Resources is Focused on Compliance

A commitment to educational excellence begins with a commitment to building a remarkable team of talented, energized, and engaged faculty (including every employee of the school). I pointed out that his school system most likely diligently adheres to HR policies and practices that are far more defensive than offensive, where the goal is to minimize risks with employees rather than being intentional with expectations and accountability. 

This is a huge barrier to excellence because of the impact of faculty quality on school growth and student growth. Personnel decisions directly impact the culture of the school and especially the trajectory of children's lives!

He admitted that it's extremely difficult to enforce personnel accountability, with significant barriers to remove underperforming faculty. His system lacks a strategic commitment to leadership capacity and talent development. The result limits the quality of the school and has a negative impact on the culture of his school.

4. Crisis Management is the Core of Your Job

Managing the day-to-day operations of a school requires a wide range of skills because there are so many "moving parts." Schools are complex organizations and the role of a principal too often devolves into being a "fireman" who moves from crisis to crisis, trying to minimize the damage and fix the issues. 

Staying in crisis mode is exhausting physically and emotionally, and it eliminates any time for critical strategic thought and development.

Once again, he acknowledged that this is an appropriate description of his work life. Dealing with crisis issues among students, faculty, parents, etc., consumes the majority of his time and resources.  Most of these situations are caused by underperforming faculty who are weak in building relationships and engagement, but who has time to go back and fix those issues?

5. You Don't Have Time to Love Your Faculty

Then I turned to my friend and looked directly into his eyes and said, "Your primary job as the top administrator on your campus is to cultivate a team of incredibly talented educators and then love them like they are!" 

Love your faculty by being genuinely interested in them and making time to listen to them. Seek to understand their pains, their gains, their goals, their wins, their milestones. 

Love your faculty by developing disciplined habits for communication, accountability, and follow through. 

Love your faculty by establishing clear expectations and consistently enforcing them.

Love your faculty by delivering on your promises.  

We talked a little more about how to love faculty in a meaningful way that builds trust and engagement. Then we agreed to re-connect sometime in the near future to continue the conversation. 

What a joy to be able to encourage a man who is so committed to school leadership and to improving the lives of faculty and families. 

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