A space for teacher-leaders

Gopal Midha

Last week a District Education Officer I met at a workshop asked me, “So, what do you do?”
“I teach education leadership and management,” I replied.
“Education what…?”
“Education leadership and management. It is basically about how we create and sustain leadership in educational organizations.”
“Ah! That sounds interesting. So you work with principals and headmasters.”
“Not just them….it could be head teachers, policy makers, officials from the government education departments, curriculum designers, students, teachers…”
At this point, the conversation ended abruptly as the DEO got a phone call from the State Office to collect some “urgent” data from the schools in his district. He had to marshal his resources to get the job done by the end of the day.

He left but his final words made me think. He, like most people I meet, assumed that leadership is reserved for those with a formal position and authority. But as a teacher of Education Leadership and Management (ELM), I can tell you that this assumption is far from the truth. A sign on the door does not make a leader (Goddard, 2003).

At a time when not just the private schools but various state governments also have extensive plans to “train” head teachers and principals so that they can lead our schools into academic excellence and considerable money is being spent on such “trainings”, a dialogue on how one can apply leadership concepts, borrowed from management, in education needs to be given some thought.

What is leadership in education? Who can be these educational leaders? What sets them apart? Can we prepare such leaders? If yes, then how? These are some of the questions that I deal with in my classes and pose to education professionals who have played that role and now help others in reaching their leadership potential. Not only did these conversations provide an insight into this complex phenomenon of educational leadership but they also helped me draw interesting parallels to some of the theoretical frameworks.

Educational leaders are transformational
“Education leaders don’t lead from the front. They actually create a space that allow others, say teachers in their school, to become the best that they can be,” says Kavita Anand, Director, Adhyayan Asia and founder of Shishuvan school in Mumbai.

“They essentially have the capacity to carry others with them and usually the work they do is not done with any desire to “inspire” others….. Leaders just happen to be inspirational.” In other words, the intent is not to inspire. Now, imagine how that changes the way we imagine leadership.

This is similar to what is known as transformational leadership wherein “…the principal is not content being the only leader in the school. Rather, she or he facilitates the development of leadership abilities within all staff. The staff is transformed from followers to leaders.” (Goddard, 2003).

Unfortunately, sometimes the formal role of leadership is thrust upon the teacher without adequate hand-holding and support. A promotion, for example, to head of a department requires the teacher to play an active role in understanding the dynamics of teamwork, building a shared vision and transforming conflict into opportunities for growth. This is not something for which they might have received any exposure.

Personal mastery is core to educational leadership
“Educational leaders challenge themselves. They keep growing. It is the struggles with their own selves which often draws others to them,” says Kavita.

Devika Nadig, Founder and Director, Shikshangan, agrees when she talks about the course that she has designed for strengthening leadership in schools. “It all begins with personal leadership,” she says. “That is why we find it necessary that school leaders focus on their sense of self-efficacy. They continue to take action to grow professionally and personally.”

Indeed, personal mastery and reflecting on our mental models is essential to becoming a leader, says the noted author Peter Senge. “People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never “arrive”. Sometimes, language, such as the term “personal mastery,” creates a misleading sense of definite-ness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline….The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. (Senge, 1990)

Educational leaders are deeply concerned with academic growth
But haven’t formal leadership roles like that of the principal become only managerial or administrative? Don’t they usually get completely caught up in representing the school at various forums and meeting parents and vendors to ensure that the school runs efficiently?

“That is a hard fact” agrees Devika, “But it need not be that way. Though they need to be good at management, the essence of the principal’s role is to provide academic leadership. They need to consistently raise questions like, “What is the purpose of education? What is worth teaching? How do children really learn? How can we make schooling more meaningful?”

And this requires that the educational leader becomes a catalyst of collegiality and ensures that teachers talk together about students, teachers develop the curriculum together, teachers observe one another teach, and teachers teach one another. (Barth (1991), Hoerr (2008)).

Reviews are vital to assess how well you are doing
Besides, strong leadership requires honest review and feedback mechanisms. This concept is common across both Kavita’s work on School Self-Review and Evaluation and the school audits done by Devika which look at processes within schools that make the school better at their own learning. “Reviews are one of the most unused tools that need to be integrated within the fabric of the school,” says Devika. “And although I don’t agree that leadership as defined in the discipline of management can be simply copied into education, yet reviews are a wonderful concept to borrow and adapt,”she adds.

Creating and sustaining leadership is complex
The current efforts to promote educational leadership in different contexts are an effort in the right direction since they not only help develop but guide and achieve a shared vision for the organizations and everyone working in them. In my interactions with Kavita Anand and Devika Nadig, I felt that they believed in a mix of different styles of leadership (Transformational-Ethical and Instructional-Managerial) based on how they constructed their own experience of dealing with educational challenges. And this is not a simple challenge reduced to mastering six habits or nine skills as many books or trainings on leadership might make us believe.

Providing good educational leadership is not learnable like learning how to bake a cake. It is more like a problem which involves dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors interrelated into an organic whole, something known as Organized Complexity (Weaver, 1948). And that requires seeing the organization as a system. This takes time to understand and make sense of.

Although educational leadership can be “distributed” within the organization so that we can move away from “hero” models, we need to think clearly of ways in which not just the principal but also the teacher and the students are given time and experiences to understand their own pathways to personal mastery and a knowledge of system dynamics which influence student growth and learning. School managements and policy makers need to be more sensitive to the difficulty and complexity of the role of educational leaders. Simply expecting principals to be good educational leaders or imposing this role on teachers is only going to increase pressure on them and is unlikely to work.

Barth, R. S. (1991). Improving schools from within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Goddard, J. (2003). Leadership in the (post)modern era. In N. Bennett, & L. Anderson (Eds.), British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society: Rethinking educational leadership: Challenging the conventions.
Hoerr, T.R (2008). The Principal Connection / What Is Instructional Leadership? Informative Assessment Pages 84-85. Retrieved January 4, 2013 from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec07/vol65/num04/What-Is-Instructional-Leadership¢.aspx
Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline. Doubleday/Currency.
Weaver, W. (1948). Science and complexity, American Scientist, 36: 536-544.

The author works as an independent consultant with various organizations towards preparing more competent and caring teacher professionals. He also co-teaches the Education leadership and Management course at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at gopalmidha@gmail.com.

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