The View From Here

The Educational Leader’s Struggle

by Jim Butterworth

I have spent a lot of time this fall with board of education members, superintendents and principals. It’s a hectic and confusing time, they tell me. Even from the distance of CASDA’s position as a regional agency, I feel it too and I know that they are right. Educational leaders are struggling to implement federal and state mandates amidst unrealistic timelines, uncertain direction, few resources and resistance to change. They are preparing anxiously for this year’s coming budget storm. And they are smarting from the Governor’s relentless criticism of administrators.

I have worked beside and also prepared Capital District school leaders for well over thirty years and I know them as a group to be able, diligent and passionate about their work. They accepted the call to leadership even though it meant lower per diem pay, less vacation time, many more night meetings, and chronic stress. And, above all, they want to make a difference for kids.

Yet, every day they work to reduce the divide between where they find themselves and where they wish to be but usually find that, despite their best efforts, the gap remains. Over time, this situation can become demoralizing, sapping confidence and energy. So, I thought this month I would devote my remaining column space to a single message: Do not take this situation personally. It’s not about you. Researchers over the years have closely studied the roles of people in social systems. Three concepts from their work can help us make sense of the current situation in which educational leaders find themselves.

Role Overload

The honest answer to the question, “Why can’t I keep up and get all my work done?” is “You can’t. There’s too much of it.” Careful analysis of educational administrator job descriptions reveals that their professional responsibilities are too many and their span of control is too wide. That’s just the way it is and working harder, smarter and longer is unlikely to resolve this.

Since the first step in recovery is a clear understanding of the problem, it is important to recognize that, unless responsibilities are reduced or additional assistance provided, role overload will be a chronic problem which leaders personally cannot solve. The best solution is resolve to turn the switch off in the evening and return to the office in the morning refreshed to meet the new day. Remember that you need to run your career like a marathon, not a sprint.

Role Conflict

To the question, “Why can’t I seem to get it ‘right’?”, the answer is “You can’t. What’s ‘right’ is in the eye of the beholder and there are too many of them.” Consider all of the groups which hold expectations for educational leaders—parents, students, teachers, staff, unions, taxpayers, board members, USDOE, NYSED and the courts, to name a few. Now consider that the expectations beamed your way from each group are conflicting. Then add another layer of complexity and realize that within each of these groups a variety of views is held.

The solution to this dilemma is to recognize that conflict is inherent in our system and that it is not something your limitations caused or your brilliance can overcome. Seek to professionally and ethically manage the conflict and avoid personalizing it.

Role Ambiguity

If the question is “Why can’t I figure it all out?”, the answer is “You can’t because the world of education and your role in it is constantly changing.” For example, to the principal’s traditional roles as manager, communicator and connector have recently been added the roles of curriculum coordinator, instructional leader, professional developer and data analyst. Parents and teachers want the principal to be accessible to them throughout the day; new state mandates dictate that they spend the majority of time in classrooms. To the question, “Should I do this or that?”, the answer usually comes back “Yes.”

It’s important for principals to have conversations with their superintendents (and superintendents with their boards) to develop mutual recognition of these ambiguities. At the very least, it is essential to come to the point where you can live with, even if not quite embrace, the ambiguity.

In the end, amidst the confusion, please recognize that you are but one person. You make a huge difference but it is not your responsibility alone. As someone once said, “There is a God and you are not Him or Her.” Don’t let chronic role overload, conflict and ambiguity rob you of the joy and pride you derive from your career.

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