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Stress Is Not a Status Symbol

Book cover for Red Badge of CourageWhen I read Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage as a 10-year-old, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to experience suffering in the name of heroism or nobility.

Today, I still can’t.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it follows a young man who joins the Union army during the Civil War. Though the young man, named Henry, isn’t sure he’ll have the courage to stand tall in battle, he desperately wants to be marked as one of the brave, and wants a war wound—a “red badge of courage”—to prove his honor.

Note that he doesn’t merely want to help his side win the war. He doesn’t just want to be brave. He wants a wound that he can wear with pride, so that others will know his true measure.

As principals, we often have the same attitude—except that instead of a wound, we want stress. We want to be seen as overloaded, overwhelmed saints who nevertheless press on and achieve victory through our superhuman efforts. We want to be heroes.

Our students don’t need us to be heroes. They need us to perform at our best, to be the kind of leaders we know we can be.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed the concept of flow to describe the optimal state of mind. We can do very challenging work with a very high level of skill, yet a very low level of stress, when we’re in the flow state:
Flow diagram

As you can see, anxiety is caused (at least in part) by not acting skillfully enough. The skill to which I’m referring in this case is handling our workload so that we can operate at peak performance.

If you’re stressed, look for ways to reduce your stress so that you can be more effective as a leader. Don’t wear that stress as a status symbol.

1 Our Inevitable Inadequacy As Leaders

The bad news? As a school leader, I can’t be all things to all people. There isn’t time, I don’t have the skills, and I’m just not the best person to exercise every kind of leadership we need.

I can’t be the coach, and the counselor, and the supervisor, and the mentor, and the consultant, and the trainer, and the encourager, and everything else my staff needs me to be. At least not as well as I’d like, and not all the time. The range of human and professional needs in even a small school is too great.

As leaders, we are inadequate. We are, inevitably, not up to the task. Not by ourselves.

The good news? Every morning, the parking lot is brimming with all kinds of leaders who show up ready to make a difference.

Tree with hands

We can ignore this leadership and pretend it doesn’t exist, or we can celebrate it as the primary form of human capital in our schools.

It’s the difference between a brick building full of employees who do their jobs, and a thriving learning community where everyone is focused on getting better and helping others do the same. The researchers I’ve been citing a lot lately describe it this way:

Supportive interaction among teachers in school-wide professional communities enable them to assume various roles with one another as mentor, mentee, coach, specialist, advisor, facilitator, and so on. However, professional community amounts to more than just support; it also includes shared values, a common focus on student learning, collaboration in the development of curriculum and instruction, and the purposeful sharing of practices—all of which maybe thought of as distributed leadership.

Thus, the presence of a professional community appears to foster collective learning of new practices—when there is principal leadership.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 42

So especially when we’re trying to do something new and ambitious and better to improve teaching and learning, the leadership that happens laterally in our schools is some of the most important leadership of all.

We can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to. The leaders are among us if we let their leadership thrive.

What do you do to encourage this leadership among your staff? Do you:

  • Ask?
  • Invite?
  • Step out of the way?
  • Celebrate?
  • Encourage?

Will you leave a comment and share how you encourage distributed leadership in your school?

Will Sharing Instructional Leadership Save You Time?

Smart principals know the job of leading a school is too big for one person, so forms of distributed leadership have made their way into most schools. Leadership teams, site councils, departmental decision-making, and other forms of shared leadership can make a school a better place because they don’t rely solely on the principal’s expertise and influence.

But if you share the leadership workload with others in your school, will this take work off of your plate?

You might think so, since dividing a pie into more slices makes each slice smaller.

Pie sliced into pieces

But the answer, according to recent research, is no:

Distributing leadership more widely in schools should not be viewed as a means of reducing principals’ workload. Leadership from teacher leaders and external sources is more likely to be goal- or initiative-specific. Principals, on the other hand, are responsible for a boundary-spanning role not typically performed by others, nor picked up by others in the absence of active principal leadership. Principals are typically involved in a great many leadership initiatives in their schools, including initiatives for which others have assumed lead roles. Their role to coordinate or link others’ leadership efforts is essential.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 65

In other words, sharing leadership doesn’t save principals time because it creates more work. The “slices” don’t get smaller because the pie gets bigger as more teachers take on leadership roles.

And this is a good thing.

I think it’s great that distributed leadership doesn’t reduce your workload, as long as your school is embarking on substantive improvement efforts. We can look for other places to save time.

As the overall leadership workload in your school increases, though, your work will become:

  • More interesting
  • Higher-level, and
  • More impactful

as your time is increasingly devoted to coordinating the amazing work being done by your staff.

How do you see your role changing as others take on more leadership? What does that coordination look like?

4 What’s My Job?

Principals are instructional leaders, first and foremost.



That’s what I was taught in my principal preparation program, and that’s the message I heard year after year as a principal. But how does that idealized vision of the principal’s work align with the daily reality?

Several studies have examined how principals spend their time; for example, Stanford researchers found that

Principals appear to devote the least total amount of time to instruction-related activities including Day-to-Day Instruction tasks (six percent) and more general Instructional Program responsibilities (seven percent).

Is what we spend 6-7% of our time on really our top priority?

In his classic book The Nature of Managerial Work, Henry Mintzberg identifies ten different roles that managers – from head nurses to principals to CEOs to superintendents – all play to varying extents.

I’ve you’ve been wondering why you have to deal with so much other than instructional leadership, take a look at Mintzberg’s list of managerial roles:

  • Figurehead
  • Liaison
  • Leader
  • Monitor
  • Disseminator
  • Spokesman
  • Entrepreneur
  • Disturbance Handler
  • Resource Allocator
  • Negotiator

As you read the word “manager,” I bet you have a somewhat negative reaction. Why don’t we like to be seen as managers?

I think the reason is that “manager” implies maintaining the status quo, whereas “leadership” implies leading change.

Indeed, this is at the heart of the definition of instructional leadership from the research literature. A recent Wallace Foundation study defines instructional leadership as:

intentional efforts at all levels of an educational system to guide, direct, or support teachers as they seek to increase their repertoire of skills, gain professional knowledge, and ultimately improve their students’ success. We thus subsume within this term much more than conventional images of instructional leadership that concentrate on individuals providing assistance or guidance to teachers, as in the school principal or literacy coach engaged in what amounts to “instructional coaching” or “clinical supervision.” Rather, we are concerned about the full range of activities, carried out by various educators, that offer teachers ideas, assistance, or moral support specifically directed at instruction and that urge or even compel teachers to try to improve. We further assume that instructional leadership is inherently distributed among different staff in the school building and across levels of the system—that is, more than one kind of individual or unit are influencing teachers’ work, whether or not they recognize and coordinate their respective efforts.

So there you have it. Our roles are broader than instructional leadership, and instructional leadership is distributed among many different people, not just the principal. We’ll explore these themes more in upcoming articles.

How did you react to the description of instructional leadership above, and the list of Mintzberg’s managerial roles?

A/B Testing: Finding the Best Option

Today I read a quantitative study of class-size effects, conducted in Tennessee around 1990. This study (Finn & Achilles, 1990) randomly assigned teachers and students to one of three conditions – small class size, regular class size, or regular class size with aide.

The findings are interesting, but I’d like to point out something unusual about this piece of research: it actually compared different policy options in real school settings to see which was better.

It’s remarkable how rare this type of experimentation is in education. Perhaps it’s the ethical difficulties, which are numerous.

Freeway Choices on Flickr

First, we must do no harm to students in conducting research. Second, if it turns out that one option is superior to the other, how do we make it up to the students who received the inferior treatment? Or, at the very least, how do we justify to parents and other stakeholders that the research did no harm?

The Huffington Post uses A/B testing to see which of two headlines gets more clicks. After a few minutes of testing, the superior headline is declared the winner, and is the only one used from that point forward.

How much improvement could we see in education if we were able to regularly employ this type of “which is better?” experimentation?

Photo by Flickr user Sacks08

Quote of the Day: PLCs & Research

There is no lack of research for those who seek to promote discussion of effective teaching. The issue is whether or not educators are prepared to accept their responsibilities to work together to become proficient consumers of that research. A professional learning community will fulfill that responsibility by ensuring that frequent and focused discussions on teaching and learning are the standard practice in its school.

DuFour & Eaker, Professional Learning Communities at Work, p. 226

Professional Learning Communities at Work

The Neuroscience of Leadership

A colleague pointed me to this article on organizational change and brain science, entitled “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by a business coach and a psychologist, so I thought I’d share some of its implications for educational leaders.

article illustration - the neuroscience of leadershipThe authors summarize new brain research, conducted using technologies such as fMRI, and conclude that behaviorism, humanism, and other traditional means of bringing about change in others or in organizations simply don’t work. Instead, they point to focus, expectations, and attention as keys to forming new neural pathways and, ultimately, to creating lasting change.

In order to learn a new behavior or a new way of thinking, we must through repetition and attention repeat the behavior or use the new way of thinking until it is ingrained in our neural pathways, the connections between our brain cells that constitute memory.

Of course, it’s easy to envision this process for learning a sport or a language; it’s harder to see the practical application in areas as complex as organizational improvement and changing the way a group works together. As groups work together, people will from time to time come to great insights, and leaders must capitalize on these insights by returning people’s attention to them again and again, focusing attention on the question of how these insights can improve the work at hand.

In short, educational leaders should

focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights.

You can read, print, or save the article here.

Disciplinary Alternative Programs Used for Nonviolent Offenses, Study Finds

A study by Texas Appleseed, a “non-profit, public interest law organization,” reports that many students are being sent to alternative schools for minor, nonviolent infractions. The report, entitled Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Dropouts: Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline, asserts that zero-tolerance policies are inappropriately funneling students into alternative programs, which have a dropout rate five times that of a traditional school.

As the report’s title indicates, there is a strong correlation between being sent to an alternative school for disciplinary reasons and being sent to prison. However, school administrators have significant discretion in sending students with nonviolent behaviors to these programs. As the following chart shows, the majority of Disciplinary Educational Alternative Program (DAEP) referrals are for nonviolent offenses:

graph showing that vast majority of referrals are for discretionary, nonviolent offenses

According to the Houston Chronicle, referrals to DAEPs disproportionately affect students of color and students in special education programs. In some districts such as Pasadena (a suburb of Houston), students in kindergarten or first grade are sent to alternative placements:

Suburban districts tend to be the most the most punitive, said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed legal director.

Of these, the Pasadena Independent School District was one of the harshest.

It is the only district in Texas to appear on the report’s Top 10 districts with the highest alternative school referral rates each of the last five years. Houston-area school districts that made multiple Top 10 appearances in the past five years also include Galveston (twice), Spring Branch (twice) and Katy (three times).

“These numbers indicate that it is not the behavior that determines whether a student is referred to a (district alternative education program),” the report’s authors wrote. But rather, “it is, in large part, the district where the child goes to school.”

Other districts were spotlighted for sending black or special education students to alternative schools for nonviolent, noncriminal offenses at at least twice the rate of other students for the past five years. They include Humble, Klein, Katy, Pearland, Tomball, Goose Creek, College Station, Bryan and Huntsville. link

While clearly this is an embarrassment for the districts named in the Chronicle article, there are several implications for school leaders:

  • We must do whatever we can to reduce racial and socioeconomic disproportionality in discipline referrals
  • We need to create schools where students are set up for success and safety, not assume that kids will need to be sent to alternative schools
  • We need to create systems and structures to promote positive behavior, not just systems for punishing negative behavior efficiently
  • For the small number of children who cannot be successful or safe in a regular school environment, we need to create alternative schools where students can become successful, not take the next step down the path to prison

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Self-Discipline vs. Intelligence as a Predictor of School Success

ASCD reports on a study that may indicate that self-discipline is a stronger indicator of school success than IQ. The ResearchBrief summarizes a study focusing on 8th graders in a magnet school in the Northeast. The ResearchBrief lists both implications of the study and caveats that should be taken into consideration.

Today’s SmartBrief introduces the article by saying “Some research suggests that students who are highly self-disciplined may be able to better focus on long-term goals and make better choices related to academic engagement.” But the study measured self-discipline by giving a questionnaire to students, teachers, and parents. When using a questionnaire and measuring something as nebulous as self-discipline, it is likely that measuring self-discipline is simply another way of measuring school success. Inasmuch as the factors leading to school success are well-known among students, teachers, and parents, it is meaningless to say that better students have these characteristics. Of course they do, and everyone knows it.

The study is also based on a single school, a magnet school with selective admission practices. The representativeness of this population is not established in the review, though this is pointed out in the caveats section.

This leads to crucial questions regarding summaries of research intended for educators:

  • When is it misleading to summarize a study?
  • Do people hear the caveats appended to research as clearly as they here the apparently dramatic findings?
  • Do people really understand the principle that correlation does not equal causation?

Educators are pressed for time, and research of this type is not intended for a broad audience of classroom teachers and school administrators. However, it is critical that all educators understand how research is done, so they are able to determine the implications and significance of a study like this one. Otherwise, statements like “Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents,” the title of the original study, will be accepted as un-nuanced gospel.

Risk Factors and Resiliency

Dr. Rico Catalano of the Social Development Research Group was a guest speaker today in a master’s class at UW. He gave a presentation on resiliency, risk factors, and support programs to reduce the risk of drug use, delinquency, and school dropout.

The presentation he gave can be viewed in its entirety here. One of the most important insights he shared was that not all support programs are effective, despite their popularity. For example, some anti-drug programs actually increase students’ likelihood of trying drugs, because the program raises students’ awareness and piques their interest in drugs, without effectively reducing risk factors. Dr. Catalano described how his research group uses longitudinal studies and meta-analyses to determine if a program is effective.