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Thursday, 19 July 2018

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School Leaders: What Type Are You?

By Denry Machin


School Leaders: What Type Are You?
“There are teachers that I have let go, not because they’re not good, they just don’t fit the context. I explain that it is clients who are paying your wages; some teachers don’t get it.”

It leaps out, doesn’t it? Clients. These are the words of a school Principal. Not a CEO, not a Bursar, not a Business Manager, but a Principal. Admittedly, he runs a fee-paying school, but the word “client” is still jarring.

Yet this type of language is echoing out of boardrooms, down corridors, and into classrooms. Like it or not, today’s school leaders are judged against more than just their “instructional leadership” qualities. The bottom line is that the bottom line matters.

This presents an uneasy paradox. School leaders—international school leaders especially—must balance the aims of educational and financial effectiveness. How does the born and bred educationalist cope in such an environment?

The response to this question was the focus of research interviews conducted with Principals of schools, both small and large, profit and not-for-profit, public and private. The result was a range of Principal “types.” You may recognize yourself (or your school’s Principal) amongst them.

The Teacher-Principal

Teacher-Principals identify as practitioners. Management demands are seen as functional requirements of the job, necessary but incidental. For this Principal, it is education that is emotionally fulfilling:

“I want to be in the classrooms, talking to the kids, talking to teachers—being out there, not in the office.”

The Principal-Teacher

Principal-Teachers see themselves slightly differently; the reversal of the nouns is significant. The Principal-Teacher understands that a Principal is not only a teacher but also Principal of the teachers (a manager). These Principals remain committed to education but recognize that leadership shifts them away from teaching and towards management. To an extent, they accept this, but they still want to be “one of them” —that is, a Principal, but a teacher too.

The Pragmatist-Broker

For the Pragmatist-Broker, being a Principal is about doing whatever it takes to support school improvement. They are willing to get “their hands dirty in the business stuff”; they see themselves as educationalists but accept that management thinking can offer pragmatic benefit. As one Principal put it:

“I am focused on the educational wellbeing of the young people in my care, but the business context provides a really excellent discipline for what I do.”

The Educational Manager

The Educational Manager goes one step further. Affinity with education remains, but these Principals embrace their management responsibilities:

“Without the business perspective, we are missing huge elements of a school’s potential. So, you really do need to blend the two. I bring that blend.”

For these Principals, management responsibilities are no longer incidental; they are managers of education—a subtle but significant shift.

The Educational Executive

The Educational Executive sees education and management as complimentary. For this Principal, effective management is just as important as effective education. Efficiency, productivity, accountability, and, in some contexts, profit, all matter. These Principals have come to see management (including non-educational tasks) as part of the job—an entirely natural, desirable, and welcomed part of leading a school.

Not one type, but many

Across the types, Principals queried sought a different balance between education and management. For some, management tasks were a functional need—part of the job, just distinct and separate from education. For others, the lines were blurred; management systems were accepted if useful in improving education. For a few, management thinking brought its own rewards; for these Principals, sometimes, being a manager matters as much as being an educationalist.

Importantly, the Teacher-Principals were just as successful as the Educational-Executives, they just related to management differently. Whatever the type, these interviews revealed that Principals can be both teachers and managers—they can enjoy spreadsheets, metrics, and data while still being passionate pedagogues. They can both present a set of accounts to the school board and sing in a school band… though perhaps not at the same time! As neatly summed up by one Principal:

“Knowing what is going on, and being comfortable in both worlds, strengthens my hand in all sorts of ways.”

These types reflect the changed and changing nature of international school leadership. If such a thing as a “pure educationalist” ever existed, then those days are long gone. Today’s Principals face both educational and management pressures. The types show how Principals manage both, while staying sane.

Maybe then, as well as being skilled instructional leaders, compassionate listeners, and steadying hands in turbulent times, international school leaders also need to cross-cut education and management. Words like “client” and “customer” may cause us to wince, but, like it or not, international education is now big business. It may be uncomfortable to sit on the fulcrum this change, but that is what Principalship demands. Successful Principals understand their relationship with education and with management; they are comfortable with whatever “type” they choose to embody.

>Denry Machin is an educational consultant and university lecturer specializing in school leadership and new school start-ups in Asia.

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05/14/2018 - JuJu
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