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Sink or Swim? Leadership's Real Deal

What they don't teach fledgling principals is a crying shame by Susan Clark

Sam wasn't a wimp. He told me he had served for four years in the Coast Guard tending a lighthouse and working search and rescue. He had taught a number of years and been very successful. He was in his first year as a building administrator, serving as assistant principal for discipline at a 500-student middle school in the rural Midwest.

When I asked him about his training in supervision of instruction, he told me he had been trained in two divergent models. One was the classic clinical supervision model, complete with the anecdotal record. The other was a more holistic model that included going back after the observation and getting more information from the teacher about where the lesson fit in the total instructional picture. Clearly, the man knew instruction.

"You can really do a lot to help the teachers here," I commented, as we walked toward a classroom. Stopping at the classroom door, he turned his sad brown eyes on me. For the first time, I noticed how tired he looked.

"Maybe," he replied, "if I can get into the classrooms. …" His voiced trailed off at the end of his words. He provided no explanation.

"What's the matter, Sam?" I asked.

"Discipline," he answered almost matter of factly. "I'm swamped all the time. I don't think I can get into the classrooms. Actually, I don't think I'll ever get to do what I need to be doing."

"What kinds of discipline problems?" I pressed. It was only September.

"Everything," he replied without emotion. "They're just all over the boards."

"Do you require the teachers to do a classroom management plan? Are you making them accountable for taking some action in the classroom before they send kids to you?"

"Well, yes. But if there is a fight or something, they can't wait to call a parent."

"That's true," I agreed. "But they need to be calling parents before things get that far."

"Let's look at some of your referrals. Maybe I can help you so you can get into the classrooms."

Untrained Need

When we entered his office, I literally could not see the top of his desk nor the table next to it. They were both covered with referrals. Looking first at the desk and then at me, Sam said, "See what I mean."

I picked up two of the referrals on the top of the pile. They were bus referrals for the same student- one for the morning and one for the afternoon. She had been throwing things out the window of the bus both times.

"Do you require the drivers to assign the students to a seat?"

"Yes."

"Do you have them give you a copy of the seating chart?"

"No, I hadn't thought about that," he said. "They don't teach you how to do this stuff in graduate school."

"I know," I answered sympathetically, "They really don't. Listen, you have to require these drivers to take some action. You can't do discipline for them on their buses. You need to have them develop some consequences and rewards. I wonder where this kid sits on the bus? Did the driver make her move to the front or make her empty her book bag prior to getting on or do anything before he referred the kid?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't know. But I see what you mean."

I picked up another referral. It was on a special education student. "How many times have you seen this kid this year?" I asked.

"Several. At least eight or nine."

"Sam, you need to call an IEP meeting and put this student on a behavior management plan that involves the teachers, his parents and his special education teacher. Even though we have to handle special education discipline differently, you can still make special ed kids and their parents accountable."

Bewildered, he said, "I didn't know I could do that. You mean I can require these special needs teachers to help me with their kids? I don't even know how to call an IEP meeting or what to do. The district isn't sending me to a school on special ed discipline until next month."

"Sam, talk to this kid's special needs teacher and tell her you want to schedule an IEP meeting to address his behavior. She will know how to do that for you. You have to design a system that makes all these people accountable for handling discipline. You can't do discipline for this whole school and all these bus drivers by yourself. It will wear you out and you are too good. We don't want to lose you before you even get started."

He sat back in his chair and looked at the floor. His bottom lip quivered and the tears started to roll down his cheeks. I moved my chair closer and took his hand.

"It's OK, Sam. I've been here. It is overwhelming."

In 30 seconds, he was sobbing. So I held his hand and cried with him as he sobbed for several minutes. Finally, he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes like a little child. Looking at me, he said through his sobs, "I want to do a good job, but I don't know what to do. They don't teach you what to do in school. I never knew it would be like this."

I squeezed his hand and looked him directly in the eyes. "It's OK, Sam. I'll help you."

Gaining Control

After he composed himself, we talked about some organizational strategies to help him get control of the discipline. These included:

* Requiring teachers to develop and follow classroom management plans and document what they had done with students prior to sending them to the office. These plans should include a parent contact early in the process.

* Implementing a peer mediation program to help prevent fights.

* Getting to know district juvenile officials and working with the district to develop a policy that would allow the principal or assistant principal to press charges, if necessary, for repeated fighting.

* Developing a schoolwide recognition program for positive behavior that would include the participation of all staff, bus drivers and the community.

"I've got to come up here Saturday to catch up on all this," Sam told me after we finished talking.

"No, you take Saturday to think about this from a systemic perspective. Think about how you want to get all this organized. These referrals aren't going anywhere and you don't want to struggle with this for the rest of your life. You need to get into the classroom where you can make a real difference." I promised to help him and I will.

Crying Times

I left him sitting at his desk with his hands folded, looking at the mountain of paper. It could have been a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting except that it wasn't very encouraging. In schools all across America we are throwing our beginning administrators into school leadership positions with the assumption they know what they need to know and virtually telling them, "Sink or swim."

And when they begin to sink, whom are they going to ask for help? They certainly can't sit in the offices of their superiors and cry. Their ability would immediately be questioned, not to mention their emotional stability. "Not man or woman enough to handle the job," we all too often think in our superiority.

But that isn't the case. Our beginning school leaders do have what it takes, but we are preparing them to do a job that became obsolete 30 years ago.

Those of us who are seasoned have lost sight ourselves of the servant side of our jobs. We fail to notice, fail to ask and, most of the time, fail to mentor. We are often too busy trying to get our time in so we can get out of our own pressure-cooker jobs. What legacy are we leaving in our wakes?

I would suggest it's time for us to stop passing the buck. The mantras of "It's not my job" or "I already have too much to do to teach someone else how to do his or her job" must be stopped. If those of us who know how to do the hard jobs in public schools are unwilling to coach those who follow us, then where else are they going to learn? They are not learning what they need to know in graduate school, and learning by trial and error in this age of accountability is too costly.

The jobs have become too complicated and fast paced for the untrained. They end up like Sam- totally overwhelmed and looking for other employment or they perform so poorly that students are cheated. Either is unacceptable.

The same can be said for most internship programs and leadership academies. District interns often become no more than untrained assistant principals and leadership academies are mostly conducted in a vacuum instead of giving administrators the kind of day-to-day hands-on practice and feedback they need to understand the complexities of the work.

On-Call Coaches

The answer lies in finding someone to coach these beginning administrators. Since most acting building-level principals already are overworked, superintendents should consider hiring other seasoned administrators looking for a change and a challenge as coaches for their beginning or struggling principals and assistant principals. Unlike traditional central-office supervisors, these coaches could be available on a daily basis to teach, mentor and advise beginning building-level administrators. Highly effective retired principals would probably welcome an opportunity to do this kind of work.

The first rule of change is and always has been that it must begin with the individual. If we really are expecting sustained change in public schools and improved student achievement as the result, then it is imperative that we begin by developing the leadership skills of our building-level administrators in an organized, intentional way. To fail in this endeavor and still expect different results is indeed administrative insanity.

Susan Clark serves as education improvement coordinator with the Southern Regional Education Board, 592 10th St., N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30318. E-mail: susan.clark@sreb.org