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Curmudgucation: The Importance of School Administrators

School administration jobs suck. Principals and superintendents have are responsible for everything and accountable to everybody while having little actual power. It's an aspect of the charter revolution is understandable--let's give the school CEO all the power and make him accountable to nobody--even if it is wrong.

But as little power as administrators seem to have, they still serve a critical function. Witness Jay Mathews' look (at the Washington Post) into Karin Chenoweth's new book Districts That Succeed. 

When she asked the teachers how long it would take for a bad principal to tear the school apart, she expected them to say they wouldn’t let that happen.

Instead, they frowned in despair and said about 20 minutes.

That sounds about right. It takes you one staff meeting to know that you've got a boss who's going to break things. 

Bad administrators implement their badness in a variety of ways, but they are all bad for the same fundamental reason--they have forgotten the actual purpose of their jobs. (Here's a Bad Administrator Field Guide)

If a school's job is to educate students, and that actual work is done by teachers, then an administrator's job is to make it possible for each teacher to do her best possible job of educating students.

All administrative duties are best understood through this lens. All that state and federal paperwork and reporting? Administrators handle that so that teachers can focus on teaching. Should an administrator be a visible and respected member of the community in which the school is located? Absolutely--so that the administrator is better positioned to advocate for the teachers and the school. Why does an administrator handle disciplinary issues? So that teachers can teach. Why do administrators make sure the school has a smoothly running schedule and program? So that teachers can teach. Why do administrators do observations of teachers? To help them do a better job of teaching.

Administration offices are often besieged. It is easy for busy, overworked administrators to start imagining that what goes on in their office suite is the "real" work of the district. But as soon as they start to think that way, the wheels start to come off. 

As Chenoweth's interviewees suggest, it is easy for district administration to kill a program, to poison a school culture. There's another step on the road to hell, when administrators move past the "we're doing the real work here and all this stuff is just getting in our way" and move on to the idea that the key to doing their job is not to empower teachers, but to strip power from them. 

This never ends well, ever (and that's why the charter visionary autocratic CEO model is a huge mistake). The country is littered with faux committees, convened to come up with the administrator's pre-selected idea. Uncountable PLC programs have been started and killed by administrators who were unwilling to let teachers have even a little power. Thousands of teachers do their best work in spite of their boss rather than because of him. 

When the weather gets really rough, the badly administered schools careen into the weeds. The most critical factor needed to get schools through the pandemic break was trust--trust between staff and administrators, school and parents--and many districts failed. 

Now we have new storm clouds whipping up around "critical race theory." Multiple states have passed vague, unclear laws even as real and faux parent groups come loudly demanding that the school stop doing, well, something. One of the big dangers of this uproar is that the lack of clarity in the laws is going to prompt a bunch of administrators to freak out and try to shut down anything that might possibly attract trouble. "I can't sort all this out. I'm not sure what the law says and I don't want a mob of parents in my office, so as of this school year, just don't teach anything about race in your classroom, ever." Or nuisance rules like "Every single lesson you have mentioning race must be reviewed by my office before you teach it." 

When the education weather gets rough, it's an administrator's job to be a strong shelter, to make sure that teachers stay warm and dry so they can do their jobs. We're in the middle of a storm; here's hoping that your administrators understand what they're supposed to do.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...