Breaking down the ‘Admin’ problem in our schools

How many times have you seen problems schools where teachers say something like, “the ‘Admin’ need to do something about that,” or, “that’s the fault of the ‘Admin'”?

Too often and conveniently so, teachers are quick to use the term ‘Admin’, which is not particularly helpful in solving problems and can have a detrimental impact on school culture.

‘Admin’ is a general term often applied to a school’s leadership team, or is it? When we hear the term ‘Admin’ used in the context of the schools we work in, who or what are people referring to? When individuals in a school refer to the ‘Admin’, do they all mean the same thing?

Considering the above questions, there is no universally recognized definition. In some schools, the senior leadership team are often referred to as the ‘Admin’, whilst in others the use of the term may incorporate the support staff offices and other operational leaders in the school. Even the head of school, or the divisional principal, may be referred to singularly as, ‘The Admin’.

Generalizations, when it comes to raising problems, or for that matter, pointing the finger, when things are not going well are not particularly helpful.

As school leaders, we are charged with the responsibility of addressing the language used in our school buildings, both defining it and breaking it down, so that language is used positively to build school culture and generate school improvement rather than have language work against it.

The task for us leaders is, therefore, to challenge the labeling of a problem and general complaints that are made that have no specificity. When problems are aired they need to be done so in a supportive way. Restraint is required to reduce the incorrect assumptions that are commonly made and compassionate interaction exercised in the building of a school culture where problems are addressed together.

Turning off distractions, being more focused and getting your momentum back

Being a productive and effective school leader requires a positive mindset and the motivation to do our very best each day.

I found that over the last 12 months that the mood I was bringing to school each day varied significantly. It was not that I had got bored with my work, quite the contrary; I love my school and being involved in education. I noticed that my mood around my family would also be up and down. Most importantly, I was not happy with myself, I felt distracted and unfocused, more down than up.

I have reflected a lot lately on the use of my mobile phone, engagement with social media and my consumption of news media in its various forms. In doing so, I came to the conclusion that all three of these things were having a negative effect on both my health and my mindset.

The phone was giving me proximity to social and news media and I noticed that I was was getting my ‘fix’ of both far too regularly, so much so that my ability to concentrate for long periods was coming under attack. This wonderful, all in one, device, had entered most rooms in my apartment. As my alarm clock, it had entered my bedroom. Upon waking up each morning, I would check a few of the news apps eager to hear of another political scandal or find some other distressing story that made me feel bad about the world we live in.

Moreover, I would get depressed by news stories that make me feel that leadership, to a certain extent, appears to have become morally bankrupt. I would take this with me to school and around my home, with the problems of the world, most of which I cannot control, weighing on my mind.

My phone had also become this great source of procrastination, disconnecting me from the things that I was truly passionate about such as exercising, completing meaningful tasks at work and family time. I would get frustrated and further distressed by how my checking of my phone or browsing of the Internet lead to me losing key opportunities to really engage with what I am passionate about. This stress this created was unnecessary and, more importantly, I could control it with some application and effort.

Being on social media began to bother me. Friends and colleagues who seemed to be ever-present online began to annoy me and I began to feel that so many posts are just a meaningless distraction. While social media has given so many a voice, the way in which some communicate our disagreements, for me, has become both disturbing and upsetting. Being tagged in posts and the thirst to take another ‘hit’ from a notification would beg me to stay online to the point where I felt that all messages from WhatsApp and WeChat has become an intrusion, especially when I wanted and needed time alone with my own thoughts, or when I needed to spend that time enjoying the company of family, friends and colleagues.

Putting it simply, I had been wasting my time and somewhat lost my motivation and focus. My ‘burden of distraction‘ had crossed some critical threshold where I was really unhappy. I needed to gain momentum again in the things that make me happy and able to do the important things in life to the best of my ability.

So, it has been ‘notifications off’, phone only allowed at particular times and in certain locations. No more Facebook, Twitter only for work and use Buffer to schedule posts. No consumption of news media until after 11am, with the exceptions of the weekend’s football results! Even the tracking of a game score is being resisted. Have I perfected this yet? Definitely not but I am getting there.

I am now several weeks into this routine and it is hard. The amount of discipline and restraint needed to stay away is significant. There have been benefits, however, in that I am exercising more, eating better plus the news is not affecting my mood so much. I am more focused at work and able to set aside time to concentrate on tasks for long periods, be ‘actually present’ in conversations and, importantly, laugh and enjoy life more. The benefits are such that I will keep persevering with this new routine that I wanted to share with others.

The use of our phones and our consumption of social and news media affects us all differently and this post is not meant to attack the beneficial aspects of all three but to outline that these things can harm many of us. Some of us are seeking to escape, to get our momentum back and feel grounded those things that we are truly passionate about. So, I hope this post helps.

Relationships matter, so beware of your leadership iceberg

School leadership is a tough business. Our colleagues can be harsh critics at times and greatly supportive at others. Over the years, I have worked with some wonderful people who have held various leadership positions in schools and each one was / is treated differently. Interestingly, I have seen some ineffective school leaders adored by a school community and other, more effective, school leaders derided and disliked. It is something that I have thought about for some time in reflecting upon the leader that I need to and want to be.

What is certain, is that for a long time, I have decided that my job as a leader is not to be liked or loved by everyone. There is no way that can happen if we are making purposeful and difficult decisions in the best interest of students and the school community. Not everyone will agree with our decisions and there will be times that, as a consequence, colleagues, parents and students may not be happy with us. That said, if we attempt to please everybody in attempt to be liked and loved, we are heading down a troubled path that will only create ineffective leadership for our schools, as we work in self-preservation.

As a result, I have considered charismatic leadership somewhat overrated, as I have found it to be somewhat superficial and lacking the substance of effective leadership. Reflecting on it recently, relationships really matter in providing effective leadership. Charismatic leadership sure helps, as long as the ‘talk’ is backed-up in the ‘walk’.

In reflecting on those leaders who I have considered to be very good operators and ‘get things done’ to move a school forward yet are not particularly liked, it has led me to consider an iceberg model of leadership. Many of these leaders made a hugely positive impact under the surface of the water, which their colleagues never got to see. On the surface, however, their ability to form positive working relationships with most, if not all, of their colleagues was lacking. Unfortunately, when the relational intelligence is not there, our colleagues can be very unforgiving indeed. This smaller, highly visible, part of our iceberg is often what leads to people making decisions about us as school leaders never mind how effective we might be at getting tasks completed that no-one sees.

Does this mean that leaders need to be more charismatic and seek to be liked? Absolutely not. Our interactions with others are, however, significant to garnering support to move our schools forward. As leaders we need to take an active interest in our colleagues beyond a work focused transaction to ensure that we get to know and understand those we lead.

So, beware of the impact of your iceberg.

photo credit: adam.nagel Jökulsárlón at Night via photopin (license)

Towards a ‘Slower Ed’ movement – when to move fast and when to move slow?

School leaders receive many suggestions from other leaders, teachers and support staff for what can be improved in their school. In some instances, people are taking action themselves, often on their own, as they try to ‘fix’ things and make our schools ‘better’. Invariably, despite so many good ideas, intentions and initiatives, schools are oftentimes in a state of change fatigue.

Yes, it is easy to understand that change is the only constant and we have to keep working to improve. That said, too much change can create a lot of collateral damage and when that happens the leader(s) of the school are to blame and they may also be left picking up the pieces of failed change initiatives that they did not start. Of course, school leaders themselves can make life difficult too by requesting too many things change and all at once.

Over the years I have seen both school leaders, teachers and support staff refer to the time management matrix that appears in Stephen Covey’s 7 habits for highly effective people.

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In meetings, large and small, our colleagues are telling us that we are spending too much time in the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant, yet ironically they cannot see that they place great urgency on their own requests for change. School leaders are, therefore, faced with a barrage of requests for change, many being presented as urgent. If the leader, draws a line and tells someone “No” or “Not now” to a request for change, then leaders can be seen to be stonewalling genuine good intentions to make things better.

The problem is that each individual making a request for change struggles to see a bigger picture in terms of what they are asking for. They do not see the multiple requests and the different tasks that have already been assigned. The school leader’s role is to balance the positive energy for change alongside what is reasonable to achieve without ‘losing’ teachers and support staff along the way to stress associated with workload issues.

It is a tough sell, saying no and trying to get people to see a bigger picture that needs to be one of sustainable improvement. Those wanting to push through their ideas are often being pushed a message of “pursue your goals and dreams” or, “if you want it badly enough, you will find a way to get it done.” Furthermore, we can all say that we should make this change and that change because “it is best for the students” and that “there is never a convenient time to change, so why not do it now?”

There’s a truth in this and we do need change in our schools but it does, to a certain extent, need to be carefully orchestrated. There need to be good systems in place when making change, so that we do not neglect the things we are already doing well and we do not lose good people along the way. To often, schools ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’, as a old colleague of mine once put it. Sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast, but that is just frustrating for some who crave instant reward and satisfaction. In the same vein that the slow tech movement is being promoted, we need to consider a ‘Slower Ed movement’.

This is the challenge for school leaders and it is not appreciated enough. Leadership teams in schools have to join together in striking a better balance. Move too fast, we can tip people over the edge and not recover. Move too slow, we may miss an opportunity. How we convey that message to those in our school community and have it understood by all requires a strength of leadership and resilience in getting our leaders, teachers and support staff to value and understand both sides of the equation. As we already know, if everything is considered urgent and a priority, then nothing really is.



4 ways to lead school improvement with and through others

Understanding our role and responsibilities as leaders in schools is better understood by examining the way relationships change in the building as one moves up the leadership ladder.

When we begin teaching, our main interactions, on a day-to-day basis, are with students. As we take on leadership roles within the school, direct contact time with students is often reduced in order for there to be time for us to carry out our leadership duties. In most instances, this means spending more time in conversations with teams of teachers. As educators move into senior leadership positions, there is even less direct contact time with the students and working relationships are more focused on teachers and support staff. In order to influence change and improvement in the classroom, senior leaders have to work through these teaching teams and support staff. In a sense, change and improvement for students occurs indirectly because school leaders are reliant on their teachers and support staff to effect change.

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In some schools, teachers are promoted into leadership positions because they are excellent teachers and leaders of students. Interestingly, being able to effectively lead students does not mean that a teacher will be a good leader of adults. Indeed, many have opted out of leadership positions in their schools because leading adults is difficult and demanding. When we lead adults both personal and professional relationships come into play and managing both in challenging circumstances is difficult for many to achieve.

Rather than working with and though others, many school leaders try to effect change in their schools by trying to do all the work. Such leaders are often referred to as ‘Hero Leaders’. This type of leader wants to directly influence the changes that the school needs to move forward. Hero leaders have the mindset that: ‘if the job is to get done properly, then it is better to do it myself’. In doing so, they become relied on too much by others for getting things done, they are often too stressed and susceptible to burn out. Hero Leaders fight tooth and nail to remain involved with teaching and learning in a direct way, as they cannot let go and empower other leaders and teachers to do the necessary work at the chalkface. When Hero Leaders are away from the school building, things fall apart without them. A good as the Hero Leader may be, it is hardly the best way for a school to bring about sustainable improvement.

Good leadership at the senior management level involves the indirect leadership of students. The leadership comes from working with and through the teachers and support staff in the building to make the desired change, rather than having to go do it yourself. To do this effectively, significant time must be invested by the school leader(s) in the teams and people that need to directly influence student learning.

This type of leadership means more indirect leadership of students and more direct leadership of adults. To do this successfully school leaders need to do the following four things:

  1. Collaboratively set improvement goals and parameters within which to operate in achieving the goals, so that there is a clear direction and focused work.
  2. Hold weekly meetings with the teams / specific people you work with and through. These meetings should focus on progress being made towards improvement goals. They should be problem focused, in that the senior leader’s purpose for the meeting is not just to be informed but, more importantly, to also offer support and guidance. These meetings should also provide coaching and feedback that instills confidence in others to lead without being micromanaged.
  3. Empower others to lead and make the change. Trust in others to get the job done and avoid interfering. Things may not get done in exactly the same way that we might like it done but those we work with are not clones of us and nor should they be – allow for difference. Observe meetings and give feedback to others afterwards and away from the meeting table.
  4. Celebrate the progress that is being made and acknowledge the role that others play in making improvements. After all, leadership is not about you, it is about others.

As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook states: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

Decision-making in schools requires being in touch with your community

Media attention in Australia recently focused on the actions of the school leadership in an exclusive private boys’ school in Melbourne. Reading the reports with some interest, there is a key takeaway from this event and that is, a school’s leadership team need to be in touch with the community when decisions are made.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the actions of the deputy head towards the student in the article and how the problem could have been avoided in the first place, or the rules that some private schools maintain to this day, the school’s leadership failed to see how their decision would be received, bringing unnecessary attention on the school.

The reaction that came with the decision, probably, was down to two factors:

  • The affection the community has for the Deputy Head
  • The motive for the removal of the Deputy Head

The latter reason is particularly important, as leaders need to be transparent with their decision-making to forge trust with the community. In essence, the school community felt that the dismissal of the Deputy Head was an opportunity for the Board and Head of School to change direction and in doing so, used this incident as leverage.

When decisions are made this way, leaders cannot expect there to be no reaction. The school leadership were unable to find a way to change direction with the current Deputy Head in place and showed no compassionate interaction in the way they dealt with the situation and his dismissal.

Our role as leaders, if we need to change direction, with the current personnel, is to work with them through conversation over a lengthy period of time and gather the support of others’ to this change in an open and honest way. We need to provide opportunity for a change in ways and not necessarily expect it instantly; cultures take time to shift.

Schools often promote their values to their community and significant deviation from these values will be met with massive resistance and cynicism in that the school is not true to its word.

Obviously, we cannot dig beneath the surface to really know what happened but one thing is for sure: The Board and the Headmaster had not tested the temperature of the water before they put their foot in it.

Such situations can easily be avoided.





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