Our Perspectives - Dr Linda Bendikson

The UACEL Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Linda Bendikson writes candidly about her views and offers a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges.  Occasionally, other faculty / team members contribute to this Newsletter is published four times a year.

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Applying relevant knowledge and skills - a core capability required of any leader - except in education?

Would you appoint a teacher to run a paper mill?  Or, an engineer to be your defence lawyer?  I think most would agree that those decisions would be a folly because neither the teacher nor the engineer is likely to have the requisite knowledge and skill base to do the jobs we are talking about here. 

Why is it then, so often in education we do not give the same value to educational knowledge and skills?  One obvious example is when leaders are appointed at system level to influential positions, yet have no educational background, and consequently, they lack the necessary knowledge and skills to make informed decisions.  I am not arguing that it is always a shortcoming to be making educational decisions without an educational background. One example that comes to mind was a brilliant engineer who worked in the Ministry of Education years ago and led a focus on data-use that had been largely missing till that time.  So he did have relevant knowledge that allowed him to make an important impact.  But rather, I am arguing that it is unfair to put people in positions that they do not have the knowledge and skill base to successfully fulfil. Another example, is when schools appoint appraisers to teachers without the appropriate knowledge.  In my view, it is not enough to have a tick-list of ‘quality teaching’ behaviours – the appraiser needs to know whether the content being taught is appropriate and effectively taught.  So, for instance, I question whether a primary school leader who has only taught senior students is well equipped to appraise someone teaching new entrants if they are not knowledgeable about early reading themselves, or, a secondary school leader with an arts background is equipped to appraise a maths teacher.  In both of these cases, the appraiser could potentially do harm when attempting to provide feedback through ignorance of the nuances of the subject area being taught.   Put simply, the leader needs the relevant knowledge and skills to add value.

Without the right knowledge and skills, the person appointed to a leadership position is put in an invidious position:  They lack credibility in the eyes of the people they are supposed to lead, and in turn, that impacts negatively on the level of trust and morale within an organisation, and, importantly, the effectiveness of the organisation.

A major risk at the moment in New Zealand education is that the time and money being put into the “Investing in Educational Success” programme will, ultimately, be yet another ineffective intervention layered upon others.  A core risk with the Executive Principal position (now, being called by the ungainly working title Community of Schools Leadership Role) is that an assumption appears to be, that because a principal is a strong and effective leader in their own school, that they will necessarily be a strong and effective leader of a ‘community of schools’ if they can tick the box on some standards.

It is heartening to see some shifts in this policy (or possibly they are just clarifications about the original intention of the policy) such as involvement in the so-called communities not being compulsory.   This move in itself may lead groups of principals who already trust each other to work together which will increase the likeliness of effectiveness.   But deep consideration needs to be given to the knowledge and skill set required for this Executive Principal role.

Along with others, I have been involved over the last 18 months as a facilitator for Learning and Change Networks (LCN) – which this ‘community of schools’ approach appears to be emulating.  It was (and is) a very challenging role to support a group of principals to truly analyse causation of educational underachievement, plan across a group of schools (many schools struggle to effectively plan for their own school), implement a plan, and track outcomes so that effectiveness can be evaluated.  The skills and knowledge for this role can be learnt, but it should not be assumed that people can just ‘do this’ or that it will be easy for a few talented leaders to learn to do it.

Some matters requiring consideration are:

  • Executive Principals are likely to be driven by their value on collegiality (I think that is inherent in the dreadful new working title for the position), which may prevent them from being effective leaders and challengers of their colleagues – and this role is one that demands high standards and the ability to challenge – not just support.

  • Procedures and scaffolds will be required if these groups are to be more than talkfests.  We developed some of these through experience in the LCN work making later networks more effective (in my experience) than earlier ones.  The practical tools to support this work need great consideration and should not be left as an ad hoc feature if accountability for effectiveness is to be shared by both the system and the schools – as I believe it should be.

  • A different skill set is required to lead an already effective school as compared to a school that has a lot of room to improve.  The assumption should not be made, that because a principal currently leads an effective school, they know how to get improvement across a group of schools.

If these Executive Principal positions are to be effective, the skills and knowledge required to do this well should not be underestimated.  Applying relevant knowledge is a core capability that all leaders need in their positions – and educational leaders need this capability as much as the paper mill leader or the lawyer in a courthouse.  I believe these new roles could be invaluable, but they will be highly challenging to carry out effectively; the challenges inherent in facilitating group improvement should not be underestimated.   If these positions are to be effective, the leaders will need a different set of knowledge and skills to those that have made them successful to date.  That needs to be a purposeful agenda – not left to chance.

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