The Importance of Being ‘Urgent’

As I travel to dozens of international schools each year, I am always struck by the earnestness of everyone – the teachers, the leaders, the kids, the parents. EVERYONE is positively earnest and passionate – wanting to do the right thing, willing to put in hours and hours of thought and planning and attention to whatever are perceived to be the current RIGHT goals. So A+ on the EARNEST scale.
But I am UNSTRUCK by the plodding pace, that nothing is terribly urgent, that the PROCESS seems always to be as important – sometimes MORE important – than the actual outcome on student learning.

This is in part driven by two pervasive leadership myths that seem to permeate our international schools – and can cause serious learning damage or at least missed opportunities on the part of the school, to influence student learning.
Myth one: In your first year in your headship or principalship, don’t DO anything – just try and understand the culture of the school, the way things operate, get to know people. Just ‘gather data’, build relationships and perhaps by the second year you can actually begin to do your job.
While leadership gurus may come back at me and argue that this approach does work – my practical experience in international schools is that it is a major contributor to our often being ‘behind the curve’ rather than leading the way. When the typical leader is in a school for 4-5 years, one year is a significant loss.

Myth two: Once you DO begin to act, don’t do too much too fast. After all people can only handle so much change….we would not want to overwhelm the paid professionals whose one and only job is to get the kids in their charge to learn. Well that’s just perfect. So we have 20% of kids in grade 6 who cannot write to standard (or worse yet we don’t even KNOW what they can do)…but that’s ok, we’ll go at the pace of the teachers or at least the leaders’ perception of that pace. We’ll just tell those kids parents that next year, grade six will be great – too bad your kid will be in grade 7. Great strategy.

And by the way, what qualifies as ‘change’ that we must carefully plan for is just about anything that is even minimally different than the way we did it last year. So remarkable that we sit around in curriculum sessions discussing how important it is to teach kids that they will need to be adaptable and flexible if they are going to make it as productive adults, yet we have to make a two year plan to get to the notion of something as obvious as differentiated homework into routine practice. I’m guessing there is maybe a double standard somewhere in there?

‘Urgent’ is not the opposite of earnest- but they do seem to be in a less than productive competition. I vote for at least TRYING urgent wherever learning might be the loser.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Being ‘Urgent’”

  1. Two issues I would attach here before a rookie principal reads this and seals his/her fate as a 3-years-and-out admin. 1. Take a moment to breathe and prioritize. You may walk into a school and see absolutely nothing going right at all for student learning. Be patient; there’s good stuff happening somewhere. Go find it first. Then, prioritize according to the needs of the learners. No “support student learning” is not a good priority, because it’s too complex and nebulous to measure growth unlike “increase learner feedback in a timely manner.” Break down priorities into steps and communicate clearly and openly where the steps are going. Give your school a vision of the fruits if we are successful. Give people the joy of the job. 2. Teachers are not enemies. They should never be. They are your team and the ones at the front lines in the instruction of the students you claim to support. Include them in your decision-making yet let them know you’re the one making the decision. Never give yourself the privilege of hating a teacher or child if you are admin, because that’s like a captain hating his ship and running it full throttle just to punish it for being slow. Both you and your ship will be destroyed in the end. Work with your team on initiatives that are easy. Isolate and only work on one initiative if it is difficult. This shows that you are serious about it.

    Reading this article reminded me of the myth of Balaam and his donkey. If your donkey keeps stopping in the way you want to go, stop beating up the donkey. It might see something you don’t, and in the end it might be protecting you from self destruction. That isn’t to say that donkeys aren’t stubborn and bullheaded at times and need a bit more aggressive leadership. As a leader, be sensitive to the difference between stubborn resistance to change and resistance based unforeseen outcomes. If you can’t, you will never be a successful admin. You will bounce between schools until you either have to go home or get hired by an educational publisher.

  2. As we have all come to expect, Bambi is always right on. No whiners allowed. Our job is to teach kids, not make it a comfortable place for adults to work. There should be no hesitation or apologies for making changes when it benefits student learning!

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