Educational Leadership Crisis

Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

CRISIS – “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs
in which decisive change is impending”

Miriam Webster Dictionary

A headline in yesterday’s newspaper read:

The article quotes NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter who says; “… it’s clear that New Zealand has an imminent problem with a shortage of school leadership. Even new leaders in the profession are facing burn out and ultimately, it’s the children who will suffer if we can’t attract people to the role and retain them.“

I was particularly captured by the use of the word ‘crisis’, not so much in the headline as that’s the sort of thing you expect from a media release – but in the title of the summit itself. From my experience the government, MoE and education agencies generally avoid using the term ‘crisis’ because of the inevitable door it opens for criticism, blame and fear mongering among those who have an axe to grind or who are seeking to promote their own agendas. Given the Miriam Dictionary definition at the head of this post however, I think that the word may perhaps be appropriately used here.

Which brings me then to the purpose of the gathering held in Wellington that is referred to in the newspaper article. In my Twitter feed I noted the following from a principal travelling to attend the event:

The principal appears optimistic about what may be achieved at the event. He notes that “we have admired the problem, talked the problem, worked around the problem...” before calling for concrete solutions – not surprising in a crisis situation.

I think a large number of people would agree. We have spent a lot of time debating, future-gazing, analysing etc., but all too frequently, fail to identify any actions of a significant or strategic nature that are actually actionable or followed through (another sign of failing leadership).

So what are the chances of this event achieving anything different? I guess I’m not as optimistic as my principal colleague. I’m not saying this simply to be cynical, rather, it’s my observation borne out of a number of years of experience both in participating in problem-solving and strategic fore-sight events and in facilitating them.

To clarify, here’s what I’m thinking…

  1. There is indeed an education leadership crisis – and it exists across all levels of the system, from the offices of the Ministry of Education down to the principals in schools and even further, to the teachers-as-leaders in classrooms. Successive decades of a neo-liberal approach to how our system operates has seen significant emphasis on accountability based on assumptions about the intrinsic leadership capability of those appointed to leadership roles.

    This has created a climate of competition, blame and punishment for underperformance, when what is desirable is a positive focus on building, nurturing and sustaining the qualities of good leadership in our leaders. In other words, if we want good leadership we must be focused on what that looks like and invest in what’s required to achieve that.

  2. The problem is ill-defined. – One of the things that makes me wonder how effective this event will be over others that have been held in the past is the impression gained from reading through everything available to me (and remember, I didn’t attend or receive and invitation to attend which may have had further information available). All of the material I see, including on the NZEI website, focuses on the identification of solutions to be put in place. According the survey of principals quoted, these involve the provision of more teaching staff, more management staffing, and increased access to specialists for children with additional needs. What I don’t see is a deep analysis of the issues, concerns and problems that can then be approached in a more strategic and disciplined way.

    This sort of approach is exactly what leads to inaction. We’ve all experienced it. It can feel great, at the time, to be able to give voice to the frustrations we are feeling, and even better when in an environment where we hear others saying similar things to us, and better still, when someone with positional leadership (in this case the Minister of Education) is there to share in the conversation. But as valuable as that may be, it is a classic case of the ‘externalisation‘ of the problem. By that I mean we project onto ‘them’ the things we feel need to happen, and, having voiced our concerns, leave the meeting feeling it’s now ‘their’ responsibility to get on and use what we’ve told ‘them’ to fix it.

  3. The answers lie within – always. – in a recent blog post I referred to the concept of ‘clarity’ as a foundational attribute for an effective, transformative leader. I referenced the work of Shawn Ginwright who I met earlier this year in the US, and whose work has significantly impacted my perspective on the personal qualities required of each of us as leaders. Dr Ginwright coined the term ‘mirror work’ to describe a commitment to self-reflection and truth telling (to ourselves) about ourselves and our performance.

    Clarity comes when we shed all of the barriers, confusion, distractions, indulgences and excuses that get in the way of what we really want. Without this clarity we struggle in a cloud of confusion, distraction and ambiguity. We end up feeling overwhelmed and delay important decisions and procrastinate on tasks. We fail to recognise that we, and the systems, traditions and expectations we hold so tightly to, may actually be a key part of the problem that we are busy externalising for others to take responsibility for.

    My point here is that no matter how well intentioned the gathering of affected people might be, it can only really serve as a forum for expressing concerns and sharing grievances. Without the mirror work and personal clarity described by Ginwright, it’s unlikely there’ll be any ownership of the fact that a part of the problem exists in the room.

  4. It’s difficult to lead if you don’t know why! – Clarity is tied also to our sense of purpose. When we are unclear and vague, we can simply cannot practice transformative leadership because we lose sight of our destination. This is compounded when that sense of purpose is something that is missing from our corporate understanding. I see this as a particular issue in our education system today. After years of reform efforts and the introduction of different regimes or point solutions, I’d argue that we’ve lost sight of the purpose we have for our education system.

    If you asked any group of educators to explain what the purpose (i.e. our ‘why’, our aspiration) of the NZ education system is I’d wager you’d get as many different answers as there are people you asked. This could be difficult if they were all from one school. There are many schools that have done an excellent job of defining their ‘why’ and regularly referencing this with staff and the community – but there’s no real evidence of a common sense of purpose for the whole of our system.

    I realise now that there’ll be a number of people who will defensively point me to statements that exist on different websites – but of that’s the case, why do so many educators struggle to recall these, and why don’t we see our system leaders more regularly in the media inspiring us to work together towards these aspirational goals?

  5. We lack change literacy – Simply put, we don’t understand how to lead change, or even how to lead in a time of change. in a conversation with a colleague this afternoon we were discussing the qualities of principalship, and what is required to operate effectively as an education leader in today’s world. My response was change literacy (to add yet another term to our lexicon of educational jargon). My reason for this is that we live in a VUCA world, where change is the constant and the idea of achieving again the ‘stable state‘ is simply not possible.

    In education we’re constantly bombarded with change, usually imposed change, change that we’re expected to implement or take responsibility for – be it change in curriculum, health and safety demands, roll growth, change in pedagogical practices for literacy etc. We all assume that those who are mandating the have a valid reason for it, and that it will produce the anticipated results – eventually in terms of outcomes for learners as they are or should be at the peak of our education value chain.

    Too often we end up implementing point solutions in response to the problems we face (such as those identified by the NZEI principals above) and while not arguing the merit of these as possible solutions, we fail to understand or align these things with a theory of change that has been developed to demonstrate the causal links (or intervention logic) between the particular intervention (or ‘solution’) and our overall goals for our education system.

Not sure. if this is helpful or clarifying, but it’s certainly been a useful exercise teasing out what I’m thinking. It’s not meant to disrespect any of those who are putting in tireless hours to support their colleagues, or to those who have given up a day to address the concerns they share – I only hope that somewhere in the mix there is the will, the expertise and the commitment to address some (all?) of the things I’ve reflected on here to help us move from a position of suggesting solutions to a where we might achieve a truly transformative set of actions that will genuinely change how we work as a system, how we serve those learners in our schools and classrooms and ultimately, how all of this will contribute to a equitable and thriving future for Aotearoa/New Zealand. You can count me in on that!

2 thoughts on “Educational Leadership Crisis

  1. Derek
    In response you your post on the DisruptEd Fb page I mentioned that I was in the middle of framing a think piece about leadership… in particular I was thinking about the issue of transformational vs transactional leadership within the context of ‘situational leadership theory’. I wanted to coin the phrase ‘visionary leadership’ as necessary in our times, and some of the specific ‘practices’ necessary to make that happen.

    This and your previous post have basically said what I wanted to say, but in probably more eloquent words LOL

    Thanks for saving me the trouble.. I’ll leave your work to speak for both of us.


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