EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration. Check back frequently as we feature additional excerpts from Stenhouse titles.
The following excerpt comes from Leading and Learning: Effective School Leadership Through Reflective Storytelling and Inquiry, by Fred Steven Brill (Stenhouse Publishers, 2008). The book retails for around $21 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.
This excerpt looks at how letters, notes and written documents can create unintended conflict in the school environment. Read about how one new adminstrator’s experience with the power of a written document played itself out in her school.
Sometimes, uncovering the hidden themes and patterns in administrative narratives takes a very circuitous route. In my initial review of the literature on narrative analysis, I happened upon the work of Vladimir Propp (1958), who defined the common characters and themes found in Russian fairytales. He identified thirty-one formal and fundamental elements of a tale that appear in roughly the same sequence: a major challenge or villain emerges, the hero begins his quest, a struggle ensues, a magical object appears, the villain is defeated, and the hero is transformed. As is true in most story forms, the structure provides a frame that listeners expect—a common agreement about what makes a story exciting or complete.
I began to explore how such an analytical frame might highlight institutional norms and cultural expectations. As far as the magical object was concerned, I initially was quite skeptical: I had never heard a leadership narrative in which a magical object appeared. But when I expanded my definition of magical to include the notion of an object having power, I was quite surprised at what I found. One of the primary catalysts for anger and frustration, the object that became the tipping point of intense emotion, often came in the form of a letter, a note, or some kind of written document. Occasionally, new administrators understood that presenting a written document, such as a negative evaluation, would likely evoke some kind of intense reaction.
In numerous stories, the written document and the subsequent tempest of emotion caught the novice leader totally off guard. Leaders do not always consider that intentions can be easily misinterpreted when communicated through e-mails, written notes, or even formal letters. Laurie A. (September 2003), a new high school assistant principal, captured how a situation involving the power of a written document played itself out in her school as she assisted a colleague in working with families of truant students:
We have [an intern] working on attendance. She put together this list of the 30 most frequently truant kids… She brought in a letter and said… we need to send this letter to notify our parents. I looked at it and I just couldn’t send it. It was so badly written in addition to being unhelpful and threatening, etc… . I felt like I had to send it more or less that way, but I tweaked it… I sent it under my name, and that was a big mistake. Unsurprisingly, there were a few hysterical parents on the phone talking about how it was threatening, and how it was trying to get them in trouble for problems that their kids were having… kids with attendance problems often have really complicated things going on in their lives. But for some reason, when this letter was put in front of me, I thought, oh yeah, “bad kids.” Read this; do this. And I’m just really frustrated that I couldn’t connect those two pieces of knowledge in any useful way without having to make this really stupid mistake.
Once a written document is out there in the field, it can rarely be retracted. The artifact can become an enduring symbol of thoughtlessness or bad decision making. The lesson for new leaders is: be very careful what you put in writing. The power is tremendous, the potential reaction severe.
New leaders need both informal learning opportunities with like-minded colleagues, and structures, protocols, and processes that will afford them the opportunity to talk about that which is most challenging and meaningful to them. One of the first trials that new leaders face is an internal process of identity construction. Novice school leaders quickly learn that many components of their work may be in direct conflict with their guiding principles, especially in the areas of discipline and confronting ineffective or inappropriate educators in the field. New leaders must find their way through this foreign territory and negotiate tense situations with their own personal style, in a way that feels authentic.
Learning must begin with experience; participating in reflective storytelling and narrative analysis provides an opportunity to develop metacognitive skills and emotional intelligence, as well as the space new leaders need to make meaning out of difficult experiences. From these reflections, new leaders can develop and refine existing theories, archetypes, and heuristics, which in turn can result in changes in practice when leaders return to the field.
Although new leaders do not always have the latitude to choose which situations will cross their desk, they do get to choose what they say, what they do, and how they respond. They regularly choose which role they will inhabit, and how they will behave when playing a given role. The act of choosing which role to play is much more than mere nuance in school leadership. The roles we play define who we are as educational leaders, and the way we play these roles ultimately will determine our effectiveness in achieving our desired outcomes. Success as a school leader is profoundly dependent on the ability to learn and grow. As Bennis and Goldsmith argue:
Remaining open to new learning means being truthful with ourselves and others, being willing to re-evaluate our prior beliefs in the face of new information that contradicts what we know to be true, and finally continuing to remember what is important—being clear about our priorities and our goals (1997, 70, 104).
The expectations heaped upon the shoulders of school leaders are vast and profound. Think about Clark Kent frantically changing into the costume of Superman inside a suffocating phone booth while crises, moral dilemmas, and dangerous situations proliferate at every turn. Wearing the costume of school leader involves:
Copyright © 2012 Education World