Reflections on Educational Leadership & Administration by Michael DeNobile
The Need for Leadership & its Immediate Impact
According to Michael Fullan in The Moral Imperative of School Leadership (2003), he argues that the moral priority of leadership is establishing a system of equity: where all students learn, gaps between high and low performing students are reduced, and what people learn (students and adults alike) empower them to be successful citizens and workers in a morally-based, knowledge society (29). This effective leadership must be grounded in inquiry and impact, where decisions are made in terms of design (assessing current realities in relation to gap of the vision of a desired future), teaching (adults are provided the theories, methods, and tools necessary to innovate and teach students toward that desired future), stewardship (ensuring that every action leads toward the desired future), and that the art and science of education in the school revolves around theory and research, practice, and action that creates the desired impact toward that desired future.
Moreover, Fullan further provides a structure to aid in effective leadership: his Coherence Framework (2017). Fullan frames inquiry and impact into four strategies: focusing direction, cultivating collaborative cultures, deepening learning, and securing accountability. The direction must be focused on student achievement and mobilizing the whole organization toward the central purpose of improving society through improving the educational system. All adults within the organization support one another to improve instruction within and across schools and improving pedagogy to deepen understanding of the learning process and how to influence it. Conditions are also developed to maximize internal and external accountability of all parties within the organization (Fullan, 2017).
The foundation of this system of equity is laid out in Peter Senge’s vision of the learning organization: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning (Smith, 2001). An effective leader sees the big picture while understanding that it all falls apart if the parts are not integrated (systems thinking), is a lifelong learner who knows s/he isn’t perfect but is loyal to the craft of education while mindful to turnkey that learning to the greater community (personal mastery), studies and leverages the community’s “assumptions, generalizations, and pictures and images” that influence thinking toward or away the desired future (mental models), understands that that desired future is not simply their own but owned by everyone in the community (building shared vision), and operates the processes toward that desired future as a dialogue rather than a monologue (team learning).
Senge’s vision of the learning organization is intertwined with Robert Greenleaf’s Ten Principles of Servant Leadership (Casterlow): listening (team learning), empathy (team learning), healing (team learning), awareness (mental models), persuasion (mental models), conceptualization (systems thinking), foresight (systems thinking), stewardship (team learning), commitment to growth (personal mastery), and building community (shared vision). Where Senge provides the thought-process and the action of effective leadership, Greenleaf provides the heart and spirit, and thus one needs to work with the other to compound successful leadership.
Effective leadership begins with a shift in mindset from the success of one’s select few students they teach to empowering all adults and students within an organization become empowered for all to succeed at the highest levels. Just as a teacher empowers students to succeed, a leader empowers everyone in the community to succeed, which in turn has impact on the overall goal: student success. The moral imperative of school leadership is establishing a system of equity, and by reducing gaps high and lower performing students it in turn empowers all members of the community to be moral, insightful citizens and workers through inquiry and impact.
The Importance of Professional Learning Communities
In traditional educational, the professional teacher had been trained at an approved school of higher education with an undergraduate degree (and in relatively recent years, at least a master’s degree within the first five years of teaching), and short of being tortured by monthly professional development sessions, there has been little much more a teacher needed in order to deepen their craft and pedagogy as an educator. However, continuing professional learning has been a standard in most industries for centuries.
When I first started teaching in 2007, I had heard of the concept of a professional learning community, and when asked if I worked in a professional learning community, I responded with sarcastically with an “Of course—I work with professionals. I work at a school, so there’s learning involved for both students and teachers. And we are a community. So, duh—I work in a professional learning community.” But after years of study (and especially last week’s readings), it is clear that I not only have never worked in a true professional learning community, but that PLCs have a clear purpose in effective education reform. With research supporting PLCs and organizations that endorse them (DuFour, 2008, 68-79), there is little denying this role of PLCs in the future of education, so much so that the mere thought of collaborating over education philosophy, best practices, and research sounds so natural to be common sense. Yet, it seems that subverting the status quo and traditional mindsets and behaviors is the necessary remedy to bridge the knowing-doing gap (DuFour, 2008, 79). The irony is that we as educators demand our students to be lifelong learners (and complain when they exhibit less than enthusiastic behaviors in being lifelong learners), while we scoff at the thought of learning anything of practicality from others in terms of professional development.
With a few exceptions of teachers who view teaching as a cushy 8 to 3 job with nights, weekends, and summers off, majority of your teachers are very good, even extraordinary, professionals, good enough to get by meeting standards and passing students on high-stakes exams. However, falling in love with the process of learning (regardless of the results) is a culture (or reculture) shift in need of systems and organizational structures to drive new behaviors and beliefs in teachers. As noted by Fullan in 2007:
Most strategies for reform focus on structures, formal requirements, and events-based activities. . . They do not struggle directly with the existing cultures within which new values and practices may be required. . . . Restructuring (which can be done by fiat) occurs time and time again whereas reculturing (how teachers come to question and change their beliefs and habits) is what is needed. (DuFour, 2008, 91)
These shifts in culture need to abandon notions of educators as isolated silos for valuable members of a team, driven by an active catalyst of leadership in a variety of capacities: including but not limited to defining mission, managing instructional programming, promoting a positive learning environment, setting directions, developing people, and making the organization work (DuFour, 2008, 304, 305). But this work must be purposeful, embedded in maintaining “high standards of student learning, rigorous curriculum, quality instruction, a culture of learning and professional behavior, connections to external communities, and systemic performance accountability” (DuFour, 2008, 305). Ultimately good teachers, like any true professional, want to know how to become better teachers. Complacency can only keep one content for so long.
Once culture starts shifting in a positive direction, next is instilling a mindset through behaviors where educators bridge the gap between looking out for the best interest of their students’ achievement and actually bolstering that student achievement (DuFour, 2008, 309). In order to achieve this, a Principal must construct and allow for systems with dispersed (not centralized) leadership, where the agency of individuals are entrusted to further the shared vision of the school (DuFour, 2008, 309).
Vision & Equity
In Learning by Doing (2006), DuFour et al. proposed four questions “to clarify the intended future direction of the school or district” (DuFour et al., 2008, p. 142):
Can you describe the school we are trying to create?
What would our school look like if it were a great place for students? What would it look like if it were a great place for teachers?
It is 5 years from now, and we have achieved our vision as a school. In what ways are we different? Describe what is going on in terms of practices, procedures, relationships, results, and climate.
Imagine we have been given 60 seconds on the nightly news to clarify the vision of our school or our district to the community. What do we want to say?
In evaluating the vision statement, Kotter (1996) goes on to say that the characteristics of effective visions include being 1. Imaginable, 2. Desirable, 3. Feasible, 4. Focused, 5. Flexible, and 6. Communicable (DuFour, 2008, p. 142).
With these in mind, I came up with the following vision statement I constructed in one of my SBL graduate classes, which I felt were in line with the above principles: “If our school is determined to create agents of autonomy in life, career, and social responsibility, then we must ensure to establish a preventative rather than repressive culture based on reason, cultural awareness, and loving-kindness; to develop a rigorous curriculum which incorporates student voice and choice to meet the needs of all students at various levels; and to provide students with experiences in these challenge areas: the wilderness, volunteerism, careers, and academics.” My nonnegotiables as a leader include staff and students participating in various PLC committees, full commitment to the preventative system, and willingness to be creative, independent, and think outside the box.
Within my vision, I understand the necessity of building leaders, especially principals as instructional leaders within the organization. As noted by Cordeiro and Cunningham (2012, pp. 416-417):
Principals have to varying degrees always been responsible for instructional leadership; however, that role has reached a new level of demand and complexity. It is only recently that researchers have been able to identify specific instructional leadership behaviors that are related to student achievement (Blase & Blase, 1998; Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Hopkins, & Harris, 2006; Fuller, Young, Barnett, Hirsch, & Byrd, 2007). Research has provided evidence that school leaders strongly influence student learning (Henderson et al., 2005; Leithwood, Seashore-Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004; Marks & Printy, 2003; O’Donnell & White, 2005; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003).
In this way, I as a school building leader, whether as a department chair, director, assistant principal, or principal must always focus and relay my actions through the prism of impacting student achievement as an instructional leader. But not just any kind of leader, but as a level 5 leader. Collins noted (2001, p21), “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” Leaders that are, as Collins (2019) further noted, “blessed with a paradoxical blend of personal humility—that’s the X factor of great leadership—personal humility with an utterly indomitable will.”
This relates back to Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership Principles (Casterlow). The leader provides the vision and drives the team into action toward positive change, and while the leader is in the driver’s seat, the servant leader is humble enough to celebrate the team. They don’t “go it alone” (DuFour et al., 2008, p. 122), and as noted by the Harry S. Truman quote at the start of Collin’s chapter entitled “Level 5 Leadership,” “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.” This relates to the story of the Bronx principal who seemingly did not have the emotive social skills of effective leadership, but upon further inspection, she was providing toiletries and uniforms for children in temporary housing, she understood Maslow’s hierarchy and how taking care of her students physiological needs would assist them to self-actualization (Razik and Swanson, 2009, p.111).
Leadership Theorists Who Most Affect My Vision
My vision statement for the perfect school:
“In order to create agents of autonomy in life, career, and social responsibility, school leadership must be sure to establish a preventative rather than repressive culture based on reason, cultural awareness, and loving-kindness; develop a rigorous curriculum which incorporates student voice and choice to meet the needs of all students at various levels; and provide students with experiences in these challenges areas: the wilderness, volunteerism, careers, and academics.” My nonnegotiables as a leader include staff and students participating in various PLC committees, full commitment to the preventative system, and willingness to be creative, independent, and think outside the box.
After taking my graduate course on Principles of Educational Leadership & Administration, I understand the necessity and moral imperative of building leaders, especially principals as instructional leaders within the organization. As noted by Cordeiro and Cunningham (2012):
Principals have to varying degrees always been responsible for instructional leadership; however, that role has reached a new level of demand and complexity. It is only recently that researchers have been able to identify specific instructional leadership behaviors that are related to student achievement (Blase & Blase, 1998; Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Hopkins, & Harris, 2006; Fuller, Young, Barnett, Hirsch, & Byrd, 2007). Research has provided evidence that school leaders strongly influence student learning (Henderson et al., 2005; Leithwood, Seashore-Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004; Marks & Printy, 2003; O’Donnell & White, 2005; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003). (pp. 416-417)
In this way, I as a school building leader, whether as a department chair, director, assistant principal, or principal must always focus and relay my actions through the lens of impacting student achievement as an instructional leader. Not just any kind of leader however, but as a level 5 leader. As Collins noted (2001),
Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves. (p. 21)
Moreover, I must be a leader that, as Collins (2019) further noted, is, “blessed with a paradoxical blend of personal humility—that’s the X factor of great leadership—personal humility with an utterly indomitable will” (www.jimcollins.com).
This relates back to Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership Principles (Casterlow, n.d.). The leader provides the vision and drives the team into action toward positive change, and while the leader is in the driver’s seat, the servant leader is humble enough to celebrate the team. They don’t “go it alone” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 122), and as noted by the Harry S. Truman quote at the start of Collin’s (2001) chapter entitled “Level 5 Leadership,” “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit” (p. 17). Leadership in this way becomes synonymous with serving the community, including subordinates. As observed by Cordeiro and Cunningham (2012):
Greenleaf maintained that, ‘Good leaders must first become good servants.’ Because it is vital that school leaders show enormous respect for the people they supervise, this modeling may lead to students in turn being respected, thus creating a positive and inviting school climate. (p. 476)
In my vision, the modeling of the positive relationships between the adults is important as it is necessary to be mirrored between the adults with the students to encourage the achievement and autonomy of the students.
The high value placed on moral leadership within my vision further lends itself to J.M. Burns’s (1978) style of transformational leadership (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012). This approach is important to my vision because as the leader, I want to develop leadership capacity within my team members in order to “mobilize resources, facilitate and support employees, and respond to organizational challenges” (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012, p. 471). Developing the autonomy of agency within young people means striving to cause change, and in order to empower (transform) students, their teachers must be effectively empowered (transformed) as well. As Burns (1978) concluded on transformational leadership:
Leaders engage with followers but from higher levels of morality; in the enmeshing of goals and values, both leaders and followers are raised to more principled levels of judgment. . . . Much of this kind of elevating leadership asks from followers rather than merely promising them goods. (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012, p. 471)
It is noted, however, that transformational leadership without being combined with instructional leadership will not have an impact on student achievement, and thus instruction must be a central focus when employing transformational leadership (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012).
Another theory of leadership that influenced the development of my vision is distributed leadership based on the work of Elmore (2000), Spillane, Sherer, and Caldreu (2005), and Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond (2001) (Cordeiro and Cunningham, 2012, p. 473). In my vision, through the practice of Professional Learning Communities as outlined by DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker (2008), decision making is democratic and based on a network of individuals from different stakeholder groups, from formal leadership, to teachers, to students, to parents, and the community at large. In turn, as part of my vision, “relationships take greater importance than roles” (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012, p. 474).
Two educational and leadership theorists not covered in my Principles course that are vital to the development of my vision are Don (Giovanni) Bosco (the Preventative System) and Bill George (Authentic Leadership). The preventative system is in contrast to the repressive system—that is, “making the law known to the students and then supervising them in order to detect transgressions, inflicting, whenever necessary, the merited punishment,” where “the words and the appearance of the Superior must always be severe, and somewhat menacing, and he himself must avoid all friendly relationships with his dependents” (Bosco, 1877, www.donboscowest.org). The repressive system has been the hallmark of traditional discipline in education through the ages, and by and large still is to this day. This law and order approach noted by Bosco (1877) is “easy, less demanding,” and “useful in the army and among adult and sensible people” of greater society (www.donboscowest.org). In terms of true education however, the preventative system is the preferred method of discipline for young people. As Bosco (1877) states, the preventative system is
making known the rules and regulations of an Institute, and the supervising in such a way that the students are always under the vigilant eye of the Director and the assistances, who like loving fathers [guardians] will converse with them, act as guides in every event, counsel them and lovingly correct them, which is as much as to say, will put the students into a situation where they cannot do wrong (www.donboscowest.org)
The preventative system “excludes every violent punishment, and tries to do without even mild punishments” (Bosco, 1877, www.donboscowest.org ) because punishing young people for having “youthful fickleness” (Bosco, 1877, www.donboscowest.org) toward rules and regulations and committing “a fault…to which he had not given a thought, which he did not remember at all in the act of committing the fault, and which he certainly would have avoided had a friendly voice warned him” (Bosco, 1877, www.donboscowest.org) seems unreasonably punitive. So while the repressive system can create order out of disorder, it is difficult to improve the behavior of offenders, which is what the preventative system seeks to do. In this way, the preventative system is in alignment with the modern notion of restorative justice (www.restorativejustice.org).
Bosco’s preventative system rests on the pillars of reason, religion (substituted here in today’s pluralistic world with cultural understanding), and loving-kindness. Students have independent minds capable of logic and reason, and according to John Henry Newman, reason is a cultivation of the mind that “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character” (Newman, 1873, p. 114). In this way, I seek to engage with the logistical faculties that young people possess (no matter how imperfect they may be) in order to assist them in the affirmation of the person they are meant to be. In Latin, religion (religio) translates to “to tie back to the origin” (BCJSHFFR, 2015, thefirstyearcatholicschoolteacher.wordpress.com). In our pluralistic world, I believe that cultural understanding does just that—“ties” us “back to the origin” of who we all are: members of the human race.
Therefore, when we all strive to understand one another better in all of the cultural spheres we dwell in, we create a better learning community for everyone to inhabit. Loving-kindness is the spirit of the preventative system. Where the repressive system thrives on crime and punishment, the preventative system seeks to teach the purpose as to why a rule is in place, what happens to relationships when a rule is violated, and how to guide a young person back to the right path, without lasting pain or humiliation with patience, sympathy, and compassion. While Bosco (1877) calls the preventative system a “pedagogy” (www.donboscowest.org), I identify it as an approach to leadership since it is a value system that must be established and maintained by leadership.
In my opinion, the leadership approach that provides the glue to connect everything I have already reflected upon above is authentic leadership. As noted by George (2004):
Authentic leaders genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership. They are more interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money, or prestige for themselves. They are as guided by qualities of the heart, by passion and compassion, as they are by qualities of the mind.
Authentic leaders are not born that way. Many people have natural leadership gifts, but they have to develop them fully to become outstanding leaders. Authentic leaders use their natural abilities, but they also recognize their shortcoming and work hard to overcome them. They lead with purpose, meaning, and values. They build enduring relationships with people. Others follow them because they know where they stand. They are consistent and self-disciplined. When their principles are tested, they refuse to compromise. Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of growth. (p. 12)
According to George (2004), “most of the literature on leadership . . . develop[s] lists of leadership characteristics one is supposed to emulate”, describing “the styles of leaders and suggest that you adopt them” (p. 11). Instead of “developing the image or persona of a leader” (p. 11) based on suggest leadership styles, the authentic leader builds their own person within five dimensions: understanding their purpose, practicing solid values, leading with heart, establishing connected relationships, and demonstrating self-discipline (George, 2004).
In this way, I identify most with authentic leadership because I believe that being a leader means being myself—whether it is my personal or professional self. Leadership is not a switch I turn on, regardless of the style or approach, when I step into the doors of my building before seven o’clock in the morning. Leadership is who I am when no one is looking, an ethos I continually develop on and off the clock, and it is through that ethos that I am able to employ all the other styles and approaches to leadership. This in turn means I authentically renegotiate those styles into my own approach to leadership based on my personal strengths and weaknesses and those of my team. I lead because there is a moral imperative to do so.
BCJSHFFR. (2015). The preventive method: reason, religion, and loving-kindness. Retrieved from www.thefirstyearcatholicschoolteacher.wordpress.com.
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