Climbing the Ladder: Where is Your “Best Fit”?
By Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
The sun was shining; a warm breeze came from the southwest, as I heard the classic “ping” of a Ping putter, followed shortly thereafter by the rattle of a ball in a cup. Smiling at his accomplishment, Elementary Principal “Tommy V” as we called him – an even better educator than he was golfer (and he was very good on the course) -- said, “You know, Ryan, one of the things that you will enjoy in leadership is that you will have more time to make thoughtful decisions. You can confer with colleagues and weigh the issues before taking action. You’ll have space.” He contrasted that from the quick decisions made on an hourly basis in teaching, as I had just accepted my first Assistant Principal’s contract. We were enjoying a day as an administrative team -- our “Community.”
I have thought much about Tom over the past 16 years, as I have ascended from Assistant Principal to Principal to Superintendent. Now as a University faculty member, I think often, “Which role suited me best and why?” “How was Tom’s notion of time and space involved?” “What was my ‘best fit’?” In this trip down memory’s lane, one “constant” keeps coming to mind for me– the notion of Community.
I’m one who needs Community, as defined: A close knit of similarly situated professionals with whom to spend time, enjoy each other’s company, trade stories, garner advice regarding the challenges of the day, mourn losses, and celebrate accomplishments. Those considering climbing the ladder in education may want to keep in mind the fact that the degree to which you get more time, space, and authority to make decisions, the less “Community” you may enjoy.
Where is your optimal “fit”? Let us examine four key positions in the educational hierarchy to help with this decision.
Classroom teaching is an incredibly rewarding career. It has action; it has challenges! Teachers are the true determinant of lifelong success for individual students. Consider the fact that teachers have 30 high-energy variables – a.k.a. their students – doing myriad things nearly every hour of the school day. Teachers must make countless decisions at once; they have little time to do so, little space to work, and they are even land-locked to their classrooms because of their direct, supervisory roles over students. Teachers today have limited authority over curricular decisions in today’s standards-based arena, and they cannot even use the restroom when they desire. What they DO have, however, is rich Community. Duty-free lunches in the lounge with friends and a large group of similarly situated professionals with which to commiserate are part and parcel of their professional lives. They spend most of their professional lives in that Community. It is a great place to be!
Moving up the educational hierarchy, one finds Assistant Principals. There is not a better opportunity to help kids reflect on their growth and development and make better decisions than there is as an Assistant Principal! It is an incredible job. No longer tethered to classrooms, Assistant Principals have more freedom of movement than teachers, yet they oftentimes find that their supervisory roles in commons areas, such as courtyards, cafeterias, and parking lots, slightly limit their true workspace autonomy. Assistant Principals’ time is often regimented because of these duties as well; however, they have a bit more autonomy than teachers to schedule their days as they see fit. Disciplinary situations can mire them in activity and require quick decisions, yet for the most part, they have more authority to do what they need to do and more time to do it. Assistant Principals typically have a small group of similarly situated professionals with whom to enjoy Community and even can do so with their Principals at times. Neighboring school districts and professional associations offer up camaraderie as well. Yet, these aspects of Community are much more limited than teachers, who have boatloads of Community each day. Assistant Principals can stay a number of years in their Communities. There is never a dull moment on the job!
The Principalship is a “choice career” for those who wish to exercise true leadership and take responsibility for an entire institution’s learning and success. Principals experience much more latitude in the time and space needed to make decisions and perform their duties. Oftentimes, they are handling matters more of importance than urgency. Although Principals have a certain degree of building responsibility, supervisory functions can be delegated to allow time for bigger issues of school vision, mission, instructional leadership, and external facilitation. Their roles allow for more authority as well, as they have prescribed power over the operations of the school, staff, and students. Community for Principals shrinks rapidly, as they have supervisory responsibility over all on staff, even their Assistants. Leadership requires them to make difficult decisions, some of which result in folks’ not desiring the outcomes. Like squeezing a balloon, every action taken on behalf of one end of the hallway has either a positive or negative affect on the other end. Lounges get quiet when Principals enter for a reason -- because Principals are doing their jobs. Doing one’s job can be challenging at times, and Principals must seek out other Principals in other buildings for Community. Because tenure is much shorter for Principals than teachers, oftentimes Principals may need to change community, as well as Community, a few times during careers. There is no more important person in a school building to the culture of that organization than the Principal.
High-impact visioning, large-scale educational impact, and the championing of systemic improvement are secured most clearly via the Superintendency. For those with a 10,000-foot perspective on what needs to be done to educate for a better tomorrow, there is no better position in education than that of a Superintendent. The role can be a bit isolating, however, thus limiting Community as we describe such herein, even further. With the highest of authority that a Board of Education can bestow an employee -- with no buildings to run directly and no students to supervise -- Superintendents have great latitude in the time required to make decisions, in how they arrange their days, with whom they meet, on what issues to focus, and where to be on a daily basis. Yet, the decisions they make and actions they take affect more than one building; they affect an entire school district and community at large. Imagine hundreds of balloons squeezed with each decision, affecting numerous stakeholder interests, from the schoolteacher to the business leader, from the farmer to the barber … not to mention every single parent or relative of a student in the community. Restaurants, not just teachers’ lounges, get quiet when Superintendents enter, at times. Conversely, bars and coffee shops may become louder. Community for a Superintendent, as I define herein, is quite small, even though ironically, community visibility is quite large. The average tenure of a Superintendent is much shorter than that of a Principal. Because of this, one’s geographic location may shift every few years, thus requiring the need to rebuild Community wherever one goes. The highest degree of leadership prowess and resiliency is demanded of a Superintendent, which is very fulfilling, indeed, for those with the “best fit.”
Those desiring ascension in educational leadership must think long and hard about “the fit” of the next level, examining their own needs in terms of professional Community, while balancing those needs with respect to their desires for time, space, and authority in their roles. One’s fit in education is inextricably linked to the life one wants to lead and the Community in which one needs fulfillment as a member. Be aware that the higher you ascend in education, the more personal effort is required to provide yourselves with the support and balance in your lives to offset the shrinking Community and expanded community visibility that increased responsibilities engender.
Dr. Ryan Donlan’s perspective is based on 20 years service to K-12 education prior to his faculty role, as well as his experience as an author, trainer, and educational consultant. Your viewpoints are critical to a healthy discussion of leadership topics such as this and are welcomed by the Department of Educational Leadership at Indiana State University. Dr. Donlan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found on Twitter, @RyanDonlan. Please offer us suggestions for future topics relevant to you.