Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pick Your Battles Wisely

800px-Battle_of_New_Orleans On the morning of January 8, 1815, British Major-General Edward Pakenham ordered a two-pronged assault against a largely out numbered American force led by General Andrew Jackson.  The assault took place on the site of the Chalmette Plantation near New Orleans.  Thus, the Battle of New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812, began.  Although much of the pre-battle preparations were either poorly executed or not executed at all, Pakenham was determined to defeat Jackson’s force.  His reliance on his overwhelming numbers and his troops’ training overshadowed any concern about the multitude of obvious challenges facing a British victory.  Weather, landscape, timing, morale, motivation, etc. all were in favor of Jackson and his entrenched American troops.

When the fighting ended (after about 20 minutes, the withdrawal was ordered), the Americans earned one of the most lopsided victories in American military history.

  • British:  2,042 casualties (291 killed; including Pakenham, 1,267 wounded, and 484 captured or missing)
  • Americans:  71 casualties (13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing)

This is just a single example of one of the most important skills that educational leaders must have.

Pick Your Battles Wisely!

Everyday, educational leaders are asked to make decisions.  Sometimes these decisions are somewhat easy.  There is a clear good or bad choice.  Given clear goals and objectives, decisions can often take an obvious form.  There are other times, though, that decisions fall in a hazy “grey area” where there is not necessarily a clear choice.

In these situations, leaders need to take into consideration many pieces of information and hold each of these up against the mission, vision, and goals of the school.  The leader’s responsibility is to ensure that the school’s operations are aligned with and are actively promoting the mission and philosophy of the institution.  If more than one mission appropriate option is available, leaders should examine the strengths and challenges of those who will be tasked with performing the decision (or who are most affected by the decision).  In many cases, this may provide an insight in to what will be most effective once implemented.  If the leader can get a clear sense of the issue at hand, the options available, and the assets at her disposal, there is a great opportunity for success.

There is another situation that also requires wise “battle plans.”  I find it more often in private and independent schools.  It is the teacher who expects the administrator to back them up on all their decisions in the class.  This is a challenging issue because many educational leaders have a default mode that wants to support the teacher. 

Would we want any other default mode of thinking from our school leaders?

Unfortunately, this also implies that when a conflict between a teacher and student or teacher and parent occur, the teacher is ALWAYS right.  The fact of the matter is that sometimes the teacher is not right and the wise school leader will help navigate this difficult terrain with the interests of all parties in mind.

Here is an example. 

Mr. Jones has a class policy that was not in his syllabus at the beginning of the year nor has he shared his policy with his division director.  The policy goes something like this: 

  • Students cannot talk during the taking of tests or quizzes (so far, so good)
  • The policy applies to students who are taking the assessment or who have already finished (again, we’re ok)
  • But the response from Mr. Jones, if a student is caught talking, is to throw away the student’s assessment ungraded and with no feedback to the student

Mr. Jones’ division administrator questions the reaction because it seems to run counter to the mission and philosophy of the school.  It also does not allow for any growth on the part of the student nor does the response allow Mr. Jones to assess how well the student understands the lessons.  The leader agrees that the initial policy was fine, but the response seems out of alignment.  Mr. Jones is asked to reflect on the response and suggest alternatives – all of which Mr. Jones refuses to do.  In his opinion, the response was sound and in keeping with his class policy.

The administrator now has a decision to make.  Among other choices, she can:

  1. Back Mr. Jones, but at the expense of what she believes is a class policy that runs counter to the mission and philosophy of the school.
  2. Coach Mr. Jones to understand that his position is counter to the mission and philosophy, explain why and how it is, and inform him that if he (Mr. Jones) chooses to fight this battle, it will be hard to provide the support he may need.
  3. Tell Mr. Jones that his policy is not in keeping with the mission and philosophy of the school and that he needs to repair the situation with the student.  After doing so, the leader offers to help Mr. Jones do this in a manner that helps him “save face” with the student and the student’s family.

In the end, Mr. Jones needs coaching in order to step away from his fixed mindset (questioning his class policy as an attack on his professionalism).  If successful, the work of the administrator moves Mr. Jones to accept that the policy situation was actually an opportunity to reflect and grow as a teacher who has chosen to promote and support the mission and philosophy of the school.

Success is the result of many factors.  Success in schools can also be defined in many ways.  Whether it is student achievement, enrollment, tests scores, college acceptances, school-community relations, or choosing when to mobilize your army for an assault; leaders who are skilled in picking their battles wisely are ultimately among the more effective.  

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