Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A question of authority

Many of us may have had a conversation like this before:

You are talking to a department chair (or another appointed manager/leader) who asks you about how to “get my teachers to do what I tell them to do.”  The chair’s issue is that once she tells certain people what needs to happen, they usually just go about their day as if the request was not made.  She asks, “What authority do I have, as chair, to make them do what I want them to do?”

If I am trusted to do a job, I want the power given to me and then I will be held accountable for it.  But give me the chance to make or mar that job myself.

- Theodore Roosevelt

I believe this quote holds many answers to the question posed by the department chair in the example above.  Let’s look at the issue from multiple angles: the teacher being asked to perform a function by the chair, the chair herself, and you, the school leader being addressed by the chair.

The Teacher

For the most part, I find teachers to be quite willing and able to perform various functions.  When situations like the one in our example arise it is usually the result of one or more of the following.

  • You asked the teacher to do something that he doesn’t feel he has the resources to do well.  Have you also given him the time, budget, support, etc. he needs to succeed?  If not, do so.  Will he require extra or specialized training?  Has that been arranged?
  • You are asking the teacher to do something that you do not want to do.  Teachers are usually quite perceptive.  If you are assigning a task or duty because you don’t want to do it, you will get very little buy-in and a superficial effort at best.  If what you are asking is something you are not willing to do, then rethink whether asking someone else is a good idea.
  • The teacher needs time to adjust to this change.  If the request involves a significant change in approach or responsibilities, the change process needs managing.  Have you established specifically what the change is, why is needs to happen, and how YOU will support the teacher’s efforts to make this change?  If you answered , “no” to any of those questions, go back and start again. 

The Chair

Looking at the issue form the department chair’s point of view, a few challenges are immediately identified.

  • Chair’s are also teaching (usually flu class loads to very close to a full schedule).  Finding the time to spend on leading the department can be difficult.
  • Since time is scarce, it is easier for teachers to just say, “yes” when asked to do something rather than have to invest time and energy into an issue.
  • There is usually pressure (either real or perceived) to move an initiative along.  Thus, the chair finds herself in the difficult spot of needing to get results while attending to her instructional responsibilities.
  • The chair should remember that authority lies in many areas, not just in personnel matters.  Authority can result from position, but is more genuine when earned by example, expertise, and enthusiasm.
  • “Enchant” your teacher to the cause you are promoting.  Be likable and trustworthy.  Let him know you are there to help and share the responsibility. 

The School Leader

The school leader, usually an administrator, needs to play a supportive role in helping the chair accomplish the department’s goals.  If a meeting with the teacher is necessary, then have it.  The leader can also explore the issue from different perspectives than the chair.

  • Was the request by the chair consistent with school-wide expectations?
  • Is there an implied or obvious conflict of interests placed on the teacher?
  • Has the leader provided enough support of departmental initiatives in the past to help emphasize the new expectations?
  • Support the chair by removing unnecessary impediments such as cumbersome polices and procedures.

Authority or Leadership?

When trying to move people from point A to point B, I see that as a leadership issue more than an authority issue.  Leadership says, “follow me.”  Authority speaks to, “go there.”  People in a free and democratic society usually resist authority, but respect and appreciate leadership. 

Is the issue that you do not have the “authority” to make the change, or do you lack some leadership skills to lead the change?

Final Thoughts

In schools, most good teachers will do almost anything asked of them if they can make a clear and direct connection to how that request will benefit their students first and themselves (professionally) next.  When requests are met with non-compliance, it is natural to think about how to use one’s authority to make things happen.  In reality, there may be a question of motivation, trust, or philosophy that is causing the static to occur.

Clearly articulated requests and expectations that address the needs of students while accomplishing larger strategic goals are in a good position to be accepted.  Once accepted, provide support and celebrate your successes along the way. 

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