Delusions of grandeur and student success fantasies

This comment was left on my blog recently:

I have a personal opinion that many teachers become administrators not to help more students, but because it is easier to … preserve student success fantasies and their own delusions of grandeur as social influencers that simply can’t be maintained in the face of the constant reality of the classroom experience.

How is your school?
Admin response: Great!
Teacher response: well….

I asked the students in our superintendent preparation program (nearly all principals) to respond with some thoughts. Here’s what one said to the other members of the cohort:

Ever had a teacher like Arnie in your building?

When good teaching and effective school leadership align, teachers like Arnie feel like a duck out of water. I am sorry that Arnie feels compelled to paint with a broad brush that all administrators are hapless lemurs (my words, not his). These "Arnie-like teachers" truly represent an all-too-large segment of the teaching and non-teaching population.

Truthfully, his circumstances may be the reality for far too many teachers and schools. His circumstances and experiences, however, are not mine. They are not the circumstances of my staff, my students, or my community. I know in my soul that the 13 of us in our cohort entered into school leadership positions for reasons that could not be any further from the reality Arnie describes above. It must be hard for him to get up in the morning. I feel sad for him and his students. I feel outrage.

I read a recent Education World article which discusses, anecdotally, why teachers chose to become principals. This article, and the stories it tells from principals in the field, is a better match of my personal narrative. I strongly sense it is a better match for your personal narratives as well. I think so highly each of you.

Essentially, we lead for the same reasons we teach; we find ourselves compelled to make life-changing differences for each student we serve. Our strategies and responsibilities are different. We acknowledge a level of commitment that is met with a differentiated compensation package. Our families bear the burdens that our professional obligations demand. Yet we lead because we are compelled to lead; to make the work of our staff, the lives of our students (each and every one individually) and their parents, and the fullness of the communities we live in, better. In some places, we call these schools exemplary. In others we call them first class, or world class education, or 21st century.

In the end, what gets us there is expert-level practitioners and high-performance leadership. “Delusional.” No – data driven. “Fantasy?” No – fact. “Easier?” Give me a break.

I do agree with Arnie on one thing, however. Social influencers do challenge all of us to be resilient, responsive, and rigorous. At least that is how I took his meaning.

Arnie (and his students) would be better served by thinking through the fullness of the basis of his unhappiness. Arnie, walk – no run – to your home computer and click on Surely there is a second career out there for an erstwhile, want-to-change-the-world teacher who deserves a chance to make a difference in life. “Delusional?” I hope not. "Fantasy?" It’s up to you. "Easier?" As easy as getting up each morning to go to a job that you feel passionate about.

Other thoughts or reactions?

10 Responses to “Delusions of grandeur and student success fantasies”

  1. Teachers like Arnie are always out there as pointed out by your student/principal – but rather than dismiss out of hand and suggest that there is a second career for them – it would be more productive to ask why are opinions like Arnies so prevalent?

    Is it a result of their own student success fantasies? Just human nature to blame someone else for their woes? Or are they disenfranchised by genuinely bad senior leadership? (your cohort excluded).

    There is no fiscal imperative in education – so we spend our time talking about values! If I was a trader or an estate agent and you spent 2 hours a day mentoring me you would expect to see my profit contribution to co. increase. In education we have ‘markers of success’ too, but they are not near as immediate, nor does our future job prospect desperately hinge on meeting quotas.

    Our value as educators is realised much later if at all – sure we can get kids through assessments – but building human capacities is very different to building capital.

    With little immediate tangible proof of their worth educators engage in complex value systems connected with their practice (not the direct outcome of their practice). It therefore becomes an all too often adversarial position to criticise those who are not engaged with the ‘grit’ of the classroom and particularly when those administrators making decisions that effect resources, practice and pedagogy.

    I think that this is the context of the conflict, but it must be up to school leaders to establish with the likes of Arnie the reasons for their disenchantment? It is easy to pit a group of principals against one ‘grumpy’ teacher and the outcome is a foregone conclusion – in his context Arnie could be absolutely right about the administrator who manage his school – and if you are a new administrator who generalises and pigeon holes Arnie – then you may further have isolated one of the best teachers in the school.

    The issues presented here are human and perennial – it is the diagnostic process of the situation and the effective management that is important and should never start with stereotyping. Even if it starts with “All administrators” it should not be continued with “. . . teacher like Arnie!” if a positive outcome is to be realised.

  2. Perhaps I’m reading Arnie’s comment a little differently, but I’m getting the impression that he’s not meeting with a lot of success in facilitating student learning (perhaps due to his student population, resources, professional skills, and/or personal characteristics). If his “constant reality of the classroom experience” is that students aren’t successful, and he’s hearing an administrator respond so simply to the complex question of “How is your school?”, Arnie *should* be upset; I can’t imagine any school so small, with so little complexity, and with such perfect student learning as to justify the “Great!” response. Something tells me that Arnie’s comment is highly anecdotal and summarized version of a long-term experience; while Arnie’s feelings can be justified, the broad generalizations about students, teachers, and administrators can’t. I think we all make the transition for very different and often very personal reasons, just as teachers enter the classroom for a variety of different and often personal reasons. It seems to me that the best resolution of this situation would be to get more information from Arnie and to improve, as much as possible, the support of his efforts to get students to learn.

  3. I think Arnie’s comments represents one of my greatest (and growing) frustrations – the ‘us’ against ‘them’ atmosphere in schools between administration and teachers, as well as the ease in which people critcize, jusge and condemn, rather than extended the benefit of the doubt at the very least – or better yet – have the most positive interpretation of another person’s actions. There is not way of telling why Arnie feels the way he does, but to post those thoughts on a blog is very telling about the attitude Arnie probably carries with him thoughout his work day. What a shame that that is Arnie’s contribution to the students, colleagues, and the community where he works. I would tell Arnie – work to be part of making your school better, rather than judging and pointing fingers. The attitude you choose is all up to you, but it impacts everyone around you. As an administrator, the thought that this is easier is almost comical. It is not easier; it is not more difficult – it is different and every role has its challenges and benefits. As far as why I chose it – because I was willing to do it and I believe education needs willing leaders who can face the challenges of bringing together teachers, parents, students, and community to create a learning environment in which all students can learn, grow, and feel valued – hokey, perhaps – easy – not on your life!! I am still a teacher – will always be and I am 100% committed to a strong public education system that will benefit ALL students. And sometimes the decisions I make and the things I do in acting on that commitment do not win me favor from teachers. As a leader, that is one of the challenges that comes with the role. No apologies for that!

  4. A person like Arnie probably won’t ever find a career that he feels passionate about because he’ll need to complain where ever he is employed.

  5. Some people are just asses and that’s the end of it. Whatever crap they went through that made them that way is sad. Of course they are all worthy of dignity, love, and respect and I’m sure God has a big enough heart to love them. I’ve found the work of Rick DuFour to be very helpful in making the leadership process more flat. Noting is more fun as an administrator than giving the unhappy people a chance to come up with solutions. The funny thing is they can’t do it.

  6. I don’t know what to make of Arnie. But,if I were looking at that school to evaluate it, I would see that statement as a sign there may be something wrong. Or not. It may just be Arnie or the Superintendent.

    There are two very different stories about the same place and that is puzzling.

  7. As the actual Arnie of this thread I will briefly respond about our process here. The reading of the above class response and comments of my situation all by informed thoughtful people with no local axe to grind was a deeply moving experience. It was amazing to feel completely understood(Jonathan) and also challenged to reconsider my own effort to work within my current system(Classroom commentary) and to do so in a healthy way (Charlie,J.D.).

    I could only wish for any of you as administrators, since you each seem to break the very mold that I spoke against in my original statement.

    Not much brings tears to these 45 year old eyes, but this process has. Good tears. Important ones. I can not thank you enough for your input.

  8. If you think like a sandwich then you’ll get eaten up.

    Who’s the meat in the sandwich? Teacher think administrators are the ‘top slice’ pushing down and administrators think teachers are the ‘bottom slice’ pushing up. But you need to see the whole ‘club sandwich’ to realise that if we all think we are ‘the meat’ then nothing can move forward.
    Scott has not availed with the context (not sure he knows) of Arnie’s school – so going at it blind – as an administrator I would think Arnie is a dysfunctional resource that needs to be either fixed or replaced. Both processes are complicated.
    I’m not familiar with Rick DuFour work, but why do I need to go through a process of making people like Arnie feel more incompetent than they already do? I already know that Arnie hasn’t got the answers! The poor bloke is not operating well as a classroom practitioner, why do an exercise where he is meant to solve whole school problems. Just shutting him up is not solving the problem.
    The best leaders I have worked with, like the best teachers, differentiate and find way to motivate those they lead. They seldom relish in diminishing their colleagues and truly regret the loss of someone who can not be work towards a common positive goal.
    You can flatten your management, you can get collaborative: but ‘back in the day’ when we had hierarchies as step to an apex as the pyramids at Giza, we still had great leaders. Now with management as flat as piece of A4 paper we still have crap managers. It is not the plumbing it is the stuff that flows through the pipes that make the difference.
    Arnie is a fact of life, he is a barometer of a school culture and above all he is someone who has the right to feel valued. Valued people add value.
    Don’t dismiss your Arnies out of hand, don’t stereotype your Arnies and take a stock response, and above allpersonalise your response, understand and motivate – because one won over Arnie is worth 10 new qualified teachers, naive or desperate enough to replace him.

  9. The Professional Learning Community (PLC) approach advocated by the DuFours is not about making teachers feel less competent. It is about giving staff tools to get better.

    The DuFour approach is to bring people together to identify and solve problems. If Arnie (or any other teacher in the group) doesn’t have the answers someone else usually does.

    This sharing of the load could be the very thing that helps teachers like Arnie out.

  10. Dear Arnie

    I would like to apologies for having written about you in such generic terms I had misread the first post and though you a hypothetical construct. I am so pleased that this has been a positive experience for you and that the conversations have not been too de-humanising.

    You are obviously a resilient person to be able to reflect and reconsider your perspective with such honesty and clarity. I hope you find support and encouragement, as you are an educator who should deserves to be valued, as you have much to contribute to the learning of your students.

    Good luck


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