I was recently tasked with the daunting responsibility of reading a chapter about Trust in a book called, The Truth About Leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Now as surprising as it might be to some, the reading part was not daunting but the purpose for which I am reading the chapter is. After digesting this riveting chapter, I am to present my thoughts to a focus group on Leadership and Education, of which I am a part.
Now anyone who knows me understands the issue at hand here. My personal mantra is “Life is too short to be taken seriously”. For me to muster up an opinion that is anything beyond a cynical, flippant, off the cuff and smart ass’d is, well… daunting. Not to mention that the the room will be filled with administration and respected educational leaders who spend their lives thinking about this stuff. Me?! I am just a run of the mill teacher who likes to fly under the radar and not attract to much attention, so yes the task at hand is daunting.
At first, I figured I would be hard pressed to come up with anything that might be of use to any of those assembled at our next meeting, never mind interesting. I mean really, a chapter on trust and I have to present it as it applies to education? What could I possibly say about trust and education that could not be readily assumed by a fifth grader. The truth is however, that after reading the chapter, I found that there seems to be a lot to say and some of it might even be interesting. What is more, some of it might even be a tad controversial and I love nothing more than stirring the pot.
Before getting into this chapter, I had some superficial assumptions. Yes teachers had to be trusted by parents and students. Yes it had to be trusted that the curriculum is relevant and purposeful. Yes teachers had to trust that parents were supportive at home… The list of “trust” items is endless but when you apply trust to education, as it pertains to leadership, things begin to get interesting. There are a number of things that crop up when trust, leadership and education are placed together and much of it seriously effects education on all levels and quite frankly I could write forever on the topic. For this post, I will discuss only one which is probably the most significant of the bunch.
Adversarial Structure of Public Education
I will preface this first item by saying that, I realize there are good people working on both sides of the Education system who want nothing more than what is best for students. Unfortunately, when it comes to leadership in education, there is a very big elephant in the room and without discussing it, there is no hope for building strong working relationships based on trust.
When reading this chapter, the first item of trust that came to mind had to do with the structure of the education system itself. In British Columbia, there are two sides in the education system, the Ministry and all its various agents & Teachers. A logical division I know but the problem is that most of the time, these two sides are at odds and distrust between them reigns supreme. In the fifteen years I have been teaching, there has been virtually no common ground between these two entities and it is unlikely there will any common ground between them in my last fifteen.
How this pertains to Trust, Leadership & Education is that we find ourselves working in a school system stands divided. Two sides peering across a pedagogical no man’s land unable to agree on the simplest of things. What complicates matters even more when discussing Trust, Leadership & Education is where the dividing line is drawn. If the battle ground between these two sides were out beyond the boundary of the school district, or even just outside the doors of the school itself, there would at least be an opportunity to create a feeling of “we are all in this together” within a school community. The problem is that the dividing line between these two sides falls at the very threshold of our classrooms, creating an awkward and sometimes unworkable division within the school itself.
Administrators are pitted against teachers from the outset because ultimately, administration acts on behalf of the Ministry and therefore are not “trusted” by teachers. This makes it very difficult for administrators to be anything more than educational managers rather than the educational leaders they are suppose to be. In the end what happens is that leadership roles in education are usually taken up for the purpose of doing battle with the other side rather for the purpose of improving the education system.
This is not to say that Administrators are not trustworthy, in fact I have friends who are administrators with whom I would entrust with my own children’s lives. The reality is however, that administrators are an extension of the Ministry and therefore they will, at some point, be asked to breach the trust of those they are expected to lead. The unfortunate result is that in British Columbia, educational leadership from an administrative perspective cannot be based on a relationship of trust because the system puts them at odds with the very people they are suppose to be leading.
So where does this leave us? Well to think that one side will roll over and expose their throat to the other is wishful at best. The cynic in me says we will be in this position for generations to come. As a result, true leadership where we have a community of professionals who trust each other and work towards a common goal, is unlikely to happen within my career. Teachers will continue to go about their daily lives, adopting new ideas, technology and methods as it suits them and administrators will continue to manage their schools as best they can.
It is an unfortunate place we have come to but until we can all trust that “we are all in this together” Leadership in education will remain fragmented.