HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The “All Chiefs” Crisis in Education

by Erica Brown Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership
TOPICS : Leadership

Leadership relies on a culture of trust and respect. Brown urges day school leaders to engage parents and other stakeholders in creating a school culture where leadership can thrive.

When I was a kid I distinctly remember sitting on the stairs with trepidation, awaiting my report from parent-teacher conferences.

As a people, we have never been great followers. We all think we are leaders. Part of the problem is that we often lack the self-awareness to acknowledge that our “followship” lacks a service dimension and that we criticize leaders to a point of paralysis. For a classic example of this, we turn to the Book of Joshua, where this new leader is assured that the people will follow him with the ironic claim, “We will obey you just as we obeyed Moses” (1:17). Anyone vaguely familiar with Moses’ leadership arc in the Bible has to scratch a head. Was there ever a time that we listened to Moses without contention and complaint? Take back that offer, please.

Perhaps nowhere today is this problem more acute than in the sphere of Jewish education. Parents have become consumers rather than stakeholders in their local day schools and are quick to send off a nasty e-mail or tell a teacher what to do during a parent-teacher conference. Consumers return what they don’t like. Stakeholders partner to fix it, respecting expertise and following policy governance boundaries. As a board member in my own children’s school, I recall a conversation with an irate parent whose child did not get the history teacher she wanted: “I’ve decided I am not paying this semester’s tuition bill unless she gets into that class. Money is the only language the school understands.” Yikes!

When I was a kid I distinctly remember sitting on the stairs with trepidation, awaiting my report from parent-teacher conferences. Today, the people who are most afraid are the teachers. They often feel themselves under siege from parents who claim to know how to teach and manage a classroom better than they do. This failure to recognize and appreciate teacher and administrator expertise has brought the capacity to partner in the practice of education to an all-time low. It is a failure of trust, and it has severe consequences.

Ron Clark, an “American Teacher of the Year” and the author of The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck, recently shared a conversation he had with a beloved, award-winning principal who is leaving the profession. When he begged her to stay, this is what she told him: “Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.”

Clark writes that most teachers stay in the profession only 4.5 years, and many of them list that the negativity they experience from parents is pushing them into other professions, even though they love teaching. Parent management is just too difficult and not something they thought they had to master when entering the field.

Here is one of Clark’s recommendations to parents: “If we give you advice, don’t fight it. Take it, and digest it in the same way you would consider advice from a doctor or lawyer.” He finds it exhausting to tell a parent that a child has an issue when all they do is fight back and defend their kid. “Trust us,” he asks with a hint of desperation in his words.

There is another framework in which to understand what is happening in the classroom, care of a new word in leadership lingo: the multiplier. Derived from Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, the term describes a certain type of person who encourages innovative thinking and growth by assuming the intelligence of other people. Wiseman describes the way that the multiplier sees others: “There are smart people everywhere who will figure this out and get smarter in the process.” Because multipliers are intellectually and emotionally generous, they seek to bring people together to create more wisdom and generate more ideas. The multiplier attracts talent and develops it, making sure that people are not underutilized. The multiplier also gives other people credit and ownership over ideas.

Wiseman contrasts this with the diminisher personality who creates a tense environment that suppresses people’s thinking and ability. He or she hoards resources and underutilizes talent. Often diminishers are micro-managers with very low trust in others. Where the multiplier will often say “yes” to a new idea or initiative, we can predictably expect a “no” from a diminisher.

We want the teachers and administrators of our day schools to be multipliers. We want them to see the native talents of our kids and grow it. We want our children to take ownership of ideas and feel empowered by partnerships with other students. But we cannot grow multipliers in the classroom when we have troops of diminishers outside of it. The multiplier cannot thrive in an environment of negativity. The multiplier will sooner leave than live with the depressing and limiting environment created by diminishers.

We have to push back on the negativity and hold up a mirror to the diminishers in every educational setting who hold back learning because they hold back trust. And that is what teacher and administrators find so hard to do: push back. This is not about one teacher speaking to one parent. It is about a total cultural shift that will not happen overnight where teachers take back their expertise and parents back down.

We have to help parents identify behaviors that diminish and those that multiply. And we need look no further than the second chapter of Exodus to meet a remarkable multiplier. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, gave birth to a male child after Pharaoh’s decree; her two words were not “oy vey” but “ki tov”—it was good. This was not uttered as a statement but as part of the narration of the story, and it mimics the language of creation itself. Moses may have become the great redeemer he was because he was birthed into a world where someone believed profoundly in the gift of possibility. We, too, must inherit that legacy and help parents see beyond the negativity and find the good. If we cannot do it, we cannot expect it of them.

Unless we plan on having classrooms full of orphans, in the words of one frustrated principal who is voting with her feet, we have to become followers and trust that the education of our children is in good hands. ♦


Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who serves as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency. Her forthcoming book is Happy Endings: The Fine Art of Dying Well. She can be reached at www.leadingwithmeaning.com.

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Attending the Crisis of Leadership

Day school leadership, especially headship, confronts all kinds of crises: regular school crises, driven by finances or parents; short tenure (averaging 2.5 years); limited pool of qualified applicants; and an impossible workload with little room for family life. These articles analyze aspects of the problem and offer remedies that professionals and lay leaders might implement in their schools.

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