Monday, March 07, 2005

Regaining educational professionalism

Dean Fink, 'It is about teaching and it is about time!' Posted by Hello

It has been great to have had a number of e-mail conversations with Canadian educationalist Dean Fink. Dean is in NZ later in the year to present a keynote at the Otago NZPPF Conference.

Like Dean I have had the good fortune to have interacted with many educational leaders – principals who actually make a difference and so it is not a coincidence we share similar thoughts.

Dean, in an article he wrote, comes to the conclusion that ‘quality leaders come in all shapes and sizes’ and leadership is more an ‘art than a science’. ‘It is more about character than technique; it is more about leading learners and leading teaching than management of things’ he writes.

He believes there is no such thing as a definitive list of ‘best practices’ that can be ‘generalized to all’. Everything depends on the context.

For all this, he continues, the ‘technocrats’ search for the ‘holy grail’ of ‘best practices’ to use as a benchmark. There is no ‘leadership template’ and, Dean says, that ‘since most of us are mere mortals such lists can only promote guilt’ of ‘not being able to achieve everything’; or ‘martyrdom’ by ‘trying to do everything’; or ‘compliant managers’ who ‘just do as they tell us’.

Dean asks how did we get into this mess. He believes that site based management is one part of the problem – too much time wasted on trivial but must do things. The other issue is trying to comply with the big questions of how to implement central government directives ‘of what students are to learn, when they are supposed to learn it, and how teachers should teach it’; and of course the vexed problem of assessing and reporting it all.

Dean also has concerns that many principals have ‘bought into the management role’; it is easier to repair the roof than improve mediocre teaching or ‘inspire real learning for students.’

If the ‘technocrats dream’ isn’t the answer what is? The first thing, Dean writes, is to arrange for others to do all the ‘stuff that consumes school leader’s time’ and to limit ‘number crunching to a minimum’. One suggestion is for school to share such people to do this. Then, with the time saved, principals need to reinvent themselves as ‘leaders of learning’.

As Dean has previously written, ‘it is about teaching and it is about time.’

He continues, ‘there is no set template or destination to follow’ but ‘rather a journey with plenty of detours and even some dead ends’. Leaders need to be continually learning as they go along. It is about letting those who work in the school know you have the best of intentions, a clear philosophy and the courage and integrity to lead the way.

No point in ‘looking in the rear vision mirror’ to find best practices, instead we need to look to ‘a more creative, imaginative and forward looking view of leading.’

The future is about placing education rather than rationality at centre stage; the technocrats have had their turn! It is well to remember that the experts built the Titanic but an amateur built the ark!

It is time to tap into our own intelligence and regain some profession dignity.

From my observations the best way to do this is to link up with like minds and work collaboratively, not only to share the time consuming managerial tasks, but also to have ‘conversation’ with each other to: clarify teaching beliefs, develop sensible curriculum , assessment and reporting procedures. As long as schools customize ideas to suit their particular context, and value whatever creativity that emerges, then this should lead to both diversity and quality learning and teaching.

The so called ‘best practices’ of competition, that was part of the ‘market forces ideology’ of site based management, has led to too many struggling schools – or worse still, schools that are struggling but don’t know they are!

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