Leadership…The Biggest Issue in Education?


A few weeks ago I found myself in the middle of a conversation with several school administrators during a workshop that I was conducting on the topic of school leadership. At one point during the presentation I posed the following question to the attendees – “What do you believe to be the biggest issue facing us today in public education that is resulting in many of our schools to be labeled as low performing?” The question elicited several interesting responses. I have listed a few of the most common reasons that were presented below:

  • Standardized Testing
  • State and Federal Mandates
  • Lack of Funding, Resources
  • Teacher Evaluation System/Accountability
  • Micro-Managing School Boards
  • Teacher Turnover/Shortage
  • Poverty
  • Poor Parenting
  • Mental Health Issues

I wasn’t surprised by the responses.  Quite frankly, the answers I get generally follow a similar pattern with standardized testing and state and federal mandates leading the way and funding shortages following closely behind. I must admit I always hesitate when I get to this segment of my presentation for fear of offending someone, but then again, I think I owe it to the audience to always try to keep it real, knowing that in the end it is mine to own if I am unable to get others to reflect on their own leadership.  You see, I don’t believe any items from the list above are our biggest pitfalls.  Undoubtedly, it is not uncommon for us in management or supervisory roles to begin to look at external factors that might be causing our organizations to fall short of expectations, or more specifically in our case as school leaders, as it pertains to poor student or teacher performance. After all, one of the hardest places to look when things aren’t going as well as we hoped is internally especially if it means examining our own influence or harder yet, our own skill sets. You see, when it comes to measuring the culture and climate of our schools and success of our students and staff there really is only one place to look when we fall short.

Our own ability to lead effectively.

Ineffective leadership in my opinion is the biggest issue facing not only public education, but small business and larger companies alike.  Look around and you will see dozens of schools being labeled as poor performing, and businesses, including restaurants, retail stores, and even banks, closing as a result of poor leadership.  My intent is not to place the blame solely on the shoulders of school and district leaders. A month ago I was speaking to a group of district teachers when I shared with them that I believed the biggest issue facing us today in public schools was ineffective leadership.  What followed next completely caught me off guard. Many of the teachers began to cheer and clap at my suggestion of what I perceived to be the biggest issue and I quickly figured out that leadership to them meant the building administration.  As I gathered my thoughts I looked out into the audience and quietly stated, “I wasn’t talking about the administration.  I was talking about all of you collectively. You see, everyone here has the capacity to lead and everyone here is responsible for the culture and climate of your organization. No one person is responsible for determining your success or failure as a teacher but you and no one is responsible for your morale but you.”

On the flight home I couldn’t help but reflect on the response of the audience and I hoped my message of collective capacity and personal responsibility had resonated with them.  That is always the challenge, right?  You want the best for others and for me personally, I wanted our teachers and support staff to feel valued and appreciated when I was a principal. Ironically, I held myself accountable for the success and failures of my students and staff, always reflecting on what I could have done differently or more effectively to help them feel as though they were experiencing the success they had hoped for. Their failure was my failure. Last week I was involved in a Twitter exchange where I stated that no one went into teaching to be average and those who were had simply lost their way. I then followed this statement with the comment that great leaders can inspire them back to greatness. This is what drew the attention of a colleague of mine who stated I could not have been more wrong. For me it was not a matter of who was wrong or right, but what I believed to be true based on my own personal experiences as well as others who had shared their personal feelings with me regarding similar experiences. Over the years I have watched talented individuals excel at high levels and listened to some genuine people who inspired me and motivated me to be more than I ever thought I could be. Yes, ultimately it was up to me to take these words and initiate my own action, but I also know my desire to move forward in an attempt to push myself to the next level towards excellence was ignited by the words or actions of these individuals.  We all respond differently and as someone who prides himself on being able to support others in their quest towards personal excellence, well, it is my choice if I want to believe that I think some can inspire greatness in others. This alone does not define the effectiveness of a leader, but given the choice, I would prefer to work for a leader who aspires to make such an impact. After all, isn’t that what we expect of our teachers regarding their relationship with students?  And if I am going to expect that of my staff and others, shouldn’t I model the behaviors I want to see repeated and expect the same of myself?

There are a plethora of issues facing us in education today that can burden us and in some cases, even paralyze us to remain stagnant or worse yet, blame others for our lack of success.  I recognize that being an effective leader is not simply about being able to inspire others through words or actions. Nothing is that simple, especially when it comes to leadership. But didn’t we become educators because we wanted to model the qualities and characteristics and strive to acquire the same skill sets of those who we considered to be great leaders? Those same leaders who have played an integral part in inspiring students and staff alike in classrooms, school buildings and districts and businesses everywhere? I am going to believe we did and this being the case, then I think we are on the right path to addressing our ineffectiveness as leaders and removing ourselves from the conversation of the biggest issues facing us in public education today.

So what do you think is the biggest issue facing you today in the work that you do?  I would love to hear your thoughts.