What Roles School Practitioners Have to Perform Daily

I just read a report that argued for superintendents to exert their political skills to build coalitions of support in order to achieve the goals they have set for their years as school chief. I wondered to myself after reading the report how much the authors grasped the core activities that  teachers, principals, and superintendents, working in their classrooms, offices, and suites do every day, in their own ways. Teachers, principals, and superintendents have to–yes, “have to”–perform three different roles in their different venues: instructional, managerial, and political.

For superintendents who have been teachers and principals, and four out of five have, These roles and actions are baked into the DNA of teaching, principaling, and, yes, superintending. So those former teachers and principals who become district office staff before getting picked to be a school chief already have acted politically in their earlier roles. They may not have called what they did “political,” but they know how to build coalitions and forge relationships to get things done. It is in their bones.

Here are the roles that teachers, principals, and superintendents must perform to initially survive and then thrive.

Instructional role. For teachers, that is obvious. For principals and superintendents, the pressure on these administrators to assume responsibility for instructionally guiding teachers has grown dramatically in the past three decades.

Since the 1980s, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decisions to re-asserting the importance of  being instructional leaders. Now, principals and superintendents are expected to help teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, evaluating teachers, and producing higher student test scores.

Managerial role. Principals and superintendents have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget, hire staff, and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. School boards also expect their superintendents to discharge the managerial role. Currently, efforts by reformers to call superintendents and principals  CEOs elevates the managerial role. And teachers, well, controlling a crowd of students to pay attention to a lesson, complete classroom tasks, and parcel out help to individual students requires sharply acute administrative skills.

Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents, principals, and teachers hide their political party preferences.

So most principals, superintendents, and teachers have avoided partisan politics in the workplace but they do act politically within the school community and classrooms. For example, to advance their school agenda, principals and superintendents negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals and superintendents see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.

And, yes, teachers also act politically when they figure out which students in their classes are the leaders, which students need to be cajoled into compliance or  helpfulness, which students can help advance the teacher’s goals. Astute teachers build a coalition of support among their students for reaching the goals the teacher has set for the class. Experienced teachers often carry out that political analysis the first few weeks of the school year. Teachers are also political in dealing with their principal and district office in helping or hindering their school site leader achieve school goals.

Dilemmas inevitably arise when educators come to see that they are stronger at some roles than others, prefer some roles over the other but realize that often times they have to perform roles that they are less strong at and hardly prefer doing. This is the persistent dilemma of multiple core roles.

So the report  surprised me for its lack of basic understanding of the three roles baked into the DNA of being practitioners in classrooms, school offices, and district suites. Anyone becoming a superintendent knows from prior experience as a teacher and principal–although he or she may not use the word “political”–the importance of forging coalitions inside and outside the school to gain support to achieve desired goals.



Filed under school leaders

13 responses to “What Roles School Practitioners Have to Perform Daily

  1. bluecat57

    This reminds me of a possibly apocryphal Albert Shanker quote, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

    I have trouble comprehending why educators think that all their progressive, modern ideas for how to better educate children are working when they can see for themselves that their parents are better equipped with their “outdated” educations to live life in the 21st century.

    My father was a mediocre student in the 1940’s by his own admission yet he could calculate how to cut a complex angled piece of wood with a pencil on the piece of wood. He was able to figure out how to move large, heavy checkstands by himself using the materials at hand.

    And need I remind all those education theorists that are demanding computer programming skills for everyone that the SR-71 Blackbird and the man on the moon were put done with SLIDERULES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and paper. Not to mention that the Empire State Building was built in less than a year. And that General Motors sold MILLIONS of cars during era of paperwork without computers.

    So maybe educators should look backward for the solution to eduction’s future, and stay out of politics.

  2. Hi Larry.

    Thank you for this post as well as for the reference to that new study. Another component that I believe this report may have overlooked is the role that superintendents need to play in not only building coalitions but also cultivating social networks to support communications between and within those coalitions. In my dissertation research, I observed that superintendents – as well as principals – understood the need to perform these various functions. Their challenge, however, lay in creating common understanding and language throughout the district in support of various initiatives. My data shows that while there may be coherence and understanding within coalitions, it did not necessarily disperse throughout the district.


    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Beth, for comment and what your research shows so far about the importance of social media networks in dispersing info and knowledge of existing initiatives and district direction.Wish you well in completing the dissertation.

  3. jturner56

    Thanks Larry. As always informative.

    I would also add that good teachers (and school managers etc) are also designers. Change and opportunity/risk necessitates this. And that differentiates between teachers as educators and teachers treated as industrial units.


  4. mike g

    Good post.

    I agree that supe candidates probably see building coalitions as being, to use your phrase, “in their bones.”

    Let me suggest an edit to the report’s frame — perhaps call it “Common Errors by Supes in Coalition Building” — and then we get to its interesting nuggets.

    I thought the paper offers two types of observed supe failures at the job of coalition building.

    1. Some supes have a sense of urgency and (sometimes healthy) impatience. They will be accused of being “autocratic.” Instead of “powering through” when facing resistance on Reform A, they should try to generate a win on Reform B or C. Then circle back to A.

    2. “Some gain a reputation for agreeing with the last person to see them, or for making agreements one day and acting unpredictably the next.”

    So the implied advice: clearly lay out disagreement. Better to say “Gee, I hear you, but we disagree on X…though maybe we can work together on Y” than to hides disagreement (hoping to be non-confrontational while face-to-face).

  5. Laura H. Chapman

    I think that readers should not look for expertise on matters of education from the belief tank that sponsored this report.

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