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Leadership challenges in schools today

Monday, June 04, 2007

School leaders must be highly qualified, given the inconsistent demands and contradictions placed on the education system today.

Such demands are because our society is dynamically complex, highly political and undergoing unprecedented changes.

True, authentic, accountable and dynamic leaders are greatly needed.

Schools are faced with leadership crisis today.

Different school cultures warrant different leadership strategies.

However, the principles and ethics must never be compromised. School leaders with 15-20 year old qualification find it difficult and impossible to manage changes in education in the 21st century.

It is not children's indiscipline which gives stress to leaders; it is their obsolete qualification which is unworkable with the challenges of the 21st century educational demands.

The challenges faced in contemporary education were never faced twenty years back.

Today, school leaders are beleaguered and disorientated when faced with new challenges, some beyond their comprehension while others too alien in nature to resolve and tackle.

This is one of the key reasons for stress among leaders/ teachers which affects children and quality education.

The FTU believes that most problems besetting schools is due to bad leadership.

General Secretary, Agni Deo Singh is right by stating that most problems in schools will point to weakness in leadership.

Education permanent secretary, Emi Rabukawaqa reminded principals that dynamic leaders are needed to respond to pressures from stakeholders in education.

She is correct in this respect. The search for highly qualified, dynamic and ethical leadership is paramount if the education system is to become challenging and worthwhile.

Leadership approaches in schools

According to Foppiani, in his research article on "Leadership in the Era of Globalisation: What Makes a Good Leader," he describes that basic aspects of leadership has produced different ideas and views. Each approach adheres to some leadership principles as more important than others.

These approaches include: (1) the trait theory; (2) the style theory, and (3) the contingency theory. The trait theory contends that what makes someone an effective leader is her/his own personality and talents; ie., leaders are born and not made. The consensus among those who accept this theory is that intelligence, initiative, self confidence and orientation towards achievement and interpersonal skills are important. The style theory says that it is people's behaviour rather than their psychological characteristics that determines whether they are effective leaders or not.

Last, the contingency theory says that what constitutes an effective style of leadership depends on the situation.

The most important principle stated by this theory is that a good leader's style is fixed because it is determined by an individual's personality.

However, Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in Organisational Change through effective leadership have disagreed, saying at the end of the 1970's that for a leader to be most effective, their style should be adaptable.

Leadership styles and problems

Most school leaders manage by manipulating, threatening, and intimidating teachers.

Some are transferred by leaders who feel threatened. Sometimes, teachers discover the unscrupulous and corrupt dealings of the leader, the laxity, favouritism, nepotism etc. So what is wrong if a teacher questions this?

The fact is most school leaders (dictators) do not want to be questioned. If questioned, he/she will be sidelined for positions and victimised. The ministry must investigate such heads.

Out of fear, teachers hardly report the victimisation they go though. Officers should be allowed to directly discuss or lodge complains to CEO's about their unethical superiors in the name of transparency.

This will help leaders to practice fairness and take a consultative approach for the betterment of education.

Poor leadership begets poor teachers

Flexible leaders realise that school development is a team effort. Education is a partnership between schools, the state and community. Sound decision making relies on motivation and commitment of every staff and collaboration of the school community. Mostly, unilateral decisions are made by leaders behind closed doors! Such bureaucratic decisions reflect poor leadership.

Professor Akhila Sharma states that democracy prevails in school where ethical leaders reside.

There are unfortunately some administrators with diploma qualification even though the school has degree holders. They lack understanding, depth, choices and alternatives.

Some believe that there are no training programs for heads. In my view, the state should not be blamed for this.

Instead they should be gradually replaced by more qualified and competent teachers if they have, over the years failed to upgrade their own qualification.

The burden to train leaders must not lie with the state, given the increasing brain drain of state-educated workers.

Leadership crisis faced today is also because many teachers in acting positions were confirmed in their positions after 1987 even though many did not meet the criteria for confirmation/promotion. This may be an area for investigation. Higher qualification must be considered instead of relying on just a minimum qualification for appointments and promotions.

Lack of ownership

Unilateral decisions are largely unworkable. In schools where mission and vision statements are framed by the head, lack ownership. In some schools, leaders have not espoused and made adjustments to the decade old vision which is merely an inscription on the wall of the school building.

Few schools (such as MGM High with their concept of the MGM family) make it a point to collectively work towards their mission and vision. Professor Subramani highlighted in the Education Commission report that individual initiative, personal creativity and ambition will be highly valued but equally important will be working together, team work, dialogue, consultation and collective decision-making.

Many school leaders talk at great lengths on these aspects but miserably fail to practice what they preach.

Positions dangerously compromised, the micro- politics and threats. Some administrators spend more time pleasing and exploiting committee members than in tackling the difficulties faced by teachers and students.

The actions of some self centred leaders leads to fragmentation, polarisation and divisions. Many teachers remain in one school for too long.

Some have retired in one or two schools because of the influence of school managements or their influence over school managements. Some use unethical means to maintain their positions to the detriment of the schools progress.

No teacher should remain in the same school for more than five years. The proposed rotation concept is a good idea.

Teachers must not develop a toad in a well attitude'; they need exposure to different school environments towards leadership development.

Some school managements plot to remove the head. Some teachers having links with the management are favoured by heads.

They intimidate teachers, are mostly out of school and are given lesser teaching load than required.

Despite their poor performances, they are protected and remain in the same school for long.

Locking out heads by the management is also common.

Allegations are put against them, some of which are unsubstantiated. Some cases may have merit. Whether true or otherwise, the fact is that there is lack of co-operation between school administration, management and teachers resulting in lockouts.

It is fundamental that friendly discussions and dialogue must occur frequently to avoid misunderstandings.

Potential problems can be resolved and settled through dialogue and discussion. Unfortunately, this is not happening and thus the stagnation and conflict in schools. A major problem of many committee run schools are poor management due to little training or experience leading to cases of financial mismanagement.

Past research and reports (such as Hopkin, 1979, Royal Commission, 1969, the Education Commission report, 2000) have also asserted that poor management has handicapped the development of education.

Selecting qualified people for school management and training is important for the effective management of schools so that they can manage without influence, coercion or manipulation from those with vested interests.

Sometimes, teachers are threatened in return for safe acting positions. Some do whatever the head tells them or wants done.

Providing grog for the head is one example. Speaking of grog, there are some schools where grog drinking sessions may still be prevalent.

Its ultimate effect is on children's education.

They report about teachers to the head so that their own position remains intact!

Such teachers show no regard to rules and conventions, professional ethics and the rights of other teachers.

Where such demeaning behaviour exists, conflicts are imminent. Such leaders may be having a very disturbed and stressful home environment.

They need to take a break, upgrade their qualification and learn to treat everyone with respect.

Some leaders leave important matters aside and spend much time discussing trivial matters.

They are quick to reprimand and discredit teachers for simple mistakes or unforeseen errors.

Teachers in such school environments are not given any decision making space and teach with fear where children become the victims.

The grant-in aid system established by the colonial government in 1916 was seen as the cause of inequalities in the quality and provision of education. The government has taken the challenge to abolish it allowing teachers to work without fear and threat. But despite this, threats on teachers continue by unethical leaders using the age old ACR (Annual Confidential Report).

Professor Akhila Sharma highlights that the key to school based leadership is not how well the leaders manage others but how well they manage themselves.

Moving forward

Dialogue is a very important factor in decision making.

A leader must see problems as friends and takes criticism with appreciation and highest degree of patience. Mahatma Gandhi said: "Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress. You must be the change you want to see in the world".

School leadership does not give absolute right to any leader to make draconian rules outside the realm of the civil service code, impede the democratic process and norms by subtly exercising force or encroach on fundamental rights of teachers.

In a dynamically complex school environment, a facilitative approach, collegial governance and multi-level planning is vital instead of the directive approach which is very bureaucratic.

Leaders need to continuously discuss issues openly with teachers. The tenet of devolution will see schools run in a transparent and democratic manner.

Teachers in schools must be given decision-making space for better outcomes and to become better classroom managers who can produce innovative, independent and critical thinkers.

An inflexible teaching and learning environment has adverse effect on children's education.

Authentic leaders are needed today to manage schools so that quality education is not compromised.

Professor Chandra, in 2004 stated that "quality comes from sound and innovative curriculum, effective and challenging classroom practice, challenging and valid assessment and from the provision of adequate resources for education".

Leaders need to continuously discuss issues openly with teachers.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, it must be remembered that no man can lead a public career really worth leading; no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character.

With a new social and political order in the nation, it is anticipated that school leadership will improve in the name of good governance with a better criteria for promotion and appointments.

The Prime Minister's plan to prioritise education can only flourish if there are qualified and ethical leaders to take up the challenge.

Pradeep C. Lal, is a teacher at Waiqele Secondary School, Labasa. The author would like to hear your views on micro- politics in schools and how it impinges upon the teaching and learning process.


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