George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Close your eyes and imagine a school administrator. What do you see? We have many archetypes to conjure from film and literature: Angry/Authoritarian (Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller); Protective/Wise (Harry Potter); Big-Hearted/Ineffective (Grease); and perhaps my favorite -- Jeremy Piven's Vindictive/Imperious Dean in Old School. Like most archetypes, these characters don't convey the true depth of the human being behind the position. Yet these characterizations carry grains of truth and offer some deeper insights into the nature of school leadership.

The work of the school administrator happens on a very public stage. This pressure can have a dampening effect on leaders' willingness to take risks and help their organizations through the exciting (and often uncomfortable) process of looking forward. It can also trigger different survival techniques: Appease/Evade, Command/Control, and an approach we can simply call Teflon. When leadership becomes an exercise in maintaining (and advancing) our position, we fail to nourish school cultures based on creativity, openness, and comfort with ambiguity -- qualities defining many leading-edge businesses that still seem scarce in the world of education.

Fortunately, there are many examples of leaders who are influencing their organizations by adopting approaches and techniques that complement the increasingly dynamic, interconnected, volatile nature of our global village. In implementing these practices and attitudes, they also nurture their own well-being, curiosity, and integrity -- both personally and professionally. And these practices can help us collectively reimagine the archetype of tomorrow's school leader.

Embracing Creativity and Play

Dr. Peter Gray delivered an important TEDx talk on the decline of play in today's culture, a factor in the significant increase in children's depression and anxiety. School leaders from pre-K to higher education should take note: Play is not something frivolous, an "extra" that we take care of during recess and lunch. Play is perhaps the fundamental aspect of how we learn to socialize, think creatively, develop resilience, and cultivate deeper senses of confidence and well-being. Leaders who are attentive to the physical and emotional challenges and joys of working in schools also understand one important fact: Play is not just for children!

Being playful isn't the opposite of being serious or competent. In fact, encouraging play at work can be a tremendous productivity tool, tapping into our intrinsic curiosity and desire to experiment. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has four tenets that his NBA team lives by:

  • Joy
  • Mindfulness
  • Compassion
  • Competition

If this philosophy works for a corporation worth $1.3 billion (according to Forbes), then why can't we give ourselves permission to explore new approaches in educational leadership?

One way to celebrate play as an entire school community (along with kids from around the world) is by signing up for Global School Play Day (disclaimer: I am a co-founder). Last year, 65,000 students participated on six continents. This year, over 100,000 are signed up a week in advance of the February 3 date. Here is what Principal Jesse Woodward of Marshall Elementary (Castro Valley, California) says:

It isn't just the kids who need unstructured play, it is us adults, too. . . even the principal! Let's all get out and play together. It is the best way to form meaningful relationships that will support children when the learning gets difficult.

Reimagine (and Relocate) Meetings

We want our staff to feel and act like a community, yet the way we gather often feels very unlike how a community acts together. After a tiring, exhilarating, stressful, interesting, challenging, and frustrating day of teaching, we ask our teachers to gather in the same location, sit in rows, listen to someone else talk, and not speak except for brief periods. This is hardly a recipe for engagement and connection. An anthropologist of 2116, for example, would look back to identify this as a not-so-subtle demonstration of power and authority. Leaders can turn this dynamic on its head when they take meetings outdoors. After all, don't the outdoors invite a sense of adventure?

Daily Interactions and Acknowledgements: A Culture of Celebration

It's human nature to perseverate on the things that bother us -- we're more likely to talk about our aches and pains than about the things that are working just fine. If school leaders aren't careful, they can limit themselves to handling only the inevitable daily challenges and dramas. The danger here is that the leader spends little to no time recognizing and celebrating the great work going on every day, work often resulting from years of sustained effort and teamwork across the entire organization. By taking time each day to simply acknowledge people -- from asking how they're doing to inquiring about a challenging project that you know they've taken on -- leaders nourish a sense that celebration and mutual acknowledgement are a part of the school's organizational fabric rather than something reserved solely for the monthly faculty meeting.

Take Care of Yourself

The work of leaders is stressful. The stress of leadership can (and does) take a toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We often carry the weight of our work back to our homes and families -- even those of us who project radiant positivity during the workday. The leader that fails to take care of herself is the leader that has gotten too caught up in yet another archetype that we didn’t mention above: Selfless/Sacrificial. While I appreciate the idea of "servant leadership" (helping others is one of the most fundamental ways to feel that we're doing something meaningful in the world), I'm suspicious of any Stand and Deliver model by which the individual takes care of everybody but him- or herself. We must question leaders' Hero/Martyr tendency. While the impulse to "fix" every technical or cultural challenge may come from a true desire to make people's lives easier, it diminishes an organization's capacity to learn from those challenges and reinforces the idea that only the leader has the solution. What message does the leader send when he or she takes time for self-care?

Here’s a quick tour of how some local California principals live a balanced life while nourishing stronger interpersonal connections in their work environments. Catina Haugen (Grant Elementary, Petaluma) talks about the importance of her staff connecting with each other beyond work. Kenneth Durham (New Tech High, Sacramento) discusses how leaders need to focus more on building relationships and less on "being in charge." Jen Kloczko (Natomas Charter, Sacramento) promotes fitness for staff and students with Workout Wednesdays. Leaders like these should be the architects (and archetypes) for the leadership training required of aspiring school administrators.

A leader’s ultimate authority is in setting the tone by which the organization interacts with itself, and establishing by word and deed what is permitted. Is it permissible to be joyful, to experiment, explore, and play? Educational leaders have an opportunity to create a new archetype (perhaps inspiring the films of the next half century!) by becoming what Michael Fullan describes as the "positive contagion." Leaders matter less for the ideas that they possess and more for their ability to connect ideas (sometimes controversial) and people across their organizations. By attending to our human need to create, connect, and play, leaders assure that great ideas can evolve from young seedlings into robust, self-supporting ecosystems.

Not to mention that the journey will be so much more enjoyable for all involved!

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I love these ideas. I've often felt like we have a dearth of quality school leaders these days- lots of folks willing to manage the administrivia, but few real instructional leaders. This has me wondering if maybe it's not about the people, but about the way they feel they must do their jobs- all of these archetypes. Perhaps good instructional leaders are being destroyed by expectations? Like they say, put a good person in a bad system and the system will win every time...

tmayhueSEL's picture

Hi - we are taking part in Global School Play day too! Our 'day' occurs on the 4th rather than the 3rd (the 3rd is Career Day). As a part of Catholic Schools week, we are calling it "Student Day" and on that day the school is divided into play stations (outdoor play, indoor games, art, . . even a karaoke station!) and when kids show up to our area, they engage in play with as little adult intervention as possible. We will take photos and share. (I still need to officially sign up through the Global Play day website) I love this article and will share with my admin team.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

I think the task of a good school leader has been minimized with the shadow of NCLB. The 'fun' was removed from many schools (urban /low-income/minority/large ELL populations) where the kids needed it the most. I felt a great victory two years ago with finding a way to use Title 1 money for an arts and dance program at one of the lowest performing schools in Oakland, Ca. Such programs should be the norm!


Eric Saibel's picture
Eric Saibel
Middle School Principal, Global School Play Day, writer, painter, CUE Rockstar faculty.

Laura - thank you so much for these thoughts. I think the problem is that so many great teachers feel very pessimistic about what it means to be an administrator - and often their fears are well-founded when the school or district's leadership model looks and feels more like a bureaucracy than a responsive, human system. Often people fear that they will lose touch with students - and that the only students they'll work with are the tough ones. But tremendous rewards await the leader that is able to get out of the office and involve themselves in the day in, day out experience of student learning and adult collaboration. Education should be very worried about how negatively we view the work of school leadership and continue to rethink/re-message the role! Cheers.

Eric Saibel's picture
Eric Saibel
Middle School Principal, Global School Play Day, writer, painter, CUE Rockstar faculty.

Stories like these make the entire Global School Play Day team excited to continue expanding awareness about the importance of play in the day-to-day experience of every student (and adult) around the world. We will be really excited to see all of the 1,000s of stories shared on the #GSPD2016 hashtag throughout the day - and beyond! 143K students around the world can become 143M!

Eric Saibel's picture
Eric Saibel
Middle School Principal, Global School Play Day, writer, painter, CUE Rockstar faculty.

JR - I couldn't agree more; "rigor" and "accountability" seem to be hammers that hit hardest on the schools serving the communities with the highest needs. Tragically we see some models of school that emphasize control over creativity - and the hours/days spent preparing for the tests rob children of the opportunity at authentic experiences. As a former public school kid in Oakland myself (Maxwell Park Elementary grades K-1) I am grateful for educators like you who are making a difference for kids by emphasizing what's most important.

Dr. Jacek Polubiec's picture

Many aspects of the outdated approaches to leadership can be attributed to the lingering archaic preconceptions of what motivates people. With carrots and sticks approach you can get the bare minimum outcomes and ZERO commitment from those being supervised. If you want high quality work, dedication and commitment, you need to look into the nature of the work that needs to be done. Teachers enter the profession already intrinsically motivated, yet their "motivational bank account" (Polubiec, 2016) is gradually depleted because intrinsic motivation is not supported. Intrinsic motivation is supported by Autonomy, Competency as well as Connectedness, so as long as these elements are present, humans can reach their potential and go beyond just "doing their job." This is when fun, enjoyment and genuine creativity flourish, students love to learn and teachers love to teach and learn as well. The research is clear on where we need to go as leaders because the world is changing and carrots and sticks do not work anymore, and will never work again.

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