August 15, 2023
Here is Alice, lost in Wonderland and seeking direction from the Cheshire Cat:
“Would you tell me, please, which way to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the cat.
“I don’t much care… .” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” said the cat.
“But so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the cat, “if you only walk far enough.”
Perhaps your experiences with leadership in schools have been more inspiring than mine, but this exchange offers me a whimsical reminder of the essence of the leadership style of so many (not all) of the school leaders I have known. By school leaders, I mean all levels of leadership from head to toe. Most have had no sense of which way to go because they had no real destination in mind, nor did they even care much about the destination. They simply hoped to get somewhere, which they would manage to do if they hung on to the job long enough, doggedly plodding on, rather like our do-nothing politicians.
Several years ago, Head X had to leave campus for a few days to raise some money. He had no assistant head, so he left his academic director in charge with this instruction: “If anything comes up, just do something. It doesn’t really matter what.”
Most school leaders are a bit more subtle. They have adopted the clichés of vision-speak and take every opportunity to sound as though they have a destination—DEI, student-centered learning, social justice, project-based learning, health and wellness, empathy and compassion. But when it comes to making actual decisions, vision-speak becomes quickly divorced from substance. Deliberation and decisions tend to be ad hoc, cast adrift from any guiding principle or vision suggested by the clichés being spouted.
Here is a typical illustration: The Curriculum Committee is meeting—a collection of school leaders such as the school head, department heads, assistant head, and directors of this or that. The issue is whether to require that high school juniors take six courses for one term so that the arts can have more access to students. It is February, almost time to publish next year’s course catalog. In various ways, the faculty and this committee have spent several years, including this one, talking…