Eric Sheninger: 5 Leadership Problems
What are the most pressing leadership problems facing today’s education leaders? Eric Sheninger is a Senior Fellow with The International Center for Leadership in Education at Scholastic Achievement Partners, as well as the K12 Director of Technology and Innovation for the Spotswood School District in New Jersey. He works with school leaders and educators across the globe on digital leadership and learning strategies. Sheninger helps education leaders find a natural complement to the work they’re already doing, to allow more enhanced outcomes through the assistance of technology. Eric Sheninger believes it all boils down to what you do better, working smarter not harder, and moving schools forward to create relevant, meaningful, applicable institutions of learning that students not only appreciate, but want to be a part of as well. Connect Learning Today had the privilege of talking with Sheninger for a candid and insightful leadership interview.
Eric Sheninger’s Universal Problems for Leaders: In his own words:
Leadership is laden with problems and issues, many of which are out of the control of school leaders. I remember as a building-level leader, I was so frustrated by the things that I could not control. Those things that we cannot control pose the biggest problems for us in establishing a shared vision, to create and implement a strategic plan, and really create a culture of teaching and learning that works for students, as opposed to one that routinely works well just for the adults.
1. The number one universal problem across the world right now, not just here in the United States, but across the world, is misguided efforts in education reform. There are a lot of politicians and special interest groups that have no business influencing what goes on in schools. Many have not worked in a school, nor have set foot in a school in recent memory. There has been a connection, through testing organizations, with Common Core and others, though, where now a majority of a school year is being allocated to standardized testing. Compound that with all the other reforms, such as tenure reform, evaluation reform, along with all these acronyms and mandates.
What has happened is that reform has created an influx of directives and mandates placed on school leaders that focus more on management as opposed to true instructional leadership. And that becomes a problem, because leaders are not able to have the type of impact that they would like to have on building a better school culture, coaching, informal meetings with teachers, or interactions with students, because of the amounts of paperwork that needs to be completed. Additionally, the amounts of monitoring needed to ensure that all these mandates and directives are put in place, and are adhered to, can be overwhelming.
2. The second major universal problem for leaders is micromanagement. This can be especially true at the building level, where principals can be routinely micromanaged by the central office, and sometimes boards of education. Education is notorious for having all these levels of bureaucracy—directing and mandating. It has become such a top down approach to leadership. It’s a problem for leaders, because they don’t have the autonomy, support, or the courage to do the work that needs to be done. There’s all this red tape that has developed. I think that many leaders are either afraid, or just don’t want to go through the hassle of going down the path less traveled to implement innovative ideas, because they are so over-burdened by the micromanagement pervasive in virtually every school system.
3. The third problem for leaders in education is an excuse not to move forward. The number one excuse used by leaders is time. “I don’t have time. It’s another thing I have to do.” That time excuse really holds our schools and leaders back. I believe that time becomes an issue with many leaders, because there’s more of a focus on management than actual leadership. I think that in order to overcome that problem, leaders need to look at how they allocate their time, and become better at delegating the managerial tasks to assistants, who can do that work. Then leaders can do what they’re hired to do—lead, inspire, take people to where they need to be—model, and become a cheerleader to inspire.
Leaders shouldn’t focus on the mountains of paperwork, or use the time excuse to be an inhibitor for change. It’s easy for everyone to say, “I don’t have the time.” We all have the same 24 hours a day, so we have to find time to do things, if not, other excuses happen. Leaders need to make a concerted effort to say they’re going to do this, instead of that. If you say, you’re going to focus an amount of your day being more present in classrooms, conducting one more observation, and make that time and schedule it out—beforehand—then the excuses go away—for the most part. Of course, you could always make an excuse, not to use the time you’ve set aside, but it really comes down to making the time, rather than finding the time.
4. The fourth problem for school leaders is technology. The evolution of technology has been so fast and furious that it has caught the majority of leaders off guard. Some turned a blind eye, hoping that it would pass, and kept schools isolated, silos of information. What’s happened is that leaders, who didn’t embrace technology, have become irrelevant, and in turn, have sustained systems that have long outlived their usefulness. The problem is that leaders have not seen, or stayed abreast of changes in technology. The result is a method of conformity that keeps schools structured the same way they were one hundred years ago. In a sense, schools no longer prepare students for the world in which they live, and where they need to be successful. School has become irrelevant. Schools aren’t prepared for the real world because of the issues leaders have had with finding the value in how technology could be harnessed to do better what leaders, educators, and students already do—to complement the work they’re already doing.
School leaders, today, can’t look at technology as a problem. It is not, and will never be a silver bullet for education, but it’s more about how school leaders effectively utilize technology to improve professional practice, how they empower their staff to integrate technology with purpose, and allow students to create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery. It even extends down to how leaders, especially with technology, have to give up control, trust kids, honor voice, while empowering choice, to allow students to use real world tools to do real world meaningful work. So, where technology has been seen as a problem, it can now, possibly be, the greatest catalyst to deeper, more relevant learning that will truly prepare students for a world, where we don’t know what the jobs will be a year from now—five years from now—and give them the skill sets they truly need to be successful.
5. My fifth, universal leadership problem is shrinking budgets. For the past few years we’ve seen budgets get smaller, with zero-based increases. Leaders want to move forward, they want to make technology purchases, they’ve articulated a vision and a rationale for how technology will be implemented with purpose to enhance and support learning, but it all comes down to what’s in the budget to support those purchases. More often than not, leaders give up, and say, “We just don’t have the money.” That’s what they tell teachers. Or, that’s what central office tells building level leaders. We need to look at solutions, instead of excuses when it comes to all these problems facing leaders. When it comes to budgets, leaders need to critically analyze what money is being spent on now, and reallocate funds to make sure they really are maximizing the impact of the monies they do have. With a little creativity, and critical analysis, we can stop buying the notebooks, pencils, paper, pens, and all the other stuff that schools buy every year, because that’s the way its always been done, and figure out how we can reallocate and reposition money to purchase elements and resources that our schools desperately need.
Yes, shrinking budgets are a problem. So we need to look at what we’re spending money on, and make sure that every single dollar is being spent in a way that is going to impact the most students. And when I talk about impact I’m talking about an impact on learning.
About the Interviewer:
Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.