Henry Ford is credited with the creation of the assembly line. Person A becomes great at and responsible for only Task A. Person B, task B, and so forth. While everyone is ultimately responsible for assembling the car, each individual is a specialist.
The assembly line is not the only example of if this, then that. When I think about food chains, for example, birds eat insects. Small mammals eat the birds. Big mammals eat the small mammals, etc. If something happens to the insects, the population of birds is impacted, and that negatively affects the small mammals which then affects the big mammals.
You get the point. In systems, when one layer of a system isn’t working as intended, the other layers of the system break down. Unfortunately, not everything in our lives is as clear and articulated as assembly lines or food chains. In schools, for example, we often see breakdowns in student outcomes, in labor relations, and even in relationships between the superintendent and the community. In thinking about this, one reason is due to a lack of understanding about who is responsible for what within a school’s system–this means it’s not any one person’s fault, but rather a system issue that needs attention.
A major reason for system challenges in schools is due to administrators who don’t fully understand their role. Generally, if you ask an administrator what their job is, the response goes something like this, “My job is to do what’s best for kids.” Certainly, this goal is laudable. After all, kids are the target audience of schools, right? I fell into this trap too. Early in my administrative career, I would have said doing what’s best for the students was my job. Period. What I realize now is this an incomplete statement of my beliefs or the job. And, I had to learn this the hard way.
As an administrator working with teachers, time and again in my earlier years, I saw myself as the “lead teacher.” In that role, I consistently asked teachers about how the students were doing. In fact, though it embarrasses me to admit it, there were times when I saw the teachers as obstacles to doing what was best for the students. Here’s what my problem was when I approached teachers this way as an administrator: I didn’t work with students directly. I was not planning the lessons, I wasn’t the person delivering the instruction, and I wasn’t the person rolling up my sleeves and working with the students during their successes and struggles. That is the job of the teacher, not the administrator. If I didn’t work directly with the students, who did I work wtih directly? The teachers. As such, my job is actually to do what’s in the best interest of kids by working with the people who work directly with the kids…and that’s not me.
I think Simon Sinek, author of the books Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last (just to name two), summed this up best in his video, “Simon Sinek on Education - Big Change.” In it he said,
I don’t think anybody goes to teaching college and dreams of becoming a teacher because they just want to teach math. There’s a service component to becoming a teacher. There’s an element of giving back to do something of a higher purpose that has nothing to do with the subjects they teach. But what is the underlying cause that would inspire them to become a teacher in the first place? Administrations have to obsess with creating an environment in which teachers want to come to school in which they feel that the administration has their backs. If I ask any school administrator what’s your number one priority, they’re going to tell me “the students.” It’s completely wrong. The responsibility of leadership has nothing to do with the results. Leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. Administration serves the teachers and the teachers serve the students. And when the administration believes that the numbers are everything, the teachers will protect themselves from their own leaders, and then the students will suffer. (2:50-3:54)
I felt so validated when I heard this because this is exactly what I have come to believe and how I aim to behave as a leader. I cannot leapfrog the people with whom I directly interact to get the results from the people I indirectly serve.
I now think about this in terms of this bullseye.
Students: There is no question, students are at the center because they are the ultimate target for schools. They are directly connected to their teachers and their families.
Teachers and Families: Teachers and families are responsible for directly impacting students and they should be supported by building administrators and teacher leaders (like department chairs, coaches, mentors, committee members, etc.).
Building Administrators and Teacher Leaders: Building administrators and teacher leaders are responsible for directly impacting teachers and families and should be supported by district office administrators. In other words, the job of building administrators and teacher leaders is ultimately to ensure students achieve success, but that is not their direct responsibility; ensuring the success of teachers and families is the job of building administrators and teacher leaders.
District Office Administrators: District office administrators are responsible for building administrators directly, and they are supported by the superintendent and the board of education.
Superintendent and Board of Education: The superintendent and board of education certainly serve the students, but they do so in the most indirect ways. Nevertheless, the governance and finances of the district are expressions of the values of the district and should be designed to serve students while the people within the role of superintendent and board of education support district office administrators.
[January 13, 2024 UPDATE: I should have said when this was first published that people within each ring should support each other no matter what ring anyone is in. As well, state departments of education should support superintendents and boards of education and state departments should be supported by the federal government]
In action, this looks like building administrators and teacher leaders asking teachers and families what they need to be successful in their direct role of ensuring student success. This also means holding teachers and families accountable for the success of students. Both are true. When the building administrators and teacher leaders support the teachers and families, it allows the teachers and families to support the students. In action, this looks like meetings where building administrators and teacher leaders ask teachers and families how they are and what they need.
One level up, in action this looks like district administrators asking building administrators and teacher leaders what they need to be successful in their direct role of ensuring teacher and family success. This also means holding building administrators and teacher leaders accountable for the success of teachers and families. Both are true. When the district administrators support the building administrators and teacher leaders, it allows the building administrators and teacher leaders to support the teachers. In action, this looks like meetings where district administrators ask building administrators and teacher leaders how they are and what they need.
I will spare you the parallels for the rest of the rings of the bullseye because you see the pattern. The job of each ring on the bullseye is to support the ring that they directly touch under them and to be supported by the ring that comes directly above them (I use the words “under” and “above” here in proximity on the bullseye). In other words, the board and the superintendent’s job is to support district office administrators who will tell them what the building-level administrators and teacher leaders need. In this dynamic, though the superintendent and board of education are ultimately responsible for the students if they do not care for the people with whom they are directly connected, the supply chain is negatively affected.
Going back to the food chain, what would happen if the big mammals, like tigers, started focusing on insects because without insects, the tiger figure, there wouldn’t be birds and without birds, the hyenas would starve. If the hyenas starved, the tigers would go hungry. Thus, tigers need to hunt insects. While tigers are indirectly impacted by the insects if the tigers hunt insects, that will create a problem for everything else in the food chain. In aligning the educational system with the analogy of a food chain, the significance of each layer's role becomes vividly apparent. Similar to tigers hunting insects to sustain the entire ecosystem, stakeholders in education must concentrate on their designated responsibilities. The success of the entire educational structure hinges on the seamless collaboration and support within each layer. By recognizing and prioritizing these interdependent roles, we ensure a robust and flourishing learning environment, echoing the delicate balance observed in nature's intricate food chains.
In short, no matter what field you’re in or what your title is, if you forget where you are on the bullseye, you will not only be off the mark, you will also find yourself contending with arrows being shot in your direction.
P.S. Have you ever tried to print something from the internet and it is filled with ads and images that you don’t really want to include? I use the Chrome extension, Print Friendly, which allows me to delete images and text I don’t want and to save paper and ink. It’s great for printing, creating PDFs, or even emailing. Check it out!
P.P.S. Please remember to...
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