We hear about leadership all the time. In politics it’s used as a cop out when you want to make a decision without listening, in life it’s expounded on by ‘dragons’ with four hours of sleep a night and a ‘headcount’ to reduce.
But what is leadership in education?
Sure, in our classrooms and lecture halls we lead from the front. We’re that performance led type leader who leads by doing, showing, explaining, coaxing. Dedication to the subject, the methods we use, the technology we introduce, the voice, the heart, the enthusiasm all count for students and for ourselves.
But what of leading our schools, our colleagues, the communities that form around the buildings we visit everyday to lead students as set out above? The effort to do those things right that makes us leaders in the room often in the early days of teaching to focus exclusively on the students, rightly. Around us though in those early days there have to be people who show by professional example what it means to be a teacher. I had those people around me, they made me feel safe and gave me courage, when I had a problem they said: ‘here’s what you’ll do…’ And I did it and it worked and I’m still doing it.
So. There are classroom leaders and there are staff room leaders, and they crossover, they can be the same people, that’s a school you know is work.
Then there are teachers who become managers. They have to sink or swim, learning how to manage teachers, parents, students, as well as finance and set the tone for a school is no small task. In Ireland we don’t tend to see these managers as drivers of curricular change, but all that might change if we get the reforms some of them want: on top of reporting to the National Education Welfare Board, the Department of Education and Skills, not to mention the Boards of Management of their own schools the proposition of some Principals having control too over the curricular direction of a school at Junior Cycle fills some of them, and some of those they lead, with dread. Of course the further away from the classroom these leaders are the less their job is about education and more about being perceived as a leader.
I’m sure the Minister for Education himself, Ruairi Quinn would say he is ultimately the leader in Irish education. But swayed as he seems to be by business, the media or worst of all the money men in Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure (was there ever devised a more appropriate acronym for people who cut and cut than D-PER?), he doesn’t seem to lead so much as follow. He and his department don’t seem to bother with what the views of people in classrooms think. We have reached a roadblock that threatens standstill when a minister can ignore teachers entirely an unilaterally change the secondary school curriculum without even giving notice to teachers.
Why were teachers removed from the dialogue on education reform? How did education leaders let this to happen? Who stood up for education?
We teach in a world where the outside influences bang on the doors of our schools, and they have done for years, not least the deepening social consequences of the economic disaster no student of ours had a hand in. These and other political decisions like those mentioned above complicate the job of teachers and alienate them from the solutions.
We resist so little though. We are accused so often of lying down before these threats.
That is why we now need to strengthen our resolve through the only educational leadership I haven’t mentioned so far, our teachers’ unions. Battered, derided and ignored by many teachers without doubt, the teacher unions remain the only leaders that will listen when we shout, that will act on our behalf, nationally.
That is why the ASTI has filled the gap the Minister left when he decided to shift the ground beneath us on Junior Cycle reform by asking teachers what they think of the plan. They aren’t happy. They want leadership and they know that only by asking teachers who actually teach can you lead them forward. They also speak of demoralisation and being cowed into accepting whatever is thrown at them.
Only through concerted and united action will we able to say we stood up for education, that we were leaders.
Let’s leave the economics gurus to their crystal balls and the media to ‘top stories’, it’s time for educators to take back education.
Attend the public session on Junior Cycle Reform at the ASTI Convention in Wexford on April 2nd