By Dr. Michael M. Piccirillo, CASDA Executive Director
“I know of no leader in any era who hasn’t had at least one mentor … who showed them the way to be, or in some cases, not to be, or demanded more from them than they had to give” (Bennis, 2009, p.85).
In his book, On Becoming a Leader, Bennis (2009) says about leaders, “... we need mentors and friends and groups of allied souls” (p.85). If what Bennis asserts is true, why is it commonly accepted that all stakeholders in the public education system can benefit from ongoing professional learning support, teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, office professionals, but not leaders? Why in public education is it assumed leaders are finished products, ready to handle any challenge from day one no matter how complex?
Leaders at all levels, it could be argued, have the most intellectually and emotionally demanding role in any educational organization. They wear multiple hats crossing into numerous areas of responsibility, for example, curriculum, budget, policy, personnel, advocacy, athletics, public relations, mental and physical health. Yet, school districts grudgingly, if at all, support research-based leadership development like coaching and mentoring. Leadership development is often an add-on, an occurrence out of convenience rather than intent.
Enough already! As a retired administrator with 20 years of experience at the building and district level, I can tell you plain and simple I could have benefitted from the ongoing support of a coach/mentor in every position I held. Fortunately, I benefited from the informal mentoring of several amazing supervisors, but there were definitely gaps in this informal network of support. Sutton and Gong (2021) in Rethinking the “Superhero” Principal Narrative state, “... a common narrative is that ‘superhero’ principals can overcome the odds of systemic inequalities as well as the day-to-day challenges of their roles by just summoning greater internal strength, coping skills, and resilience” (p.39). Sounds like something out of a Marvel Avengers movie.
Looking back on my years as a building and district leader, no amount of internal summoning of strength, self-talk about gutting the situation out, visualization of a better future or other self-help practice could diminish the impact of a daily deluge of stress, negativity, and unrealistic expectations. The tsunami of work expectations, combined with the reality of personal life expectations, and the typical lifetime of mental and emotional baggage/trauma cannot just be wished away or repressed by the delusion of leaders as rugged individualists. As Sutton and Gong (2021) note, all of this pressure and stress eventually leads to burnout. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, leaders choose to overstay their welcome in the profession for financial reasons, or ego, not wanting to be labeled a quitter, martyrdom or a myriad of other equally self-destructive reasons. The burned out leader is not an effective leader and everyone associated with them suffers.
I retired at age 55, because in part I had reached the point where I realized I was no longer able to sustain the quality of effort I expected from myself and I was no longer willing to make the unrealistic sacrifices that were demanded of my time, energy, emotion and soul. Recent deaths in my immediate family combined with years of working 24/7 and the increasingly unrealistic expectations of decision makers and people at every level of the education system contributed to my decision. In the end, retirement was in the best interest of my family, my colleagues, the school district and most importantly, me. A decision, I believe, may have extended my life and definitely improved the quality of my day-to-day life.
Being hopeful, it doesn’t have to be this way! We can intentionally, systemically address the needs of leaders at all levels. As young educators begin down the leadership path, our profession must “pull out all stops” to support their intellectual and social emotional needs. Ongoing coaching provided by trained seasoned leaders should be step one. There is no doubt leadership has become more complex in recent years with the 24/7 access of internal and external publics through email and social media. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are at another crossroads, where as a profession we have the opportunity to reimagine the entire system of public education. I believe it starts with ongoing, meaningful, relationship-based leadership development for all leaders at every stage of their career.
In sum, whether you choose CASDA to provide coaching services for your new or veteran leaders, please make leadership development and ongoing support a top priority for your school district. This appeal is not new. In fact, the following excerpt from the New York Leadership in Educational Administration Development Center Report of the Select Seminar on the Needs of Beginning Principals, published in 1988, calls for a district commitment to support for new leaders. An investment in leadership development benefits everyone connected to a school system.
Recommendations to Superintendents, Central Administration, and Boards of Education
“It was the consensus of the group that a statement be made directly to the superintendents, central administration, and boards of education who will employ beginning principals. School districts invest in a beginning principal by offering a most rewarding and challenging position. Districts must maintain a high level of commitment, confidence and support to help the new administrator succeed.”