Month: September 2021

ADVICE FOR NEWER LEADERS

Here is a typical message I often get from newer school leaders:

I wanted to touch base with you. I have a few questions and value your insight.  I had a successful year.  Being a leader is certainly a challenge, but I have learned a lot. Do you have any advice for year two or three?

(1) How, in your experiences, do years two, three and four differ from year one?  

(2) I’ve been receiving a lot of different advice about future steps in my career.  In my district, I’m interested in ultimately moving into a principal position. I’d also be interested in K-12 coordinator position in other districts. Should I just wait and see how things play out here? There will likely be openings sooner rather than later, and then express my interest in being a building principal in the event an opening occurs, or should I look outside the district if the right opening comes along?

(3) I’ve been advised that you should always wait until gaining tenure before looking for a new position. Do you agree? I don’t want to be perceived as being ungrateful for being given the opportunity to work here.

I am happy in my position for now, but given the administrative and political structures here, I don’t know how long I might want to stay in my current role. Thanks for your insight!”

My response:

It’s great to hear from you. I’m not surprised you had a successful year. Year one is a “getting to know you year”—first impressions—can we trust one another—are you the real deal. Year two is “let’s get down to business and start doing some substantive stuff. The challenge, as you know, is that a lot of folks would rather “make nice” than “make improvements”. It’s tricky because you can’t alienate your constituents, even a minority of them, who could resist and/or undermine you and your efforts. My experience taught me that most teachers prefer to be comfortable with the status quo. They certainly don’t like changes being made without their input and involvement.

The degree to which you can push teachers and in what direction depends on the support of your principal and district leaders. Even if your leaders assert that they are aggressive and want change, you still need to be cautious.

I understand the “rule” to get your tenure first and then seek a new position. However, if you are confidential in how you search for a new job, you will probably be okay. That means, confide in no one—not even your closest allies—everybody gossips. Most districts to which you apply will maintain confidentiality until the very end of the process when they need to check your references.

The most accessible career path forward is usually within your own district; especially a larger district where there is a greater likelihood for movement. Personally speaking, in most schools an assistant principal is an important but a thankless job—student discipline, scheduling, cafeteria and bus supervision. The most redeeming aspect is that it’s the most viable path to the principalship. In my opinion, a k-12 subject area coordinator job does little for your career unless it’s in an innovative place that does great work with a well-earned reputation.

One last thought about asserting your leadership. Do not lead by advocating for a specific “pet program”, even if you think it’s a good thing. Lead by having your constituents look at a problem, especially if there is data that clearly demonstrates a problem. Then the group has the shared responsibility to define the real problem and search for possible solutions. Leading by advocating for a specific program, technology, or method is like starting with a pre-determined solution and then matching it to a perceived problem; it’s a solution in search of a problem. That approach is usually doomed for failure. You will be perceived as trying to enhance your career by making changes for the sake of change.

Let me offer an analogy to further clarify what I mean by not leading by pushing for your favorite approach. Let’s say you are concerned that your family members have unhealthy diets. Assume that you do most of the cooking in your family; that includes doing the shopping and preparing the menu. Assume you love vegetarian Indian food, particularly the taste of curry. You believe vegetarian Indian food is healthy and delicious, however, your family members prefer other kinds of meals. Nevertheless, you persist in trying to convince them to eat your Indian food. As they say in the movies, “Houston, you’ve got a problem.”

Hope this helps. Please call me if you need to discuss this further. Keep in touch.”

WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF GETTING AN INTERVIEW?

Seeking a leadership position is similar to a competitive horse-race. The odds for your success are largely based on: (1) the status of the potential employer, (2) the degree of nepotism at play, and (3) your qualifications and experience. The status of school communities can be stereotyped according to their historic reputation, that is the perceived quality of education, affluence, political stability, students’ college acceptance, achievement scores, etc. Whether these reputations are in fact valid can be suspect. Nevertheless, these reputations are widely accepted and durable, and determine how appealing it is to work in a given school district.

Frankly, school districts are often stereotyped as A, B, C, or D? A districts are affluent, homogeneous, high achieving. D districts are the opposite: poor, Black and Latino, low achieving, politically troubled. B districts are middle class; C districts are working class and usually diverse.

As an example, for an assistant principal position you might find about 250 or more resumes submitted for an A district, 125 to 150 for a B, 40 to 50 for a C, and 20 to 30 for a D. This means that the ratios of resumes received per “category” are about for every 1 for D, there are 2 for C, 5 for B, and to 10 for A. Yes, an A district would get 10 times the number of applicants compared to a D. These ratios are consistent beyond just assistant principal positions; these ratios hold up across the hierarchy of leadership jobs. Therefore, your odds for getting an interview are much better for D and C districts.

How does nepotism play into the equation? Let’s define “nepotism” as “giving preferential treatment”. In many districts “courtesy interviews” are extended to current and sometimes past employees, and friends and family of those in influential places. Assuming that 10% of first round interviewees are for purposes of courtesy, that means that your odds of even getting interviewed goes down by 10% because the number of interviews granted will be limited.

Finally, let’s focus on qualifications and experience. The most important qualifications beyond the minimum requirements of proper certification and minimum years of service, are the status of the district in which you are currently serving, the similarities (demographics) between your current district and theirs, the doctorate, your perceived race and ethnicity, the reputation of the colleges from which you graduated, and particularly your accomplishments.

All of these factors go into the odds of just getting an interview. What can you do to increase your odds? The only factor that you have any control over is your accomplishments as reflected in your resume. So what should you do– review and revise your resume and emphasize your accomplishments as they relate to the job and the school-community.

My frank analysis is based upon my decades of experience as a school leader who participated in the screening and interviewing of candidates, and my ten-year experience in coaching hundreds of candidates for leadership jobs. It is not my intention to discourage you from applying for jobs. I do, however think it’s important for you to understand the realities and the odds you are facing. I also want to be clear that there are many excellent, well-qualified “insiders” who get interviews, and that “long-shots” can and do break the odds and win the horse-race.