I’ll be finishing up on my work as the Interim Superintendent of North Babylon Schools on March 3rd (very proud of my leadership team for what we’ve accomplished over the last 6 months). Laurie and I will be traveling for the 2nd and 3rd weeks in March. My new and expanded book “GETTING YOUR SCHOOL LEADERSHIP JOB” will be published in the Spring. And I will continue coaching educators, as I have been doing for the last 12 years. LIFE IS GOOD!!
We all know that local education is fueled by politics and the use of power, but we seldom talk about power publicly. To understand the dynamics of politics and power is to be empowered. What goes to the heart of these dynamics are: (1) the more power that’s exercised, the weaker it becomes; (2) the most potent form of power is perceived power; (3) the most outspoken critics are imposters; and (4) the real power resides with the students and their parents. Let us analyze these dynamics.
More Is Less. Mr. Smith threatens his students that if they continue to misbehave, he will send them to the office. Johnny steps over the line and is sent to the office. A lesson in power, right? Not so fast. Thirty minutes later, Johnny returns with a smirk on his face. Then Mary acts out and she’s sent to the office. She returns in 20 minutes. Okay, Mr. Smith, what’s happening to your authority? Lessons learned—do not make threats that you cannot uphold; and the more you exercise your power, the more it will be tested and the faster it will erode.
Perceived Power. If you are perceived to hold power, then you have power. If your constituents believe that you can get things done, and that you can influence other powerful players, then that perception gives you power. Proportionately, the greater and more widespread the perception, the greater the power is. Be careful. If you exercise that power and you are ineffective, the power dissipates and erodes exponentially. Therefore, use your influence prudently—do not over-reach.
Imposters. An angry parent calls you regarding a routine and justifiable policy change you have just made. After failing to convince you of the unreasonableness of your action, the parent threatens to call your supervisor, get the PTA involved, and call all of his friends and storm the next Board of Education meeting if you do not immediately cave in. It sounds like you are really drawing fire from a powerful person. Remember that you cannot reason with an unreasonable person, but you can disagree agreeably. Now, I am not an advocate of poking anyone in the eye, hanging up the phone, or telling him where to go. Never exacerbate an already bad situation by being rude, because you will be accused of unprofessional behavior which will then become the issue. However, do not cower to a bully. Most decent people have been bullied, know bullies when they see them, and do not like bullies. My advice is to say, “Well, I see we disagree. Of course, it’s your prerogative to do what you please. Would you like the phone number of my supervisor?” Offering a phone number signals that you are not intimidated. Then get a quick message to your supervisor and the President of the PTA to explain why they may be getting a call. Remember: whoever gets the message out first usually is in a stronger position. Let the bully do his thing. He ultimately will not get the power he is craving.
The Real Power. Many years ago, a veteran principal gave me one of the best advice I ever got. He said, “Take good care of the kids. If the kids like you, they’ll go home and tell their parents how wonderful you are, and then the parents will like you. If the kids and the parents like you, then nobody can harm you.”
Dr. Aronstein is a job coach who helps aspiring and new school leaders prepare for job interviews, and prepare their resumes and cover letters. Get his new e-book: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-inside-secrets-to-getting-your-leadership-position-with-larry-aronstein-tickets-10362222687. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been coaching school leaders and aspiring leaders in preparation for their interviews for more than 12 years. My clients frequently ask me how to answer questions that they struggle with. Here’s a sampling of a few of those questions, my strategies as to how to answer, and my suggested answers:
1. “What would your direct supervisor say about you if I called her?” (You think you might not get a positive recommendation from her/him)
Analysis: You can’t criticize your supervisor, and you can’t say that she/he might say something negative about you. What you can do is to speak to your boss; let her/him know that a reference call might be coming; and ask for a positive recommendation that emphasizes the positive things that you’ve done. You might even consider making a list of a few of your accomplishments. Most supervisors are not out to destroy your career. Who knows, this might be seen by your boss as an opportunity for you to leave, and motivate her/him to give you a positive recommendation?
Answer: “I think she will say that I have great relationships with our students and their parents, that I’m always well prepared, and that I’m always willing to give extra time and attention to assist my students.”
2. “If you get this position, how long do you plan on staying in it?”
Analysis: You probably don’t know how long you’ll stay or how things will work out. Your new supervisors probably don’t want to go through additional transitions in the short run. However, you won’t be credible if you say you’ll stay for the remainder of your career. Employers seek leaders who are honest. Your answer needs to offer a reasonable rationale that supports your response.
Answer: “Assuming that things will work out well, I think five to seven years would make sense. The literature says that it takes at least five years to implement and sustain structural improvements. I’m committed to see my work through to positive outcomes.”
3. “You’re a certified school leader with very little leadership experience, why should we hire you over more experienced candidates?”
Analysis: Your aim is to present yourself as a self-confident, “can do” person who will grow on the job. Your selling points are your accomplishments as a teacher, your potential and willingness to embrace being mentored and molded into the culture of your new school and district, and your raw undeveloped talent and energy.
Answer: “I may not be your most experienced candidate, but I can assure you that no one will be more eager to grow and learn, and work harder than I. I believe my colleagues will tell you that I’m a teacher leader who has played leading roles in some of our most important school improvements. My resume outlines some of these projects. Let me add that as a high school and college athlete I was often chosen as team captain. I’ve been told that I’m a “natural born leader.”
4. “I see on your resume that you live more than an hour away. Is that going to be a problem?”
Analysis: Never hesitate to “shoot down” any obstacle that might diminish your value. You should provide evidence that any of their concerns have been overcome or resolved in the past. Employers want to be assured.
Answer: “I take full responsibility for my attendance and timeliness. Although my present place of work is 15 miles less of a commute, my time in traffic commuting here would be about the same. It is fair to say that I’m never late and usually one of the first people to arrive. It’s not a problem.”
5. “As an experienced school leader, tell us about a failure you experienced, and more importantly, what lesson did you learn from it?”
Analysis: This is similar to the often-asked question, “What is your greatest weakness?” The worst answer is, “I really can’t think of one”. Being humble and self-reflective are very desirable characteristics. The example you provide should be designed to resonate with the interviewers’ experiences and evoke their empathy.Answer: “As an inexperienced leader years ago, I made decisions based on gut feelings. What I’ve learned over the years was to put more trust in evaluating the evidence and results; to slow down… to listen to people I trust and respect even when they have divergent opinions. I’ve learned what I call, “watch the movie”. In other words, listen, suspend judgement, slow down, and decide on what is in the best interests of my students. The example that comes to mind was when I was a superintendent. I had a strong desire to initiate an International Bachelorette Program. As we debated the merits of the program, I became more inclined to start the program. However, I encountered some strong opposition from a segment in the community and from the teachers’ union. My gut told me that it would be divisive, and I backed away from moving ahead. I regret not listening to my leadership team who advised me of the merits of the program for our students.”