A Reader Submits… Black, White, or Gray?

An Old School LYS Principal submits:

“A few years ago I was playing golf with Don Brown and I asked the question, “Are there gray areas in education or is everything black and white?”

I was an assistant principal at the time and I really thought that everything should be black and white and I wanted Don’s opinion. Anyone who had been an icon level principal for as long as he had, in addition to his track record of innovation and success had to have some insight on this matter. He told me that there were many areas of gray. We discussed this topic for several hours and he beat me soundly at golf.

I am now a principal and I realize that there are many areas of gray and that we must use our intelligence to find our way around those areas. The problem comes when we as administrators realize that, but there are upper lever administrators who govern us and they do not see that. It is hard to do what is best for students when I realize I am going toItalic have to fight a fight in doing that. I do not mind fighting the fight, but I am learning to choose the battles well.”

SC Response
I constantly vacillate on this topic. Most things are black and white, up until they are not. Fullan call this the “Nuance.” It is the understanding that if we are constantly “black and white,” we can never master the “art” of our craft. I think exploiting the nuance boils down to this:

1. Be absolutely clear on the goal and mission of the organization. This is where we lose 95% of schools and 98% of school districts.

2. Understand the fundamentals of our craft, specifically instruction, systems management and people management.

3. Consistently and expertly execute the fundamentals of our craft. This is where we lose well over 90% of the people in our profession.

4. Make purposeful adjustment in our actions, based on the insight we have developed through the execution of the fundamentals. These adjustments must completely align with the primary goals and mission of the organization. This is where we lose everyone in our profession who fancies themselves as a “politician.”

The duality of the problem (which at the time Brown knew and you were learning) is that early in our careers we are better served by being “black and white.” Even if we have the book smarts and drive, we lack the real world experience to live in the gray area (see the 10,000 hours rule).Without experience, when we go “gray,” we often cause more harm than good. On the other hand, as we gain SIGNIFICANT experience, if we are locked in “black and white,” we effectively become the limit on our organization.

Now let’s look at how to address your specific problem. The two best leaders that I worked for, Brezina and Neeley had the following quasi-formal rules. I say quasi-formal, because every leader in your organization is not afforded the same levels of autonomy, it is earned. Basically, as a line-level leader, you were expected to follow organization guide lines and procedures, solve problems and make decisions that supported the organization and its mission. However, your decision could be over-turned or amended by someone up stream. In fact, it was expected that at times the job would require you to make the decision that everyone knew would be overturned.

Unfortunately, the Brezina / Neeley types are exceedingly rare. So the rule of thumb is to make the best possible decision that does the greatest good / least harm for your students at that time. If that decision gets second guessed or overturned, learn what you can and live with it. It’s not personal. If your boss continues to overturn you, not because of conviction or better information, but for politics and personal gain, find a new boss. Which by the way, you just did (yet another win for the LYS Nation). Congratulations on the move to the bigger campus!

Think. Work. Achieve.

Your turn…

A Reader Writes… (Teacher Stress – Part 16)
A Reader Writes… (State of the Blog)

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