Have you ever attended a professional seminar that got people visibly agitated? That’s only happened twice to me. The first time, it was an undersecretary for the Department of Education during the early years of No Child Left Behind under the George W. Bush presidency. She really liked the metaphor of “don’t beat a dead horse” and used some actual images of a dying horse. Not a happy audience.
The other time was a little more subtle. It was when I attended Breakthrough Coach training with Malachi Pancoast. Malachi didn’t whip the audience into an angry frenzy – but he definitely stirred some emotions with his unapologetic thesis for why school leaders are not as effective as they could be.
Here’s the general thesis. The primary role of the school leader is to observe the system at play in the school he or she leads and then provide ongoing and actionable feedback to make it work better. This applies to every aspect of a school’s functioning – from instruction in the classroom to how parents are greeted in the front office. In essence, the principal is the coach, constantly making adjustments to ensure the increasingly optimal functioning of the system. Malachi encourages principals to get out of their offices regularly and spend as much time as they can where the game is being played – in classrooms.
None of this seems particularly controversial. Indeed, most school leaders know intuitively that improving instructional practice is the holy grail of their leadership legacy. Principals know that spending time with teachers and students in classrooms is what they should be doing. Of course, this leads most well-intentioned principals to feel some guilt about the disconnect between what they know they should be doing and what they actually do with their time. It brings about a self-consciousness that is baked into the psyche of most school leaders.
The beauty of the Breakthrough Coach is that Malachi doesn’t sugarcoat this disconnect. In fact, he emphasizes it. He is explicit about the fact that he expects the principals in the room to be defensive. He knows the retorts to expect. “You don’t know what my job is like!” “I would be in classrooms, but the district bombards me with meetings and paperwork!”
I won’t go into all the details of the training. It would ruin the fun and surprise of it all. Nor am I suggesting that every school leader should adopt every aspect of Malachi’s refreshingly practical tools and approach to leading a school or organization. But there are a few general design principals from the breakthrough coach that I have found to be essential.
Observe the System
You can’t lead from an office. You have to be out there where the work is happening, watching and talking to kids and adults about how they experience the system. You have to ask questions and suspend your own assumptions and biases. You have to really try to understand what is going on around you.
I once sat in a meeting where the Chief Academic Officer wore a safari hat – her plea to teachers and principals in the system was to consider themselves data collectors. From a leadership perspective, you need good data to make good decisions. Sometimes, you have to go get that good data yourself in the form of observations and conversations.
Have the Hard Conversations
Learning to see the system is primarily an analytical task. The leadership component comes from the emotional toll associated with constantly asking people to change. Sometimes you are asking people to change routines or processes. Sometimes you are asking people to change their attitudes and beliefs.
Regardless of the change, providing feedback can be uncomfortable. As my mentor and supervisor Gia Truong often told me – leadership is essentially a series of hard conversations. Malachi’s perspective is that as leaders, we are avoiding far too many of those hard conversations.
Your Value Isn’t Measured in Hours
Working long hours doesn’t guarantee an impact on student learning. Malachi drives this point home – asserting that most school leaders often sacrifice their personal interests, their health, and their personal relationships on the altar of their professional identities. He points out how we’ve allowed the principal’s office to become our de facto home – with couches and fridges and all the accouterments of home.
Malachi’s invitation is to get out of the office, to go home, to be present for the people in our personal lives who also need our attention and love and support. The truth is that balancing school and home life for a school leader is a genuine challenge. Perhaps some of the initial discontent amongst participants of the Breakthrough Coach is due to this perceived oversimplification of the time demands placed on principals. It’s a fair critique.
Yet deep down most principals know Malachi is right. Our years roll by, our children grow older, and all the time we privately fret about the tradeoffs we make in order to run our schools. In a labor-oriented field like education, and where time spent with children does have intrinsic value, there are only so many ways to achieve balance. Efficiency helps. Talented staff helps. I’ve reflected on this element of Malachi’s sessions more than perhaps any other. Our potency, our energy, and our visionary clarity is often fed by a centered and balanced life.
On the whole – I’m a big fan of the Breakthrough Coach. In my mind, it is a training well worth the time and money. It’s a fresh, somewhat unconventional take on management, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking about your purpose, your role, and your efficacy as a principal.