I was watching a press conference after an NBA playoff game. The losing coach approached the microphone. As he started talking about what went wrong, he began to cry. He discussed what he could have done better and what happens moving forward. In fact, when I look back on most coaches’ concession speeches, they speak about their failure and give no excuses. This is something that is lacking in educational leadership. Our education system is a failing system and the reasons are many. I do not wish to talk about blame or reasons, but I wish, as leaders, we would acknowledge it.
Not only do we deny it we celebrate failure.
When I was studying to become an administrator, the message was, stay off social media. This was legal advice. This has changed over the last decade. Now the opposite is true. You must be on social media if you are an educational leader. This is where education meets the Kardashians. It’s all about branding and marketing. If you look on your favorite social media platform, you will see educational leaders (of all levels) being acknowledged generically for great leadership, or an acknowledgement. You will see self-praise under the guise of humility. This is what you will read: “So honored to be acknowledged by (fill in the blank).” We celebrate our leadership status while students are failing. There are many corporations and organizations willing to give awards and honors for the leader of the week, month, year, or century––to either promote their brand or fundraise. There was a time when the work was its own reward, success was quantifiable and measurable. Now we celebrate getting the job, having the job but not doing the job. These social media resumes are part of a career ladder that steps over children for personal gain. Now of course this is not true of all educational leaders. I know some who pour their heart and soul into their school and district community. These are also the ones that don’t post every time they received a compliment or a citation.
To be fair, it is not all the fault of leadership. Educational leadership is a challenging job. It’s not as respected as it should be. It’s a difficult environment to survive in and politics play a significant role in the selection, retention, and removal of leaders. Our society rewards social branding and influencers, and some leaders and administrators feel they must market themselves to survive. The problem is there is no clear criteria or pedigree for educational leadership. To teach you need to have the license and the content. For administrators you need the license (and in some schools not even that), but what is the content to be a leader? Usually, it’s who you know or how well you’re liked. Therefore, there is this need to sell yourself, to promote your brand. This is not about children. And let’s be clear educational leadership did not create the problems we are currently facing, however by doing everything short of a reality show, it’s not part of the solution either. We must remember, social media giveth and taketh away. Just as we advertise ourselves, we also say things or express points of view that can cause damage to that same brand that we’re trying to promote.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not have social media, however, he had more media exposure than most of us will ever have. Here are some of his quotes:
– “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character––that is the goal of true education.”
– “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
– “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
These quotes represent stewardship and service. He could have said: “So honored to be acknowledged by the SCLC” or so honored to have a successful Montgomery Bus Boycott. I am sure he was, but the focus was on the work and not self-promotion. He will be remembered for his work, not how well he promoted himself.
Education is a work in progress. The problem is, when is the progress part coming? It’s easy to say things like “moving in the right direction” “working towards our goals” or “making strides” ––that leader will be replaced with the next one who will also be moving, working, and making. It’s an endless cycle of moving towards progress without any goal of completion or, at the very least, sustainability.
I have sat in on meetings where most of the agenda is based on discussing departmental successes. Why are we afraid to say in a meeting, or a social media post, we must do better, or what we’re doing is not working. We are afraid to admit failure because it will hurt our brand and possibly employment. If my favorite sports team completed a losing season, I don’t think they would go in the locker room and pop champagne. They would spend the off-season making moves to get better, but they wouldn’t post on social media how great they are. If leaders cannot turn the cell phone from themselves for a selfie and take a picture of what’s happening in the classroom, then your next principal or superintendent may be on a reality show and their new title will be influencer instead of leader.
Dr. Clarence Williams Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent in the New York City public school system. He holds a doctorate in educational leadership, a master’s in education administration, and a master’s in multicultural education. Williams Jr. has a K-12 license in special education and educational leadership, has worked as an educator and leader in the public school system for over 30 years, and is an assistant professor.