“What is Good Gets Done”

Over the years, I’ve met and had conversations with hundreds (if not thousands) of school leaders. Superintendents, principals, heads of school, CTOs, curriculum directors, department heads…and various other titles and distinctions. I’m always intrigued by the initial interactions I have with them and that first sense that I get of who they are, what they know, what they believe, and what they want. I usually start with questions:

What about your school are you most proud of? What’s an example of the best work your students and teachers are doing? What’s the most interesting use of technology that you’ve seen in your classrooms? What’s your most interesting question right now? What principles drive your work?

As you can guess, the answers to these questions (and others) are all over the map. But they give me a pretty quick take of values, beliefs, practice, and direction. And in my experience at least, there really aren’t that many different buckets that leaders fall into. I know, within the first 10 or 15 minutes, what kind of a leader I’m working with.

So it wasn’t surprising to me when I ran across Thomas Sergiovanni’s work on Rethinking Leadership, specifically where he talks about transactional vs. transformational leadership. As I was reading through the second section on the “Developmental Stages of Leadership,” I was struck by how neatly it seemed to fit those unnamed buckets that I’d been carrying around in my own thinking. That’s not to say that I understood them nearly to the extent that Sergiovanni describes them, however. Nor do I agree with everything he writes about them. But they’re an interesting frame through which to think about leadership.

The gist is that leaders are distinguished by which one of three “rules” they follow. The first is “What is rewarded gets done,” in which students, teachers, parents, and others are driven by extrinsic gain of some type. The second is “What is rewarding gets done,” where those groups are driven more by their intrinsic motivations. The third, which Sergiovanni labels “transformational,” is “What is good gets done,” where people are motivated by duty or obligation in a moral sense.

As the section heading suggests, these rules are not mutually exclusive when it comes to leadership. But he makes the argument that leaders should be working to become transformational, working toward “norms and ideas” that “have a moral quality to them, calling on teachers, parents, students, and administrators to do the right thing” (64). (And long time readers of this space know that we’ve written about “doing the right thing” often.)  Even more, he argues that “once community images, characteristics, and norms are in place in a school, they function as a substitute for leadership” (63) [Emphasis mine.]

Now that is interesting.

Very few places that I’ve been, very few leaders that I’ve worked with adhere to the rule “What is good gets done.” Unfortunately, most seem comfortable with the “What is rewarded gets done” mode of schooling. They want to add some tweaks to what that looks like, perhaps, but at the end of the day, the extrinsic rewards of high test scores, magazine badges, and college acceptances drive the work. It’s a struggle for them to truly aspire even to the “What is rewarding gets done” mode where students and teachers have more agency to pursue their interests and create value for themselves.

But once again, that’s because we don’t fully adhere to what we believe and know about how people and kids learn. Leaders without clearly articulated principles, values, and vision cannot move. And even once they have articulated them, the work is exceedingly difficult in terms of bringing the various constituencies of school communities along. As the leaders in our Change School community soon find out, it’s a long term commitment rather than and event or an edict.

And, of course, change in the terms that we frame it here at Modern Learners will never happen unless we all aspire to “What is good gets done.”

As always, your comments are welcomed. How do we get to the point where our work in schools is motivated by a moral obligation to do what is good?


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