Sunday, March 23, 2008

For Principals: Relationships with Faculty

Two Competing Models

Let's begin with a 4 question quiz:

1) The parents of a boy in your school disagree with a teacher over a grade he received on an English composition. The boy made a "D"; the parents believe the essay merited a "B" or higher. After trying unsuccessfully to resolve it with the teacher, the parents come to see you. As principal you read over the essay and privately believe the parents are correct. What are you most likely to do?

a) Tell the parents you agree with them and change the grade. b) Meet with the teacher and ask him to explain the reason for the poor grade. If he or she cannot articulate an educationally sound reason, you allow the grade to stand. If not, you ask the teacher to change it. c) Meet with the teacher and ask him to explain the grade. If his reasoning seems unsound, you explain why you disagree with him, but you allow the teacher to determine whether the grade should stand. d) Ask the teacher to call the parents and work it out.

2) Who plans your in-services? a) The principal b) The central office (superintendent, etc.) c) teachers d) principal and teachers jointly

3) If a Catholic school is a Christian community, whose primary role is it to be the "spiritual leader" of the faculty? a) The pastor of the parish school b) The principal c) The theology faculty d) There is no particular person or department who has this singular responsibility.

4) Which of the following methods are you likeliest to use in assisting in the evaluation of teachers? a) Take a formal instrument to a teacher's class, record, and then review strengths and weaknesses with the teacher. b) Rely on departmental chairs and other senior teachers to do a form of (a) above. c) Solicit input from students and parents about the effectiveness of the teacher which is then shared with the teacher. d) Develop statistical information on grade distributions, standardized test scores and course evaluations by students for the teacher to study.

How did you respond? Of course there aren’t right or wrong answers; rather, your answers indicate the school paradigm you assume as you go about your job. In general terms, if your answers were mostly (a) or (b), you likely operate with a hierarchical model in mind. Relationships within the school are seen in terms of a line-staff order: Teachers over students, departmental chairs over teachers, principals over chairs, etc. In such a model outstanding principals are seen as those who are people of charisma and vision, directive, forceful, able to inspire the employees to action. The imagery might be of a knight leading his soldiers into battle while the townspeople cheer to support him.

If you answered mostly (c) or (d), you likely assume more of a collegial paradigm: Teachers are seen as colleagues, policies and directives of the school are generated by teachers, parents and students, the emphasis is not who one's boss is but who makes which decisions. In such a model the outstanding principal is one who can frame the right questions for faculty, generate consensus, foster healthy relationships between faculty members, those who can support and assist others to become excellent. The best metaphor is perhaps the player--coach, who as coach is always looking for the best combinations to make the team successful, but who as player is equal to his teammates and works alongside them.

It is likely that the school for which you work has elements of both paradigms, for few things in life are ideal types. Yet despite the profound changes in the Church since Vatican II toward a less hierarchical, less authoritarian Church, relationships between principals and teachers within Catholic schools remain largely unaffected by the theological shift some 40 years later. To be sure, priests have much less influence; most of our schools are staffed predominantly by lay teachers and principals. But the clericalism of the priests has largely been supplanted by similar attitudes of the lay leadership within the school.

I believe the tendency is seen most clearly in our communication with and about faculty. In Dr. Thomas Harris' dated but still useful book I'M O.K.--YOU'RE O.K.: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO TRANSACTIONAL ANALYSIS (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row) ,1967, the reader is provided with a method of analyzing communication. Basic to these methods is the assumption that all of us operate in one of three "ego states" whenever we act or speak:

a) The "Child" state, which is that part of us that thinks, acts and feels like a little child. Its predominant need is to get "strokes", that is, verbal or non-verbal feedback from others, attention;
b) The "Parent" state, which is the part of us that acts like a parent, particularly the part in us which nurtures the child in others, giving strokes, treating others like children.
c) The "Adult" state, which is the part of us that thinks in a detached, objective manner, weighing consequences, seeking facts, etc., almost like a computer.

My observation is that often we as principals operate in the Parental mode in dealing with faculty, whom we subconsciously treat like children. Consider the following:

1) How many of us, when speaking to other principals, refer to the faculty in our school as "my faculty"?

2) Have we written one of these?

"Dear faculty,
We have scheduled the last day of our year end faculty meetings to be a party. We are all busy people, but for the sake of building community I expect all of you to be there".

3) Do faculty call us by our first or last name when we are outside the presence of students?

4) Do we see it as one of our foremost responsibilities to "build up" teachers when they're in the doldrums?

5) N.C.E.A. has a program for principals called "Shepherding the Shepherds". Are we comfortable with imagery suggesting the faculty are sheep?

6) If a parent is angry at a teacher, do we try to act as a "buffer" between them?

7) If a faculty member asks us "what we think" about a project that he has just implemented in the classroom and we don't think very highly of it, do we shade our comments so as not to hurt his feelings?

8) If a faculty member is sick (let us preclude extreme cases), do we believe it is the principal's (or the office's) responsibility to find a substitute?

If we find ourselves answering "yes" to many of these questions, we have likely adopted a parental stance toward our faculty. The difficulty is that a relatively consistent pattern of this stance will breed a relatively consistent "child" response in them. In the long run, this is counter-productive. Faculty who need a shepherd to guide them are not likely those who take initiative and ownership for the school. The ultimate aim of a school leader--any leader--is to empower subordinates to become leaders themselves.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sophomore class president @ N.D.

My daughter Cynthia, (2nd from left) was recently elected as the sophomore class president at Notre Dame for the 2008-09 school year. She is currently the freshman class vice-president.

I credit the Y.M.C.A.'s excellent "Youth in Government" program and Amy Johnson, our MCPS Government club sponsor, for Cynthia's interest in politics.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Catholic High Schools and their Effect on the Practice of Faith

Here's a sobering statistic:

The fastest growing "religious" group in America? Those without any religious affiliation--now 16.1% of the U.S. adult population.

So says the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based on a study of 35,000 U.S. adults, the results of which were released on February 25, 2008.

According to this study, the Catholic Church has been hit especially hard: Roughly 10% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics--half of whom have joined Protestant churches, whereas most of the other half have no religious affiliation. On the whole, Catholics now account for 21% of the adult population, down 5% from just 8 years ago, the last time the study was conducted. The drop would be more precipitous, the study says, were it not for the influx of Latino immigrants, most of whom are Catholic.

In light of those statistics, an earlier study published by Gautier (2005) on the effect of Catholic high schools on the practice of faith becomes more important. The key findings in that study were the following:

--Those Catholic who attend a Catholic high school for at least 3 years are half as likely as those who have never attended to convert to another faith.

--Catholics who attend a Catholic high school for at least three years are just less than half as likely (44%) to drop all religious affiliation as those Catholics who didn't attend Catholic high schools.

--Those who attended Catholic high school are more likely to identify themselves as "highly committed" Catholics (26% to 19%), and

--Are likely to pray daily or more often (70% to 59%), and

--Regard the Catholic Church as "quite important or among the most important parts of their lives" (77% to 67%) and

--"Would never leave the Catholic Church" (66% to 52%).

An interesting footnote to the Gautier study is that these positive effects were not found between those who only attended a Catholic grade school and those who had not. Catholic high schools, not grade schools, make the difference.

No doubt the most important variable in whether or not our kids will grow up to practice the faith is the liveliness of our own faith as we raise our children. Those who sacrifice to send their kids to Catholic high schools, with tuitions ranging from $5,000 to $15,000/year, are already parents who, in the aggregate, are more likely to practice the Catholic faith in their homes. Thus, these statistics alone do not prove a "cause-effect" relationship between attending Catholic high schools and practicing the faith.

However, coupled with the realization that teenagers are searching for credible Christian role models apart from their parents as a means of establishing their own identity, given that teens are likelier to feel comfortable in the public expression of their faith if their peers are also engaged in the same public expression, or that well taught theology classes can extend a teen's understanding and appreciation of their faith beyond the simplistic level of a child's, or that Catholic high schools allow teens to practice their faith in a manner that integrates with their daily lives (faith isn't just a "Sunday thing"), I believe that Catholic high schools have, in fact, a profound long term influence on young adults' attitudes and dispositions regarding their faith.

There are, of course, no guarantees. As parents, we do all we can to help kids form their faith, but ultimately, they must decide to answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" on their own. May God's grace help them conclude, as Peter did, "You are the Messiah, the Son of God"!