Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Bringing people back in: implications for praxis
Article Type: Commentary From: Journal of Educational Administration, Volume 53, Issue 1
Keywords Praxis, Relationships, Leadership
The papers in this volume are an antidote to current policies that focus on the principal’s responsibility for enacting a “results oriented leadership” that will increase tested achievement. The last decades of school reform have, in many countries, given rise to initiatives that are consistent with the underlying premises of neo-liberalism: most countries have trended toward decentralized accountability, privatization, output, competition and authoritative leadership in the public sphere (Hood, 1991). Even countries with strong social democratic traditions have developed a preference for thinking in market logic. In addition, praxis recommendations have espoused a narrow approach to the work of leadership, resulting in innumerable “bullet point lists” of behaviors that will produce the politically defined “results.”
What alternatives are offered by this set of papers? Praxis, according to Wikipedia, has two distinct usages (Praxis, 2014). The first, following Aristotle, refers to the process of putting ideas into action. One of the effects of current NPM thinking is that the role of school leaders is to ensure that “useable research” is translated into specific practices that are known to be related to the defined achievement results, and to ensure that data are used to monitor implementation and effects (Fields et al., 2007). In practice this means that principals are more accountability, but have less choice about the means and ends to improve their schools. The significance of “place” (Riley, 2013) or the situationality of the school becomes less important than the application of “best practice.” Principals become middle managers of a technical enterprise that has all the charming variability of modern international airports.
An alternative perspective on praxis is suggested, however, by this Special Issue. Rather than focussing on action as the goal, the emphasis is on engaging with and practicing ideas – in other words, a more reflective position. Engaging with and practicing ideas is a social as well as an individual act, and leads to reflection on how to create genuine change in systems (Freire, 1994; Louis and Lee, under review). As the issue papers suggest, principal practice that matters must be firmly situated in the nexus of social relationships that exist in a particular school.
Principals matter, according to these papers, when they are deeply embedded in the dynamic social environments within their schools. What emerges from three of the papers is the suggestion that what is most important to teachers is a personal relationship with their principal. (Paper No. 1) shows, for example, that principals who have ties to more teachers in their schools are also more likely to be able to exercise transformational leadership. In other words, the principal’s capacity to shape the school and create the conditions for effective engagement of teachers with new ideas and alternative visions for the school’s future depends on reaching them directly. What immediately comes to mind is the old adage that good principals manage by “walking about” rather than remaining in their offices with budget, disciplinary events, reports to the district office and closed-door meetings. As Peter Gronn (1983) put it in a classic article, “talk is the work”. For Gronn, talking and creating social relationships is part of simultaneously tightening and loosening oversight. When a teacher seeks advice from the principal, they are looking for individualized support.
Sometimes, as (Paper No. 2) points out, individualized support may mean providing the right mentors for novice teachers – and ensuring that those mentors focus discussions on topics that will improve the new teacher’s pedagogic capacity. Mentoring, whether provided directly by the principals, or indirectly by a trusted colleague, tightens relationships and exchanges within the school in ways that are invisible. In other cases, having a trusting relationship with the principal may be an antidote to a teacher who is becoming emotionally exhausted. The formal leader of the school can, presumably, provide encouragement that is more sustaining of hope than even that of trusted colleagues (Paper No. 4). These interactions, as (Paper No. 4) points out, are apparently highly personal: it is the relationship between each unique teacher and the leader that is important rather than a pervasively trusting culture.
This image of leadership praxis is quite different from many of the popular management texts, which assume that a compelling vision emerges from on high is transmitted to the rest of those in the organization through a coalition of committed collaborators (Kotter, 1995). Rather than executive isolation, principals are in the thick of it, developing the “dynamic density” that contributes to the development of positive teacher perceptions of their students’ capacity for engagement with academic work (Paper No. 5). The association between more frequent/intensive principal-teacher interactions and a positive normative environment persists even when the overall sense that the school is a supportive place in which to work is taken into account. This points, again, to the importance of the principal’s role in working with individual teachers.
As a group, the papers reaffirm, with a variety of different data sources, the importance of emotions (Hargreaves, 2002). What we see, consistently (although none of the papers use the term) is the importance of the principal’s “emotional intelligence.” This is, of course, not surprising given the accumulating evidence that there is a direct relationship between a leader’s “EI” and the behavior of others in the organization (Castro et al., 2012; Walter et al., 2011), including effectiveness. In particular, the research on emotional intelligence suggests that it promotes interactions that create empathy and other supportive behaviors – which are undoubtedly linked with trust and the capacity of principals to also engage in and motivate task oriented behavior (Paper No. 3). There is another message in this volume, however. As these authors imply, the school cannot be devoted only to trust and social support among adults: it must also be focussed on creating effective learning environments for students. Additional emerging research also suggests that principals who are perceived by their teachers as caring are also those who engender strong norms of academic support for students – and student achievement on standardized tests (Louis et al., 2014).
But how easy is it to extract lessons for praxis? The five papers present a consistent image of the principalship that is based on engagement, reflection and an increased attention to the social relationships. These are shown to create a dynamic, reflective environment for teachers. While I find the image compelling, our capacity to help principals achieve it are more limited. To give just one example, we know very little about how to develop emotional intelligence of leaders in spite of the increasing number of people who offer targeted professional development to achieve these goals (McEnrue, 2010). In addition, I know of no comparative evaluations of the many efforts to help principals develop more reflective professional communities in their schools: most studies are individual cases. At the moment, we are in an uncomfortable place where we know what leaders should do – develop denser social relationships that are supportive of individuals and improvement – but less about how to help them to develop the capacities and skills to actualize the work.
There are, in addition, practical constraints to developing simple praxis conclusions from the papers. Peter Gronn (2003), an early advocate of creating linkages and “loose-tight” connections among adults in schools has, more recently, been clear that the policy conditions in most countries have intensified the work that principals must engage in. The accumulation of new tasks and expectations imposed from outside makes finding the time to prioritize the development of dense and meaningful relationships in the school much more difficult. Perhaps, if we wish to take the practical lessons of this volume to heart, we must also champion another of Groan’s early ideas, distributed leadership, that is now a next step in considering how best to create the “dynamic density” of supportive work settings suggested by this Special Issue. We know, for example, that increasing density of relationships among all adult members of the school can affect students (Heck and Hallinger, 2009; Jacobson, 2011).
Considering the role of distributed leadership in creating dynamic and effective school environments will, in the next phase of this work, require reconciling two conflicting messages. The first, derived from the dominant perspectives in current research, suggests that shared leadership may involve developing shared responsibility for the emotional well-being of adults who work in increasingly stressful circumstances (Spillane and Kim, 2012; Louis et al., 2010). The second, suggested by this volume, points to the need for principals to invest more heavily in individualized relationships with teachers in order to foster an effective work environment. Finding a tailored balance between these perspectives will require both more research and real praxis – connecting with and reflecting on ideas – to develop workable recommendations for improving principal work.
Karen Seashore Louis
Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Note that there are others who have slightly different definitions (Kemmis, 2012).
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About the author
Dr Karen Seashore Louis is a Regents Professor and Robert H. Beck Chair. Her scholarship focuses on school improvement, leadership, and educational policy. Dr Karen Seashore Louis can be contacted at: mailto:email@example.com