There’s been a lot of buzz lately around a book by Benjamin R. Barber called “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities“. The discussion focuses on whether the skills that make big city mayors good at their jobs might be applied to running larger organizations, like state and federal governments. After all, many large urban centers are now models of good management and bipartisanship.
But, in a recent discussion on the Freakonomics Radio podcast, an important point was made that might have a real impact for teachers. Several experts, some of them current mayors, pointed out that much of the success that these city leaders have had is unique to their position. As the most tangible arm of the government for most citizens, mayors are forced to find practical ways to solve problems. They can’t afford to be political or partisan because, as Fiorello La Guardia once said, “there is no Republican or Democrat way of cleaning the streets.” They cross party lines and make compromises as a regular part of their work.
This pragmatic problem-solving ability might be appealing to those of us exhausted by years of partisan gridlock in Washington, but it’s not the answer. Research has shown that the freedom to be nonpartisan and focused on the day-to-day problems of their constituents comes from a lack of responsibility for the really big (often bureaucratic) picture, including policy making and economic woes. In other words, the success of mayors comes directly from the limited scope of their powers and responsibilities. Might the same be true of teachers?
We spend years developing skills that mirror that of a mayor in many ways. We learn practical ways to help students reach mastery, sometimes ignoring the “initiative of the week”. We cobble together strategies for engaging kids and for assessing them, sometimes skirting policies and bending rules to get the best outcomes for our students.
This idea got me thinking about teachers who leave the classroom to pursue jobs that are very different from classroom teaching, like principalships, and district leadership positions. I’ve written here before about the rarity of school principals who are truly skilled teachers. Now, it seems there might be a good reason for this pattern. Perhaps, the very abilities that make someone an excellent teacher would also make him a poor administrator, and vice versa.
In the words of Benjamin R. Barber, “mayors are experts at implementation” and policy makers are not. I think that the same can be said about classroom teachers. While many school systems hold up principals as “instructional leaders”, maybe we need to create a separation between the managerial responsibilities of principals and the instructional ones. Perhaps a hybrid teaching position could provide instructional leadership while a more traditional administrator handles the less academic decision-making.
What do you think? Do good teachers make good administrators? Why or why not?