Big schools, small schools, big districts, small districts, urban settings and rural settings – what are the challenges of scale and what leadership skills does it take to be successful in any setting?
People often discuss the challenges and complexity of leadership no matter how big or small the context. My best lesson on the issue of “scale” was given to me by the principal of a small elementary school years ago. Louise Jovanovic, now retired was a wonderful colleague. At the time we spoke, she was principal at Durrance Elementary which, if I recall had about 6 staff. I was also a principal of a school which had about 120 staff and we were talking about the similarities and differences that principals face no matter what the size of their school. Her point of view forever changed my thoughts about the challenges that those in small schools face and over time I have seen those challenges also reflected in small and rural districts compared to those large and urban.
At the time of our conversation, Louise and I were talking about the ability to influence staff and have a school move along in pursuit of a particular direction. We talked of the difference between large and small staffs and how resistance to change unfolds in places with different scale. For her, the impact of having only one staff member in opposition to a particular initiative was simply monumental compared to what I may face with even a dozen staff members who also may not be in support. She talked of the absolutely critical network of close relationships that exist in small schools and it seemed like those who lead in such places would have to be so careful, inclusive and encouraging in their directions and to always tap into the particular needs and beliefs of all staff. In a larger school with over 100 staff, being in touch with every single person’s needs and beliefs is far more difficult to do but, with a bulk of staff moving forward, the momentum of such a large group of people often created such an initiative, that it was difficult to stop. Those who were not on-side or unsure often were caught up in the initiative or, at the very least, content to let their colleagues move on. The leadership task was to pay attention to those less satisfied, to listen to their concerns, adjust where able and always to include, but having a couple of staff members in opposition to a particular direction was not a show-stopper by any regard. For Louise, having one or two staff members in opposition represented a significant part of her staff.
The other day, I was fortunate to have a chance to talk to superintendents from around the province. Once again, the issue of the differences that leaders face regardless of size and scale of organization came to mind. Just as when I was with Louise, I was reminded just how the challenges in small and rural districts are in many ways so extremely challenging compared to the things we tackle in large urban districts. Urban districts may take some things for granted like transportation, proximity to services, reasonable weather, access to staff, resources and relative ease of contact and communications. These are challenges that rural and remote areas face every day in such a different way than we do in a metropolitan area. In addition, those in rural settings are often “living in the fish bowl” and not only do people watch what you do in public life, they watch in private life as well as some towns are only so big. The local school principal is well known by almost everyone. In BC, we have some schools on small islands and for those who live and work on these island schools the spotlight can be always on regardless of where you are.
I am not suggesting that anyone can do any job, any time regardless of context and scale. What I am suggesting is that we should pay more attention to the complexity of issues that rural and small schools face and the intricate leadership that it takes to be successful in such a setting. That does not mean that I would take the principal of a highly successful elementary school of 50 students and plunk them down in a struggling secondary school of 2000 students. I do believe that would just set someone up for failure. But…when the principal of 50 speaks, I am just saying that what they bring to the leadership table should not be discounted.
As I’ve often quoted Ursula Franklin, schools are more like organisms than they are mechanisms. Schools live and breathe based on the network of relationships and interactions that emerge within. Whether big or small, urban or rural, the ability to navigate, communicate, listen and respond in settings is about the human condition, it is not about how big a place is. In my district, we have over 9000 staff. There is no doubt that communication with that size is a huge issue compared to communication with 500. We cannot easily pull all teachers together for a talk, it just doesn’t work that way. However, in smaller places, not only is it possible to meet with all teaching staff, it is routinely done. The ability to establish personal connections and relationships in larger places is much more difficult and your communication has to be so clear, concise and consistent because you don’t get many opportunities to speak to everyone. In smaller places, you can revisit, connect, clarify, meet and discuss. These are advantages that big places just can’t realize.
While leadership differences in dealing with scale are obvious, the similarities remain. The leadership journey is about influence and influence is realized by connecting and communicating. So the next time you consider a team to pull together or there are voices in the room around a particular issue, pay attention to what everyone brings to the table. Whether from small, large, rural or urban, everyone has something unique to offer. Sometimes in education we get inside our own bubble and don’t listen to what those who are outside our sector have to say or we don’t fully appreciate the perspective brought by those in completely different educational contexts. Even better, suggest that your principal of your largest secondary school spend a day in a tiny elementary and vice-versa. These learning exchanges can be a great learning experience both ways.
One of my favourite anecdotes is about a secondary principal who, in a time of need, was placed in an elementary school on virtually no notice. The need was urgent and this was the best solution at hand. On the principal’s first day, the school’s kindergarten teacher was ill and, as happens in rural areas, no replacement was available. With no prep at all and thrown into teaching kindergarten for a full day with zero experience at that level, that secondary leader learned more about valuing kindergarten in an hour than a whole graduate course could have taught. The irony, of course, is the real teachers and mentors that day were just 5 years old. As we know so well, we all are on the learning journey any given day and no matter how small some people may seem, the leadership advice they bring can be large indeed.
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