I recently felt moved to respond to an ISR article on what makes a good director and have been invited to expand on that theme. I am NOT intending to be an apologist for the obvious brutes, egotists and nut cases who inflict great damage on our profession, but I am advocating some in-depth inspection of factors which can influence the performance of administrative staff. This article will not explore those personal skills possessed by the boss that make us run smoothly as a staff, but will look at external pressures that may affect even the best of directors.
In my career overseas I have been lucky to work with many fantastic administrators. For me, I think the key to being a good director is the ability to communicate. The director has the Big Picture, what the military calls ‘the Heli-view.’ Directors have information on just about everything, from the latest decisions of the board to the next big thing coming down the pike from HeadNet. Because of this, the decisions directors make are a compromise between many factors. I feel a good director will take the opportunity to explain the basis of their decisions to their staff, as far as is possible (obviously some things are not meant to be shared for reasons of confidentiality).
If it looks as though decisions which affect the teaching staff are made in a vacuum by the ego of a decision-maker, that decision will usually be wrong in the perceptions of the staff. And of course, your ‘perception’ is your ‘truth’.
Now, let me talk about the Big Picture for a little while. This is stuff that prospective international schoolteachers may not initially consider. Before accepting a teaching position you must take the time to find out about what you may be committing to. I recommend you research the following three points:
1. The nature of the school: for profit/ not for profit / financial stability
2. The administrative staff, including the board
3. The laws of the country
No matter what the school’s curriculum is, how superb their facilities, or how close the beaches are, never underestimate the influence these 3 points have on the performance of a director and consequently on the happiness of his or her staff.
Point 1). Needless to say, a for-profit school is a business. This does not mean you would not be a good fit, nor does it mean it is necessarily a bad school, but once you have this knowledge then you have no right to be surprised when your director appears to be making decisions for financial reasons. The board of such a school is looking for profit and as such the director will have pressures applied to him to concur with the “goals” of the school.
Point 2). From the outside, a parent-elected board at a not-for profit school seems like a democratic and equitable institution. The role of the board is to decide policy, not to implement it. Most such elected officials are hard working and excellent individuals, but some are there to press their own agendas. This can include the harassment of individual staff members or the promotion of personal goals. Obtaining special support for their own children is a frequently encountered aim of board members with their own agenda. If you haven’t read about it already, it won’t take much digging to uncover the recent story of an excellent school (with a superb director) literally brought to its knees by the politicking of the elected board. No matter how good a director is, they may not be able to shield their staff from the depredations of a quixotic board. Directors may get a terrible press on this site and yet, unbeknownst to most, are doing a truly saintly job protecting staff from the worst of what a board have to offer.
Another style of board is called ‘self-perpetuating. From the outside it seems like a dreadful idea: Ex-pat executives from major employers who may or may not have children being educated at the school ‘inherit’ a place on the board as part of their job description. The beauty of this arrangement is that should they begin any sort of personal campaign they are actually jeopardizing their own employment. It is a strong ‘check and balance’ and this type of board can function extremely well, indeed.
Point 3). Although many countries appear to be lawless, with the possible exception of Somalia and one or two other unfortunate countries, laws do exist and will be enforced. No teacher wants to think about the fine details of taxation, or the effect on their salary in 2009 should their host country join the EU. But you do have a responsibility to develop a sudden, detailed interest in these things. From my own experience, I clearly recall the whole school meeting where the director outlined the school’s response to rampant inflation in the face of political instability. The director did a good job, decisions became comprehensible, we felt supported. In this instance, the political situation could not have been reasonably predicted, but many salary-affecting changes can, with effort, be foreseen. Teachers cannot behave as if they are on a two-year holiday. Your director cannot shield you from the laws of the land. Naturally, the ones that may lie to you about those laws are inexcusable.
In addition to the 3 points I have just discussed, be aware that one part of the big picture your administrators do not have access to is your personal state of mind from day to day. I remember being asked by my principal to do a short presentation in an assembly about the adverse biological effects of alcohol on the body. This happened about 3 days after a relative of mine had just been caught drink-driving. I had told a couple of my mates and I did wonder just how many other people knew. Under this sort of circumstance, when something seems to be a slightly-more-than-coincidental dig, before pillorying your boss on ISR for ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ try a little circumspection. Frank dialogue can help erase misunderstanding.
In summary, there are many good directors out there. Directors and principals of international schools usually work in extremely demanding circumstances. The article “My Last Director Couldn’t Direct” said that no amount of qualifications ‘can compensate for a leader lacking the intrinsic character traits to support and treat his or her staff fairly and with respect.’ I completely agree. But even if the director you intend to work for sports a halo, and a PhD in Interpersonal Management skills, take the trouble to understand the conditions under which he is working! You may need to be flexible alongside your director to help your school succeed.
If you are here at the ISR site you are arming yourself with a great deal of useful information. But before you judge schools solely on what gets written by people whose motivation is not clear to you, take some time to research. Consider that although international schoolteachers often have no legal rights or recourse whatsoever, directors and principals are often even easier to fire. They are the people who most often put themselves into the firing line of a school board, frequently take the rap for failures and difficulties and, after all, they have no classes to teach and therefore don’t require immediate replacement when asked to leave.
International School of Stavanger