For Administrators

4 Bad Habits that Hold Back Educational Leaders

By Brian Gatens March 24, 2014

In my experience, most people who move into school leadership tend to get there through a combination of personal ambition and a desire to help schools improve. Yet as soon as they move into a leadership role, the challenges and new skills needed often hold them back from initially meeting their potential. If you’re currently in a leadership role or want to become an administrator or educational leader, you should watch for these four bad habits.

Getting trapped in micro- or free-rein management

After moving from the classroom to the school office, all new leaders find the pressures and expectations have ratcheted much higher. Some respond by micromanaging the performance of those who work under them. Examples might include overly editing a letter written by an assistant principal, or demanding to proofread every single outgoing document. I once knew a school superintendent who insisted on performing lunch duty because of concerns about the behavior of the students. This kind of workload is unsustainable in the long term and prevents your colleagues from working to their full potential.

The reverse of this philosophy is the idea of “free-rein leadership.” This is the mistaken idea that those who report to you can only achieve their full potential if — and only if — they have a tremendous amount of autonomy in meeting their job responsibilities. This is somewhat worse than micromanagement, as it allows administrators to develop bad habits that in extreme cases can put student safety in jeopardy. Even teachers with the best intentions can make huge mistakes under the free-rein model.

Of course, the answer is somewhere in the middle. It’s important that new leaders develop strong relationships with those who report to them by:

  • Setting clear communication expectations.
  • Meeting often — and not only when there’s a crisis.
  • Providing oversight via formal evaluations.

Combining these three actions with a steadiness in behavior and expectation will help leaders avoid bad habits related to staff supervision.

Justifying missed deadlines

This seems like a minor habit, but it sends a strong signal about a leader’s personal discipline and expectations. I’ve seen school leaders become so overwhelmed with work that they begin to justify missing deadlines. I think their internal conversation goes like this, “Well, my teachers will be OK waiting for my feedback, as they must know how busy I am with other things.”

This is the path to a disastrous relationship. Organizations run effectively when all members know their colleagues will hit their stated deadlines and expectations. Do what you say you’ll do when you agree to do it. Period. Full stop.

Letting work pile up and tackling it all at once

Schools are wonderfully distracting places. Not too far from an administrator’s office are classrooms filled with enthusiastic learners. As a result, it’s very tempting to let work pile up to spend time with the children.

Having a large pile of documents in your inbox plus too many unread emails will unnecessarily distract you from the big-picture items that need to be addressed. The goal should be the slow-and-steady drip of work. When something arrives, complete it as soon as possible and get it off your desk.

Being a half-hearted listener

Famed union leader Cesar Chavez was known not only for his compassion and caring for his fellow man, but also for his incredible ability to listen. Per many accounts, he had an amazing knack for making people feel like they were the most important person in the world when speaking with him.

One bad habit of school leaders is rushed and shortened conversations as they jump from task to task. A leader should never leave a colleague feeling slighted or ignored. Of all the bad habits to avoid, I consider this one the most important.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District Emerson, New Jersey. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.

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