Why Hierarchies Don't Work

I work in a school system. In such a system, there is an elected school board, a superintendent head, some central office administrators and their subordinates, building principals and assistant principals, teachers and unlicensed secretaries, custodians and aides. The vertical structure of authority is clear to everyone. Wages and salaries follow the same structure.

My school system is much like others. We administrators are trained in two conflicting mores: building relationships with and supporting our teachers and other staff while imposing ever more strict expectations and consequences on them to make them better. The best of us are good at both.

As a school principal, I get to see my teachers and other staff at work. I am paid to observe and support them. They however also see my work. They are not asked to observe their bosses but most have learned that knowing our moods and our priorities will serve them well. As the titular head of a staff of about 60 adults, I am expected to have vision, be tough, be caring and solve problems. When I am wisest, I seek their counsel on important decisions. When I am either foolish or convinced, I might not.

In 30 years in public school systems, I have learned that my bosses expect me to be tough on those who report to me. I have equally learned that they expect me to bite my tongue when I see problems above me. What if those who work for me felt safe to come to me and tell me privately what they think I could do better? What if they shared their vision with me? What if all 61 of us worked as colleagues instead of bosses and workers?

As we puzzle over how to make schools better, let's not forget that we ask too much wisdom from those at the top of our hierarchies and allow too little voice to those who actually do the work. As an administrator, I aspire to be one who can hear criticism from those who know me best -- my teachers and secretaries and custodians, not the central office administrators located 25 miles across town.