Chapter Six: Teachers, Administrators, and the School System

6.6 The Role of Administrators

These characteristics of teaching also create difficulties in defining the role of school administrators. In hierarchical organizations such as factories, workers take directions from—and are supervised by—bosses. Schools often use essentially the same model, with teachers being directed and supervised by principals and superintendents. This is such a common feature of schooling that we take it for granted, yet standardization of practice and hierarchical management do not always lead to appropriate ways of working or addressing the unique needs of schools or students.

What would happen if schools operated more like hospitals, in which doctors individually and collectively make most of the treatment decisions, and in which administrators are primarily involved with keeping the organization cohesive and functioning? What would happen if school principals and superintendents were elected by teachers, or by  students, and parents? What would happen if teachers took turns being responsible for administrative duties in the school? It seems likely that patterns of authority would change considerably. One might glean some tentative ideas by comparing schools to organizations that have different methods of determining leadership. For example, in universities, administrators are often hired for a limited term through open and participative processes; in collectives, leadership is shared and rotated; and, in political systems, leaders are elected. In principle, any of these practices could also be used in schools.

Regardless of these possibilities, Canadian schools and school district administrators—principals and superintendents—are charged by school boards and provincial departments of education with supervising the operation of the schools. It is their job to ensure that the organization’s goals are being met, and that its policies and procedures are being followed. However, these are difficult tasks for the administrator to accomplish. For one thing, as was discussed in Chapter 1, there is much uncertainty about what the goals of schooling are or should be. Furthermore, education is not an activity that can be tightly specified. Teachers can’t simply be told to do something and be assured that what they do will affect all student learning in similar ways.

Even when teachers are given directions, the administrator cannot be sure they will be followed. Once the classroom door closes, teachers are often substantially free to teach what and how they like, so long as they observe certain limits. In many schools, if there are not too many complaints by students or parents, if there is not much obvious disorder, and if students on the whole appear to be learning, teachers generally hold much autonomy within their classrooms to manage them as they see fit.

In short, the professional aspects of teaching and the norm of teacher autonomy mean that administrators have limited ability to exercise influence through the giving of orders or commands. Rather, administrative influence rests on other kinds of mechanisms. In a classic formulation of the nature of authority, sociologist Max Weber talked about three types of authority: traditional, legal, and charismatic. Each of these can be seen in the operation of schools.

Traditional authority used to be the most common type of authority. People were obeyed because they held positions that required obedience. Thus, monarchs, the nobility, or religious leaders were obeyed because it was normal to do so in a given social order. While traditional authority is less important in our society today than it has been historically, it still plays an important role. The traditional authority of administrators rests on their positions, which give their wishes and instructions a legitimacy that those of other people may lack. A suggestion made by a principal may often carry more weight with staff than a suggestion made by a teacher, simply because principals occupy positions of authority and are assumed by and large to know what they are doing.

Legal authority operates through the structural or organizational features of the school. Administrators evaluate teachers. They assign teachers’ workloads and have an important role in determining the details of a teacher’s work life. They can issue instructions that teachers are legally obligated to obey (although, as we have pointed out, this strategy is not always effective). Administrators often have control over resources teachers want, such as budgets for supplies and books or access to professional development opportunities. They can determine whose ideas get support and whose do not. Administrators also play a critical role in teachers’ career prospects. A good reference from an administrator is usually vital to a promotion. Principals can and do use these mechanisms to influence or control teachers’ behaviour.

Charismatic authority rests on the personal characteristics of the leader. Some people are able to command obedience by the force of their personality; they are impressive enough for others to want, or at least to agree, to do what they suggest. Indeed, when we use the word “leadership,” we are often talking about charismatic authority, which rests on certain intangible qualities of the leader.


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