Be a Bull Fighter!

I was lucky enough to attend a Student Success Conference yesterday. Among other things was the keynote speaker Ron Berger who talked about the schools he works in and how they centre around Expeditionary Learning. This is the concept of creating a system where students take ownership of their own learning through Learning Expeditions and a more flexible school structure. Ron shared some inspiring stories and incredible student work that gave context to some of the things they do in the schools he works with. He also shared some interesting and to some, controversial comments. This included the idea that he works with some principals to find ways to get certain “toxic” teachers out of schools for the good of the entire program. I am really not sure why people got so upset by this, but it drew some extra attention.

The day also involved teachers sharing some of their best practices and ideas that could help their colleagues to improve student learning in their schools. The best of these sessions was easily watching my students and one fantastic teacher talk about our efforts around Student Voice. They showed off how we use social media, town hall meetings and even a Talking Locker to solicit and respond to student voice. While they were amazing (even being recruited to represent our board when they meet with the ministry in a couple of months), there was a bigger picture for me.

The bigger picture is about the role of leadership within a school. This includes both administration and teachers alike. This includes how best to get the most of the people that you work with. This involves possibly the most important decision that a leader has to make: when to do more and when to do less. If you know me then you know that I love coming up with analogies. Possibly has something to do with my background as an English teacher but more likely because analogies make it easier for me to make sense of some of the mixed up ideas in my head. That being said, here’s my analogy:

A good educational leader should aspire to be a bullfighter. 

Okay there needs to be a disclaimer here. I spent a bit of time tonight looking to see if I could locate a video that talked about the strategy of bullfighting so that I could draw a few more parallels but I ended up having to watch some brutal and inhumane videos. I thinkg some people don’t realize that the end result of a successful bull fight is the slow and painful death of the bull. Not something I would pay to watch and certainly not something that I will put on my blog, BUT I still think there is a decent parallel here.

A bull fighter basically uses his cape (usually read but not always), to attract the attention and in a way inspire the bull. I think that educational leadership is a lot like this. In my case, a principal need to wave a flag at his teachers from time to time. It is my job to get the blood flowing and to inspire or at least activate the passion of my teachers.

The bull fighter also uses the cape to direct the movement of the bull. I think there is something to this as well for educational leadership. An administrator should do this as well. I mean imagine a school where there are 90 different teachers all going in their own direction and doing their own thing. They may all have the best of intentions and even some great ideas, but without some sort of coordination, there will be overlap or even conflicting practices and in the end, the students will suffer.

The other main element of this bull fighting analogy though is what a matador does when he has the bull’s attention and it starts to charge. In short the bullfighter has to know the exact moment to GET OUT OF THE WAY. This is so key to leadership as well. I need to know when teachers need me to support, when to step in and when to take off. I have to understand the temporal nature of my position. At best (and hopefully), I will be at my current school for 7 years, while many of these teachers will be here for their entire careers. If ANY movement or practice depends on my participation then I have failed as a leader. I have to work to make myself unnecessary! I have to accept that I will eventually have to get out of the way. This is a tough one for me admittedly. I love being hands on with things and have to consciously force myself to allow others to take the reigns on projects. This was truly apparent as I watched 4 amazing students inspire and impress my colleagues and the only direction I gave them was that people wanted to hear about what we were doing. They were professional, engaging and so passionate about what they have been a part of. I see this all the time with staff as I walk through the halls (when I have the chance to do that!) or into their classes (even more rare unfortunately!). The key is knowing when my presence adds nothing to a situation and could possibly ruin it.

I think that Ron taught the crowd of mostly teachers a lesson in bull fighting himself though. He makes a great point for teachers also getting out of the way. To be like the bull fighter that guides, inspires, maybe even agitates their students and then, in an artistic move, get out of the way. I think this is where the traditional system fails students. There have always been inspiring teachers but I don’t know if I ever had one that really knew how to get out of the way. The traditional structure just wont allow it. The teacher is the head and the centre of the class so they feel like they cannot give up that role. This is the best challenge that Ron laid at our feet. He and others have figured out how to do this in over 160 different schools all across the US and so the question we should have, (and the one I had for my teachers who attended), needs to be: Why not us?

The more I think about it I really like the image of a bullfighter in education. While I detest the brutality of the “sport” I can appreciate the grace and courage that it must take to stand in and trust the craft and your own movements. Educational leaders, both admin and teachers alike, have to trust this skill. They need to trust the skill found within themselves as well as that which exists in their students.

I think I will write more about this idea and take a look at some things that could change as I head into the end of my second year as a principal. I think I need to ask the “Why not us?” question a bit more. I think I need to ask the “Do I really need to be here?” question more as well.

P.S. I think it is important to note that as I watched the bullfighting videos and was almost sick as I watched one fighter kill a bull slowly, I did take a bit of guilty pleasure as one bull got the best of his rival, and re-affirmed the lesson: “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns!”

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