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February 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 5

One to Grow On / Pondering Good vs. Great

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Over the years, I've been in scores, if not hundreds,of schools. I left many of them feelingthat I'd been in a "good school." I left a rarefew with the conviction that I'd been somewherequite special.
In the former group, the school buildings wereclean, attractive, and orderly. People seemed congenial,interacting readily and positively. Busescame and went on time. The lunchroom had a welcomingfeel. Lessons showed thought, planning,and investment of teachertime. There were ongoingconversations about qualityteaching and learning.Parents appeared happy tohave their children in theschool.
Some of these goodschools were old, somenew. Some had financialresources aplenty; some hadno reserves. I was glad tohave been in all those placesand left them with a sense of optimism about thehealth of schools—and with evidence that schools"work."
The rare schools had basically the same traits asthe good schools, but there was something more—something intangible, but nonetheless real. Theywere marked by a palpable energy, an urgency ofpurpose that made me a conscript. I wanted toknow the people, understand their work, be energizedby whatever it was that caused them to beboth driven and liberated. In these schools, therewas a shared singularity of purpose that had todo with bettering the prospects of young people;all efforts focused in that direction, regardless ofcountervailing pressures from any external source.Teachers and administrators alike exhibited "whynot" thinking, and there was a boldness of thoughtand action tempered by humility.
Such schools—albeit in small numbers—representedevery geographic and economic category.I was always sad to leave those schools.I wanted to—needed to—learn from them, to bemade more fully human by them. I left them withthe knowledge that schools can be transcendentplaces.

Capturing Excellence in Schools

I muddled around for a good many years trying tofind words to capture what separates transcendentschools from "good" ones. Then, while I was doingsome extensive reading onschool change, I discoveredthe work of Thomas Sergiovanni, which gave methe words.
Sergiovanni presents ahierarchy of five categoriesor tiers of leadership. Atthe base of a triangle diagrammingthe categories istechnical leadership, followedin ascending order byhuman leadership, educationalleadership, symbolic leadership, and, at theapex of the triangle, cultural leadership.
The technical leader is an accomplishedmanagementengineer who plans, organizes, coordinates,and generally ensures that all systems arego. The human leader harnesses human relationshipsto ensure that people experience support,encouragement, and opportunity for growth. Theeducational leader develops and shares expertiseon the varied facets of schools and schooling. Thiskind of leadership ensures that young people getthe instruction they need—and that faculty receivethe professional growth resources they need—toensure high-quality education.
Proficiency in these three areas, says Sergiovanni,is necessary for competence as aschool leader. A deficit in any of the areas erodeseffectiveness.However, the presence of all threefacets of leadership doesn't guarantee excellence ina leader or a school.
The fourth and fifth tiers ofleadershippredict excellence. Thesymbolic leader focuses colleagues onwhat is most valuable to the school—he or she helps those working in aschool understand the deeper meaningin what they are doing. This leaderdevelops a vision to work toward andcommunicates in ways that build ashared sense of purpose, includingenculturating new members to thegroup.
A cultural leader moves beyondsymbolic leadership to create a senseof history, to reflect and perpetuatean ideology that captures the group'smission. This leader both refines andinstitutionalizes the school's purposeand its work. People respond with asense of motivation and commitment.The school becomes a distinct entitythat evokes rich meanings and a senseof belonging to something important.
It's the fourth and fifth tiers thatcharacterize excellent leadership. Symbolicand cultural leaders make worksignificant for those who engage in itand enable people to coalesce with acommon spirit and celebrate mutualsuccess. Sergiovanni proposes thatthe stronger a leader is in these twoaspects, the less pivotal the other threebecome.
Sergiovanni's theory has helpedclarify my thinking about "good"schools in juxtaposition with excellentones. Good schools are good places.We need them in far greater numbers.Extraordinary schools, however, liftthe prospects of all of us. They feedboth the imagination and the soul.

Capturing Excellence in Teachers

Applying Sergiovanni's work tothinking about teaching excellenceevoked additional insight for me. It helped me understand that goodteachers also exercise consistenttechnical, human, and educationalleadership. The really extraordinaryteachers, however, are also exemplarsof symbolic and cultural leadership—and it's those apex leadership skillsthat make such teachers life changers.
The good news is that many educatorswho have learned to lead effectivelyat the technical, human, andeducational levels—whether as schoolor classroom leaders—can learn tobecome symbolic and cultural leaders.To do so is not to dabble with fairydust, but to understand and respond tohungers in the human spirit. This sortof leadership, I believe, is the genesisof educational excellence.
End Notes

1 Sergiovanni, T. (1999). Rethinkingleadership.Glenview, IL: Skylight.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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