John Kostoff, executive director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officer Association, says that as the new school year starts, it is appropriate to acknowledge the works of administrators. Photo/Pixabay

In praise of school administrators

By  John B. Kostoff, Catholic Register Special
  • August 21, 2016

As students and teachers prepare to start a new school year, it is appropriate to acknowledge the vital role of a group that is often maligned in education — those holding positions in administration.

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthian 12:28 that there are many gifts of the spirit. These include the gift of healing, assistance and administration. He clearly understood the importance of gifted administrators. Without these leaders, Christianity may not have evolved and spread around the world. Good administrators continue to guide the Church and assist Catholic educators in their missions today.

Shelves in libraries and book stores are bending under the weight of books on leadership, but few have sought to connect administration with the Christian mission. Educational leadership comes in many forms: directors, superintendents, principals, vice principals. It also comes from people who lack a formal title to denote a leadership position, but lead nonetheless. Many dedicated staff members fill this informal leadership role.

It’s unfortunate, however, that school leaders are often belittled or jeered in public settings. Administration can be an incredibly difficult task, often lonely yet never unrewarding.

A recent book by biblical scholar Fr. Donald Senior (The Gift of Administration) and an equally important work by Ann Gardo (Redeeming Administration: 12 Spiritual Habits for Catholic Leaders) offer unique insight on leadership in Catholic schools. Senior blends both the insights from Scripture, his own experience and the work of experts in a masterful way.

He begins by citing Pope Francis on administration. In what can only be regarded as a tongue lashing directed at the Roman Curia almost two years ago, the Pope outlined shortcomings he had observed among the Vatican bureaucratic hierarchy. His critique can be applied to anyone in leadership, including Catholic schools.

With no equivocation, the Pope listed: the sickness of feeling indispensable or superior to others; the sickness of Marthaism, of excessive busyness and not taking time to rest, watch and listen; the sickness of mental and spiritual petrification, having a heart of stone and hiding under papers and work; the sickness of excessive planning and functionalism, not realizing that God is in charge and the penchant to plan, plan, plan often comes at the expense of accomplishing what is truly important.

Senior reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not a great respecter of our plans, or strategic strategies and mission statements. I suspect Pope Francis is suggesting that we always be open to the Spirit, or as the sisters used to tell students on the dance floor, “leave room for the Holy Spirit.”

Peter Drucker, a significant writer on leadership, once said, “culture eats strategic plans for lunch always.” All planning goes nowhere unless leaders stay attentive to the culture in which those plans operate.

Pope Francis also identified the sickness of bad co-ordination, a product of failing to communicate because an ego is saying I alone am in charge. Then there’s the sickness of spiritual Alzheimer disease, which for educators becomes forgetfulness about the mission and purpose of Catholic education.

Other problems, said the Pope, are the sicknesses of rivalry and vainglory; the sickness of existential schizophrenia, saying one thing and doing another; the sickness of gossip; the sickness of divinizing directors who court favours instead of doing their job; the sickness of indifference; the sickness of the mournful face; the sickness of accumulation; the sickness of creating cliques; and finally the sickness of seeking profit or exhibitionism.

Pope Francis is clear that these maladies are threats to those in Church leadership. But they are also cautionary words for leaders in Catholic education.

 Similarly, in her book Gardo identifies several spiritual qualities that leaders must exhibit: humour, trust, optimism, integrity, humility, courage, reflection and friendship. They must also be able to accept failures, uncertainty and disappointment when plans and policies fail or when the pace of change is slow as they live out the paschal mystery daily.

Administrators in Catholic schools are well educated and prepared for leadership roles, but they often face situations that cannot be totally resolved. There is never enough money or enough staff or support.  Expectations often exceed what is possible, and education is always an arm of public policy directed by the government of the day.

Then there are the demands on schools that stem from poverty, misuse of social media, health issues, lapsed Catholic faith and various parenting styles. All these bleed into schools daily and create challenges.

The task of being a leader is daunting. Yet each school year administrators step forward to create memorable experiences for students and teachers by creating environments that further learning and invite deeper relationships with God.

To those in administration, the vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit. They deserve thanks for living out their ministry daily in our schools.

(Kostoff is executive director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officer Association.)

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