Educational Leaders Take It to The Cafeteria Table
Updated: Oct 17
Who gets to shape our schools and our nation?
The way in which schools function and the positions schools take have both an impact on individuals as well as society. The question is, however, who gets to shape our schools and our nation? Educational institutions and leadership models have served to perpetuate hierarchical structures and maintain the power and privilege status quo.
For a moment, drift away. Go back to a time when the school cafeteria felt as big as a football stadium. Recall the cafeteria chairs and your feet dangling inches above the floor. Look down at your lunch and pick up the waxy milk carton in your hands. Slowly bring it to your lips and feel the torn, soggy paper as you take a sip of milk. Now, look up. Who is sitting across from you? If you are feeling brave, scoot forward in your seat and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Look past your classmate; look over their head. Who else is in the room and what are they doing? Do you see your teacher or Principal? As your view of the cafeteria opens up, notice the walls -- the colors and messages. Sit here for a bit, exploring the cafeteria, taking it all in, before returning to the present moment.
As you shrank back down to that version of yourself, what new awareness came to consciousness? What school contexts came into view as you explored the room? How did the adults standing above you make you feel? From the school’s mascot to the rules posted on the walls, what symbols spoke to you?
Perhaps you were lucky enough to attend a school where you weren't the minority or didn't feel like the outsider. Perhaps you did not experience some anxiety as you transgressed your safe space on the cafeteria chair. Although we can’t all relate to being a minority or part of a marginalized group, for instance, we can all relate to the cafeteria experience or the experience of being a child in an adult world.
The complexity of school context is not entirely lost on us. Returning to that version of ourselves when we had little to no power over our school context is a helpful activity for anyone in the education profession, especially educational leaders. In fact, even as an adult educator, if I take the time to explore the school beyond my classroom, contexts (goals, policies, procedures, behaviors, implicit norms) come into view that make me feel uneasy and are in direct conflict with my own beliefs, values, and wishes. Even as an arguably privileged white, heterosexual Christian, I realize that the institutions in which I have been taught and have worked, have not fully met my needs or reflected my wants and, in many ways, have functioned to limit my growth and stifle my authority.
A review of the dominant social norms which have shaped our educational institutions reveals the need for educational leaders to consider a new brand of leadership which brings greater vitality to the ongoing civic dialogue about what it means for a community to serve and educate its youth.
Dominant Social Norms and Leader As We Know Him
For centuries, educational institutions and leadership have reflected the social values and norms of the ruling class or those with power. As schools replaced the church as the central site of socialization, it became inevitable that schools were to now serve the nation-state and uphold its values and agenda (Kafka, 2009, p. 324). Serving the state meant schools were far less concerned with the personal fulfillment of individuals (Olson, 2003). From the social discourse to the organizational structures, norms were effectively established by the patriarchy and inscribed onto us. In the second half of the 20th century, school administrative jobs were dominated by men (Kafka, 2009, p. 318) and although today we have more women inhabiting the principalship position, women remain underrepresented at the high school level and superintendency (Kafka, 2009, p. 328). What’s more, 80% of principals are white in America according to a 2012 survey (The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, 2016, p. 7). The dominant social values and norms have been created and established by white, Christian men and have made an immense impact on American society. While this has created privilege for some, it has certainly marginalized and disenfranchised others. With this consciousness, educational leaders of the 21st century are working to resist the patriarchy by moving away from the “great man” brand of leadership to a more humane and democratic style of leadership and by creating schools which aim to create educative experiences for all. The transformation begins with a radical shift in leadership practice from educational administrator -- as we know him -- to educational organizer.
The 21st Century Educational Organizer
The 21st Century professional “educational organizer” is not one who administers, manages or controls. They are not a conformist, but a social reformer -- one who practices a type of distributed leadership that is far more inclusive than we have experienced in the past within the school community and one who aims to be provocative to stimulate critical thinking.
The distributed leadership practiced by the educational organizer may be called democratic leadership, shared leadership, or any other leadership practice which aims for a more flattened hierarchy and gives power to others as opposed to one or a few people at the top. However, the leadership practice goes far beyond the creation of leadership teams in schools, for instance. It involves the integration of all into the leadership process or the activation of all to be participatory in the leadership process. It means leaders emerge at different moments and power fluctuates amongst the people. It means embracing, appreciating, and encouraging the power of children and the power of teachers, or in other words, those who typically do not exercise power in schools. As Western (2008) has impressed upon us, it means viewing everyone as having leadership capacity and valuing diversity. This is not about taking power away from anyone, but giving power to the oppressed.
For centuries, dominant discourse and organizational structures of our educational institutions have effectively resulted in the internalized oppression of women, black, Indigenous, and people of color, for instance. By validating and legitimizing the knowledge, views, and beliefs of marginalized groups and engaging in practices that produce shared realities and negotiated constructs, we work for an emancipatory agenda (Marshak & Grant, 2008; Western, 2008).
Although such a leadership practice appears leaderless, it is important to note the difference. School leaders functioning in the capacity of educational organizers must be, as the name implies, a skilled organizer. As Ransby (2015) explains, the activation and mobilization of the people does not happen organically. Rather, it involves strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing through open, accessible, and collaborative meetings, workshops, debates, and so on. Sensemaking is how we frame issues and derive meaning from experiences. Organizing allows us to look critically at dominant views and mindsets, make sense of, and negotiate a collective identity (Evans, 2007).
Conclusion: Take It to The Cafeteria Table
The way in which schools function and the positions schools take have both an impact on individuals as well as society. The question is, however, who gets to shape our schools and our nation? Educational institutions and leadership models have served to perpetuate hierarchical structures and maintain the power and privilege status quo. As an educator, I, all too often, feel like I have no voice or influence in my school community and I know, all too well, the leader to be feared -- the leader who embodies the patriarchy, the leader who thinks of us as subordinates and makes us feel small and insecure, like a little kid in a big cafeteria.
Aware of the complex critical contexts of schools including the oppressive power dynamics at play, 21st century educational leaders are constructing a new sort of leadership -- one which gives power to the people and, ultimately, gives voice to the oppressed. They are not interested in being the “good apple” or being conformists, which only benefits the patriarchy. They are not interested in wielding power, but rather distributing power and making change which is humane: ethical and just. To lead is to take steps away from the old, and from a leadership perspective, means bringing people to the table who've traditionally been excluded. It feels radical and takes bravery. As Achinstein (2002) points out, collaboration often generates conflict and takes time, but it also presents an opportunity for learning and growth. Collaboration doesn’t suit the “controller,” as Western (2008) describes the familiar leader, but suits leaders who are flexible and open to possibilities that exceed their limited and narrow view as an individual or archetype. The leadership practices of the 21st century educational organizer are akin to practices of feminist and other social justice movements, requiring educational leaders today to be far more than savvy administrators, but skilled organizers. Modern educational leaders should be looking at the organization of social movements to better learn how we can put our minds together to help public education find its way forward.
Achinstein, B. (2002). Conflict amid community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration. Teachers College Record 104(3), 421-455
Kafka, Judith. (2009). The principalship in historical perspective. Peabody Journal of
Education. 84(3), 318-330.
Marshak, R. J. & Grant, D. (2008). Transforming talk: The interplay of discourse, power, and change. Organization Development Journal 26(3), 33-40.
Olson, D.R. (2003). Psychological theory and educational reform: How school remakes
society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 4: Schools as
bureaucratic institution (pages 45-64)
Ransby, B. (2015, June 12). Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless
Movement. Retrieved January 1, 2019, from
Western, S. (2008). Leadership: A critical text. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce. (2016, July). Retrieved January 2,