Leadership and Organization

By: Dru Tomlin


There are striking parallels between the work of a middle school leader and a chef. Having done both jobs—though my role was more that of a cook—I can attest to these similarities with firsthand knowledge and confidence. Both positions work for and with stakeholders who can be difficult to please because they have different appetites, tastes, and expectations on any given day. Chefs and leaders also try to create innovative recipes to keep the menu fresh, even at the risk of upsetting their stakeholders and critics. It's clear: A chef in a restaurant and a leader in a middle school share comparable challenges.

In addition to their day-to-day trials and triumphs, chefs and successful middle school leaders also have characteristics in common. First, according to This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, effective middle grades leaders are "committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices" (p. 28). When meeting the needs of the young adolescents they serve, middle school leaders possess a passion for the work and determine a direction for achieving it. They are leaders and learners, pushing themselves and others to bring better strategies to the schoolhouse. Similarly, successful chefs are constant students and inventors, tweaking recipes and adding ingredients to bring better dishes to the table. Both chefs and middle school leaders realize that without innovation, progress and hunger shrivel on the vine.

Second, middle school leaders cannot be complacent and contented as they work for the students, teachers, staff, and families they serve. They must demonstrate "courage and collaboration" (p. 29). While leaders should be cautious with words, deeds, and decisions, careful shouldn't turn into fearful. Fear, while a natural emotion, can drive a leader backwards in their school improvement efforts. And while leaders should be able to make decisions independently, independence shouldn't turn into isolation. Successful middle school leaders collaborate with others to gain new insights and get valuable pushback on their own ideas.

All of this is also true with chefs. Culinary experimentation shouldn't be reckless and cause harm, but measured shouldn't turn into meekness. A chef must have the courage to carefully take bold steps forward to create new recipes and build new menus. And while a chef must be self-reliant, successful chefs recognize that other chefs and kitchen staff have perspectives, tastes, and sensibilities that they must tap into if meaningful change for a restaurant or menu is going to occur.

Finally, the lives of both chefs and middle school leaders are framed by "organizational structures that foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships" (p. 31). In the kitchen, much of the magic happens in the prep before the customers arrive. A structured kitchen fosters successful cooking and chefs.

For the successful school leader the conditions for success are the same. The middle school leader knows that the 16 characteristics are essential ingredients in the recipe for an outstanding school, but that leader also knows that the ingredients need consistent frameworks so they can be added, stirred in, and cultivated. That's why the master bell schedule is so important. Without a regular time for interdisciplinary teams to meet, an integrated curriculum is just another great idea in the cupboard. Without dedicated time for advisory, social-emotional learning is just an outstanding concept on the shelf. Like the kitchen, when a structure is absent in a school, the leader is scrambling (and it's not because they're making eggs).

Some questions to consider when thinking about courage, collaboration, and organization in your school:

  1. How do you and your school leaders demonstrate courage? What's the evidence?
  2. What does collaboration look like at your school? How does the leadership model foster that work?
  3. Does your master bell schedule need to be revised so the people, practices, and programs can cook and simmer more successfully?
  4. How do you align your chefs in the edu-kitchen so they can get what they need, measure what they want, and build relationships they must?

Dru Tomlin, Ph.D., is principal at Heritage Middle School in Westerville, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2017.

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