Gardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators
reviewed by David Cox - 2003
Title: Gardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators
Author(s): Laurel Schmidt
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325004765, Pages: 199, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com
The secret to writing a book is to find a good metaphor. Laurel Schmidt has done that in Gardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators. This is a practical guide from an experienced administrator. School principals and assistant principals, particularly new appointees, at all levels will find this to be a valuable handbook. The book is organized into three major sections – “The Minefield,” “The Toolshed,” and “The Arsenal.”
“The Minefield” contains four foundational chapters on politics, vision, shedding the parenting role, and recognizing “the enemy within” (the voices in your head, the negative self-talk, that can sap your ability to lead effectively).
The chapter on politics outlines all of the special interest groups and individuals that seek the school administrator’s attention. On the specific topic of school-site governance groups, Schmidt discusses the issues of diversity, trust, conflict, prioritization, and collaborative coaching. Her humorous writing style, prevalent throughout the book, comes across when she quips, “In some cases, it would be easier to start your own country. Keep your mentor on speed-dial if you’re new to management-by-governance” (p. 7).
The chapter on vision seems somewhat traditional when Schmidt refers to “transplanting the vision” from “your head into the teachers’ hands” (p. 16). This smacks of a parent-child relationship, but I know that is not the author’s intent because of her emphasis in a subsequent chapter on alerting school administrators to the energy drain of playing the mom or dad role to the teachers. She encourages administrators to be careful of fostering an entitlement state of mind among the teachers. “In words and actions, you must convey that your goal is not to nurture a family but to build a team of robust colleagues….” (p. 28).
“The enemy within” chapter discusses the crazy voices in your head that can distract you from being an effective school administrator. The seven major “sappers” of effectiveness are: pleaser, critic, procrastinator, perfectionist, cynic, worrier, and controller.
The second major division of the book takes the reader to “The Toolshed” to discover seven gardening tools with a chapter devoted to each. The tools deal with hiring the best, motivating the staff, distributing leadership, supervising, evaluating and dismissing (“pruning”), communicating effectively, and getting smarter about public relations.
The chapter on motivating staff includes five R’s: recognition, relationships, resources, rewards, and rituals. Schmidt suggests using a staff roster to keep track of your recognitions in order to make sure no one is neglected. Recognition ideas include a “Many Thanks” form made available to parents for them to send to teachers.
When it comes to distributing leadership, Schmidt clearly states, “Do nothing for staff that they can do for themselves” (p. 70). The author makes a major contribution to school administration with the concept of “project thinking.” Schmidt writes:
Stop wasting everyone’s time in fruitless meetings. Reorganize the work of the school into projects, so that staff members address all issues that don’t require your personal stewardship. You can turn a minefield the size of Yankee Stadium into a fertile plot and watch it grow and bloom from one season to the next, simply by reorganizing the work of your school into projects. (p. 72)
And you can turn the tables on the complainers by thinking of them as “project consultants without the hefty fees” (p. 73). (This project-thinking concept alone is well worth the price of the book.)
Supervising instruction pertains to the quality control role Schmidt sees for school administrators. The author places visiting classrooms as the major priority for administrators. “Think about the great teachers who rarely have another adult to witness their brilliance” (p. 86). Schmidt says that as administrators make visiting routine, they will one day shift, in the minds of the teachers, from visitors to collaborators.
The fifth tool pertains to evaluation and, if necessary, dismissal. The advice basically comes down to document, document, document – including efforts to help the failing teacher to improve. Again, Schmidt’s humor:
If you conference with him fifty-seven times, model impeccable lessons, provide instructional interventions that could earn you a doctorate from Columbia Teachers’ College, and pay for a live-in mentor out of your own pocket but fail to document, you may as well stay in your office and watch Oprah on a portable television. (p. 107)
The final section ends with five “arsenal” chapters on looking after your own growth, seeking out a mentor, managing stress, handling crises, and moving on when the time comes.
Knowledge is power, but not if you are “Velcroed to your desk” (p. 135). Some administrators are afraid to admit they don’t know something. Others “err in the opposite direction, leaping on each new trend like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon” (p. 135). Schmidt admonishes administrators to get smart about resources, the union contract, crisis responses, and school law – especially special education law.
While getting smarter about one’s professional growth, also get smarter about one’s personal growth. Shop for a mentor who can be a research resource, a think tank collaborator, a reality tester, a cheerleader, a rescuer, and a mental health monitor.
For managing stress, do lots of positive stuff for yourself and for some of the students who don’t normally make it to the principal’s office. Schmidt passes along the idea, giving credit to the teacher who shared it, of calling a student into the office and congratulating him or her on some academic achievement. Then call the parents and congratulate them on having such a smart son or daughter. Lastly, put the student on the phone for another round of applause. This kind of positive activity with the “good kids” can reenergize a principal and help keep a positive perspective.
The crisis management chapter outlines the top-ten list of landmines. “It’s nearly impossible to predict which events will trigger an explosion. That’s why it’s called the minefield. The job is tough. Principals who do it well are asking for trouble” (p. 168). Schmidt discusses managing yourself, the crisis, and the symbolic message that goes out from how you handle the crisis.
The concluding chapter discusses career options when the time comes to move on. This could involve simply changing locations for a breath of fresh air, moving up, moving back to the classroom, moving into writing and consulting, or moving into a business or not-for-profit agency with an educational focus. The point is there are more opportunities than one might realize when the time comes to change venues.
Overall Gardening in the Minefield is well worth your investment. As the author says, “It’s a garden out there, if you know where to step” (p. xiii). While the metaphor is entertaining, the book has so much sage advice that I wish the title was a little more straightforward. This is a valuable fieldbook for the beginning administrator. It delivers on the expectation of being a survival guide.