Academic journal article The Professional Educator

Taming Turbulence: An Examination of School Leadership Practice during Unstable Times

Academic journal article The Professional Educator

Taming Turbulence: An Examination of School Leadership Practice during Unstable Times

Article excerpt


Within the realm of K-12 education, instability is an inherent feature that school leaders must successfully manage. Turbulence, in the form of micro-level issues (day-to-day, in-house happenings) and macro-level concerns (externally imposed organizational disturbances/changes), develops indiscriminately and may escalate quickly without adequate warning. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the means by which a school leader can moderate the school atmosphere. This paper reveals the decisions, devices, and behaviors of one school principal who worked to minimize the effects of turbulent conditions in the senior high school setting. The findings illuminate particular leadership tools and actions that may be of assistance to school leaders who seek to better stabilize their schools.


Turbulence is an inherent feature of the public school and is something that school leaders must successfully manage. As Gross (1998) explained, there are many sources of turbulence that may arise, including a disjointed community, isolation, issue overload, tension-filled conditions, loss of support, communication problems, rapid changes, value-conflicts, and external pressures.

According to Gross's (2006) turbulence theory, the concept of positionality is important, since where a person stands in relation to the turbulence will determine how he or she experiences it. This is because turbulence "is not usually spread around the school and community in a uniform way" (Gross, 2006, p. 56), and the school principal's position lends to a preoccupation with many of the conflicts that develop within the organization. Unfortunately, such conflicts may cluster at any given time, and these combined forces or events may become formidable, as they create a cascading effect that escalates the level of turbulence that the school faces (Gross, 2006; Shapiro & Gross, 2013). For the school leader, the cascading effect is something that is often very real and may require a high capacity for management, decision-making, and action. Furthermore, the school leader must consider when to deliberately heighten the level of turbulence within the organization, for the purpose of gaining positive results in pursuing particular goals (Shapiro & Gross, 2013).

Along with the school principal's role and expertise in handling turbulence, the school's stability will determine whether it can withstand heightened levels of turbulence. The school's stability level depends on past and present circumstances, members' confidence in the inherent worthiness of the organization, and the school's ability to be flexible while turning turbulent experiences into opportunities (Gross & Shapiro, 2013).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to examine the workings of a school principal who sought to manage turbulence within the senior high school environment. The study explores the lived experiences of the leader, subordinates, and stakeholders who were involved with the school organization. The focus is on gaining an understanding of the school principal's intentions, and then examining his actual leadership decisions and behaviors, as experienced by school stakeholders.

Specifically, this study seeks to reveal whether the school principal was able to successfully lead the school organization during times of heightened turbulence, and to determine what allowed or disallowed him to do so. The perceptions of administrators, teachers, staff, parents, community members, and recent graduates were utilized to gather an understanding of the principal's leadership behavior. This process was set to generate an understanding of how leader competencies and organizational behavior relate to the management of turbulence within the school environment.

A Primer on Turbulence within the School Organization

Putnam (1991) revealed that, "within any environment, there are areas of calm, agitation, opportunity, and danger - as well as areas of unknown risks. …

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