Harvard Educational Review
  1. School Leadership

    Balancing Power with Caring

    By Kathleen Sernak

    New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. 179 pages. $46.00, $22.95 (paper)

    To be effective leaders, school administrators must balance an “ethic of caring” with the need to make unpopular decisions and to use power, authority, and control, argues Kathleen Sernak in School Leadership: Balancing Power with Caring. Incorporating Nel Nodding’s “tenets of care,” Sernak suggests that educational leaders practice an ethic of caring when they create a nurturing environment in classrooms, establish and maintain internal and external relationships with teachers and businesses, make a commitment to “caring” for students and faculty, and strive to understand human behavior. Sernak argues that the existing hierarchy and bureaucracy typical of schools needs to be reorganized and restructured if an ethic of caring is going to have a role in schools.

    School Leadership is about a study of an urban high school, “Division High,” and the changes it endured from the 1960s to current times, when urban institutions have had to struggle to survive due to changing demographics. Division High is described as a racially diverse school with a faculty divided between new and veteran teachers. A string of frustrated principals have left over several years, citing morale, leadership, and bureaucratic problems. The school struggles to maintain its identity amidst financial cutbacks, low academic standards, and a poor reputation. As a form of resolution, the district proposes a set of reform initiatives: site-based management and shared decisionmaking. These initiatives lack guidelines for implementation and thus are met with little enthusiasm. Caught in the middle is the first Black female principal, “Mattie,” a caring, nurturing, and understanding administrator who struggles to contain the divisiveness rooted in racial tension, low morale, and lack of leadership.

    In the first chapter, Sernak argues that the ethic of caring is contextual and then identifies three characteristics of caring. In the second chapter, she posits that to instill the ethic of caring, school leaders must consider a vision of collective effort by recruiting resources and support from the school and community (p. 19). This diffusion engages the larger community in a collective effort to improve the school. Sernak concludes by suggesting that creating an ethic of caring within bureaucratic organizations also becomes a politics of caring. She notes that there are some barriers to establishing caring institutions, such as societal perceptions of male and female roles and social expectations.

    Chapters three through six describe the history of Division High’s struggle and decline, introduce the current principal Mattie, and discuss the relationship between the positional power of the principal and caring. Although these chapters provide some detail as to how Division arrived at its current situation, the connection between successful leadership, power, and the ethic of caring is not apparent until the next chapter.

    Chapters seven and eight address the school’s lack of organizational cohesion, both present and past. Issues touched on include the fact that factions have formed, racial tension has historically existed within departments, veteran teachers and new teachers are not unified, and reforms initiated by the district are without direction or guidance. Finally, chapter nine relates several theoretical issues around the concept of power to the ethic of caring. These two concepts are discussed in terms of how power is played out in a supposedly caring community through the hierarchy of the administration. The book ends with a summation of how the ethic of caring is practiced.

    School Leadership convinces the reader that caring is a moral act, and that balancing and meeting the needs of the community with “care” is a political tightrope that school leaders must walk. However, this reviewer missed the personal voice of Mattie, and the voices of other stakeholders in the school community, which would have enriched the story greatly. Despite this shortcoming, the book provides a valuable theoretical framework and analysis of the ethic of caring at work in a school setting.

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    Book Notes

    Teacher with a Heart
    By Vito Perrone

    Political Correctness
    By Stanley Fish

    School Leadership
    By Kathleen Sernak

    The Students Are Watching
    By Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer

    Black Power/White Power in Public Education
    By Ralph Edwards and Charles V. Willie

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    By Gretchen B. Rossman and Sharon F. Rallis