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Leading by Getting Out of the Way

Out of all the departments in the high school, the science department was unquestionably the best.  Led by a veteran chemistry/physics teacher, the department’s classes were always fully enrolled including students who didn’t need the courses to graduate.  The other department members worked to emulate the chair’s professionalism.  He loved teaching, and his first job was in a school so small that besides teaching science, he drove the school bus. I never heard a student complain about him even though he was tough.  He had a fine, dry sense of humor, a strong intellect, and unquestionable integrity.  He was proud of his profession and believed strongly that mentoring the younger science teachers in his department was part of his professional responsibilities.

At holiday time the department put up a chemis-tree in their wing, and students decorated it with chemistry symbols (“Can you point out the symbol for gold?” he would ask me with a twinkle in his eye, knowing that my knowledge of science was skimpy, to say the least).  The students wrote plays about photosynthesis and created “appropriate” costumes.  The science department developed field trips to show students how science applied to their daily lives.  Students and teachers put together a science newsletter. 

One of my favorite memories of the science department chair was a physics class in which students were to determine the relationship between the weight of an object and the speed at which it fell.  Standing on his lab desk in his blue lab coat with a stopwatch in hand, he dropped a feather and timed it.  Next, he told students, he himself would jump from the desk and time himself.   He was, at the time, over 60 years old and more than a little rotund.  He jumped.  The stunt became a school tradition, and every year afterwards, on the day that class was taught, students in other courses asked if they could attend physics that day just to see it.

Money was always tight in that school, but when the science department came to me for anything  (and they were always judicious), I turned over every stone I could to find a way to get what they needed.  My job as principal was to remove obstacles to their outstanding teaching and then to get out of the way. We all knew they didn’t need me to tell them what to do or how to teach, and I didn’t need to leave my fingerprints on their work.

One year at the department’s end-of-the-year picnic, they presented me with a certificate that made me an “Honorary Member of the Science Department.”  I was indeed honored.

“Thanks for letting us do our job,” the department chair said. As if I could stop them. 

The Operation Was a Success, But ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make student achievement part of the decision to grant tenure to teachers, much to the chagrin, of course, of the teachers’ union according to yesterday’s New York Times.

 Not using the data, Bloomberg says, is “like saying to hospitals, ‘You can evaluate heart surgeons on any criteria you want – just not patient survival rates.’”

 As budgets tighten, Bloomberg also wants to be able to lay off teachers according to merit rather than seniority. 

 We’ve heard all the arguments against using test results to evaluate teachers.  You can’t control whom you get in class.  Kids aren’t motivated.  Parents aren’t supportive.  The tests are too hard or too easy.  You can’t measure love of learning.  You can’t control attendance.  You can’t be responsible for transient students that you haven’t had all year.

 But here’s the thing:  Currently we evaluate on process rather than product.  We assume that we know good teaching when we see it, and typically there is agreement between the union and the administration on that assumption.  Forms used for formal observations, for example, are often developed by teachers and administrators together based on a common understanding of what good teaching looks like – not what good teaching produces in terms of test scores.

 In addition, in many schools, direct, formal supervision of classroom teaching occurs perhaps once a year or maybe not at all.  In my experience, even the least talented teacher can pull together a decent lesson once a year for a formal classroom evaluation, especially one that’s announced in advance.

 So why not use test scores as part of the whole picture?  I’m not saying that test scores are the only criterion because some of the union’s objections contain some validity.  But looking at scores over three years and comparing them with students in similar classrooms with different teachers gives the teacher and administrator another piece of the picture.  Instead of looking for excuses as to why kids aren’t performing on tests, maybe we should embrace the challenges of attendance, motivation, etc. etc.  Isn’t that the point of teaching?  If only teachers who were excellent in the classroom and produced results were granted tenure, all layoffs would be hard.

Teaching Cellphone

Being a “digital native” in today’s world isn’t a choice our students make, says superintendent Gerry Hudson.  In today’s parlance, it is what it is.

 Our students grew up with technology; it’s their lifestyle.  This familiarity with technology will make them the “drivers of revolutionary innovation,” Hudson says.  “As their educators, we can also be drivers,” he says, “or we will end up being just the passengers.”

 It’s a problem.  What to do, for example, with cell phones?  Hoping to control the negatives of cell phone use –not just the distraction, but also texting, sexting, and bullying – many schools have banned cell phones during the school day.  But do students actually leave them at home or in their lockers?  Or is it the technological equivalent of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?  And what about teachers?  Do we tell students they can’t have cell phones while teachers wear them on their belts? 

 Some parents insist that their child have a cell phone with him or her at all times in case of emergency or just in case practice is cancelled.  They may be furious if the principal confiscates their child’s phone even if the child is using it during math class.   And do teachers really want to interrupt their lessons to become the cellphone police?

 Hudson insists that a big part of the problem with cell phones is that students were never taught to use them appropriately.  We hand them out to our kids with no directions, he says, assuming they’ll know what to do.  It’s an example of our being passengers instead of drivers.

 When it comes to technology, it’s clear that schools have competing issues of control and integration.  To develop a comprehensive plan, districts need administrators that have worked hard to understand and use technology themselves.  They may not be natives, but they have to learn to speak digital with a barely detectable accent.

Natives and Immigrants

“Let me see your wrists,” demands Gerry D. Hudson.  Twenty administrators dutifully hold out their arms.  Hudson is looking for watchbands, a telltale sign of people who are “digital immigrants” rather than “natives,” terms coined by Marc Prensky in 2001.

 More than a few people in the room are wearing watches.  “Do kids wear watches?” Hudson asks. “No.  If they care, they find out the time by checking their phones.”

 “Or by asking someone who wears a watch,” one of the immigrants quips.

 Hudson, superintendent of the rural but technologically savvy Altmar Parish Williamstown school district in New York State, describes the disconnect between students and teachers when it comes to technology.  The students are “natives”; they grew up with computers in a digital era. They text, they network, they receive information quickly and simultaneously from various media sources.  Their teachers are by and large “immigrants” to the digital culture, trying to catch up with the technology students have always known.  The problem for students is that the immigrants are in charge of their education and the use of technology inside the schoolhouse.

 Hudson puts his finger on the real problem of integrating technology.  It took three years, for example, for teachers in my district to move to e-grades.  Year one it was optional and all the teachers under 30 got on board.  By the end of year two, about 80% were inputting their grades.  In year three e-grades were mandatory, and the last few immigrants finally cajoled the under 30’s to input their grades for them.  In the meantime my 5-year-old granddaughter was texting  me on her way to kindergarten each morning.

 Hudson says there are basically three ways we can better integrate instructional technology.  The first ways is to train the immigrants.  The second way is to train the immigrants.  The third way is to train the immigrants.  There’s probably a fourth way:  Wait for the immigrants to retire. 












No Public Tears

“It was an awful conversation, “ a superintendent friend of mine said. A department head had come into her office and blasted her for one thing after another. It was harsh and it was personal.  “I kept my cool and didn’t let her get to me while she was there, “ my friend confided.  “But after she left, I cried.”

 “No public tears?” I asked.

 She nodded.  “No public tears.  I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.”

 “No public tears” may be the female equivalent of “Never let them see you sweat”  although I don’t know whether public tears would be more damaging to a female or male superintendent.  I never wanted anyone to see me sweat either.

 “No public tears” was the mantra I learned early in my administrative career.  After a particularly nasty grievance in which the district finally prevailed, the employee in question stormed into my office and slammed an envelop on my desk.  He stormed out and I opened the envelope.  It was a long diatribe against me and the district and my board was copied in.  But I caught my breath at the last sentence:  “I resign effective 12/31.”

I closed my door and called a friend who had been a confidante all through the long battle.  To my surprise, I started to cry as I began telling about the letter. 

 “So how does it end?” he interrupted.

 “He quit!” I said.

 “So what are you crying about?” he asked.  “Forget all the other crap.  You got what you wanted.”

 I stopped crying.  He’s right, I thought.  I got what I wanted.  

I need to toughen up, I thought, if I’m going to do this job.  And I did.  Private tears, maybe.  But absolutely, positively no public tears.

Union of Professionals?

I once suggested to a group of graduate students in education that teachers might be considered more professional if each negotiated his or her own contract like doctors or lawyers do.  This was at the end of a discussion about how unions protect their weakest members and how everyone is on the same salary schedule no matter how competent or incompetent.  While my students acknowledged that protecting weak employees reflected badly on all of them, they were loathe to relinquish the job security unions provide.

 A little more than 12% of workers nationwide are unionized, according to a recently released study by the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C.  Thirty-eight percent of unionized employees are college graduates. 

 About half of all union employees work in the public sector, and women make up almost half of union membership.

The influence of teachers’ unions on public education has been both positive and negative.  From a positive standpoint, unions have been instrumental in raising teachers’ pay and benefits, making the profession a better draw for talented individuals.  From the negative standpoint, it is difficult to see how schools will ever seriously improve given how hard it is to remove a substandard teacher.  And in states with tenure, the guarantee of continued employment by staying under the radar is little incentive for ongoing professional growth and improvement.

The difficulty of removing poor teachers is one of the biggest obstacles to systemic change.  Protecting incompetence was not what the great majority of good teachers had in mind when they joined their local association.  When only 12% of workers are unionized, one has to wonder why so many of them are teachers.  

But They're Not My Kids

My grandfather came to this country when he was a boy.  He believed that FDR was a god, and in his later years he said that when he got off the boat, he literally expected the streets to be lined with gold.  He was taken in by relatives in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, went into the mills at 13 and emerged an old man 50 years later.  He didn’t complain because he was convinced it was a better life than he would have had in the Old Country. 

He had very little education, but he expected that his children would do better than he did because they had a chance to go to school.  And they did do better.  My grandfather’s generation believed that education was the way up, and they were willing to pay for it. 

 This idea that each generation would do better than the last because of education was a given in the house where I grew up.  I believed it then, and I believe it now despite the vagaries of economics.

 So as a superintendent, it was something akin to horror that I felt the first time I heard people say when I presented the school budget, “I don’t have any kids in school.  Why should I pay school taxes?”

 There are so many answers to that question.  Who paid for your kids?  Would you rather pay for school or for welfare?  Or for prisons?  Do you not understand that free public education is the cornerstone of this country?

 Democracy depends for its existence on an educated population. Mark Twain said, “Out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”  Yes, you have to pay school taxes because you reap the benefits of those taxes whether you have kids in school or not.  Those kids, those responsibilities, belong to all of us.

 So I said, “It’s the law.”

The Flavor of Good Decisions

 Three fifth graders in an Illinois school missed their chocolate flavored milk.  In an effort to combat childhood obesity, the Barrington Community Unit School District 220 had decided to serve only white milk.  So the kids approached school administrators with a petition, arguing that students like flavored milk better than white milk and would drink more of it, thus increasing their calcium intake.

 According to the Chicago Tribune (chicagotribune.com), the superintendent granted their request on a trial basis, agreeing to offer flavored milk on Fridays.  The district will collect data on milk consumption and review it in January. 

 No matter how the decision turns out in January, administrators in this district demonstrated smart leadership. They recognized the kids’ right to petition, and they acknowledged that the students might have a point.  Administrators proposed to make the final decision based on data, and they reached a valid compromise in the meantime.  This was, as they say, a “teachable moment” and administrators remembered they were teachers first. 



The Fog

The fog this morning in this little Ohio town in the northwest corner of the state was thick enough to delay school for a couple of hours. 

In this part of the Midwest the land is so flat that there is a straight horizontal line where land meets sky miles away.  It’s rich farmland, and you can still see farmers working their fields on ancient tractors and herding their Jersey cows into sagging barns.  The family farm still exists here, but barely.

Mendon Union High School, with graduating classes of about 20 has been torn down, so local children ride buses to Van Wert schools across the flat roads laid out in rectangles bordering the fields. Van Wert has the highest unemployment rate in the state.  Still, local residents support their schools.  They expect their kids to attend every day and to graduate, maybe even go on to enroll at The Ohio State University, the giant land grant college in Columbus, or one of its satellite campuses like the one in Lima.  This is Buckeye country, and half the patrons at the Pizza Hut buffet last night were wearing t-shirts or jackets with the scarlet and grey block “O.”

 The people are unfailingly polite and friendly.  Their speech has a distinct twang, noticeable especially when they talk about the upcoming football game with “Meeshigan.” 

 Van Wert public schools spend $4,777 per student, about 22% less than the national average of $6,058 according to Sperling’s Best Places to Live.  Van Wert’s cost of living is also about 22% less than the national average.

 Meanwhile, in Scarsdale, New York, per pupil expenditures according to the New York State Report Card, is $14, 823, about three times what Van Wert spends.  The average for all New York public schools is $9,485, more than twice the Van Wert number.  Even adjusting for cost of living, the disparity is enormous.

 When the fog lifts, I think about how school officials in New York State are howling because the Governor has recommended cutting state aid to schools mid-year to address the state deficit.  Maybe he should charter a bus and send some of those officials to Van Wert or the thousands of small towns like it throughout the country.  Because it’s not always about more money.  Sometimes it’s about making it work with what you’ve got.




No Fun in Fundraising

In the spring all teachers who advise a club or coach a sport meet to plan the fundraising calendar for the next school year.  The idea is to coordinate the events so that they don’t overlap and students won’t be selling more than one thing at a time.

 In September the freshmen sell candy bars for the first two weeks.  The Spanish Club is next with their green plant sale.  October opens with juniors selling tickets for the spaghetti dinner.  Then the seniors take orders for grapefruit to be delivered around the holidays.  The basketball teams take orders for school t-shirts and shorts, and by then it’s late November.  That’s when the drama club sells Christmas wrapping paper and the cheerleaders sell candles.  This is also the sophomore magazine sale.  Everyone gets a 2-week reprieve around the holidays, and then in January the Science Club takes orders for flowers to be delivered on Valentine’s Day.  

 And so it goes.  Heaven help the class or club that goes rogue, selling mints or nuts or apples without reserving the dates on the calendar!

 I don’t know which is worse, that kids are always selling something or that there’s never enough money in the budget for uniforms, field trips, and competitions.

 I don’t have a problem with kids fundraising for something really special – a senior trip to Washington, D.C., for example.   It’s OK for kids to put time and effort into something they really want.  If the Spanish Club wants to go to Mexico, fundraising may mean that everyone gets to go, not just the kids whose parents can afford it.

 But do we really want this army of kids badgering parents and relatives to buy something every couple of weeks?  Some parents have told me they’d rather contribute $50 at the beginning of the year for extras and forget the fundraising.  Then kids wouldn’t have to waste their time selling stuff their families don’t want or could buy cheaper if the fundraising company wasn’t getting 60%.   I think they have a point.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.