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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. 

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