14 August 2014

Leadership in Education?

I've seen many kinds of leadership in education across my life. I've know many directly, I've observed far more. At the far point on the scale I've watched the Chicago Public Schools and their leaders create one of the worst places to attend a public school on the planet, and its hard to believe that there has been anyone in charge of that system over the past 40 years who didn't really really want poor children to suffer, and to begin life as far behind as possible. They (Paul Vallas or Arne Duncan or Rahm Emanuel) can certainly argue with me, but I'd love to see any of them produce any actual evidence to the contrary.

Dr. Jonathan White, a real mentor to me, on leadership

At the other end are school systems like the one I work in now where the entire leadership, from the school board on down, is willing to take informed chances to continually do what is right for children. (That system is not great because I am in it, I have chosen to be in it because it is great.)

In between there are places like Detroit - a weakly led system sabotaged by a vicious anti-school state political agenda (pdf). And New York - where political style points over a 20-year-period have taken precedent over what children need.
I listened one day as Dr. Jesse Turner, the principal of our Monticello High School, explained to visitors from Australia and Michigan why he always calls his students "children." "My children don't always have a chance to be children," he said. "They go home and they need to work at jobs, or as caretakers, or sometimes to really be parents. So when they are here I want them to get to be children. I want them to play and explore. That's why I call them children, and they understand that."
And there are places like New Rochelle, New York - where I grew up and a system I continue to observe - which always seems to find ways to keep most kids - and, in contrast to Chicago, the full socio-economic range of kids - coming to school for the right reasons. And the Godfrey-Lee Schools in Western Michigan where great leadership is hamstrung by the horrendous inequality of resources for childhood we casually accept in the United States.

So I've watched for leadership. I think my elementary school - no matter what I thought about it - had pretty damn good leadership when I was a student there. It was a place of teacher innovation. I know my "junior high school" had terrible, unresponsive leadership which left students to fight for themselves. My high school had great leadership despite a tough place at a tough time. It was risk-taking leadership which greatly expanded opportunity across the spectrum of students and which began a tradition of trust in students - the open campus among others - which continues to this day.
"Of course there are other reasons why the 3Is [My alternative high school] is falling apart: the Steering Committee doesn't work (does the U.S. Congress do any better?), tutorials don't work (do you want them to do anything? If not, get rid of them; if so, do it), some classes don't work (complain, complain loudly and insistently or make some constructive criticisms or stop going to those that don't work for you). [Alan Shapiro wrote to students in the mid-1970s. Alan founded this school-within-a-school with Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Don Baughman in 1970.]

That sage, Kurt Ochshorn (also a non-classtaker, by the way) once said ["See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year"], "The 3Is isn't a program. The 3Is doesn't have a program. You can do whatever you want." Kurt did. And he discovered what anyone discovers when he/she can do what he/she wants. T. H. Huxley, a 19th century biologist and teacher, said it well: "A man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes."

Now you may not be able to do exactly as you like, but even if you could, you wouldn't be satisfied. The problem with doing whatever you like is that first you have to discover what that is. That's a real problem. And further, assuming you do discover what you want to do, how long will it be before you don't want to do it anymore and recommence the search? Partial definition of a human being: a creature who is chronically dissatisfied (see Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents).

Nevertheless, Kurt was at least partly right -- 3Is is less a program than an opportunity. Admittedly one that has its limitations. Probably because the restless fires of youth no longer flame in me (wow), I don't mind the limits much, but am thankful for the opportunity. What that opportunity has been for me I discussed as well as I could at last year's graduation. (Those who missed this remarkable address, gnash yer teeth.)

So when I return this fall I expect to be greeted with an inadequate orientation and cries that 3Is is falling apart. But in my 25 years of teaching, I haven't found any group I like to fall apart with as much as you."
I saw meaningless leadership as an undergrad at Michigan State University long ago - a leader who wanted a different kind of job. I saw stronger leadership at two other schools I attended, Pratt Institute's School of Architecture and the New York City Police Academy, where there were clear, defined missions and yet a general respect for diversity. At Grand Valley State University I saw great leadership both where I worked - in Academic Computing - and where I studied - in Social Sciences. In Academic Computing we were groundbreakers in serving students - especially vulnerable students. In Social Sciences I watched a Dean take care of student needs above all other concerns, and I watched him lead in new ideas, such as digital curriculum (in 1998).

Unfortunately at Michigan State University a second time, I found no leaders at all, save a retired professor named Cleo Cherryholmes (Rest in Peace), in the College of Education - just gatekeepers and status builders. That's a terrible thing to say, but I'll defend MSU by noting its pretty universally true among US schools of education.
This July we ran Professional Learning seminars for about 750 educators (this August we got the other half of our professional staff). I led sessions on our "Seven Pathways" (with Meg Franco) and on "Design for Learning."  In two of those sessions I had wonderful elementary school principals - Kendra King and Lisa Molinaro join us. They both led by example - joining their, and other teachers, in committing summer hours to this work, and they led by effective conversation. Lisa gave examples. Whenever a teacher doubted that he or she could "make this work," Lisa waited through the conversation and then gave an example of similar transformation in her school - crediting the teacher involved, not herself. Kendra was quieter, but she raised essential questions at key moments. When we were talking about classroom rules such as "make eye contact" or "sit still," she spoke up. "Whenever you make a rule," she asked in moment I won't forget soon, "ask yourself, who am I leaving out?'
What I've learned is that leaders protect those under them, but not at all costs. And that real leaders most protect those risk takers who try to make things better for those served. That was true when I was in the NYPD, it is true in any school. That leaders constantly challenge those they lead to do better, and expect them to do better.

I've learned that leaders never accept the status quo, one who does that may be a "boss" but is not a leader. And I've learned that leaders never have double standards or differing moral systems. In schools that means that adult behaviors need to match expected child behaviors. If they don't, well, kids know exactly what's going on.

Management by Walking Around
Mostly I've learned that leadership is about listening and watching. It's surely not about talking and sending out directives. When leaders listen they enable conversations which have impact. When they don't listen, neither does anyone else.
My boss at GVSU Academic Computing listened one day while I told him that an Ed Psych prof had recommended that I investigate Text-To-Speech computer systems - this was early 1998 - and he looked at me and said, "huh, if you need that I bet a bunch of other people here need that." Without my asking a thing he gave me a year to investigate what we'd need to make the university computer system universally accessible and a budget to "buy one of everything and see what works." I loved that year, but that was hardly all I did. I'd do anything the department needed. I was the most loyal, productive person there. I'd finally really been heard and understood.
- Ira Socol