Getting Better: Leadership is Earned, Not Bestowed, and Leadership Drives School Improvement

I always started a union meeting by asking what issues the staff wanted me to address,

The staff was experienced and a hand shot up,

“The principal comes into our room almost every day; wanders around the room looking at note books, whispering to my students and leaves; later in the day she’ll stop you in the hall and tell you things she liked and a few recommendations.  We’re experienced teachers; we know what we’re doing, tell her to leave us alone.” A few heads nodded.

I spoke with the principal,

“I know what you’re going to ask me, I do ‘instructional rounds’ every morning, it gives me a feel for the day and it keeps the teachers on their toes and; no, I’m not going to back off … this is good school and I’m going to keep it that way.”

In another school the principal asked me to walk around with him. “I do a grade every day;” he told me as we walked around the building.  As we walked into each classroom the kids greeted him in unison, “Good morning Mr. Smith,” and he would begin a discussion, “What are you studying today?” Kids anxiously raised their hands and the principal kept asking “Why” and “How” questions – it was an excellent mini lesson.

“I get a feel for the class and by visiting every class on the grade in a day, I get to compare classes and keep up to date on the progress the kids are making. I write up my findings for the grade, I single out specific issues without naming a particular teacher, it creates a tension – no one glides.”

Two experienced principals were deeply involved in the instructional program. Neither one was collaborative; both had worked their way up through the ranks: teacher, assistant principal to principal, and both ran schools with excellent results.

Neither was beloved by the staffs, they were respected and no one left the school.

It was a small high school with a young principal and a younger staff. Common planning time, teacher-run committees, a real feeling of camaraderie; with a “D” on their School Progress Report. Kids were passing subjects and failing Regents in droves.

The kids seemed engaged, a closer look, the work was way below grade level. The kids were reading 6th and 7th grade books in the 9th grade and all the authors were ethnic authors.

“Why don’t you teach Romeo and Juliet? Kids love the story and it’s an excellent introduction to Shakespeare.”

“It’s much too hard and these kids don’t have to read another dead white guy.”

“Read it along with the kids, scaffold the work, read small sections, act out scenes, show clips from one of the movies, the kid will eat it up.”

I couldn’t believe the response. “Not every kid should go to college, what does reading Shakespeare have to do with getting a job?  These kids can’t relate to Shakespeare, they can relate to Hispanic and Afro-American short stories, romance and adventure stories.”

The school moved from a “D” to an “F.”

Another school was an enigma – it had a low performance index, meaning the kids who entered the 9th grade had low test scores yet four years later the graduation rates were high, and, a surprising number of kids were “college ready” according to the Department metric.

Wags whispered, “They must be cheating.”

90-minute ELA blocks in the 9th and 10th grade, reasonable class sizes, common planning time by subject and grade and a total commitment to the Common Core. The entire staff had read Mike Schmoker’s Focus and discussed it at staff meetings. There were frequent writing assignments, in many classrooms several opportunities to write in every class, every day. “Tests” were a three day process in the 9th grade – one day to write an outline, another to write a draft and a final day to write the essay. Kids frequently worked in groups. The common planning time groups shared lesson and unit plans on Drop Box and from time to time exchanged graded student assignments. The kids were reading Medea in the 10th grade and followed up with a full-fledged “murder” trial.

The principal was incredibly demanding, in classrooms every day, used teacher committees to work on a range of issues, and, was a Leadership Academy graduate.

I received a call about a “union problem” in a school and called the principal, “No problem – resolved, a few teachers volunteered to allow me to shoot videos of lessons while I was observing a lesson – I embedded video clips in the observation report – referred them to the clip: the type of question, the student’s response, etc., they simply had to click and they could see exactly what I was writing about. Apparently someone complained to the union, the powers that be told me to back off, I did. The teachers who were involved in the project loved it!”

Sports coaches, choreographers, choral directors, orchestra conductors are leaders. If they are effective, and effectiveness is judged by results measured by critics they know how to get the best out of athletes or dancers or singers or viola players. They teach: praise, prod, smile, and frown, criticize, model, assess and re-teach.

Effective leadership requires the acceptance by those being lead. No matter how many courses, no matter how intense the internship or mentorship, the athletes or dancers or singers or orchestra artists must respect and respond.

Coaches who scream and curse turn off the athletes they coach, school leaders who are not respected, write critical letters for the file and give unsatisfactory ratings do not scare teachers into getting better.


Gotham Schools reports,

Realizing that its strategies for stocking the city’s ever-expanding supply of schools with excellent principals have fallen short, the Department of Education is launching new programs aimed at slowing down the transition from teacher to administrator.

In the 10th year of the Bloomberg/Klein Children First debacle the new Department seers are realizing that the fast track leadership training program has not selected effective school leaders. Yes, a few successes, too many failures, too many leaders in name only, too many leaders who are not respected and followed by teachers, and, by the way, students.

A recent Daily News investigation found that of the 154 schools opened under Bloomberg, nearly 60% had passing rates on reading tests that were lower than those at older schools of similar poverty level.

Read more:

Teachers do not “get better” by the lure of merit pay or the threat of a poor, ill-understood “growth  scores,” or bullying, they “get better” when a school leader creates a climate of continuing improvement.

Teachers who complain, “Leave me alone and let me teach,” will not be happy.

“Getting better” means examining our own practice, working with colleagues, interacting with school leaders and listening to and responding to criticism.

The union cannot be tied to an old paradigm, new technologies allow teachers to watch and examine their own practice

Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors and Commissioners of Education laud merit pay and value-added growth scores to measure performance and charter schools to create choice, all policies that fly in the face of tomes of research.

What we are watching is a sort of genocide for a generation of children.  Billions of education dollars are at play and the Fountainhead folk are more than willing to turn public schools over to corporate privateers.

Listen to a little Woody Guthrie


2 responses to “Getting Better: Leadership is Earned, Not Bestowed, and Leadership Drives School Improvement

  1. Leadership and Followship have a number of common components, a shared value and belief system, equal respect between and among the staff, parents, and students, consistent, insistent, and persistent promotion of success and sharing the reasons, a vision and mission that are congruent as well as others. In order for system and systemic improvement these qualities must be modeled daily by those who direct the system up to and including the mayor. Only unless, until and when this philosophy permeates the system progress will be halting at best with individual successes publicized as a diversion from the for the lack of inspirational Leadership.


  2. Leadership is an elusive quality. One thing that has become clear to me over the years is that leaders are willing to get their hands dirty, to do the work they want others to do.
    In practice in schools, this means that principals (and APs) should have the ability to demonstrate teaching techniques they want staff to employ, and be willing to let staff observe and critique their performance.
    They need not be perfect, but they must be willing to try to demonstrate what they are telling others to do. I did this as an Education Evaluator (before Klein and Bloomberg dismantled special education), when we told a veteran first grade teacher that her student was not disabled and recommended some management techniques she could try to modify his behavior. She needed to see these techniques in practice, and I taught a first grade class while she observed me. Her comment afterwards was that I should never teach first grade (All my experience was with much older students), but that she saw what I did with the student in question and how it worked. Two weeks later, she came back and told us that it was working and that the class was functioning much better.
    We have too many school leaders now, who are unwilling to do this. SOme of whom have literally said to teachers when asked to demonstrate what they are talking about that, it was not their job to model teaching.”
    We know that good teachers model the techniques for developing comprehension for their students when teaching reading . Shouldn’t principals (as principal teachers) be expected to model good practice for their teachers?


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