“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.” Mark Twain
We yearn for leadership; we respect the player who leads by example, the leader who motivates through words and actions. Fifty years ago Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and led a movement, by words and actions,
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
My role model, my mentor was Al Shanker – he created a movement, a powerful and dedicated union, teachers who were willing to risk their jobs, not for money or benefits, to walk a picket line for an issue. Al through his leadership raised the job of a teacher from a powerless classroom teacher to a teacher who was part of a national movement of teachers.
Unfortunately the New York City schools have been devoid of leadership for too long. It’s been almost twenty years since the school system has been led by an educator. Joel Klein spent his first few years trying to lead, his personal coach, his speaking lessons, never were able to create an effective communicator, I listened to him on numerous occasions – the traditional “personal narrative,” (called the “I was born in a log cabin …” speech), the strolling about the stage, the reading of the incisive quote, none of which made Klein into a leader. Eventually he decided it was easier, and more comfortable to become the anti-leader. The leader of a school system reviled by those he was selected to lead.
The current chancellor is a marionette, dancing to the gyrations of the geppetto-master in Gracie Mansion.
The system has been leaderless for too long.
Before the discussion moves on to actual names the next mayor must decide the leadership qualities s/he seeks in a school district leader.
May I offer suggestions:
Healing and Building Trust:
The very word, “Tweed,” the site of department headquarters, is an invective, snarled by principals and teachers alike. A decade of teacher bashing and policy after policy that appears to belittle or ignore, or diminish the role of teachers has created a minefield between school district leadership and school-based personnel. Even well-intentioned, excellent ideas are looked upon with suspicion, the system is riven by battles – co-location, ATRs, school closings, teacher evaluation, each is not an intellectual dispute, and each is a battle in a war for survival.
The system needs a leader who can reach across the yawning abyss and offer a soothing hand, words and gestures and actions that begin to capture the attention and support of the folks “in the trenches.”
The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, famous for “the medium is the message,” also wrote,
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior”
The system needs a chancellor they feel they can trust to lead.
Building an Inclusive Team:
Traditionally the school system was run by those who had worked their way up through the ranks – one step at a time – for a time passing rigorous civil service exams. On one hand the slow progress through the system promoted individuals who knew the system well on the other hand by promoting from within the leadership defended an often lethargic dysfunctional system. The system seemed guided by Newton’s First Law of Motion – momentum. Why are we doing it this way? Because we’ve always done it this way!
Unfortunately the Bloomberg-Klein leadership decided to sweep away all that came before. After creating ten regions run by experienced superintendents they swept away the regions and created the current tangled web. The current leadership model values a few years at Teach for America and an MA in Public Policy more than years of on-site experience. The new leader will have to meld the two: institutional experience is an essential quality; however, being wedded to dysfunctional practices is not a desired quality. Young, dynamic, knowledgeable folk can bring new ideas to the table. The next chancellor cannot return to failed past practices, but can create a team that builds on the strengths of the past, and there were many, as well as incorporating new ideas.
“Listening with a Third Ear:”
The psychologist has to learn how one mind speaks to another beyond words and in silence. He must learn to ‘listen with a third ear.’ Theodor Reik
The next school leader must lead and listen, ofttimes the response to what one hears is the most effective form of leadership. Parents currently feel abandoned, more by the perception that city and school leadership simply don’t care. Once a month a superintendent held an open forum, anyone could come to the microphone in the auditorium and ask a question: the superintendent listened: nodded, scribbled some notes, and thanked the questioner. Sometimes a brief answer, sometimes a thank you, sometimes, ”I’ll look into it.” I asked him whether it was worth his time, “Absolutely, I get a feel for what is ‘out there,’ I get a pulse of the community.”
Responding before the issue hits the NY Post, engaging, not manipulating the media and the public. Leaders have an agenda, they cannot be tone deaf, and they cannot effectively impose an agenda that the troops or parents are ill-prepared to hear.
The Bully Pulpit:
We all want a leader who speaks for us, a leader who confronts the bad guys and stands up for the good guys. While a chancellor cannot end, or even modify the testing regimen imposed by Washington and Albany, s/he can praise the recent NY Times editorialcriticizing the over-emphasis on high stakes testing. The chancellor can testify before the city council or a congressional committee, can write op eds in the local dailies, the chancellor can espouse what most of us think. On the other hand the pulpit must be ecumenical; the chancellor has the power to impose their own views, which may be antithetical to the views of the folks in the schools, or, at least, some of the schools. When Campbell Brown accuses the union of protecting sexual predators we expect the union president to react, we’d like the chancellor to also speak out.
The school system needs a face – not an accusatory finger blaming teachers, a face praising, and chiding our enemies and speaking for us in a loud voice.
Dividing the Wheat from the Chaff:
Chancellors must take on the unpleasant task of removing teachers and principals who are not adequate to the job – expeditiously and within the law. Investigations should take weeks not months, hearing should move quickly and employees exonerated or disciplined in a timely manner. Grievances should not perk through the system for years – rather than using delay as a tactic the chancellor must understand that the timely resolution of disputes benefits the system. Currently principals know that “justice delayed is justice denied” is the theme of the administration – it may take years to get before an arbitrator. Festering disputes leave a bad taste for all involved – the discipline side of the job is best handled fairly and as quickly as possible.
A Thick Skin and a Winning Smile:
The enemies, the Eva Moskowitz crowd, the Joel Klein acolytes, the DFER minions, the next chancellor, no matter what they do will be pilloried by those are no longer in charge. Michael Bloomberg will be gone, he will be a presence in the background, and his cutouts will be protecting his image and his legacy. The next chancellor will simply have to absorb the slings and arrows and move forward. Thin-skinned chancellors bleed a lot; you have to accept the blows and the criticisms, the attacks, no matter how unfair.
I don’t know how many Jesus-Abraham-Mohammad-like individuals are waiting in the wings, how many aspirants will have the intellect, the confidence, the personality and the qualities discussed supra, the children and families, the teacher and principals deserve a leader in whom they can be proud.