Leading means inspiring, not commanding. Leading means loving the people you lead so they will give you their hearts as well as their minds. It means communicating a vision of where you can go together and inviting them to join.
Major General John Stanford, Superintendent of Seattle Schools, 1995–1998
A school leader who has never set foot in a classroom or studied education will find it difficult to understand the meaning of teaching. Nor will they comprehend the difficulties that face students. So why is my quote from a superintendent who was never a teacher in the traditional sense? More about John Stanford in a minute.
School superintendents or those placed in state and federal education leadership roles, never having cracked a History of Ed. book or learned any other information about actual schooling or child/adolescent development, will be doomed to do a poor job when it comes to leading teachers and students.
Public schools are unique places. They aren’t a business like a corporation because, as we know, they are not selling a product to earn profits for owners. Schools are providing a public service. Certainly, leaders can benefit from obtaining certain skills from business, but the first prerequisite should be having worked in a committed career with children for a reasonable length of time.
I think those who land education leadership jobs, who have no real experience as teachers, might talk a good game but their words ring hollow. I also think they know they are inadequate. Most teachers have little respect for administrators who have never been in the classroom or spent any time actually studying the needs of children.
Usually these so-called leaders are told by the corporations who get them these jobs that they are what the schools need to fix problems. They are enlisted to break up school districts by creating unproven charter schools and replacing teachers with Teach for America and principals with New Leaders. They also obsess about data. You don’t need to have experience working with students to do that!
A person in a school leadership role, who has not worked with children, or learned anything about them, will feel more comfortable with those who also don’t know about schools or children.
In all the years of looking at school administrators without experience working with students there is only one that comes to mind that I respect, and that is the late John Stanford who roared into Seattle, from the military, intent on addressing poverty and supporting teachers. He even wrote a book, Victory in Our Schools: We CAN Give Our Children Excellent Public Education Part 1/Part 2/Part 3/Part 4. He died of leukemia during his time in that role and is still remembered fondly. Stanford may never have been a teacher himself, but he saw his role as a teacher supporter—not an adversary. HERE is more about Stanford and his accomplishments in the Seattle Public Schools.
So, should those from the military be put in school administrator roles? I don’t think so. Not unless they get experience working in the classroom first. John Stanford was a rare individual. Anyone without experience as a teacher needs to study teaching and work in the classroom for many years. It will humble them, and it will help them understand what is right and wrong about education and make beneficial changes.
It will also inspire and help them to be true visionaries and not corporate education poseurs.
Metro Nashville is looking at four finalists to be school superintendent. There are all kinds of concerns about the group doing the search and the candidates that the school board now gets to choose from.
My opinion is that Nashville has good people on their school board. They are no pushovers and they want the best leader for their children. I hope that superintendent will be a real educator with actual experience working with students, and an individual who will be set on supporting school teachers and bringing the traditional public schools forward.
Does hiring a school leader with a traditional background in teaching mean that they will be automatically a good leader? No. In fact, many school leaders, who climbed the ladder to administration from teaching, have now bought into harmful school reform. They sold out.
Perhaps they think they must do as they are told to keep their jobs, or they believe in charter schools and a cheap teacher workforce. They think they are doing a service to children. But they should go back to their roots as a teacher and ask themselves some serious questions about education pedagogy and civil rights.
For if you once work with children you will not forget them or the struggles you may have faced teaching, and you will pass that wisdom down to those who you supervise. You will understand and assist, not arbitrarily criticize and dismiss.
All school leaders at every level should have experience working with children because education is about children. If you don’t know anything about children and how they learn, then you don’t know much about what will make good education. And then we are all in serious trouble.
Sheila Resseger says
Nancy, I couldn’t agree with you more. Your message is timely for Rhode Islanders. Our Governor, Gina Raimondo, just named Ken Wagner from the NYS Department of Education as the new Education Commissioner in RI. RI just endured six years under the rule of Commissioner Deborah Gist, a Broad trained superintendent, who thoroughly bought into the market-based education reform agenda. Now with Ken Wagner, we will endure a Commissioner with the same perspective. Dr. Wagner may have spent his entire professional life in public education in one role or another, having started out as a school psychologist and worked as a principal, among other positions. But as far as I know he was never a classroom teacher. Maybe this explains his embrace of the Common Core aligned EngageNY curriculum in NYS. Please Google this curriculum and check out what is expected of first graders in ELA. It is beyond absurd. Here are some comments from Chris Cerrone, a history teacher in NY about EngageNY: “The history topics are randomly placed in the primary [ELA] “learning strands“. I raised this concern in a comment in a previous critique of the modules. An official from Core Knowledge which produced the Common Core modules for NYSED attempted to defend this curriculum by saying that the material was covered in the previous grade. Learning about the “New Nation” in First Grade will not effectively transfer to Second Grade for the War of 1812. There is too much time between learning and not enough connections in Second Grade. Second Grade goes from Early Asian Civilization to Ancient Greek, then Western Expansion and the War of 1812? I can tell you from nearly twenty years of teaching history that randomly “covering” topics makes no sense whatsoever. History is full of cause-effect and thematic connections. I teach Seventh Grade history up to the Reconstruction Era of the 1870′s. Would I start the year with the Civil War then jump to Colonial America, maybe throw in Pre-Columbian Native Americans at the end? Of course not.
“If the topics of the history based ELA modules become the limited social studies content then students will suffer.”
Nancy Bailey says
If they don’t believe in teachers as professionals they will eventually get followers who will do what they are told with curriculum–never question. We have had so many individuals, who know nothing about children, involved in education, for so long, look what we have wound up with! Common Core! Fortunately, some are questioning.
As always, thank you, Sheila!
Roger Titcombe says
Our US friends might find this of interest.
OfSTED is the English school inspection system. Academies are like your Charter Schools. They are run by private companies but financed by the state. Our government thinks they are the way to raising standards and are trying to force community schools (run by elected Local Authorities) to become Academies run by ‘Chains (private companies) These chains are nearly always led by people with business rather than teaching experience.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Roger. So Edison has reinvented itself. How interesting! Every day I learn something new! http://edisonlearning.com/ I am referring to the Edison Schools which were started here to privatize public schools years ago. The experiment did not work out well.
I am sorry we share pretty much the same nightmare when it comes to our schools.
I am still reading your excellent book. Learning Matters. Anyone interested in the U.K s education mess and its similarities to the U.S. education mess check it out. And I will do a review for what it is worth soon!
Roger TitcombeJust says
Just a point about the UK. We have devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.. Scotland has very far reaching devolution and is about to get more. You will all be aware that at the May General Election Scotland elected 56 (out of a total of 59) Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Members of Parliament (MPs) to the UK parliament..
Only England has an education system driven by free market ideology. The Scottish system is completely different and Wales and Northern Ireland do not have Academy schools and school league tables driven by crude aggregated exam results. as we do in England.
There is a major constitutional battle currently being fought in the UK parliament in Westminster, where the government is trying to prevent MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voting on laws designed to further privatise the English eduction system.
I just thought you might be interested..
Nancy Bailey says
Very interesting! Thank you for making that distinction, Roger.
In NM you are suppose to have taught for 3 years have a Masters in educational leadership before you can be a principal. For some it is a good thing for others it means nothing. They would be lousy supervisors in any situation.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Pat. Point well taken.
i totally agree with you. All school leaders should have at least 10 years experience working in a classroom. In addition they should have some coaching experience in working with teachers. This way they get a taste of both worlds. As a school leader, with 18 years of classroom experience, I think I am well prepared for working with students and teachers because I have experienced both! I think you have more credibility too because you are speaking from experience and also can better relate to what the students and teachers experience.
Nancy Bailey says
I agree, Irma. I think you have more understanding of problems facing teachers. Also, you are better equipped to offer suggestions. Thank you.
Shirley Deckard says
I just wrote a comment to a leader in the BAPs movement, who, in my opinion, has little understanding of teachers. I told her that if she walked into a room of 100 teachers and said, “Now is the time: we have to boycott!,” 99 of the first responses would be “Oh, no! Who will care for my students!” The other teacher will say, “Let’s do it!”
The point is, while all 100 love their students and want the best for them, very few have the personality attributes that make it possible for them to fit into both camps. A teachers’ personality is what allows them to nurture children day in and day out, not failing to do so because of the problems they have (give) or because of outside influences. It is this personality (heart!) that makes them so amazing!
I have always felt like the personality of a teacher and the personality of a businessman, a political activist, or other professions cannot coincide in one body, except in rare cases. These rare cases are the people with the personalities to have one foot in both camps, and make the best education leaders.
One cannot effectively lead those who he/she does not understand without destroying the very gifts that make those being led so good at their jobs! Teachers who successfully rise in leadership positions usually do so for one of two specific reasons: 1) A desire/goal of doing more for the children; and 2) A desire/goal and understanding that they have talents that could improve the system that supports the children. The very best Principals and building-level leaders generally fall into the first category. The best Superintendents, state-wide policy makers, and even Federal policy-makers fall into the second category.
The one thing that makes all of these people good for the children, however, is having and understanding the elements that make up the “heart of a teacher.” Without that at the core, an education leader cannot sustain the goal of ultimately doing what is right for the children.
(May I also add that this is the main reason, I think, that teachers need a strong union. It just is not in their nature/heart/personality to protect themselves ABOVE protecting their students.)
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Shirley. I agree.
ciedie aech says
I would add to the statement that “A school leader who has never set foot in a classroom or studied education will find it difficult to understand the meaning of teaching” this observation from my own experience: “A school leader or any citizen who has never set foot in a low-income school classroom or experienced working with children who are not wealthy, middle class or dominant culture will end up pushing nonsensical — and often elitist — ‘solutions’ for problems which do not even exist.”
At present schools are known as business organizations. They try to sell products. Their money depends on the tax paid by the community. Real estate business must flourish. Much focus is on the outer part and the difficulty teachers face each day and frustration they have can be understood by the leaders only if they have enough teaching experience. I would say they must have at least fifteen year teaching experience in a testing area to be a school leader. Then only they will be able to give support in all aspect to the teachers. School secretary, councilors, coaches can be school leaders and their success rate will be the least and success depends on the students background. Now people like pastors, become principals and slowly public education is selling itself to charter schools because of these leaders. They just bully the teachers and they just know one word- “Change”..
I am an educator for 26 years and I endorse this article from my experience.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for your comment. I always appreciate comments from those with good experience.