Learning and Leadership


Opening up to my own leadership took some time. Let’s not confuse authority or control for leadership — here, I mean real leadership, granted by consent. Leadership is a set of habits and behaviors that include constantly learning. It comes not from position but from belief. It took me years to see myself as a leader, and I still have doubts at times. As a teacher, I know many students and their parents looked at me as a leader of some manner long before I perceived myself as such. This year I managed interns and had people working for me for the first time. I remember, at 24-years-old, being asked for parenting advice.

“How can I get him to come straight home after school?” one mother asked me, not at all rhetorically. I had called to report that her son was missing work and falling behind. We were both at a loss. At the time, I was dismissive of her thinking that merely getting her kid to school was enough. Her question, in response to my question of why the kid wasn’t doing his work, frustrated me. I’ve come to see the wisdom and necessity of her point of view, though. Getting a teen to school every day can be damn near impossible. Beyond attendance, she put his education entirely in the hands of the school — in this case, that meant me. Like most public schools serving students of color, ours was and remains underresourced and unable to provide all the services needed by our students. We did and do the best we can.

When I was first interviewing for teaching jobs, I remember being asked many times “Do you believe every child can learn?”

What a stupid question. Each time, I imagine my answer was worse and less polite. Learn what? In what amount of time? I know the answer is meant to be “yes,” but the premise of the question is so flawed. What does this tell you about anything? My experiences working in a public school tell me that the system fails to provide the resources needed for every child to learn what he or she needs in order to earn a high school diploma. That’s for damn sure.

This is one simple way that the public education systems in the majority of this country suffer from a severe lack of leadership. There’s a mistake that often accompanies any dearth of leadership, which is that we need some military-type leader to come in and save the day. That is the opposite of my vision for leadership, which is about equipping people to make their own decisions in their own self-interest. Schools, more than any other institution, are deeply intertwined with the democratic tradition. Yet, across the U.S., public schools are becoming more and more detached from the communities they serve. Newark is a sterling example of what ultimately becomes of school reform efforts that are done to teachers, parents and students, instead of done with them. They are doomed to fail, yet this approach continues to dominate, particularly in urban school districts.

When I compare policy where I work and live now (the largest city in the country) to where I grew up (town of ~30,000 people in a New England suburb), the biggest difference comes down to control. I remember agonizing over budget votes in my hometown, praying that the retirees who controlled local politics would stay away from the polls for once. Instead, older voters consistently turned out in higher numbers than younger votes, including parents, so budgets were voted down year after year. As a result, budgets were cut. I graduated high school in 2006, so my school years encompassed both boom and bust economies. Still, people voted on the budget and participated in debates about what would stay or go. The decision-makers on the Board of Ed and Town Council sent their kids to school with me, so at some level there was accountability.

In New York City, the mayor appoints a Chancellor who essentially rules by fiat. I first started working for the NYC Department of Education the day after Joel Klein announced his resignation, and I outlasted him, Cathie Black, Shael Polakow-Suransky (interim), and Dennis Walcott. All were intensely objected to by various constituencies, and all had their supporters. Yet, voters — even the City Council — have no formal way of influencing their decisions. That’s insane. It means over a million students aren’t represented when it comes to their education. How could these students ever hope to understand democracy and the responsibilities of citizenship if they are subject to arbitrary (or worse) institutions for the bulk of their young lives? Well, I suppose the obvious answer is that the powers that be in this country never wanted most NYC public school students, by virtue of their race, ethnicity and/or SES, to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. That’s an enormous, devastating failure of leadership.

I once used the metaphor of a mirror to describe the kind of leadership I wanted to see in the captain of my soccer team. When good things happen, you turn the credit back onto those you are leading, reflecting like a mirror. When things don’t go so well, a leader looks in the mirror to take responsibility. I don’t see that level of honesty very often among the influential education “experts” who exert control over large swaths of urban education. When will that change? Perhaps not until voters (re?)gain genuine control over their schools.