Tag Archives: school & district leaders

Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped (Ellie Herman)

Taken from “About” in her blog:

My name is Ellie Herman.  If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog.  I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….

As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher.  From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart.  My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.

I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English.  I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge.  My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley.  My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday.  Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks.  We live in Los Angeles.

Posted on July 11, 2014

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting.

In 2011, the LA School Board took over Henry Clay Middle School on 122nd and Western Avenue in South L.A., one of the most historically troubled schools in the city, with chronically low test scores and continual issues on campus of absenteeism, fighting and chaos. The board turned the school over to the Green Dot charter system. Green Dot divided the school into two separate, smaller schools, renamed them and gave each its own principal. Nat was asked to be principal of one of them.

Now, after three years as Principal of Animo Phillis Wheatley, he’s leaving the job to go back to being a classroom teacher. By all accounts, his stint at the school has been successful. Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job?

Amidst the boxes, in the empty office, he reflects on his three years at the school. “The first year was a shock,” he says frankly. “In retrospect, we were a little naïve about what we were getting into.” Unlike many schools in South Los Angeles, Animo Phillis Wheatley has a large percentage of parents who themselves attended the school back when it was Henry Clay. “Henry Clay used to be synonymous with getting your ass kicked. ‘I survived Henry Clay’ is a saying around here among some of the parents. Older members of the community remember it from the sixties, they were fond of the programs and things that were happening, but it was never an amazing place. My vision was that this neighborhood deserves a great school as much as any neighborhood.”

Despite his vision and optimism, change was not easy, especially the first year. “The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.” Nat was taken aback to find that 18% of the students were in Special Ed. “We thought they were overidentified. Turns out they were underidentified.” When I ask why there were so many kids with special needs, he’s not sure. Part of it, he thinks, is that the number of kids in foster care may be a factor, because foster kids are often moved from school to school, not staying long enough for their issues to be identified. “It’s just conjecture, but kids in foster care, they’re often in foster care because their parents were on drugs or couldn’t take care of them, well, are you more likely to be unable to take care of a kid with special needs and behavior problems?”

Whatever the cause, he says, “this is a neighborhood that’s been neglected in all capacities.”   The community was in continual flux. “We average losing a kid or gaining a kid every single day. In October, 25% of our kids weren’t there at the beginning of the year, and the later they come in, the higher the odds that they have problems” due to having been dumped by another school or transferred by frantic parents.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socioemotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.”

The school’s scores have slowly improved. After the first year, the staff at the high school next door came over to thank Nat and his team. “They said, just the safety, you don’t understand the impact you’ve had. We used to have kids jumping the fence, there used to be ‘fight Friday.’” A girl took him aside to tell him the school was much better. “We haven’t had a trash can fire all year,” she told him.

But the deeper issues of the community remained, and fighting them was an ongoing, exhausting battle. “What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].”

On top of that were the non-emergency stresses of everyday staff management. “In the night when you’re sleeping, a teacher’s kid gets sick, other people have gotten sick and you get a call at five in the morning saying they’re not coming in that day. You have to preserve a part of your brain for wondering what bad things are gonna happen.” Still, no matter how much he planned, “a lot of the job is showing up and being punched in the stomach.”

For all the successes, after three years, he couldn’t face another year of non-stop work and stress, with no time for family, hobbies or any outside interests including basic home maintenance. “It was like trying to turn around the Titanic. The cynical side of me says you either burn out or you close yourself off. Sure, you can take time for yourself, but if you do, here’s a list of 17 things that are not happening at your school.” A stint as an instructor for a Saturday remedial class reminded him of how much he enjoyed simply working with kids.  At the end of the year, he left his job and applied for teaching positions within Green Dot, ending up back at his original school (and mine), where he will be an English teacher.

He’s proud of what he’s accomplished in three years but has no regrets about leaving. “I will never, I will never do this again,” he says. “I don’t know whether I didn’t take care of myself right or there wasn’t enough of a system to keep me mentored. There’s no playbook for this.” But if he could name one thing that would make the job more sustainable, he instantly says “money”–not for himself, but for the school. “If we weren’t held back by trying to squeeze as much out of every dollar as possible, then maybe that would have been a little more manageable.”

I’m happy for Nat and for his students, who will be lucky to have him as a teacher. Not every talented educator needs to be an administrator. But his observations cut deep into one of the most serious issues in education, which is attracting and retaining strong principals. As I said in an earlier post, one of my biggest takeaways this year is that what we call “effective instruction” is meaningless in the absence of effective leadership. But if great leaders are essential and the job of leading a school in an historically underserved high-poverty community is so draining and underfunded that it’s barely sustainable if done well, isn’t that actually our core problem?  When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?

If attracting and retaining effective principals is our core problem, how are we trying to solve it?

 

 

 

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A Teacher’s Appreciation For Her Principal (Ann Staley)

So rare it is for a teacher to write appreciatively about her principal. There are, of course, many reasons for the rarity: too much already on teachers’ plates, writing is hard to do, principals who perform all that is expected of them from diverse audiences are themselves an endangered species (add your own reason here).  I found this  personal portrait of a secondary school principal on the mark for capturing much that is often lost in the current lust for principals to do it all as instructional leaders, CEOs, and hand-shaking politicians.

I knew Ann Staley as a student in one of my classes soon after I came to Stanford to teach three decades ago. Over the time she was in graduate school, we ended up having many conversations about teaching, learning, graduate school, and life in all of its twists and turns. After leaving Stanford, she settled in Oregon and became a teacher and writer. She has taught in junior and senior high schools–winning an award in 1996–supervised student teachers, and taught writing at community college.  A few years ago, she retired from teaching but continued writing both prose and poetry. Every so often we would contact one another. She has published two volumes of poems, Primary Sources and  Instructions for the Wishing Light.  I posted a poem she wrote about her second grade teacher, “Mrs. Kitchen.

Principal Jae Johnson hired Staley in her first job as an English teacher. She wrote this in 1984.

A Good One. No, A Great One

Iowa. Wide-skied, rural, back roads meandering, farm, tidy with care. In a rootless myopic and arcane world, it’s a place you’d like to come from. Jae Johnson did, and it shows.

Jae made his way to Oregon via his brother’s interest in the family farm and his own in a Ph.D. Although he has a way of making his life  very much in the present, still, beside the Principal’s desk at Hedrick Junior High is a black and white photograph of a small farm outside Iowa Falls.

You get to see that photograph when you go in to talk with Jae. Taking off his glasses, he swivels around while nodding at a nearby chair. Neither folksey nor ceremonious, you feel as welcome as if you’ve come by after church. Though his manner is straightforward and eager, he waits for you to get down to things, and if you want some ‘personal time’, he sits back on that swiveler and listens. he likes people in his office, and committees, parents, faculty, delinquent or achieving kids, even a bus driver or two, all have their time to consider that central Iowa farm and the farm-boy who is now Principal.

Back in the early ’70s Hedrick had a hodgepodge faculty of the usual assortment–good ‘oleboys,’ spinster-types with dyed hair, hot shots from the ’60s schools of education, with some good and bad teachers among them all. When Dr. Johnson arrived there was a  sub rosa rebellion amongst the old guard who were mad because a local golfing partner had been by-passed. Instead they’d gotten Jae, and although it took them a few years to come to their senses, over time they found that they felt privileged to work with this man of integrity.

He deals carefully with his diverse staff, agonizing over how to confront a mean history teacher with thirty years tenure and with helping the young art teachers gain control over a 2nd period class that is too creative. Looking through the Audubon Field Guide, he finds ‘a way’ with an out-of-touch math instructor who is an expert ornithologist. When chaos threatens the cafeteria, it is Dr. J who sits down to lunch with the kids. In an organizational structure where secretaries and janitors often have the ‘real’ power, he is the authority behind them. Taking people at their apparent value, he tries first to understand, knowing that real change is rooted in his comprehension and the teachers’ desire for it.

His organization receives the same measured care. New ideas are introduced slowly, after opinion polls, newspaper articles, and arduous committee work. It is clear this his view is large and broad, but he has infinite patience in moving toward it. He respects people and the durability (and sometimes inflexibility ) of the structure and the powers-that-be. It took a year and a half of faculty work to develop and implement a “floating period” which lessened the teachers’ load of students each day. He encouraged this change by finding the key people on his staff and using them as leaders while he gave rather objective and problem-solving advice from the sidelines. He uses the “sideline” like a winning coach.

With an insane September-June pace he keeps his ideas coming each week with “From This End of the Log,” a series of quotes from professional journals, children’s books, poems and the like. He is an avid reader who enjoys science, history, and baseball, and uses his newsletter for diversion and inspiration.

Drive by Hedrick on Saturday or Sunday and you’ll see Jae’ old VW “bug” out front. He’s inside making plans, reading, getting those notes into mailboxes. Hard work and commitment are natural to Jae, in his genetic code, like the quiet blue eyes. It is as if he lived nature’s effect upon land and comes to people understanding their interdependence and cycles. He does not push the river.

But Jae’s very strengths are also his limitations. Commitment to his work makes for tension that at times explodes unreasonably at those nearby. His drive and intelligence set him apart, in loneliness, from his administrative colleagues [in other schools] who are quietly resentful of his successes and at odds with his values. Because he is has such “people savvy” and empathy, it is often impossible for him to make the tough decisions, and he has agonized and rationalized for many an undeserving staff member.

Finally, ironically, his love for the land keeps him in a quiet turmoil. Once he confided that he wished he could go back and farm with his brother or work as a teacher in a one-room school. Yet this last dilemma especially makes Jae a man to respect: he lives with the ambiguity of loving many things. Each year that he again chooses education, he inspires others to see their work as important, as weighing-out on the side of “good.” It is his land that has given him the strength of many loves, and he brings that plus his satisfaction and challenge to others.

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Cutting Through the Hype: Principals as Instructional Leaders

Jane David and I wrote a book called Cutting through the Hype: (Harvard Education Press, 2010). This is one chapter on principals. I have updated some references and language.

Effective manager? Savvy politician? Heroic leader? School CEO? Reformers press for principals who can not only play these roles but also raise test scores and do so quickly. These days principals can earn thousands of dollars in bonuses for boosting student achievement.

Principals are expected to maintain order, to be shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year. They are also expected to ensure that district curriculum standards are being taught, as well as lead instructional improvement that will translate into test score gains.

Being a principal is a tall order. As one New York City small high school principal put it: “You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.” Yet, at the end of the day, the pressures and rewards are for raising test scores and graduation rates, today’s measure of instructional leadership.

Where did the idea of instructional leadership originate?

Historically, the title principal comes from the phrase “principal teacher,” that is, a teacher who was designated by a mid-19th century school board to manage the non-classroom tasks of schooling a large number of students and turning in reports. Principals examined students personally to see what was learned, evaluated teachers, created curriculum, and took care of the business of schooling. So from the very beginning of the job over 150 years ago principals were expected to play both managerial and instructional roles.

Over the decades, however, district expectations for principals’ instructional role have grown without being either clarified, or without lessening managerial and political responsibilities. Over the past quarter-century, the literature on principals has shifted markedly from managing budgets, maintaining the building, hiring personnel, and staff decision-making to being primarily about instruction. And, within the past decade, directly being held accountable for student results on tests has been added to the instructional role. As instructional leaders, principals now must also pay far closer attention to activities they hope will help teachers produce higher student scores such as aligning the school curriculum to the state test.

Today’s reformers put forth different ideas of what instructional leaders should do to meet standards and increase achievement. Some argue that principals need to know what good instruction looks like, spend time in classrooms, analyze teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and provide helpful feedback. Other reformers say principals need to motivate teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and from professional development. Still others say principals should focus on data, continually analyzing student test scores to pinpoint where teachers need help.

The list goes on. Some reformers argue that principals should exercise instructional leadership by hiring the right curriculum specialists or coaches to work with teachers on improving instruction. Finally, others suggest that the most efficient way to improve instruction and achievement is to get rid of the bad teachers and hire good ones, an option not always open to leaders of struggling schools. Most of these ideas are not mutually exclusively but together pose a Herculean task, landing on top of all the other responsibilities that refuse to simply disappear.

What problem is the principal as instructional leaders intended to solve?

The short answer is raise a school’s low academic performance. New Leaders for New Schools, a program that trains principals for urban schools, captures the expectation that principals can end low academic performance through their instructional leadership:

Research shows – and our experience confirms – that strong school leaders have a powerful multiplier effect, dramatically improving the quality of teaching and raising student achievement in a school.

Such rhetoric and the sharp focus on the principal as an instructional leader in current policymaker talk have made principals into heroic figures who can turn around failing schools, reduce the persistent achievement gap single-handedly, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

If the immediate problem is low academic performance, then the practical problem principals must solve is how to influence what teachers do daily since it is their impact on student learning that will determine gains and losses in academic achievement.

Does principal instructional leadership work?

The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.

Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.

So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.

Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.

In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. [i] How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher knowledge, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eye on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure such improvement.

Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.

The solution … in our view

By itself, instructional leadership is little more than a slogan, an empty bumper sticker. In some schools principals follow all the recipes for instructional leadership: They review lesson plans, make brief visits in classrooms, check test scores, circulate journal articles that give teachers tips, and dozens of other instructional activities that experts advise. Yet they do not manage to create school-wide conditions that encourage teacher collaboration, high standards for student work, and a climate where learning flourishes for students and teachers. Creating these conditions is the essence of instructional leadership.

Principals who are effective instructional leaders do not follow a recipe. Like teachers, they diagnose their school’s conditions and figure out what actions are needed to create a school environment where teachers feel supported and where students, parents, and teachers strive to achieve common goals and have a stake in helping one another do their best. When all pull together, the chances of test score gains and other measures of academic achievement rise also.

 

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[i] Of the many studies and books Cuban has examined, one in particular offers both a conceptual design and practical techniques to increase the leadership of principals in supervising and evaluating teachers, major functions of every school-site leader. See, Kim Marshall, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

 

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Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.

 

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The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3)

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday. In the post here, my wife is Barbara and my daughters are Sondra and Janice. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981.

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about public service and helping people were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, and the post pushed me into learning new skills and plumbing hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile. I enjoyed the job immensely. But–there has to be a but–there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that, as a teacher. The days usually began at 8:00 A.M. in the office and ended at 11:00 P.M. about two to three nights a week (and even more nights out during budget season). On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends. Adjusting to new time demands proved difficult for all of us.

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy,Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family time. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were a high priority. I had asked the school board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for the seven years, except for those few instances when I decided that I had to attend a meeting or event. Apart from critical county board meetings on Saturday, my bosses made few demands upon me during the week-ends, apart from phone calls.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week from parents, students, or citizens, except during snow storms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the school board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social situations where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me. The first week on the job, for example, a principal who then headed the administrators union invited me to join a poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the five years that he was superintendent. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in joining and the costs to my family, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no. It had also occurred to me that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best.

Dinner invitations proved troublesome as well. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few friends that we had made in the county whom we could relax with and not be concerned about what we said, mainly members of the school board, we turned down most invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at boy scout dinners, sampled hors d’oeurves at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon the school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

We were fortunate to have had a network of close friends in the Washington area since 1963. I could see now, in ways that I could not have seen earlier, that by entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that there would be certain costs. That was, I believe, one price we paid for being outsiders and for trying to prevent the superintendency from completely invading our home.

But, of course, the shadow of the superintendency, with all of its pluses and minuses, fell over the family nonetheless. For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out,both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends and gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted and just like the others put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were singled out as being different because of their father’s position in the community and their religion. Active, smart, and friendly, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher.

When salary negotiations heated up, for example, two of their teachers (in two separate schools) made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for the teachers’ economic, welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public, schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife.” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University and earned a masters in social work from Catholic University while completing the necessary internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was a superintendent in a small city. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision. At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead.

Yet I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind; and I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but I was distant.

Over the years I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home. Some-times, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the 11:00 p.m. television news reports on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not.

What did stun me, however, was the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to the political in-fighting, might find such back-biting trivial. It jolted me and my family.

I’ll give one example. Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C., on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story were true and if there was anything they could do to help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story.

What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate), and the lengths some people would go to destroy someone they disliked politically.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign for disclosure of sexual jaunts, or corrupt governors our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.

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Superintendents’ Daily Schedules, 1975-2011 (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series on what superintendents do daily looked at early 20th century superintendents and what they typically did. Fast forward to October 24, 1975 and look at what my schedule and activities were on a particular day when I served in Arlington (VA) between 1974-1981. All names are actual people I worked with. This section is taken from “The Managerial Imperative and The Practice of Leadership in Schools” (1988), pp. 163-166.

Scheduled Appointments 7:30AM-10 AM

Henry Gardner, director of personnel(15 minutes): discussed proposed Corrective Action procedure for use with all employees; reviewed workshop for administrators on the new process of evaluating them.

Todd Endo, executive assistant (35minutes): in an effort to begin coordinating all locally and federally funded multicultural programs, Endo had taken the initiative to determine where the problems were and which people were needed. His judgments on bilingual programs and negotiations with the federal Office of Civil Rights’ position were weekly matters that we discussed. He developed proposals to plug the holes we encountered in dealing with underserved populations in the district. We discussed a broad range of issues and how we should move ahead to bring order to unconnected programs.

Ed Oliver, director of employee relations and collective bargain-ing, (15 minutes): Oliver reported the grievances that had been filed that week, his estimate of the legitimacy of the complaint, and recommendations on what to do if they went unresolved, that is, should we go to arbitration. On those issues that were clear losers for the school board, I had to decide whether or not the principle embedded within the grievance was worth going to arbitration given the board’s and superintendent’s goals.

Joe Ringers, assistant superintendent for business and facilities(25 minutes): Ringers briefed me on the renovation plans for Washington-Lee high school; the last meeting of the school’s citizen-staff advisory commission to the board on their views of the renovation; some glitches in busing special education students; and more complaints from the district office staff on parking.

Hal Wilson, associated superintendent for instruction (25 minutes): discussed where we should go with the Teacher Innovation Fund next year; two problems with teachers at Washington-Lee that he wanted me to be aware of; told me of his plans to keep an orchestra in the high schools by trying to have the offering at the centrally located new Career Center. We went over his recommendations for budget cuts mandated by the county board because of shortfalls in state and federal revenues announced last week. We both knew that the county board would not pick up the lost revenues and that we would have to make mid-year program and staffing reductions. I wanted to be ready when the board asked for recommendations. I deleted two items that he had on the list and suggested one that he balked at. We compromised on another.

Tom Weber, principal of Stratford Junior High (25 minutes): was still having trouble doing his Annual School Plan (one of the criteria I would use in evaluating his performance) and wanted to see if he was on the right track. We went over the guidelines and compared them to what he had been doing with a few members of his faculty. We discussed at length the importance of his broadening teacher involvement in the ASP. I asked him to tell me what he would like to see Stratford become and discussed how he might take a piece of his vision for the school and make an ASP goal out of it.

Allan Norris, director of Planning,Management, and Budget (15 minutes): brought the most recent simulations for closing Madison, Taylor, and Woodmont elementary schools. We reviewed the data to make sure what the board wanted and the criteria that they had approved were included in the printouts. I made some minor points and told him to get it ready for next week’s public work session with the board.

School visit to Tuckahoe Elementary (three hours)

Visited seven classrooms that I had missed on my last visit in the spring.Talked with John Willis, the principal, before and after about how things were going and issues of importance to him.

Unscheduled Appointments 3PM-5PM

My office had three doors. One door connected from inside the office to my associate superintendent for instruction, Hal Wilson, and one to the clerk of the school board. The third door was to the outside area where Bettye Dudley, my secretary, had her desk and where visitors checked in. Since that door was left open (except for confidential meetings) staff members, including principals and teachers, knew that they could see me if the door was open. On this particular day, I spent about an hour with eight drop-ins on a variety of topics: construction problems at Washington-Lee, which Hal Wilson and Joe Ringers brought in, Judy Gillies, public information officer, sensed that the questions a Washington Post reporter was asking about an incident at a school might be more serious than the principal had told us and that I might wish to tell the board; and Adele Pennifull, clerk to the school board, reviewed items for next week’s agenda.

Phone Calls and Desk Work

On this day I spent over an hour and a half on the following: Drafting a speech I would give to teachers who had been awarded Innovation grants. Drafting a Dear Colleague letter on my views about staff development for teachers and principals.

Spoke with board members Ann Broder and Diane Henderson, who had called about a variety of complaints they had received from parents and teachers; discussed what the district was planning to do about the surge in Vietnamese students arriving in Arlington; and discussed the memorials ervice that we were to attend that evening for Floyd Gravitt.Took two phone calls from parents about their special education children and the long time that they were spending on the buses in the morninga. Afternoons were alright. I listened and took notes for Joe Ringers to respond. Put a reminder in my tickler file under Ringers’ name to check later.

Wrote short notes to seven teachers I had visited at Tuckahoe.

Reviewed letters to two principals about their ASPs. Ralph Stone, a principal on assignment to me (funded by state monies that Endo had discovered), reviewed and assessed ASPs that I had already read. We discussed each and talked through the main points to be included in the letter that he would draft. Took a phone call from a former Glenville student who lived in Washington, D.C., and wanted to get together.

Read draft of Newscheck, important information Gillies had prepared for all employees about the district that was enclosed with paychecks. Signed letters I had dictated to Dudley yesterday and documents (retirement papers for teachers, award certificates, special payroll vouchers for employees that had missed their checks, and so forth).

Evening

After going home at 5:30 for dinner, I left at about 7:30 to attend a memorial service for Floyd Gravitt, our director of human relations, who had been found murdered in his Washington, D.C. apartment the previous week. Hank Gardner and I had gone to his funeral a few days earlier in a small town in Southside Virginia. The service brought together hundreds of friends and admirers, adults and students of the popular Gravitt who had been the first black to serve in a top position in the district office and had worked hard to bridge the large differences that still existed in a school system that had formally desegregated its last all-black elementary school in1971. I arrived home at 10:00 P.M.

For readers that wish to examine schedules of superintendents in the past few years and compare early 20th century superintendents with early 21st century ones, see the following:

*Article describing Superintendent Kimberle Ward of Naples (NY) early days on the job in 2009; 

*Newspaper account in 2010 of Jon Felske, Superintendent of Wyoming and Godwin Heights districts (MI);

*There is also a YouTube video of Superintendent Edgar Hatrick of Loudon County (VA) in  2011.

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What Superintendents Do Daily (Part 1)

In this blog over the past few years, I have posted accounts of a day in the life of a principal and what some teachers do daily. But I have not looked at what district superintendents do at work.

In this three-part post, I will present what I have found over the years of what superintendents did daily on the job over a century ago, 85 years ago, 40 years ago, and the work schedule of contemporary superintendents.

Getting a picture of what superintendents do every day, then and now, is useful in understanding the multiple roles that superintendents perform with the school board who hire and fire them, interactions with teachers and principals, parents, local politicians, and the unpredictability of their work. The high expectations that educators and non-educators have about superintendents arise from these many daily tasks they have performed for over a century. In the last post, I will also offer one superintendent’s views of the impact of a superintendent’s job on one family.

1904: A SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENTS DAY IN A SMALL CITY

William Chancellor, a former superintendent who served in large and small cities wrote what a typical day looked like for the school chief in a district at the beginning of the 20th century.

1. Inspected school building. Sent messenger for painter to repair window glass. Notified chief of police to follow up street “hoodlums”who broke glass.

2. Read mail; business letters from places large and small: correspondence with colleges; teachers’ applications, requests for subscriptions to help national charities, calls to give addresses here and there, generally gratis; answered mail.

3. Talked to mayor about next year’s appropriations.

4. Looked into a new textbook.

5. Visited a school; sent one child home who had apparently an infectious disease, discussed salary with a discontented teacher.

6. Dictated circular letter to board of education regarding educational and financial matters.

7. Saw a textbook agent.

8. Ate lunch; interrupted by call from mother of sick child.

9. Read and signed letters of reply to morning mail.

10. Called at business place of board member, saw two politicians there; discussed three R’s as usual.

11. Held grade meeting; gave sample lesson on mensuration of

12. Visited by Catholic sisters from parochial school, regarding truants.

13. Read afternoon mail; sent notes regretting absence from office to following callers: Presbyterian minister, carpenter to discuss repairs in a school building, mother of child suspended from school for misconduct.

14. Made a statistical table.

15. Ate dinner; caller on school matters came at seven o’clock,

16. Went to evening engagement and was called on to speak.

17. Read an hour and retired for the night.

Chancellor commented that this was an easy day. Were it a “hard day”, one would need to “add a board or committee of the board meeting, a formal public address or the making of a test.”

1928: National survey of administrators

In that year a national survey of 663 principals and superintendents in various-sized districts reported on which tasks were performed and how frequently. Four of five superintendents reported that they did the following;

*Go to the post office

*Deliver messages to teachers

*Draft special reports to state and U.S. Bureau of Education,prepare annual reports for school board

*Prepare letters of sympathy

*Conduct visitors through schools

*Examine school work sent to office

*Prevent salesmen from canvassing schools

*Answer questionnaires

*Gather school publicity data

*Adjust complaints of parents

*Consider applications, examine credentials, consult with principals in selecting teachers for district

*Secure substitute teachers

*Suggest professional books and articles for teachers

*Investigate criticism of teachers

*Assist teachers to find lodgings

*Attend summer school

*Visit schools elsewhere

*Talk before community groups

*Attend church social functions

Both lists of what superintendents do can be found in Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 125-128. See: ED304758-1

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The next post will document a day I spent as Superintendent in the Arlington (VA) schools nearly 40 years ago.

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