Seven Leadership Ideals to Pursue in 2016

The author is the Community Superintendent for District 15 in Brooklyn, NY.

The start of a new year is a time when traditionally we take the opportunity to start fresh and set new goals. It is a chance to say “do-over,” and to start anew. We reimagine ourselves as we can be, and set lofty resolutions that exemplify our belief that we can “do it better.” I am no exception to this tradition. Like millions of people, I have begun to work towards the most popular personal goal. I am trying to lose weight. It is a goal that historically we usually abandon within two weeks. (It is one week of low carbs and counting…I will keep you posted.)

This same optimism is true professionally as well. We come back from the holidays (somewhat) recharged but definitely more hopeful, more optimistic that we can truly accomplish all that we set out to do. We take the time not only to think about the myriad of things piled on our desks, but on the skills that will help us to be more successful at helping educators so that we can all best serve our children; and so we list our resolutions, maybe not with pencil or computer but somewhere in our minds and in our hearts. 

As the leader of a large urban district that I consider to be a microcosm of our city, I am no exception. I too have a list of professional resolutions that capture what I believe and hopefully, are the kind of ideals that help to make us our “best selves:”

1. Lead by Inspiring - I am a Pollyanna and have long held the belief that people go into education not merely to have a career, but because they want to make a difference in the world, and they want to share with their students the magic of learning. They enter the profession with passion and commitment. I see my role to remind them of that passion, to inspire them, to make them understand that their dream is still a real possibility and that I share it. I want them to know that I will walk that road with them and help them, not browbeat them into submission to a set of protocols and accountabilities they do not believe in. Do not misunderstand me. I believe we are all accountable and that we should be. We hold children’s lives in our hands just as surely as do medical professionals. It is just that we have seen that accountability without inspiration and a focus on true learning brings out the worst in us all and is ultimately unsuccessful. I want to be honest and honorable, a truly inspirational leader because I know that people give their all when they are inspired by someone they believe in.

2. Be Emotionally Intelligent - We are coming out of a time when education was moving towards a very business-like model. It was all protocols and percentages. I remember people being somewhat taken aback when I wished a senior colleague a happy birthday or offered a small token when a child was born. Recent research, however, has shown us that if we want to make meaningful, sustainable changes in the world, then we must consider the emotional underpinnings that define who we are and that do not vanish as we cross the office threshold. The work of Dr. Lisa Lahey at Harvard and Dr. Marc Brackett at Yale serve to reinforce this understanding. It behooves us as educational leaders to be constantly aware of the “temperature” of those we are leading so that we can persuade them to attempt change and move toward that shared vision in a low risk environment. Just as teachers must be cognizant of the needs of the whole child, we must be cognizant of the needs of our educators, not just because we wish to be warm, fuzzy and well-liked, but because these understandings inspire people to become more innovative and encourage collaboration. We are a service industry. We make learners, not shoes, and we have to think about the needs of people in order to succeed.

3. Learn Together - There was a time when teachers were told, “Just close your doors and teach,” and principals zealously hid best practices so that their colleagues would not copy them and steal the thunder of their successes. Thankfully, that time is gone. We are all learners and as such, what better way can we work than as partners with a goal of outstanding student success for all children. This is not a goal that is easily achieved, and for this reason one of my resolutions is to enhance Collaborative Inquiry. While I can have an understanding of the strengths and needs at my thirty five schools, I cannot have that understanding at the granular level that my principals can have and at the even finer level that my teachers can have. It is for this reason that top down models do not work, and grassroots understanding of needs is essential. Therefore, it behooves me as a leader to promote this level of learning. It is both empowering and inspiring. It shows educators that they are trusted professionals and gives them a level of personal accountability to both their colleagues and their students that is more powerful than an external standard because they themselves connect their actions with outcomes. These shared learning opportunities can and should occur at every rung of the ladder. Just as teachers meet to dissect class and grade needs, strong principals work in teams to look at school and district needs. Additionally, superintendents work to share with their colleagues. In short, we need to consistently learn together.

4. Teach Don’t Tell - I was reminded two weeks ago of the value of that old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I am a packrat with emails. I archive every email I receive, no matter how ridiculous. Consequently, I am constantly running out of space in my archives and routinely have to call the tech people to fix this issue. Two weeks ago, the gentleman who magically solved the problem did something differently.  He showed me the steps I needed to take in order to increase my storage myself. It was enlightening to say the least. I have since created numerous folders that enable me to archive more strategically.  He did not just solve the problem; he taught me how to solve the problem. This is the whole theory behind building capacity. We need to bear in mind that we are all still teachers and staff developers. A change in our title did not change the philosophy behind the role. Remember principals are called principals because they were originally the Principal (Lead) Teacher. When we model a skill for our teachers and fellow educational leaders, we empower them. They now have a skill that they can use strategically to problem solve at the school and classroom level. Isn’t this what we truly want for our children?  Isn’t this the ideal goal of the Common Core?

5. Evaluate Learning not Teaching - As a trained Quality Reviewer for eight years and the person charged with conducting Principal Performance Observations, I have spent a good deal of time in classrooms observing instruction. When I go into a class I always ask children if I may sit next to them and then I try to observe the lesson through the child’s eye. I ask what they are doing and why they are doing it. I ask to see their work and I listen in carefully to group discussions to ascertain their ability to think at a critical level. This is how I gauge the reality of the lesson, because what I really want to assess is not just what the teacher is doing but what the students are actually getting out of the experience. In short, what is being learned? As administrators, it is all too easy to focus on the lesson itself, the preparation and the delivery, but what really matters is that the lesson actually resulted in targeted student learning. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that you have to plan well to be able to effectuate this kind of learning, but we have all seen well planned and delivered lessons where the students simply did not get it. We as educational leaders have to share this message. We have to keep our “eyes on the prize” and the prize is student learning, not just teacher performance. If the kids are not learning, the delivery was not successful.

6. Be a Reflective Problem Solver - Any administrator can tell you that their best laid plans are often sidetracked by the plethora of problems and “fires” that we are called upon to address on a daily basis. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of our work. It is very easy to jump on an answer and quickly “put out” the problem. However, it is the very nature of this process that prevents us from being reflective leaders. When we are “fire extinguishers,” we do not take into consideration the consequences. We do not take the time to think systemically. Whenever this happens, I am constantly reminded of the parable of the penguins and the walruses in a small book called The Tip of the Iceberg by David Hutchens. It speaks to the unseen consequences of quick problem solving.  This is one of my hardest resolutions and one that I know is shared. Being a true problem solver requires both time for reflection and critical friends to collaborate with on solutions. (Like the weight loss issue, I will keep you posted on this one.)

7. Love What You Do - When you get up there in years and experiences, people start to mumble the “R” word around you, and to be honest on bad days you think about retirement as well. A wise woman once grounded me by telling me it was the work that mattered, not the title or the office. If you love the work then that is what sustains you in what is an extremely difficult, stressful and yet enormously fulfilling position. I love the work that I do and though I often feel overwhelmed and harried, I am hopeful, because being an administrator and an educator is such powerful and meaningful work. There is a corny teacher mug that says, “To teach is to touch the future.” Multiply this idea exponentially to understand your impact as an administrator. It is for this reason that you have to love the work. It will take all you can give and ask for more, but in the end you will see your success in the achievement of the thousands of children you serve over the course of your career. You touch lives every day. No work can be more meaningful, more valuable than that.

(Please note that these views are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the New York City Department of Education.)