2000-05-20 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

When I was in boot camp training for my adventure with the U.S. Navy, the DI’s told us that there were three ways of doing things: The right way, the wrong way and the Navy way. Right or wrong did not seem to matter. What mattered was that you did things the way you were told – the way the rules were written into the Navy Regs and into what they liked to call "Navy Tradition."

The board of education seems to operate under the same theory and teachers are expected to do things the way the school system tells them to do it. Whether the system’s way is wrong or right does not seem to matter much as long as you do it their way.

That is why I like Harold Levy. He seems to think that the system’s way should give way to the right way. I like that even though I don’t always agree with Levy on what is the right way to do things. As least he is moving us off the mark and in new directions. That can only be positive.

It is all a matter of style of leadership rather than a specific knowledge of the job. Sometimes leadership is more important than substance.

As I write this, the choices for the new chancellor of city public schools is down to one and that one is Levy. People ask me how I can like him for the job since he is not an educator.

I tell them that Levy has proven to be adept at tweaking the bureaucracy and that is what I like to see in a leader.

For many years I worker per session at the board headquarters at 110 Livingston Street and at their curriculum offices at 131 Livingston.

That is where all of our educational leaders are supposed to be housed. Even at that time, however, it seemed as if the major jobs of those who worked there were to hold meetings among themselves to decide things that had little relevance to the schools. This has not changed over the years.

This is true in many of the district offices as well. I am a little surprised, for example, that this district’s leadership team is using District 15 as a farm team. Several people from that district have been promoted to leadership spots here in District 27 rather than using people who have been in the district for years and are probably more qualified for the jobs than those who are being brought in from the outside.

I realize that the moves will be justified on the grounds that the District 15 people are "highly qualified" for their jobs, but I have not found that to be universally true.

Outside of the leadership team, the only local talent being utilized by the new regime is Frank LoFaso, who has been tapped as the district’s new deputy assistant for special education (DASE – pronounced Daisy). Frank comes from a long tenure in both special and regular education in this district and his promotion is welcomed. Other key spots – director of Pupil Personnel Services, middle school instructional supervisor, attendance supervisor, public relations specialist (I think that is his title) – have all come from outside the district.

I guess that it is all a matter of leadership style and building a team where loyalty is the trait most valued, even more so than competency.

The system’s command and control function in every district is such that the superintendent is the instructional leader of all of the district’s schools and that the people who work out of the district office as his (or her) representatives are the regulators from the "front office" and must be obeyed.

Orders and mandates flow from the district to the schools and the schools must quickly do what they are told – even when those orders make no sense or are conflicting with the orders given the day before.

The district maintains this control because administrators and teachers are told that they will find themselves out of jobs or transferred to less desirable positions should they not fulfill the district’s mandates.

This is not the model that works best in the real world and I believe that this is the model that Levy is trying to change.

He recently said that the board of education has to move from "micromanaging" the schools to becoming a collaborative body supporting the work of the schools.

While he did not mention the district offices in this regard, I believe that the district office has to move from micromanaging the schools in the district to becoming a support service that assists the schools in meeting their goals.

The superintendent should be the instructional leader of the schools, but he and his staff should work collaboratively with the schools.

As with all organizations, decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. It is only when somebody screws the pooch that the district or the central board should take over a control function.

If I learned anything in my time in the military, it was leadership skills and how to deal with people on many levels.

My job as a court reporter and as a leading petty officer in a seven-man office forced me to deal with people at all levels – from the captain of the ship (who had a hell of a lot more power than any school superintendent) to the new recruits who came to work for me in the ship’s legal office.

I found that there were two theories of leadership in the Navy.

One group of people believed that they were "commanders," that they were there to tell the men under them what to do and how to do it.

One JG (lieutenant, junior grade) who came to work in the legal office was a commander. I had first met him at the School of Naval Justice in Newport (RI) where I was taking the court reporter course and he was taking the officer’s course. He spotted my working jacket (which had the ship’s patch on its back) when I was standing the midwatch one night and told me that he was being assigned to the same ship. We talked and we met often to talk about the school and discuss the fine points of military law. We became friendly, if not friends.

I got back to the ship about two weeks before he did, just before we got underway to a nine-month deployment with the Sixth Fleet.

When he finally arrived, he told me that we could no longer have our discussions because it would detract from his ability to "discipline the men." He told me that they would not obey his "orders" if they knew that we talked regularly. He also made it clear that I was not to question what he told me to do even if I knew that he was giving me "bum skinny," the Navy term really bad information.

When we got to Barcelona – our first port of call – the ship held a blood drive to assist the Spaniards with a blood shortage problem they were having. As an incentive to give blood, sailors were offered one extra day’s liberty in port. We called it, for obvious reasons, Vampire Liberty.

When I went to the JG to approve my day, he turned me down. He did so, he told me, to establish that he had the right to do so, that he was my boss. He did not like the fact that I knew much more about his job than he did mine. He told me that if I showed him that I could follow his orders that I would finally be rewarded with my liberty. If not, I would find myself back working on the mess decks (a threat that he could not carry out, in any case).

He was a commander. Most of the supervisors in today’s school system are commanders.

I got my Vampire Liberty, by the way. I made a call to sickbay and a call to the disbursing office and the JG quickly got two calls back. One told him that they had lost his medical records and that he was going to have to take all of his shots over again before he could go on liberty. The other call he got was from the disbursing office to tell him that they had lost his pay records and that he would not get paid for the next six weeks.

He quickly got the message and granted me liberty. It was amazing how quickly his records were then found. The JG learned a valuable lesson. Commanders often do not get their way with those who work for them.

The captain of the ship, however, was a leader. Even when he told the men that they would suffer hardship because of him and the ship’s mission, they respected him and worked hard to make both him and themselves a success.

He would tell the new men on the ship that his job and theirs was "throwing airplanes off the front end and catching them on the back end."

He told them that throwing airplanes off the front end and catching them on the back end took precedence over eating, sleeping, liberty, getting paid and everything else. They respected that because he gave them a sense of mission.

A story about how he motivated men might be instructional.

We were in the Med and the first nuclear carrier, the Enterprise, had just come in to join us. We were to have war games against each other – an aging Midway Class carrier against the mightiest carrier in the world.

At the beginning of the exercise Captain Miller came over the 1MC. He did not tell us that we better do a good job, or that our careers depended on beating the Enterprise. He reminded us that we liked to play "guns" and "cowboy’s and Indian’s" when we were kids and reminded us how great it would be to beat a supercarrier such as the Big-E. Then he told us that we would finish the games and, no matter how well we did, we would go on to a seven-day liberty at Cannes, France.

We won the games because every man on the ship was motivated to do the best for the captain. It was apparent that Miller wanted to do everything he could do for the men and the men were willing to do everything they could for him.

He was a leader rather than a commander although he went on to make admiral and become commander, Naval Forces, Europe.

What we need in public educational system are more leaders and fewer commanders.

Believe it or not, teachers want what is best for kids. They cannot do what is necessary because of the rules of the central board of education, the mandates of the district and the stupid pet tricks that the academic community constantly comes up with.

Will Levy be able to change all that if he becomes chancellor?

One can only hope and watch him go to work.


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