2000-05-27 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

My column on leadership in last week’s edition of The Wave seems to have touched some nerves.

There are many people who really believe that teachers will not do their jobs unless there is strict supervision by both assistant principals and principals.

There are those who denigrate the principals in the district, arguing that they couldn’t find their schools without the help of the district office "experts."

If those things are true, then the system has truly failed.

I do not believe that it true.

The survival of the system is only a matter of leadership and of philosophy.

When I was asked to develop a mission statement for IS 53 a number of years ago, I submitted a simple statement that I though reflected the mission of the school.

It said, simply, "Teach Children."

The district office laughed, as if teaching children was some sort of joke. They mandated that we add such things as "build self-esteem," "provide for the healthy emotional and social growth of students," "Insure an understanding of our multicultural differences," and "provide for a framework of parent involvement."

Teaching children was obviously not enough any longer. We had to make sure the kids got health care, that they ate breakfast and lunch, that they were insured transportation to and from school, that they felt good about themselves, that they were not xenophobic or homophobic or any of the other phobics that became political correct no-no’s, that they understood their "roots" and that they had empathy for those of diverse background, that they had every chance to succeed even if they chose to fail and that their parents were actively involved in the life of the school.

All this despite the fact that the schools are not structured to do many of those things and should not be structured nor tasked to do many others.

Much of what is expected of schools today formally came from the home. The home was supposed to provide transportation, meals, health care, religious and ethnic instruction, self-esteem, etc. The fact that many of our students do not come from homes where those things are any longer provided does not mean by default that the schools must them pick up the burden.

A year or so ago, asthma became a major issue because so many of our students had the problem.

The Daily News did a poll and found that most teachers were not familiar with asthma, how to treat it or how to handle students who are having an asthma attack.

The paper was horrified. Parents were horrified. The advocacy industry was horrified.

How could teachers be such failures in this area, they asked?

I will tell you how. Teachers are not doctors, not health care providers. They are trained to impart knowledge, to get students to think, to insure that they know proper English and can meet the needs of society after they graduate.

To expect them to be experts on asthma or any other infliction is ridiculous. If you want an asthma expert in the school, hire a nurse.

To expect teachers to be nurses and transportation directors and nutritionist and psychologists and Dr. Feelgood’s is to change the job and to take away from the teacher’s primary job: teaching students.

As the school’s role expanded, the role of the principal of the school practically exploded.

The principal is expected to be the educational leader of the school and that is a traditional role that should be respected.

That takes a lot of time, however. To do it right means that the principal has to be active and around the school each day, visiting teachers and classes, meeting with teachers, who are developing curriculum, cabinet meetings with AP’s that address not only administrative matters, but curriculum and educational matters as well, meeting with the school leadership team, etc.

In reality, many principals are tied to their offices doing the mandated paperwork that both the district and the central board demand.

There are Comprehensive Education Plans (CEP’s) that often run into sixty or seventy pages. There are the school’s financial books, which have to be done on a weekly basis. There are a myriad of reports that have to be done to meet those mandates each week and each term. There are parents to see and teachers to see and union chairpersons to see and assistant principals to see. There are a thousand decisions to make each week.

There are principal’s conferences and training. There are now conference calls from the superintendent each week, which last for an hour or more.

The principal often becomes a paper shuffler rather than an educational leader. He or she has little time to meet with teachers or other administrators on educational issues. Educational matters no longer seem to matter, when in fact, that time affects what should still be the prime mandate: teach children.

Which comes back to the matter of leadership. And much of leadership is a matter of trust.

I have worked in the military (serving in the Navy aboard an aircraft carrier), in private industry (with Xerox Education Publications as an editor with Current Events and Issues Today) and with the school system.

Whenever I found myself in a position of supervising others, I had one simple philosophy: "You are getting paid to do a job for me and I will trust you to do it without my telling you what to do and how to do it until the time that you show me that you cannot do the job."

Many supervisors in the system do not believe in that philosophy. Their philosophy is, rather: "You are going to do the job for me the right way only if I tell you explicitly what to do and how to do it. In addition, if you do not do it my way, I will find somebody else to do it."

Those philosophies are miles apart. Matt Bromme was asked at the last school board meeting about some problems that board members had with getting information from his district office staff.

"As the manager of the district, I want control of the staff to insure that everything is done in a professional matter," Bromme told the board members.

That sounds like the "don’t trust anybody" philosophy of leadership to me. The open philosophy would occur if Bromme had said something like, "I picked good people to work for me, and I have no qualms about them giving you information without asking me first." See the difference?

The last superintendent to put a curb on information moving from the district to the school board was Beverly Hall, one of our most unsuccessful superintendents.

One of the new chancellor’s former cohorts at Citibank summed up Levy’s leadership style.

"His approach has been to say ‘I may hit you over the head with a two-by-four to get your attention, but I am going to work with you to insure that your performance improves."

He added that Levy "would much rather turn around a bad performance into a good one – and only as a last resort to fire somebody."

Amen to that.

 


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