Sunday, October 30, 2016

Getting Past Those who Would Subvert- Focus on the Idea, not the Man

Leaders who mean well have nevertheless been forced to confront those who work against them for reasons of jealousy, spite, or zealous ambition. It's a difficult reality leaders must face- Some people just hope a leader will fail for the sake of failing.

Abraham Lincoln was confronted with tests to his leadership throughout his presidency. His treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, continually challenged Lincoln's capability and worked to subvert him from  the start to the finish of his cabinet career. Chase was known to have suffered from a lack of credibility among his friends and colleagues.1 In the last months of 1862, he played a major role in precipitating crises that twice threatened the fragile stability of Lincoln’s cabinet as a result of his ambition and attempts to overcome the need to build his reputation.He was, Goodwin points out in her acclaimed work, "Forever brooding on a station in life not yet reached" and Lincoln had the misfortune of having to manage his secretary's personal weaknesses despite the treasurer's great capabilities.3

Lincoln kept his attention on Chase's treasury initiatives despite the distractions his secretary threw at him, and sometimes contested these strategies if he felt they were wrong. Lincoln “[Focused] on the ideas [and] not the man” when dealing with Chase.4 Concentrating on his insecure cabinet secretary's professional work allowed Lincoln to rise above the pettiness of Chase's social-emotional foibles and keep the treasurer's agitation in check for three years during the height of the civil war. 

Educational leaders face the struggle against those who would see them fail. It would be wise to keep the fight about the ideas and not about the personalities at play. 

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

1. The Lehrman Institute, Abraham Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln's Classroom.  Retrieved from

2. Beard, R. (2014). The rise and fall (and rise) of Salmon P. Chase. The New York Times. Retrieved from

3. Goodwin, D.K. (2006). Team of rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

4. Signer, M. (2015). Becoming Madison. New York: Public Affairs

Friday, June 3, 2016

Social Emotional Learning is not Just Something you Hope Sticks on the Wall

One of my greatest flaws as an educational leader was my compulsion to promote new initiatives without considering how they would be institutionalized in the school and sustained over time. I helped my faculty "throw" wonderful ideas on the "wall" but didn't lead them to think about how these ideas would "stick" for the long term.

There are terrific social emotional learning programs on the market. Responsive Classroom, Peace Circles and Tools of the Mind immediately come to mind (CASEL provides a wonderful resource page that describes 23 of these strategies), but elevating these programs to school culture status is as important as bringing them to light from the start.

My failures and success have taught me how important it is to weave social emotional learning into the cultural fabric of the school (i.e. institutionalize). This can be done by:
  1. Installing rituals and routines (Deal and Peterson extensively researched the importance of doing so in their 2009 work)1

    For example- Create a routine at the elementary school that would have children and school personnel engage in a regular community activity at the start of every school day.

    For example
    - Schedule one middle-high school class period per week dedicated to team building activities and small group personal discussion.

  2. Repeat, repeat, and repeat- Don't let much get in the way of consistency and carry on the rituals and routines regardless of intrusions and distractions.

  3. Weave new “language” in everything that is said- Create mantras and make those mantras highly visible by posting them on the walls, video monitors, and publications distributed to the school community.
Carrying the culture forward calls for sustainability. This can be done in part by creating easy-to-read, small, go-to protocol books (social emotional learning “bibles”) that codify strategies. I've sometimes forgotten the importance of documenting those things I want to have passed down the generations. Knowing the culture-change I helped facilitate is memorialized makes gives me a sense of confidence that my successor will recognize the importance of sustaining the culture and will have a guide to help him or her do so.

I've also learned from experience the importance of assigning culture maintenance responsibilities to assigned positions in the school (as opposed to delegating these responsibilities to certain people who may have helped me change the culture from the start). This ensures longevity despite the potential turnover of personnel.

There's no problem with presenting an idea and gauging the reaction. Brainstorming proposals is a good way to get social emotional learning ideas rolling but think of longevity as being as important as the start-up process. "[Make] a single day's work an achievement for eternity" (actress Helen Hayes) and think of the kids who years and years from the present who should reap the rewards of the wonderful culture fostered from the outset.

1. Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (2009). Shaping school culture: Pitfalls, paradoxes, and promises. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Embrace the Valleys

I take to this quote from Michael Signer's work on James Madison (2015) whenever I hit the rough patch in my educational leadership work:
“Public life is a journey through peaks and valleys. All public leaders find their apotheosis at one time or another; very few can sustain the same achievement, or image, or theme, from one month to the next…” 
Solace in knowing not even the greatest figure heads in history hit the low points as well as the high!

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Speak Like Miles and Coltrane

I've been speaking in front of large crowds of all kinds of people (students, faculty, parents, peer-leaders, members of communities and others) for 18 years and to this day I cannot bring myself to script a speech. I don't memorize my "lines" either (one of my intelligences is surely not the capacity to memorize big chunks of information) or spend a lot of time preparing what I'm specifically going to say.

What's my problem? Maybe I'm too insecure about my incapacity for memorization and this stymies me from preparing talks for large crowds. It could be laziness. Whatever the malady, I'm resigned to thinking "big picture" about what I will say when I have to speak formally in front of a throng of people; I let the details follow.

Pastor Mike (the Reverend Michael A. Walrond of the famed First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem) does the same thing I do, and he thinks of it like this, "I don't write them [sermons]. For me, the construction takes place in the pulpit. I think about the jazz improvisation. For Miles Davis or Coltrane to do improvisation, they knew the instrument, they knew the chords, they knew the keys. For me, it's the same thing..."

You can engage your audience if you know your stuff and have a passion for what you're talking about. This might be the way to effective speech making without formal preparation.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Sometimes Lose Sight of the Current State of Affairs

Woodrow Wilson said, "The successful leader ought not to keep too far in advance of the mass he is seeking to lead, for he will soon lose contact with them."

This is a timely reminder to me that I must always keep track of what currently ails my school district community. I sometimes keep my eye too fixed on my broad vision and lose sight of the day to day crises that could be chipping away at the school culture I am trying to foster. Too laser-like a focus on the big picture while neglecting the current state of affairs can greatly diminish the effectiveness of a leader's vision.

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Test Performance Does not an Educational Leader Make!

It's too easy to measure an educational leader’s success by looking myopically at students’ performance on test scores. It seems like policymakers and education laypeople take the easy way out when they look to what they believe is the most concrete measure of student achievement and consider success based on standardized test scores.

I have been struggling to reconcile my core belief that standardized test scores are a poor measure of school and teacher success with the way society looks at me as an educational leader. I work hard to help my teachers, principals, and supervisors support student preparation for standardized tests because I know we will all be judged by assessment results. But why should my success be based mostly on how well my students do on the tests and perceivably how well the teachers have prepared the students for those tests? The PARCC and other standardized assessments are validly one measure of a child's progress, but many distinguished educational scholars rightly make a compelling case for the high value of using multiple measures to judge student progress (read senior research associate in the School of Education at Duquesne University Susan Brookhart's excellent ASCD article about this subject by clicking here).

I want to be measured by other means. Perhaps my ability to address the needs of all learners by creating specialized programs is something people could use to measure me? Maybe my work to communicate with all the stakeholders should be an indication of my success? Shouldn't the myriad ways I engage members of the local community in the decision-making process be considered an example of my ability to lead effectively?

Educational leadership is not a "black and white" enterprise- it is a craft that requires an individual to see the world in myriad "colors" that calls for all kinds of creative solutions to problems and different approaches to relating to people with divergent personalities and attitudes. Leaders should be judged according to their ability to effectively help the community they serve grow socially, emotionally, and academically and not only by their capability to get their students to perform well on tests.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Isolation Won't Make the Problem go Away

I agree with New York Times opinion editor Maureen Dowd when she says President Obama has remained isolated during times of conflict with others and his party and those who oppose him. She talks about the president's leadership in a January 24, 2015 article that immediately followed his State of the Union address (click to read Dowd's piece).

Learning from the experiences of a sitting leader has compelled me to reflect on my own relationships with those who may present obstacles to my efforts for reforming school programs. The lesson learned here- don't stay apart from the fray. Embrace conflict, maintain lines of communication always, and most of all, don't let anger corrupt your true nature and focus on the real deal, which is doing right by kids.

This post is part of my "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.