Friday, June 7, 2013

The Way it Should Be Done

With David Steiner looking on, a former principal and CFN person made the following comments to Hunter College graduates about the job of teaching (here)

"It's the hardest and most important job in the world, but when it's done right, you change the world one child at a time"

The words were said just after the speaker had taken a poll from the graduates as to whether or not they felt the CommonCore was a good idea for students (not many said yes) and whether or not they felt the new teacher evaluation system would improve the profession (virtually no one said yes).  Dr. Steiner is an ardent advocate for both.

Principals and district leaders tend to care about the future of their careers, so moving in this direction with a keynote speech during a commencement ceremony for teachers was a pretty gutsy move.

In fact, the speech was so darn good that Gotham Schools ran a piece about it (see here). If you were to read only the piece, you might come away with the conclusion that having people like Nate Dudley in the system is a breath of fresh air. During a time when the city has worked hard to move its focus away from teaching and toward management in the public schools, you might think there is hope yet that the department might once more be filled with seasoned practitioners of education, as opposed to the typical Tweed-sponsored leadership academy grads that we're  currently  reading  about  in  the  newspapers.  Then again, if you read this blog, you might also cast a critical eye to a notion like that.

I certainly understand that notion.  It's easy to come away from the last five years and feel that virtually everyone who has gone into leadership shouldn't be leading.  The hard thing to do is to consider whether or not good leaders really are out there and to consider whether or not the person sitting across the table from you is one of them.

I make no bones about being a defender of my colleagues (in fact, I sometimes brag about how  impossible it is for me to turn a critical eye to teachers at all). I have, however, no problem whatsoever in turning that very critical eye to education leaders! I've been in this system for twelve years and I've seen enough principals (9 in all) up close (2 altogether) to know what a good one looks like and what the many not so good ones look like as well. So when I say that Dudley is one of the good ones (something I've said here and in the Twittersphere before), it is the result of an informed and objective opinion. The video of the Hunter College speech showing a seasoned, gutsy leader who is knowledgeable about the new aspects of our system, yet wise enough to approach them with a careful manner so as not to hurt the profession is an accurate depiction of that leader. They guy's the real deal and we in the classroom need more like him.

Now before I go losing readers,  I probably should to spend some time showing how that's true and why an analysis of a good leader should matter to folks like you and me, right?

As you're probably aware, there are two different types of building and district leaders. We here usually refer to them as the new generation #edreform leaders, cut from the Michelle Rhee cloth, and old world, traditional leaders -the kind that we used to have before the last decade happened. Another way to understand these two different types of leaders is to understand them in the context of two cmpeting leadership paradigms: That of the manager vs. the practitioner. This subject was recently discussed by a NYS Regent during speech (which, full disclosure, I only caught second-hand and haven't been able to personally read).

As the comparison goes, a manager is someone who is specifically trained in his or her position. They manage your comings and goings in the workplace. They're good with delivering tasks to you and with keeping on you to make sure that those tasks are completed. If they are not completed, the manager is well trained to make sure that you face the consequences of having not completed those tasks to his or her liking. When great changes come, managers are interested only in the actions that need to be performed in order to manage those changes. Managers tend  not to take the 'long view'. This is probably because managers tend to not understand the 'long view'. They don't see this as being part of their job. It's not their role to take value out of the great change. To them, their job is making that change happen.

A practitioner, on the hand, is someone who has developed the skills needed to excel at his or her position over a longer period of time. He or she is someone who may or may not be specifically trained in his or her position, but brings wisdom to the table -itself the result of many many years of experience- that is enough to eclipse any knowledge the manager is able to learn. Practitioners aren't always that good with delivering tasks to you or with staying on top of you to get those tasks completed. Many of their actions or policies are the result of philosophy and aren't task oriented. But, when great change happens, the practitioner looks to see what can usefully be taken from that change as the steps needed to carry it out are performed.

In short, while the manager concerns him/herself with the tasks, the practitioner concerns him/herself with the value and with its effect on the profession.

To be fair, each leader has qualities of both manager and practitioner. But to be honest, our department is overfilled with leaders who have much more of the manager's qualities in them than the practitioner's. While traditionally, education leaders have been practitioners placed in the role of manager, the philosophy of  manager as practitioner has been embraced by Mayor Bloomberg during his entire mayoralty. This is why a non fireman lead the FDNY for so long. This is why a lawyer who didn't win the biggest case of his career became our longest running school's Chancellor.

Tellingly, when he nominated Cathy Black as chancellor, he defended his pick by saying that the job was about being a manager (read: not a practitioner).

This approach almost more than anything, if you ask me, is what has caused so much damage across so many schools in the city. We need more seasoned veterans -practitioners- leading us. Yet all we have are managers. As a result, our system is more task and less purpose.

I'm lucky enough to have sat in a few meetings with Mr. Dudley. I've had a several interactions with him and the video is correct; he's a wise and knowledgeable practitioner of education and pedagogy. As proof, let me offer this brief anecdote:

This past year, he led  a group of young potential school leaders and taught them how to collect low-inference data from Danielson based class observations (As an aside, I was part of the group but I am not a potential school leader! I'm just a dude who has always has a corny fixation with PD and had asked my principal if I could go). Collecting low-inference data -where you go into a teacher's classroom and record (in detail) what you see holding all judgments aside-  is a tough skill to pick up.  During the first meeting, after our observation of a teacher's class had ended and the group had reconvened, someone (not me) pointedly questioned him about how much data could possibly be collected from the short visit that we had just made, and whether any real value about teaching could be taken from this kind of snapshot visit at all.

Now pay careful attention here. A manager, when questioned like this in front of a group will probably jump at the chance to have a confrontation with the person posing the question.  Mr. Dudley, however, balked. Instead, he opted to continue the discussion for several moments, letting the colleague get her point across and then allowed the discussion to move on.  After letting several minutes pass, he recited a 35 word exchange that had occurred during the lesson between the teacher and a student (without error, mind you) that he had noted on his sheet -an exchange that showed great value in proving to the group that the teacher was, in fact, 'effective' and not 'developing'. No one in that group questioned the value of low-inference data (as long as it's taken well) again.

Only a practitioner would have enough experience and wisdom to apply Green's 9th law ('win through your actions, not your words') to a group of teachers during a somewhat awkward moment. But as I look back on every good principal I have ever worked under, the quality of allowing a person to gripe while demonstrating that the gripe is not as accurate as the person had originally thought is a quality that they all shared (to the exclusion of the principals who weren't as good).

This is what makes people like Mr. Dudley so important. The absence of  more practitioners in our system is NYC's missing link. And yet practitioners are rarely celebrated in public. It isn't very often that we get a chance to read about one or see one defending the basic tenets of the profession on YouTube. That's problematic. If this one difference between the type of leaders our system has continues to be overlooked, then our profession will continue to suffer. That's why it is so good that every democratic candidate (except for Quinn) has pledged to put a real educator in charge of the school system come next January. I guess, after so many years of having managers run the city's schools, even the politicians can sense that we  need to fill our schools with seasoned practitioners again. There aren't many people out there who can offer a blue print for what that is.

Look, I'm just a classroom teacher (which is just about the greatest job on the planet, by the way) and good principals and district leaders need people like me a whole lot more than people like me need them. But, to the extent that folks like me do need them, we need seasoned practitioners who can keep the ship steady through the storm and remind us all that it isn't going to sink.

With that in mind, as you prepare for the end of the school year,ask yourself this: Is your principal a manager or a practitioner? Then watch the video of Nate Dudley's keynote at Hunter College and ask yourself if your school would benefit from having someone like him leading it.


  1. One of your best postings and a great speech

  2. Wow. This post is fantastic. So many nails were hit on the head. Not only should teachers read this, but principals, too. Although, many with "longer view" issues may skip over it and ask if your unit maps with Common Core standards have been handed in yet.

    Seriously, great post.

  3. Thanks, Mike, don't take my red shirt, ok? Pogue. THANKS SO MUCH!!

  4. Good post. Do you know how many years of actual teaching experience Dudley has? There used to be a time where a number of years was a requirement -- that was before decentralization in 1969 when the door was opened wide. So don't just blame Bloomberg -
    On the issue that all candidates except Quinn say they would put an educator in charge -- that is a wide range -- we have seen lots of people who are "educators" - degrees, etc. They could put Geoffrey Canada in charge or even John King -- both technically educators. So we need to refine our def of educator -- we know what we want and we shouldn't let them define it for us.

    1. Now this is an excellent question! I think he started teaching back in 80s, but I'm not too sure. What I do know is the nine years he spent as principal wasn't just any nine years and after that time the guy is practitioner of at least school leadership and definitely this structure. When the the structure goes through its changes next Winter (or Spring?) and lots of the people wind up leaving the system because of it (and they know there will be a shakeup and that they'll be leaving) we'll have to be careful not to root for something senseless like firing the entire Baath party and find and root for the good ones. Not sure if that makes any sense.