Fist Leadership

My dad was a coal miner. He worked hard and became a foreman. His method of management? His plan for motivating the men? His fist.

As we look critically at our State and Federal leaders I’m thinking a lot about my own leadership and my father’s style of management. It’s my job to hold every employee accountable for a standard of performance that results in excellence for our students. I analyze every part of our organization constantly, looking for ways that we can improve, including my own performance. But at the same time I trust our employees to do their best every day. I want them to feel that trust and to feel empowered to take us where we need to go. It’s not very different from when I was teaching high school students at Pine Valley for ten years. Back then I was successful as a teacher not only because of my test scores (an 8th grade Proficiency exam and Regents exams) but because I tried to show every student that I believed in him, expected the best of her, would do everything in my power to help each find success, and would be first in line to call him out when he made a mistake. My students took a swift kick in the butt when needed because of all the pats on the back I’d already given them—and because they knew I truly cared about them.

As a leader, I expect the best of every student and employee in our District, I will do everything in my power to help us find success both in student achievement and in student learning. I don’t hesitate to have the hard conversations with people who need that swift kick in the butt. I care about everyone in the organization—I trust them until one shows me that I cannot.

This is not the leadership we’re getting from the State Education Department. They’re back to my father’s fist management. The policies and procedures being implemented are all about accountability and designed for the worst of our employees. One of the first lessons I learned as a young administrator, 12 years ago, was that I shouldn’t admonish the entire faculty for something only one or two teachers had done wrong. Why hasn’t the commissioner learned that yet? People don’t function at their best when working under a system of fear and stress. And our children feel all of this, despite the best intentions to keep a balance within our schools.

We do need to do a better job of aligning our curriculum as a system. The common core implementation is a good time to make that happen. We do need to make better decisions based on student data, not just on our own hunches or “feelings”. And we do need higher expectations for every child. What we do NOT need are these extreme accountability measures to make sure it all happens.

Here’s a personal example of accountability to others vs. internal accountability. The BOE members recently reviewed my evaluation with me, as they do every year. It is seven pages long and addresses 73 different competencies. What the BOE thinks and discusses with me is very important to me. I pay attention. I listen for what I can do better so I can improve. But you know what? If that BOE didn’t exist, I would work just as hard and I would endeavor to improve myself and this organization just as I do now. The majority of our teachers and administrators are just the same—they aren’t working hard every day because of a composite score but because they care about the quality of their work and their students.

We do this work because we want to make a significant difference in the lives and futures of our children. We do this work because we want our lives to have mattered when we reach the end. The only way that happens is if we do our work well, to the best of our abilities. I don’t do my best out of fear or intimidation from the State Education Department. And I surely don’t do my best work while feeling demeaned, demoralized, and distrusted. Neither do our children. What I’ve just described? That’s how the majority of our students feel while spending 90 minutes per day taking those tests. That’s NOT learning with passion, innovation and leadership. That’s not the way to motivate others to do their best work. And it’s not good leadership. Maybe NYSED will get results this way, but what will those results reap? And what will they cost? 

  1. Excellent points here, thank you for commenting. East principal, I would be honored.

  2. I hope you don’t mind if I use your wording when talking to my staff:) Your way of saying things are so honest I would like to use your wording for a post about my evaluative survey. I never really know how to share the info and love how honest you are in your reflection.

  3. My husband & I recently sat down with our daughter’s kindergarten teacher so she could show us her growth: actual tangible work samples from day 1: 9/2011 to 4/2012; using the content of core curriculum skills; we could easily discuss her strengths and weeknesses- and we could see growth in the form of actual work samples- authentic student work not some abstract number.
    This evidence could be scanned into digital portfolios & teachers could begin making instructional plans before the end of the year.
    I am confident that approximately 9+ hours of standardized assessments in grades 3-8 is NOT the answer- let’s measure students’ growth in an authentic way & trust in our teaching professionals.

  4. Today’s testing and accountability agenda that is being advocated at the state and national level is an indication of a lack of insight and leadership at those levels along with the unhealthy influence of campaign contributions from testing corporations. This paradigm is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and it’s based on a faulty premise that America’s educational system is at risk due to poor teachers/administrators and over-funded schools that have squandered public funds and produced an unskilled workforce. A couple of years ago I read Yong Zhao’s, “Catching up or Leading the Way,” which I’m sure you’ve read too. Dr. Zhao insists that America is not a nation at risk nor is it’s school system generally a failure due to educational incompetence. The problem is a lack of funding and support at national and state levels. That being said these “strong-arm” tactics are the result of incorrect assumptions driving the decision making in Washington and Albany.

    About a dozen years ago a nun from Philadelphia invited me to read the Tao of Pooh. It is one of the best books I have read. From that point on I have been strongly influenced by its wisdom. The following quote is taken from the Tao.

    “Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.”
    ― Lao Tzu

    Therefore I believe that your soft approach will win.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *