Saturday, March 19, 2011

Promote the best, shoot the rest!!

There is a story that the great Baroque composer, George Frederic Handel, was displeased with a soprano soloist that was performing one of his works at a rehearsal. Handel became so incensed that he picked her up and threatened to throw her out of a window. I suppose this is the extreme example of the title of this blog: “promote the best, shoot the rest”.

The first 25 years of my career I was a music teacher, trained and disciplined in the performance and execution of music. My conservatory-style training was more of a humanistic experience since I was being trained to be a “music educator”. In this setting an aspiring music candidate is still expected to demonstrate discipline, diligence, and above all technique and mastery of the literature for one’s major instrument. This also meant auditioning, auditioning and more auditioning to climb that proverbial “pyramid of musical excellence” to become the best in your field.

There was a time in public education where this philosophy was quite prevalent. Music teachers seeking glory and pursuit of the consummate musical performance attempted to mimic the likes of Arturo Toscanini, William Revelli and others of dictatorial manner and style. They were labeled the greatest music educators of all time, when all they really were could be compressed in the likes of a dictator or unfeeling slave driver.

21st Century education does not have the luxury or the patience espoused by these types of teachers. I often wondered how these grand maestri of the glorious age of high music education could deal with differentiated instruction, a student on the spectrum that possessed amazing aural acuity, the disabled child that performed the instrument so well but in an uncoventional manner to accommodate his/her disability. I am not sure these "glory hound" music dictators can deal with differentiation. If it prevents the band from getting that “gold” medal performance than that child cannot be in the group. We have all heard this situation before.

There is no room in education for these dinosaurs anymore. Any administrator that hires this kind of a teacher, that has no understanding of differentiation, no patience with children that are classified or have an ESL background, or any child that wants to learn at another level of ability, deserves the problems they will have in this 21st Century of learning. Let me give you a suit, impartial hearing, lack of a free and appropriate education.

I know about this kind of teacher very well, because not only was I tormented by this kind of educator, and worked with many that exhibited this behavior regularly, I was also a teacher of this style, until I saw the light! On becoming a building principal I began to see an ugly reflection of myself in the behaviors of these teachers. 

I knew of two wonderful children that experienced this torment. Kevin and Michael, both children of special needs, but people that exhibited amazing musical acuity and rhythmic sense. Despite their needs, music was something they could do very well. I remember the fight I had with arrogant music teachers that did not want them in their rehearsals for fear their ensembles would have a diminished chance for the GOLD medal. I saw two kids that were amazingly gifted and talented in their own special way, and a unique opportunity to be a part of a wonderful musical experience. Sadly, the fight with these teachers was too much and I gave in to their egos. But, I taught these kids myself whenever I could. And I know in their way they appreciated the music making. Kevin completed his education at our district and whenever I see him in the community always has a big smile for me with recollection of the music we made together. Michael passed away a few weeks ago from complications due to his disability. He was a beautiful and gifted human being that taught me much about differentiation. Working with these two kids were the high point of my 25 years as a music teacher!
We need to teach children from where they are and bring them along in a welcoming and patient manner that protects and nurtures the child, not frightens and torments them from ever trying. Teachers can no longer be the center of attention, the bearer of learning. 21st Century learning requires a new and patient " facilitator of learning". Be that kind of educator for your students.

Dedicated to Kevin and Michael, my mentors!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Do We Need School Administrators?

Whenever I meet up with old high school friends the first thing they remind me of is that I ended up as a school administrator. They seem to conclude from my regular visits to the principal’s office in those years, that I was not the ideal student nor the best behaved — despite what people may think. And still, I ended up becoming a principal and now a superintendent. (Maybe they just think I got what I deserved!)

Truth be told, I love doing the job of a school administrator. After being in the classroom as a teacher for 25 years, moving into a leadership role was logical and the next step in a career in which I wanted to focus on helping schools change.

Unfortunately, after 3 long years of continuing budget meetings due to the “great recession,” I am barraged by so many people that feel our schools are “top heavy” or “need to get rid of the administrators to fill the budget gap”. This was a constant plea at the recent facilities forum.

So, let’s start with some facts and information about school administrators.

New York State Education Law requires each school building have a principal, an individual in a managerial role to coordinate, supervise, and be accountable for the educational environment. each with an assigned building principal.

As many parents of adolescent children can attest to, high school and middle school can be busy and trying times in students’ lives. They have a lot on their minds at any given moment: the pressures of academic and extracurricular concerns, including grades and scheduling; athletics, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, fighting and bullying, the college process; jobs and volunteer and internship opportunities — and these are just the things that the adults know about. This means all of these issues are on the minds — and the desks — of school administrators.

The role of schools in meeting the social and emotional needs of students has grown immensely over the years. This is a fact. We gladly do everything we can to support students, but the community should understand that we need the right people in the right positions to do this work. I believe we have them at BC.

Still, the budget cuts last year have required reducing staffing in all areas, including administration. We eliminated one Middle School House leader last year, and are proposing to eliminate the remaining House Leader for next year. That will leave a student to administrator ratio at the Middle School of 594 to 1.

Principals move quickly from tasks such as helping a student with a problem; coordinating a program or an activity in a building; assisting a teacher or staff member with a challenging issue; and speaking with a parent about something that their student is struggling with. At the Middle School next year, they’ll be moving even quicker.

So, I don’t believe we’re “top heavy,” and neither, I suspect, do the the students and staff who rely on administrative assistance daily to deal with the myriad issues I listed above.

So, one might take issue with the comment at the recent forum that employees who do not have “direct student contact,” such as “administrators,” be targeted for elimination to cope with our budget challenges. I like to think of the district, and each of its schools, as teams. Principals lead a team of teachers, office staff, custodians and others to ensure student safety, well-being and academic excellence.

As we grapple with year three of this continuing fiscal crisis, let’s remember that schools did not create this recession. Our community cares deeply about its schools. Everyone has a direct role in providing students with a quality education and a sense of belonging.

Building leaders are vital to this effort every day.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Open Season on Public Schools

A major responsibility of a school leader is to face the fiscal issues that can underlie the needs of your school district, and manage things in a responsible and accountable manner. The challenge of leading a school program amidst the recession we are in has tasked many school administrators. With unsupportive remarks from Governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey and New York it is no wonder there is an uproar against public education in general. There is part of me that cannot help feel that this is a planned strategy among politicians in general to shift the focus off of the crooks and greedy individuals that created this "great recession" and blame it on public employees. This is all some big diversionary ruse that provides cover to the Wall Street bankers and incompetent legislators that allowed them to rob the American people of their savings and their futures. Blame the public schools for this crisis and everyone guilty gets off free. Sounds like it would make a great movie. Isn't there one out there called the Adjustment Bureau? Maybe we are all in this movie looking out on our distorted reality.

Well, let's face some reality issues we can deal with. Blaming the incompetent elected officials at all levels will not solve the problems. As school administrators we have to deal in the reality of providing a sound education to every child that walks into our school each day. In some cases that means being able to provide all kinds of services, such as health, nutrition, social work, counseling, as well as ELA, math, and other key areas for a complete education. Many of our states also mandate that the people to provide these services and programs need to be certified/licensed and possessing a comprehensive educational program summarized in degree programs such as Bachelors and Masters degrees. This is approximately 8 years of education beyond high school and some of us even possess National Board Certification and Doctoral degrees, capping off the time spent being trained in our vocation around 10-12 years of study. The financial commitment made by anyone that enters this career in 2011 money is well into the six figure area, with huge loans covering a massive debt in order to teach and work with our country's most important resource, our children. And still, we are accused of being paid too much?

There was a great article in Education Week recently that articulates this issue very well.
"Why do we think less of teachers? Teaching is no less portable a profession than medicine, and if teachers don't like what they're getting in one place, they can take their talents elsewhere. This should be the core argument of educators in Wisconsin, Indiana, and elsewhere: If we underpay teachers, they will leave, and they'll be replaced by subpar people who have fewer options. The quality of our education system will suffer, and we'll have to either pay much more to attract talent in the future, or we'll have to pay the consequences of an inferior education system in the long run, such as higher rates of incarceration and unemployment. I believe that educators should be paid well and treated well. But it's critical to frame this as a human capital issue, not a workers' rights issue. The public is not sympathetic to workers' rights, because everyone is a worker, and most people do not have nearly the level of "rights" that teachers and other unionized public-sector employees enjoy." (.Baeder, J. (February 27, 2011). Pay Cuts for Professionals: On Human Capital, Not Workers' Rights. EDUCATION WEEK retrieved February 27, 2011 at

Isn't that what the bigger issue is? We have seen our career as educators devalued in the eyes of those people that need our expertise most. How swiftly the tides change!

The best advice I can offer as an educator that is approaching the end of my career is that administrators have to support their teachers and encourage them to get through this criticism by doing what they do so well, each day. Make the education of their students special and the most important thing in that child's day. Maybe there might be a future governor in that class that will remember the importance of that wonderful teacher, and that great school experience, and maybe her or his actions will speak from the positive experiences they had in school, and not the bitterness engendered from the current elected officials of our society.