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Teaching Leadership 101

Fledgling administrators need a healthy dose of real-world views, headlines and bestsellers by Diann DePasquale

“Be honest with yourself about it. Really think about what you’re interested in, what you enjoy, what captures your imagination and gets your brain going, what YOU want to do—not what you believe your parents or your teachers or society or your four brothers think you should do.”

I used this quote by NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver, in Ten Things I Wish I’d Known, to begin my first class teaching leadership for aspiring school administrators. I encouraged class participants to consider their passion for educational innovation as they begin their careers in school administration.

For several years now I have been teaching graduate courses in educational administration. In that time, I have developed strategies that help get my message across and inspire the next generation of school leaders. During my tenure as a part-time professor, I have honed methods to teach the introductory course to a master’s degree (and credential) in educational leadership.

Bookish Beginnings

What I aspire to do is broaden the scope of the class to examine and understand leadership. I believe these ideas would help anyone charged with coaching and mentoring fledgling school leaders. Here are my seven steps.

• Check the bestseller list.
I open my classes with reading. I ask students to read or I read myself. Most of the class members are teachers, and they are attending at the end of busy, and stressful work days. Spending time reading and connecting to current and interesting literature focuses attention and opens the discussion.

One of my favorites is The Right Words at the Right Time by Marlo Thomas. This is a wonderful and inspiring collection of stories by 100 men and women telling how words changed their lives. Some of my oft-used stories include those by Muhammed Ali, Katie Couric and Carlos Santana. These short stories are marvelous, enchanting and just right to get the message across. I sincerely thank Marlo Thomas and friends every time we have a meaningful discussion based on those words.

Other books I have used are Rudy Guiliani’s Leadership and Bill Clinton’s My Life. The chapter from Guiliani’s book describing 9/11 is riveting and provokes intense discussion about dealing with the most horrendous event imaginable. Certainly the destruction of the Twin Towers is one of the most profound happenings in our country’s history, but it is amazing to hear what can take place on a school campus. Nearly all teachers in the course have a story to share about crisis and near catastrophe at their schools.

In Clinton’s My Life, the idea that he lost the race for governor of Arkansas and then ran for the office again and won election provides potential school leaders with the idea that failure can bring the opportunity to learn, reflect and try again. Clinton is not the only Comeback Kid!

• Be current.
Use the news headlines for discussion. I remember vividly tracking the search for a police chief to head the troubled Los Angeles Police Department several years ago when William Bratton was appointed. It was down to three finalists: the Hispanic chief of a small, local police department, an LAPD insider, and Bratton, a widely known chief of the New York City police. We followed the search in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, and this led to much heated and meaningful class discussion.

When does an organization look to the outside for leadership, and when is it better to look inside? What skills does it take to turn around a department that has been demoralized and beaten up in the press? Should Los Angeles choose a Hispanic since Latinos are now a majority in many parts of the city? Can someone from New York really understand this thriving, multicultural megalopolis we call LA?

We watched this selection unfold avidly and applied it to choosing school leaders, especially someone tapped to run a large and complex urban district.

Shadowing Experiences

• Find out about your students.
What leadership roles are your students already playing? I am amazed and gratified to learn that many teachers in the class already fill important positions such as Associated Student Body leaders, department chairs, members of the school site council or the PTA board. Because my students usually come from several districts, we have a rich opportunity to share what we have in common and what we do differently, especially in handling state and federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind. Some districts struggle with large numbers of low-performing schools, while others serve affluent and high-performing areas characterized by intense community and parent scrutiny and pressure. It is a terrific learning experience to analyze how differently organizations address the same requirements.

• Make students shadow leaders.
Students usually are amazed at the busyness of a school administrator’s day and are astonished at their lack of control over how they spend their time. One incident of student discipline can consume half a day, especially when law enforcement, parents, other students and staff are involved.

Experienced school administrators have been generous about sharing. Three students in one class chose to shadow and interview a personnel administrator of a large, challenging and diverse school district. He was in his last year before retirement after a long and successful career. He spent the entire morning with the students sharing anecdotes and real-life advice and allowing them to visit his office and meet the staff. He gave them insight into his biggest challenges and frustrations, as well as his successes.

The personnel administrator had worked for two decades with a multi-track, year-round school schedule so he had dealt with some of the most complex negotiating issues. His discussion with them formed a large part of their final class assignment. Their presentation had more depth, information and drama thanks to the meaningful time they spent with a knowledgeable and generous assistant superintendent.

• Require students to work in groups. Administrators must know how to network. I always require group projects and final presentations. Adult learners bring a great deal of life experience to their studies—cooperative work guarantees that shared insight brings a greater richness to the task. End-of-semester presentations are the highlight of the class. They generally are interesting, varied, supported by technology and entertaining. What a rich and satisfying way to end a semester.

I always include small group discussion and work time at the end of my class lectures. First, because busy professionals are tired, talking about complex topics enlivens the class and the subject. Second, students share information that takes information beyond what I can present regardless of my nearly 20 years as an administrator.

For example, one of our topics was the importance of working with your school and business community. It turns out one of the students was an active participant on a committee that had successfully completed a football stadium for a large high school. The stadium was the shared project of the school district, parents and the business and corporate community. The student was able to share this incredible experience with his small group and then the whole class.

Alternative Notions

• Invite guest speakers.
Look for successful school leaders and include those outside of education. One of our best presentations was by two high school principals, one from a suburban high school and one from a large, diverse high school serving mainly minority and low-income students. Both talked about the enormous task of heading a high school with large numbers of students, staff and activities. Both shared the number of nights they spent away from home going to games, debates, competitions and meetings.

I remember vividly one of the principals relating that when he pulled into his parking space early in the morning he sat for a few minutes to think about all the lives he was responsible for that day. He then took a deep breath and entered the school.

I have invited superintendents, personnel directors, local community leaders, representatives from the armed services and others. I require that students include quotes from the speakers in their final projects. Everyone can teach us something about leading schools.

• Challenge thinking.
I use excerpts from the best and brightest writers and thinkers. I open every class with this quote that Linda Darling-Hammond includes at the start of her book The Right to Learn: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. … The freedom to learn … has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn …” (from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Freedom to Learn).

I use authors and researchers such as Philip Schlechty, Michael Fullan, Margaret Wheatley, Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal among others, and I include current, challenging articles from educational journals. I begin every class with an oral reading by class participants. This brings the group together and introduces the topic for the day.

In the 1960s a slogan from the environmental movement stated: Think globally, act locally. This expression could be used to describe issues affecting education. Public education is always political. Whether it’s the current accountability movement or the influence of No Child Left Behind, schools can never be separated from the political climate or the trends in our country. I recently became involved in our latest presidential campaign. I was amazed to discover the skills I needed for being a school leader are the same skills needed for the political world—communication, organization, consideration, determination and dedication.

A Worldly View

I try to provide the fledgling school leaders with a variety of experiences so their job leading schools becomes part of a larger world view. I have just added The 9/11 Report to readings I share with my classes. It is fascinating and amazingly readable for a government report. It is, in fact, profound.

The report ends with a series of recommendations, introduced by a preface that is intriguing and something every student of leadership should read: “We recommend significant changes in the organization of the government. We know that the quality of the people is more important than the quality of wiring diagrams. Some of the saddest aspects of the 9/11 story are the outstanding efforts of so many individual officials straining, often without success, against the boundaries of the possible. Good people can overcome bad structures. They should not have to.”

Diann DePasquale, formerly an assistant superintendent of educational services, is an adjunct professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University-Northridge, 10505 Mendocino Court, Ventura, CA 93004. E-mail: drdepas@sbcglobal.net