The Dos and Don’ts of Educational Leadership

Question: What’s an essential quality of leadership that you’ve found to be important in your own work or admired in someone else?

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Pedro Noguera:  Sure.  Well I was at a school in Brownsville - Brownsville, the part of Brooklyn I grew up in.  It’s still a very low income area in Brooklyn.  It was at P.S. 012 and I was invited there by the new principal.  Now she is 33 years old, Nyree Dixon, and she has turned it around from a failing school that was under review by the state, threatened with being shut down, to a school that is thriving, where kids are learning, and so you say, well, how did she do it?  Well she is so focused on the quality of teaching, so focused on making sure that children are on task, the adults are on task, with making sure that that is an inviting and attractive place to be that she has really transformed the culture, gotten rid of the people who couldn’t teach because they had too many of them there before and found ways to provide support for those who are there and they know exactly what the kids need and they focus on student needs, both the learning needs, but also as important the social needs.  Hungry kids don’t do that well in school.  Kids who have basic needs not being met will often not flourish and so she has a broad view of what it takes to educate her children and she is able to make it happen.

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Question: What is your vision as a leader, and how does it guide you?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well you know I’m not in a position of either leading a school or a district.  I work as an outsider a lot of times trying to help, trying to encourage, trying to push in some cases and my vision I think comes from the fact that I get to visit lots of places, lots of schools and both see the good and the bad and have a sense of why the bad is so pervasive and what it might take to create more good and effective schools and so a lot of my work involves trying to help, particularly the leaders have some… develop a vision that is clear and compelling, but also try to inspire teachers so that they understand that the problem is not the kids.  The problem is their ability to teach the kids and I think if you can put the onus back on them so they have a sense of pride and responsibility in what they do that teachers will be a lot more effective.  Now the other side of that is not everybody can be a good teacher, and part of what we also have to do is let people know that sometimes they need to find other work because they’re just not cut out for it.

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Question: What aspect of leadership holds teachers back from being more effective, and how should they approach self-improvement?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well, you know, you have so many examples of leaders who are not effective.  You have people who are too punitive, so that anything… If a teacher asks for help, that’s used against them, so rather than say I need help with something they will just close the door and fake it because they don’t want to have someone penalize them.  You have leaders who are lazy.  You know they sit in their office and they act as though you can provide leadership from their office and that never works.  You have leaders who don’t delegate, don’t share the leadership, so they put in lots of hours.  They try to make it all happen, but schools are too large and complex for them to be everywhere and the best leaders know how to share that responsibility with others, so the most important thing I think for a principal to realize is that the most important work occurring in the school is in the classroom and since they’re not in classrooms their job, their primary job is to support their teachers and to create the conditions that allow their teachers to be successful, which means making sure that there are adequate supplies, that the building is running smoothly, that discipline and order are maintained and that parents and the community are engaged and those are really important roles for principals to take on.

What qualities distinguish successful leaders within the school system, and what qualities hold poor leaders back?

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