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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Great School Leaders aren't in it for the Money

Time to get a little personal, and a little real.

There has been so much bandying about of the figure $160,000 as a salary for "school leaders" [when did we stop just saying "principals"?] in the so-called "Priority Schools" that I thought we all need a reality check.

First, the corporate education reform party line:  Ed Sec Mark Murphy recently said that he doesn't know of a great school without a "great leader" and that the $160,000 salary was to incentivize such great leaders to step forward and accept the challenges of high-needs schools.  Then our local "me-too" coalition of bankers and other Rodel hacks stepped up to agree with him.

Where this all comes from is the corporate mentality that says the only reason that people want to run the show is because the person who runs the show gets the best salary.  These are the people who've always said things like corporate CEO salaries have to be 300 times that of the workers, or otherwise we wouldn't get the very best people ...

So they naturally assume that teachers and educational administrators are in it for the money, which is a real laugh.

I know a lot of those people in that elite group of "best school leaders" in Delaware over the past twenty years.  One--my wife Faith Newton--I know really well, and I watched her spend countless hours turning around not one but two floundering urban middle schools (Central Middle School in Dover and Stanton Middle School if you're keeping score).  Then I watched her come back to the Red Clay Consolidated School District as a School Board member after back surgery took her out of the active school administration game.  I watched her take a massive pay cut to come out of disability retirement in order to go to work at DSU training teachers for half of what she used to make.

You know what?  By and large she never paid attention to the money.  She paid more attention to getting the scheduling done, observing teachers, working with curriculum, managing the physical aspects of the building, courting grant money, talking to parents, encouraging students, making sure the cafeteria ran smoothly, organizing student mentors, chaperoning dances, and doing all of the 1,001 things that a principal (sorry, I am so done with "school leader") has to do in the average 75+ hour work week.

Paying her more money would not and could not have given her more hours in the week to work or more reason to care about the teachers, kids, staff, and parents in her school.

(This also applies to most teachers as well, but I digress.)

Here's the thing:  education, as much as the corporate hack reformers would like to make it about "preparing the workforce" or "achieving high standards on high-stakes tests" is generally about avocation and calling--like the military or the clergy.  People go into these fields, for the most part, because some part of them is called or driven to undertake a life that will necessarily be challenging and fulfilling in ways other than total compensation and stock options.

They are an idiosyncratic group, most educators.  Those of you who live in Red Clay or Christina might love or hate Merv or Freeman, might vociferously disagree with this choice or that strategy, but do you really (REALLY?) believe in your heart of hearts that they're doing it purely for the big bucks?

As Education Secretary Mark Murphy has proven, there are a lot of easier ways to get to the big bucks than being a superintendent--something he knows precious little about.

Yeah, there are mediocre and even BAD principals and teachers out there.  There are also bad soldiers, bad sales representatives, bad mechanics, bad CEOs, bad chefs, bad reporters, and bad governors, ad infinitum ad nauseum.

But the reality is that almost NO competent school principal, classroom teacher, or district superintendent (yes, Joey Wise is the exception who proves the rule) is purely in it for the money.

You want a good, no, a GREAT principal?  Then have the courage to recruit for the traits that really lead to success in the job, rather than simply dangling a huge wad of cash and muttering about the lessons of corporate leadership.

Look for somebody who has shown a driving passion for kids and their success first as a teacher and then as an Assistant of Associate Principal (often your very best principals will be those in their first such position, because they don't yet know what can't be done and will often do the impossible).

Look for somebody who is so tough and independent-minded that they don't need guarantees of flexibility from Big Brother at DOE, because they're strong enough to take on their own district and get what they need.

Look for somebody who has the reputation of almost never being in the office, and always showing up at the right place ("How do your find the principal, kids?  Screw up and then look over your shoulder").

Look for somebody who makes it a point to know 75%+ of the kids in the building by name by the middle of October.

Look for somebody who not only knows curriculum, but can step into a suddenly absent teacher's classroom and start teaching without missing a beat.

Look for somebody with high standards that teachers are relentlessly expected to meet, but who will fight to the death for the building faculty and staff against all comers when necessary.

Look for somebody who hates to lose.  Who refuses to lose.

You can find these people ONLY if you convince them that the challenge is big enough and that they'll be able to do it their way.

But here's the thing:  the really great principals are also people with families and geographical preferences and (you'd better believe it) a survival instinct.  So they only constitute about 5-10% of the available folks with the theoretically appropriate qualifications.  You can't headhunt them.  Unless you're lucky and one just walks through your door by accident, you have to spend weeks, maybe months, sniffing around to find them, and then figuring out how to make the challenge of your problem school sound so attractive that you can steal them.

You don't get them with the bucks like Secretary Murphy thinks, and you don't get them as many of our districts do by simply promoting the next AP in line.

You get them by simply taking as long as it takes to find the square peg who will re-drill the round hole in spite of all obstacles.

And when you'll find them they'll help the teachers and students transform the building without ever wanting to take the credit for it.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, didn't you get the memorandum? They aren't teachers anymore. They're Human Capital! Most disgusting two words I've ever heard to describe any human being. The DOE should be ashamed to whomever put those words in.