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April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

A Day in the Life of a School Leader

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A veteran teacher once told me that if, at the end of each day, I can't describe something concrete that I did to make one teacher's day better, I ought to reconsider whether I'm in the right job. “Your job is to make my job easier,” she said. I think she was right.
Much of the time I feel pretty good about the school that we have created and the work that our teachers and students are doing. Only 6 years old, the Boston Arts Academy has nevertheless become a model for urban public schools, placing an equal emphasis on visual and performing arts and challenging academic work. Our students perform well by almost every measure. And yet there are days when I wonder whether I am giving teachers what they most need.
Perhaps the toughest challenge is to remain focused on what teachers and students need most when the daily routine of running a school, with its innumerable minor crises, becomes overwhelming. No day at the Arts Academy is typical, and many days cause me to pause and reconsider exactly what constitutes good leadership.

A Typically Atypical Day

I arrive at school at 7:40 a.m. and learn that the teacher who is supposed to be on breakfast duty is running late. The cafeteria manager and the custodian are furious because the students have not cleaned up after themselves. The place is a mess. A math teacher has called in sick, and I can't find the substitute folder. And I'm late for a meeting with the foreman of the building crew that is replacing our windows. Some of his young men need to exercise greater self-control in the presence of our young women who are on their way to dance class.
At 8:30 a.m., a student is vomiting in the main office. Someone gives her a garbage pail, but unfortunately the nurse is also running late. The office stinks. Carmen, the assistant headmaster, is doing the best she can with air freshener. I ask the custodian to make sure that the night crew gives the office carpet a good cleaning, but he reminds me that the night crew chief is bidding for another job, so we should not expect much.
At 10:00 a.m., I drop by the arts faculty team meeting; they are creating new 10th grade benchmarks for achievement and planning the fall student recruitment schedule. Meanwhile, a group of graduate students from Boston University's creative writing program arrives. I take them to a language arts class and help them recruit students to work with them on a poetry project.
I briefly duck into a vocal music class and hear the teacher walking the students through some of the choral literature that they will learn this year, which is related to the immigrant experience. I make a mental note to connect the music teacher to the Humanities 2 teachers—who are also focusing on immigration this term—so that each is aware of what the others are doing.
Suddenly it's lunchtime—an opportunity to check in with particular students and teachers. I descend three flights of stairs to the cafeteria. I also check with security and make sure that everything is running smoothly.
Michael, one of my 9th grade advisees, is pouting at lunch. He's had words with Mr. Rodriguez, his other advisor, about his attendance problems, and now doesn't want to talk to him. I mediate a conversation between Michael and Mr. Rodriguez; we all agree that Michael must bring in a note from his mother explaining his absence, or else someone from school will call home. The three of us go to advisory, which is being held in the library today. The librarian has prepared an excellent library scavenger hunt to introduce library skills to our 9th graders.
My two-way radio bleeps at me. The secretary is looking for Carmen. She's not available, so I take this one. A student has left her advisory because of a fight with her teacher and is sobbing in the office. This doesn't sound good—the student in question never has this kind of problem. I have heard a lot of complaints in the last few days about the teacher involved; he has been snapping at the students, and one parent has called to complain about his “rudeness” and to demand a meeting.
Back in the office, I ask Gabi, through her sobs, to write about what happened. Carmen returns and agrees to mediate the situation. I set up a meeting for the following week with the teacher and Carmen.
In the midst of Gabi's tears, another student comes in and asks whether we can talk privately for a few minutes. Yesterday the U.S. government announced the beginning of the bombing campaign in Iraq; Silvia tells me that she is upset by the vehement antiwar sentiments expressed by many students and teachers. She doesn't think that most students have any idea why the war might be a good idea.
Silvia is working hard to graduate in June. I know that she wants to join the Navy and that this is a deeply personal issue for her. She says that my own opposition to the war has caused me to close off opportunities for dialogue at school. I listen closely to Silvia, and I realize that she is right. Perhaps unconsciously, I have allowed my own disgust at our foreign policy to get in the way of open discussion, learning, and informed decision making.
Silvia and I agree to host a teach-in with prowar and antiwar speakers. Silvia agrees to work with two teachers to organize the event and recruit other students with a diverse range of opinions.
Now I'm late for a meeting with our development director to review our business plan and begin discussing next year's budget. And in no time I must leave for the State House. We are to receive a “Compass School” award for our improvement on Massachusetts's high-stakes achievement tests (MCAS)—an ironic development because I have been an outspoken critic of the MCAS tests and their effects on students and teachers. Even so, it's nice to celebrate something. The superintendent will be present for the photo opportunity.
At the end of the day, I find myself asking, Did I make a teacher's job easier today? I'm sure it helped a little that I ducked into that music classroom and sat in on the arts team meeting. I'm glad that I helped Michael clear the air with his advisor. And I can think of plenty of other things I do to support teachers: making sure there's food at faculty meetings, reserving professional time for teachers to talk about practice, finding ways to reduce class sizes, providing discipline when needed, intervening with parents, offering ideas for curriculum, and helping with a field trip.

Reflection on the Day

So why do I feel discouraged? In large part, because of those things over which I have no control—like the state's high-stakes testing juggernaut, which just keeps getting worse. After a Herculean effort to coach and encourage our students through the mathematics test, we are told that this year, students will be required to take the physics MCAS test as well.
My teachers have just been trained in physics. They have spent the summer learning the new curriculum. They are excitedly implementing new materials and lessons and reflecting on their classroom work together. But they and their students are in no way prepared to be judged by an arbitrary and rigid external standard—nor should they be. They are ready to implement formative assessments; perhaps they are even ready to implement an assessment written by an outsider. But they are not ready to implement a high-stakes test that will determine whether or not their students can graduate. What ever happened to allowing a new curriculum to take root? What about having time to refine, make connections, and reflect on your work? That is what we ask our students to do. I want my teachers to have the same opportunity.
How do I stave off the crush of high-stakes testing? Isn't it enough that the percentage of our graduates who go on to college (97 percent) is 20 points higher than the district average? Isn't it enough that our graduates write from college that although they took no survey courses and no traditional Advanced Placement classes and we had no honors tracks, they feel as prepared as their classmates? My job is to preserve our curriculum, our sense of community, and our dedication to sustaining our own professional development. My job is to create a climate in which teachers can take risks and fail, assume leadership roles among their colleagues, and feel safe enough to say, “I need help.” And my job is to somehow keep the testing wolves at bay.
Every Friday we have a staff meeting. Before the meeting begins, we do a “sponge” activity, giving teachers the opportunity to share a problem or insight with another colleague and to release or absorb a significant bit of information. Every teacher receives an index card on which to write a response to a prompt. Their responses go to the assistant headmaster and to me. These responses remind us how much we ask the teachers in all our schools to do.
  • “I have students operating on a 4th grade level and others on a college level. How can I teach to such a range?”
  • “I still can't get on e-mail, and my printer won't work.”
  • “Is there a shortcut to grading so many homework papers?”
  • “How do I help my deaf students read?”
  • “What is a normal amount of work to bring home? Where do I find the time to enter all my grades on Gradekeeper?”
  • “How can I absorb all the stress of my seniors?”
  • “I have so many different lessons to plan for that balancing is hard.”
I can't wave a magic wand and take away everyone's stress. But I can check in with the teachers regularly. We ask so much of them; sometimes just knowing that someone is listening will suffice for a bit.
The big side benefit? When school is a safe place for teachers to talk about their struggles, the culture changes for students, too. The Boston Arts Academy is the kind of place where Silvia could feel safe enough to challenge me on an important issue that we disagree on. And at the end of a long day, that feels pretty good.

 Linda F. Nathan is executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, which is a consulting partner with Conservatory Lab Charter School, and cofounder of the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leaders. She was the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, Boston's only public high school for the visual and performing arts. Nathan is the author of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test (Beacon Press, 2009) and When Grit Isn't Enough (Beacon Press, 2017).

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