Cathleen Black and the Realities of School Leadership

Originally published on Open Salon on April 8, 2011:

            The New York Times reported yesterday that Cathleen Black has resigned as New York City’s schools chancellor.  The former publishing executive was on the job for only three months and had received licensing wavers in order to be assigned to her post.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg was determined that she should lead the city’s schools, reflecting a view by many that what schools need today is no-nonsense, real-world managerial strategies.  The result was a fiasco and a bitter humiliation for the Bloomberg administration.

              We can interpret the significance of this episode in a variety of ways.  In my own career as a teacher, I have seen many people enter the profession after many years of work in the so-called real world, and I have seen mixed results.  Occasionally, a new teacher makes a difficult but successful transition, and a school is better for the arrival of new talent.  More often, however, the poor person is ground into a fine powder between the grindstones of the unexpected volume of work and the startling realities of dealing with young people, their families, and a school’s administration.  I saw one gentleman in his sixties conclude his career as a research chemist and take a position as a high-school science teacher as something to do in his retirement.  He lasted until December of that school year.  Another fellow was an engineer in his forties who thought that teaching math in a middle school would be more fulfilling.  He left after only a few weeks on the job.  Yet another professional—this one a woman who left a career in management—became a middle-school language arts teacher and decried the lunacy of students, parents, administrators, and other teachers for months before leaving mid-year, presumably fearing for her own sanity.

              These examples are all anecdotal, of course, but typically, people in such situations express shock, frustration, disappointment, disgust, and anger at the state of education today.  I, however, cannot help but suspect that the true source of these people’s consternation has more to do with having underestimated the demands of the teaching profession, as so many people do.

              So when Michael Bloomberg touts proven corporate leadership a prescription for success in public education, and Ms. Black lasts only three months, we wonder how Mr. Bloomberg would have fared if he had taken on the job himself.  When Chris Christie, our governor here in New Jersey, decides to limit the salaries of most school superintendents to the figure he receives as governor, it sounds reasonable enough—assuming that being an effective school superintendent is comparable in challenge to being a state’s chief executive.  It is worth considering, however, how Governor Christie would fare as a superintendent, as a principal, or even as a classroom teacher.

              A patronizing and confrontational style of leadership sometimes serves government leaders because public perception is an important determiner of the defined successful outcome: reelection.  To be fair, both Bloomberg and Christie reasonably claim notable success in other careers as well, again based on positive defined outcomes: in Bloomberg’s case, a multibillion-dollar corporate empire; in Christie’s, an impressive record of bringing about convictions as a prosecutor.  But school leadership involves so much that most people outside of education only dimly suspect.  The political forces in even some small school districts are easily intense enough to compete with what a high-profile mayor or governor has to face.   Add to that the hands-on work of managing everything from facilities to finances to state assessments to an increasingly unmotivated population of students, and we find ourselves living in…the real world.  Imagine that.

              Few educators if any would diminish the importance and intensity of work in other fields.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators all have parents who have worked as physicians, attorneys, carpenters, engineers, social workers, masons, artists, plumbers, network administrators, nurses, cooks, politicians, roofers, firefighters, journalists, and police officers.  They work assiduously to prepare students for real-world experiences in these professions.   Not everyone truly understands the demands and intensity of the work of an educator.  By now, however, Cathleen Black apparently does.

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