Big Schools, Small Schools and Common Threads of Leadership

What do school leaders in New York City have in common with staff of a 67-student no tuition parochial school in New Bedford, MA?

Visiting two different programs

Fall, 2016

Late this past summer, I had the opportunity to visit some of the programs we run here at Inspiring Educators.  The visits provide me with a great opportunity to meet the participants, the decision makers, check in with our facilitators, and overall get a sense of how the programs are running and how they are being received.  I often arrive just before a particular program, see if there’s any way I can be of help setting things up and / or address any last-minute details, and then often sit in on the very beginning of a session,  sharing a reflection or two about I.E.

Overall, it’s a great way for me to stay connected with our work, ideally keeping the quality of our programs -  and the satisfaction of our partners - high, and observing where we may have opportunities to improve.

But there is another aspect of these visits that I’ve come to recognize – that I get to observe and understand the work of our clients / partners much, much better by being at their sites, listening to the school professionals, and largely operating as a ‘fly on the wall’ while the teams begin their work together.

For example, at the start of the school year, I was present for programs of both one of our largest clients – New York City Public Schools – and  one of our smallest clients – Our Sisters School in New Bedford, MA.  One could say these two schools / schools systems couldn’t have been more different.  Yet, I’m left with the sense of how much they are alike.  Let me explain…..

Our training for the New York City Public Schools was for a new cohort of ‘mentor principals’;  successful New York City Public School principals who each will work with a number of new incoming principals for the Department of Education.  Some will retain their current principal duties, and others will have them deferred for a year.  The group I visited was the first of three cohorts with which we will worked, and together, this entire group of about 25 master principals is charged with helping coach and mentor close to 250 new principals.  Thus, the reach of these mentor principals is enormous.

We were graciously housed in the offices of the New York City Department of Human Resources, on the 41st floor of World Trade Center Tower Number 4, with stunning views of the East River.  I was delighted to find that these principals were quick, talked rapid fire, laughed a lot, and were surprisingly energetic – many after twenty-plus years in the New York City public school system.

Our Sisters’ School is a parochial school, located in the unused wing of the local synagogue (the only one left from six).  OSS educates 67 middle-school girls, whose families must qualify for assistance under federal guidelines.  In essence, if they can afford to pay any tuition, they can’t be accepted.  The school gets no government funding of any kind, and every bit of its annual budget (around $1 million) must be fundraised.  All told, including support staff, there are around 17 employees at OSS.  There’s not really a gym, or a cafeteria, or an assembly hall. 

We worked with most of their (staff which included their principal) on ‘Telling Your Story in Leadership’,.  It was a warm day, the windows were opened, and the lights were off to keep the room cooler.  When we went around to introduce the program and ourselves, the staff (a number of whom I had met in the time prior to the program) seemed expectant, if reserved.  Yet – to a person – they were surprisingly energetic about their work with adolescent girls from minority families (most were Portuguese), under some remarkably challenging circumstances.

It was this common thread that impressed me – the energy and the optimism demonstrated by these two groups of school professionals in widely different settings, but yet with common challenges.  Both trainings were designed to give these staff the tools they need in order to be more effective in their work, and to help them engage and ultimately persuade others.  What I hadn’t anticipated is how ready both groups were for the work, how engaged they took to the work, and ultimately, how inspiring they were – at least to me – by their obvious commitments.

All this in light of a flurry of comment as the school year is staring on the support given education.  For example, “The seven-year-old economic recovery has not been kind to the American public education system. In May 2008, as the Great Recession was just beginning, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers and other workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This past May, they employed just 8.2 million — despite public-school enrollments that the Department of Education estimated have risen by more than 1 million students during the same period. ….

The staff cuts reflect a broader pullback in education funding in recent years. ……. Per-student spending fell 2.4 percent after adjusting for inflation.”,  reported a recent analysis.

 The attitudes of these educators in New York and New Bedford – two remarkably different settings reflect the ongoing commitment of educators in spite of the soft support for their work.  It speaks to the depth of their commitment, to their drive, passion and determination to make a real difference in the lives of young people.  And their quick entry into the work of Inspiring Educators demonstrates their personal capacity to be lifelong learners, operating with a ‘growth mindset.

 Inspiring Educators,  is proud to work with partners such as New York City Public Schools, Our Sisters’ School and dozens of others of all sizes around the country, helping their leaders and educators become more authentic and more effective in their work.  We share common beliefs about the importance of leadership in schools and how that can help close the opportunity gap.  What I learn form visits such as these is that we’re not simply in the business of Inspiring Educators;  in the process we get to meet a whole lot of inspiring educators.