"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Monday, August 22, 2011

Arlene Has Left The Building!

Well, something many teachers, administrators, parents and others interested in education have been hoping for has happened: Dr. Arlene Ackerman has left her position as Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools. There are many reasons this has come to pass, and there are many reasons most people I know are relieved (if not thrilled). What mistakes made Ackerman reviled by so many? How can this be avoided by our next leader? The key word here is leader. In my mind, and that of many others, a true leader works collaboratively and values the opinions and ideas of his/her subordinates. To quote General Eric K. Shinseki: "You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance." This was the problem with Ackerman's "leadership"---she never really got her troops on board. While I never particularly liked her or thought she did an effective job, I do believe she did/does care about the children she serves (at least some of them). Her main mistake was her imperious and arrogant attitude and actions. Ackerman claimed to not be sorry that she is not a politician, but some basic human relationship skills are needed to run a school district. Ackerman never seemed to be able to connect with teachers--sometimes a seemingly simple thing can leave an irrevocable bad impression. This is how 'the queen' lost the teachers at my school early on in her tenure: A lovely and understandable photo-op--Ackerman was going to read to the kindergarten and pre-k classes. First mistake, she arrived with a large retinue--one member's major function seemed to be to hold her purse and hand her her reading glasses. Imperiousness does not play well in Philly (as many sports stars and politicians can attest). Her biggest mistake, though, was to leave the school with the two 'goody baskets' of books and stuffed animals that publishers had donated for the reading. The kindergarten teachers were appalled--they had thought they could have the books for their classrooms--and they never forgot that the queen walked out of a North Philly high-poverty school with two baskets of books that students could have used. Now, maybe Ackerman donated those books to some place that needed them--but the problem is she did not communicate, and so left an indelible impression of haughtiness, greed, and disconnection with schools. Teachers have long memories, and they take a slight of their school and kids quite hard. Ackerman also seemed to be quite bad at communication in general: she evinced a "my way or the highway" tone that many found hard to swallow. No one faulted the fact that she wanted schools improved, but many of her initiatives (scripted curricula) seemed to imply that teacher expertise and commitment were non-existent. Over and over again, Ackerman's apparent inability to empathize with her stakeholders tripped her up. Who can ever forget her spectacularly inadequate response to the abuse of Asian students at South Philly High? She came across as nasty and out-of-touch in that instance and many others. When people wanted to speak their minds or challenge her ideas--even in a collegial manner--she was intemperate and rude: she famously snapped at both a young high-school student at an SRC meeting and at TFA member at a UPENN meeting. All these incidents piled upon each other until many in the Philly education trenches thought she was way too removed from real education life (she has been out of the classroom since 1980) and issues to be of any use in solving Philadelphia's problems. As PFT leader Jerry Jordan stated today, we need a leader who wants to collaborate and work with ALL constituents--parents, students, teachers, administration, and politicians are all important to the smooth running of the district. I think we can all hope that our next leader has learned something from our last one: If we all want what is best for our students and schools, we need to come together and work collaboratively in a collegial manner on ideas and initiatives to benefit our students.