Five ways leadership changes our school system

Dr. Pam Moran was not chosen as Superintendent of the Year by AASA — the American Association of School Administrators — and that’s really no big thing. She doesn’t need that honor to be sure of her place in the history of education this century, and yes, there are educational leaders in many places doing remarkable things…

And yet… I feel the need to say here that AASA missed an important chance, a chance to celebrate an important kind of leadership, a kind of leadership that, I think, creates a kind of fundamental bottom-to-top change in a school system.

Here’s why… here’s why I think that the Albemarle County Public Schools are a symbol of leadership for this moment:

One: Engaging and encouraging truly diverse hiring.

Whether it is hiring me — that craziest of guys with the craziest of ideas — or that one of our best technology and engineering teachers is a woman who was teaching middle school French, our schools look to assemble teams where highly varied life experiences create a range of viewpoints that may closely match that of our range of kids.

We have more people in our central office who were really bad at school than any system many times our size, we have principals who can’t spell at all, and who can’t spend a minute in the building without chewing gum. We always have people around the table from every socioeconomic background. We totally get ADHD because many of us are totally ADHD. But we also know why we need to always have hide-out “caves” for kids because a bunch of us need that too. We are noisy and quiet, playing constantly and usually serious. Born in this region, or another region, or on other continents.

This matters. There is a huge danger when we want only teachers who’ve been star students (a disastrous belief of Teach for America and many teacher education programs), a huge danger of having Ivy-led schools. Kids vary a lot. So must your leadership team.

Two: All Means All.

This is so essential. We have 26 schools spreading across 726 square miles, from 70 miles west of Richmond — commuting distance — to the Appalachian Trail. From close enough to commute to Northern Virginia to the hills along the James River. We have suburbs and incredibly wealthy suburbs, an urban ring with over 70 languages spoken and large barrios, and we have rural poverty that has persisted since the early European settlement of America. 70% of our area has no access to broadband Internet — not at any price. We are in a state that rejects federal money to provide health care and supports for the poor and disabled. It might be easy to focus on a few tricks like magnet schools and pilot projects.

Well, we do have unique high school academies, two system-run charters and we do try stuff small first, but every idea is joined to the mantra, All Means All.

We expect the very best in every school, for every kid, every day. We expect an equality of opportunity though every school may look very different.

From our project to give every child broadband wherever they live — whatever their family resources, to our 1:1 program with real computers with student control (just like rich kids have), to a cross curricular program that guarantees our most at risk 9th graders the full chance to take electives, we are expected to get to every child, every day.

Three: Seeing the World.

We all joke about the number of emails we get from Dr. Moran each night. They fill our in-boxes as we awake.

These emails link us to learning news from around the planet and from every field of human endeavor. Why does Trinity College in Dublin want first year medical students to take art classes? Why does a Social Media company rely on playfully designed offices? Why are US Department of Defense schools, or schools in Denmark, seeking radical new architecture? Why does this restaurant look like this? What are kids doing in that park?

And honestly, many of us now respond with similar connections. Because, if all we see is what US schools, or even schools anywhere, are doing, we miss 90% of human learning.

Which explains why our PD might look like a trip to the World Maker Faire and the World Trade Center.

Four: Pedagogical Entrepreneurs.

In our system ideas come from anywhere. Bus drivers and custodial staff, TAs and teachers, principals and tech staff. It doesn’t matter. We, to quote a colleague, “hire smart people and let them do their thing.”

Pam has crafted a uniquely flat hierarchy that allows innovation to rise to the top quickly and spread. That takes a unique kind of leader, one willing to take huge risks and to give up lots of control — which is much harder and more complicated than keeping tight control. She tells us all to, Get to Yes, when kids, teachers, anyone, has an idea. And that has made our schools great places

Five: Love Kids. Trust Kids. Trust Childhood.

Nothing matters more. Pam loves every child who comes to our doors. And she expects the same, demands the same, from every adult in our system.

But let me add more. We talk about “trusting children and childhood” in our schools. We know that kids come to us naturally curious and often naturally adventurous, and that childhood and adolescence are times for risk and experimentation. And Dr. Moran asks us to never squelch those things, but to encourage them to happen in safer environments, in our schools where we can help pick them up if they fail or muck up.

From kid built treehouses in a middle school cafeteria to kindergarteners playing in the mud to computers where kids can indeed screw up, we live these beliefs.

And simply, if you don’t love kids, if you don’t believe in the wonder of childhood, what’s the point?

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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