Being a Boss V. Being a School Leader

If given the choice between being an esteemed boss: superintendent, principal, head, chief of a school institution versus being organically anointed as a school leader, by virtue of one’s value-added resource to the people, community, district, school and most importantly to the students . . . I would overwhelmingly opt for the latter. In the photograph featured above, I was in fact a well-paid school leader, participating in an elementary school field trip to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, but also duly engaged as a hands-on chaperone in order to substantively interact with the children who were engaged in active learning from the culturally enriching educational tour. One of the marks of an exceptional leader is an ability to lead by example and as required, effective school leaders must also teach, chaperone, perform lunch/hall duty and to ideally implement positive behavioral and academic interventions as opposed to solely suspending students, managing staff and leading from an air-conditioned office. All of these actions are preferable to completing the seemingly unending amounts of data-driven paperwork and finance reports (which in most cases should be completed whenever students are not in the building). An effective school leader is recognizable through much more than a title, but indeed ones legacy lies in the fruits that they bear.

As a highly qualified, experienced, licensed and credentialed school leader, I am most proud of my educational legacy, not the least of which includes literally hundreds of Facebook “friends” who are former students who sought me out to expressly share words of gratitude or appreciation. This is a testament to the breadth of one’s reach, a gift which I do not take for granted and wish to replicate via this blog post, by attempting to “pay it forward” and professionally salute those who have selflessly paved the way for my own leadership. I am also proud of the fact that when faced with the difficult choice of being a boss in a rather scripted and un-empowered school environment, I have personally sacrificed the prestige and financial security of a single school or district appointment, in favor of my present vocation as a pedagogical leader able to autonomously impact transformational change on both a national and a coveted international forefront. Even as a classroom teacher for more than 15 years and one blessed to teach in high-needs, urban districts from Detroit, MI to Brooklyn, NY – I recognized how fortunate I was to have been exposed to authentic school leaders, both male and female, capable of exemplary stewardship as instructional leaders and mentors. What made each of these unique school leaders great however, was not their own individual brilliance, star quality and/or admirable personal virtues; but rather their innate abilities to recognize, nurture and shape the brilliance, collective star quality and most importantly, the increased academic achievement profile among both their staff and students.

Upon my successful transition to the school leadership capacity, I was fortunate to have learned many practical skills after having been immersed in several transparent school cultures conducive to the open sharing of information and knowledge. Namely, my previous teaching, curriculum experience and knowledge base alone would never have afforded me the opportunity to continue to thrive professionally and to navigate the arenas of fiscal responsibility and ethical leadership required to spearhead the leadership of a collaborative school or an Educate to Liberate vision and mission. However, due to the exemplary leadership modeled by my primary pedagogical mentor, Dr. Clifford Watson, and later through countless others who shared generously of their leadership platform(s) – I learned to promote an effective, distributive leadership model. Namely, while teaching in Detroit’s famed Malcolm X Academy (1994-2004), I was blessed to be nurtured by the capable leadership of both Dr. Watson as the school’s founding principal, and by his impactful successor, Mrs. Freda Dawson. Dr. Watson and Mama Dawson each played a significant role in expanding my introductory pedagogical knowledge base and shaping my high expectations and enduring regard for outstanding school leadership. Dr. Watson was the very first to anoint me as a “master teacher” in my early 20s, and he also laid the groundwork for the well-rounded leadership of countless others, while driving continuous learning and student achievement as a primary objective for an entire African Centered school. A strict and uncompromising leader in his leadership approach, he led by example that principals must operate as instructional leaders with his frequent, unannounced class observations and verbal (on the spot), as well as written feedback on everything. Academic achievement was admittedly his first and prioritized objective as he mandated full staff participation in exhaustive indaba salons (intensive, African Centered professional development training sessions) to hone and fine-tune the scholarly knowledge base of each of his instructors. Then, even after his untimely and heartbreaking illness/passing, Mrs. Dawson continued to affirm, and in her own traditional sweet manner, she continued to implement the academic achievement priority and distributive leadership model to fidelity. At MXA, the skillful facilitation of team brainstorming was akin to the “internal community builders” that Senge (1990) references in his work on the learning organization. We were a small, family oriented and highly talented and effective group of educators blessed to work within a high performing school community in which all employees felt an investment in fulfillment of our common mission and goal. It must be noted that in any/every school, this form of collaborative leadership is preferred to that of the traditional all-knowing and wise sage, or micromanaging boss, because it is only in this environment that authentic knowledge sharing of the collective brilliance of ALL stakeholders takes place.

Next, I was blessed to briefly work in the welcoming and wholly culturally conscious and revolutionary environment of Aisha Shulé/W.E.B. DuBois Preparatory Academy. Notably, this was an institution indelibly marked by the African genius, infinite light and larger-than-life persona of its revered founder and Detroit area Queen Mother, Mama Imani Humphrey. What an absolute blessing it was to be afforded the highly privileged opportunity to teach in not one, but two, very unique and successfully thriving African centered institutional environments. The Shulé prioritized an all-inclusive priority of traditional, African scholarship, an age-appropriate Rites of Passage initiation for all students and an overall community atmosphere. High expectations were the hallmarks of the Shulé and was not only apparent in its leadership, Mama Imani and Mama Hasina Murphy, but emanated from virtually all Walimu and Wanafunzi (teachers and students). Because this was more than a school; this was a community institution encompassing an African consciousness and activist centered way of life. The sense of continuity between the school/community was evident within every student’s family and was even widely celebrated among the larger Detroit Metropolitan community. Being nestled in the nurturing bosom of this much larger and pioneering African Centered academy allowed exposure to an independent and unapologetically Black K-12 institution, which prioritized the enduring qualities of a whole child approach, leadership and activism among its students, staff and perhaps most importantly, the entire Black family and nation. For more than 40 years, this school was revolutionary in its amazing, unparalleled ability to produce scores of critical thinkers, accomplished academic scholars, and confident men and women empowered to ensure the freedom of African people (across the global diaspora), from both the figurative and literal chains of oppression, which still haunts us even today.

Later, as a public school teacher in New York City, one either sinks or swims; wins or loses and educates or not – there is no middle road. Having read the depressing exploits of Ed Bolan, an optimistic yet naive NY executive who had a brief, unsuccessful stint as a teacher during the same time I taught in NY (he quit after just one year), there’s no secret to the challenges that NYC teaching presents. From a book detailing his exploits, I recall that this (seemingly), liberal and altruistic man initially committed to change – came to utterly fear and loathe his impoverished, gang affiliated and outspoken students during his brief tenure as a teacher. Bolan was even reduced to crying in the restroom after just two weeks of teaching in NY. One of the most memorable quotes of his was this admission “I resented their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance. Everything I was hoping, at first, to change”. Well, from the start of my own memorable teaching and graduate fellowship coursework as a NYC Teaching Fellow, I learned (through an intensive pre-service program) that preparation was a non-negotiable requirement for those aspiring to teach in NYC public schools. For those who could be trusted to handle the demands of juggling both master’s courses AND teaching full-time, our graduate degrees were partially subsidized in our calling to be rigorously trained to increase student achievement levels in any number of high-needs schools in all 5 boroughs. For me, there was certainly no more fitting a transition after having exclusively worked in African Centered schools in Detroit for the vast majority of my career, than to be blessed to work (briefly in Brownsville, Brooklyn and then later), in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant (the livest one!), Brooklyn from 2008-2012. My beloved role as an upper middle school teacher of English Language Arts at Middle School 385 (School of Business, Finance & Entrepreneurship) will always be regarded as the quintessential site within which I was challenged to apply all of my previous classroom teaching experience to the ultimate goal of becoming an effective school leader.

Within the no-holds barred and fast paced environment of MS 385, a solid foundation of school leadership evolved through the mandated cultivation of an uncompromising work ethic to positively impact the wide variety of high-needs students one encounters as a NYC public school teacher. My diverse students were animated, multi-talented, and an absolute joy to teach but to be honest, a startling majority were so low-performing and/or previously mis-educated that in order to be effective, I (and other highly effective teachers) needed to literally perform a miracle, every single day, as a means to move student achievement. In a nutshell, teaching had to be fun/engaging, rigorous and constantly re-invented, in order to positively impact my large classes of ELA students (many of whom were non-English speakers). Each year, my lowest-performing students would read on the first-grade level, while my select few, gifted students were above-grade level and required 10th-11th grade reading/writing materials. Thus, in fulfillment of my purpose to increase student achievement I learned to go over, above and beyond the call of duty to meet every student’s unique needs. I learned overnight to team teach w/ an accomplished SPED teacher, utilize technology in EVERY lesson, implement the (then newly mandated) Common Core State Standards and to still manage to maintain high academic expectations while employing rigorous, engaging classroom instruction. My teaching style has always been non-traditional in that I rarely rely on outdated, Euro-centered textbooks and prefer instead to glean lessons from current events, classic poetry and hip-hop and the students’ interests as a guide. My beloved and highly influential administrators, Mr. Glyn Marryshow and Mrs. Anne-Marie Malcolm were absolute Rockstars in terms of “bringing out the best from their people [by operating] . . . like alchemists who turn lead into gold” (Hallowell, 2011) through co-partner facilitation rather than an overbearing boss mentality. Through a combination of rigorous PLC collaboration, ongoing professional development trainings, a conspicuous absence of workplace politics and through the skillful cultivation of a loving and thoughtful ‘continuous growth’ culture – my school leaders (Mrs. Malcolm in particular :), empowered a shared knowledge culture of ongoing and affirming staff collaboration and mentoring, consistent feedback and the courtesy of frequent, timely professional performance reviews, while encouraging leadership growth from within the organizational ranks to improve the performance of all.

Of course, every school environment has not been ideal. The ideal school frequently rewards student achievement and teacher effort while holding administrators equally accountable for a school’s success and/or failure. In order to earn a teacher data rating in the 95th percentile for increasing student achievement rates (while working in MS 385 in my beloved Bed-Stuy), this would not have been possible being receptive to re-writing (pre-submitted and approved) weekly lesson plans nearly every day, in order to fit the differentiated needs of my 30+ students (think of an IEP for every student). I was also required to employ an iron-clad classroom management style that simultaneously demonstrated my loving, nurturing and natural personality; frequently honored student voice and choice; while deftly reinforcing the law that I was the unmitigated “Queen of my Classroom Castle” and this law had to be laid down from day #1 or I would never have survived the countless behavioral perils outlined by Ed Bolan, as earlier referenced. Out of my own, self-imposed degree of unimpeachable integrity and a mutual understanding and respect for the inherent difficulties of successfully operating as a school leader (particularly in urban America) – I would not dream of referencing the schools’ and/or persons who left much to be desired in my limited review of their leadership tenures. However, what I can say is that I have worked with and for control freaks, actual freaks (think sexual harassment magnet), incompetent micro-managers and because of their own inability to abandon their misuse of power; these schools invariably failed. The apparent universal common denominator of each of the aforementioned, effective school leaders is not just being a #Boss, but operating as an effective instructional leader. In my humble opinion, the mark of an effective school leader is that your leadership reign mirrors the school’s performance. Increasingly, all of the pressures of student achievement are uniquely felt by America’s teachers, arguably the rank and file members of a school on the front lines of progress; while superintendents, principals and other top-heavy administrative roles are afforded multiple opportunities to demonstrate their vast ineptitude. How frustrating it is that in American education, we operate within a dysfunctional system that holds teachers more accountable than its leaders. Within my more recent school leadership opportunities, while working as an Instructional Coach/Assistant Principal and later as an Elementary Administrator in a high-needs school in Highland Park, MI I benefitted from the wise counsel of Mr. Charles Gordon, a district leader who kept the faith despite insurmountable odds and as a complement to his rank as an elder statesman. Mr. Gordon considered it a priority to extend cash and/or noteworthy incentives to worthy students, staff and families alike – under the auspices of building a cohesive and ultimately effective school community. We need more selfless leaders of his kind in all Title I schools.

In closing, one of my most memorable re-tweets on the Educate to Liberate Twitter page, was admittedly humbling in that it was acknowledged by an educator I greatly admire and respect, Principal Baruti Kafelé, who retweeted this thought, which encapsulates my final feelings on school leaders: Far too many school superintendents and principals thrive on the power of being a #Boss, yet fail miserably at their primary obligation of increasing academic achievement in America’s failing schools. #NotImpressed. As for me, I am blessed to have the educational credentials, professional certification and years of practical experience to run my own company (as I have opted to do), or to lead an entire school district with a host of high-performing and competent schools . . . but the moment that yours truly, or any one of us, falls short of the mark of a fulfilled staff and high student performance, we must have the integrity to acknowledge that we may have abandoned our true calling as authentic school leaders. For now, I am content among the rank and file front line soldiers, teaching school-aged students on an international platform and graduate education students advancing their academic pursuits to become more effective practitioners. Ultimately, through the unique tapestry of my own blessed instructional and school leadership roles to date, many of which have been recounted in this blog post, my unique calling is undoubtedly tied to the priority to #EducateToLiberate and for this I am eternally grateful.

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Published by Nefertari Nkenge

Nefertari Nkenge, Ed.D. is a well respected transformative leader in pedagogy. The unique combination of over two decades of classroom instruction, curriculum/professional development innovation, urban school administrative leadership and a lifelong commitment to grassroots activism and social justice - informs the empowering Educate to Liberate model.

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