Scott Taylor

Superintendent , Kenilworth Public School District

This conversation is closed.

Educational leadership

The Battle of Shiloh is considered by American historians as one of the bloodiest wartime fights of the modern era. General Ulysses S. Grant led his troops to Union victory and, as biographer Jean Edward Smith accounts in his highly respected, well researched 2001 book titled "Grant," showed a leadership trait that should be emulated by anyone who strives to win a "battle."

"A general imparts attitude to an army. It is not simply a matter of issuing orders, but infusing spirit and initiative. An inchoate bond develops between a successful commander and the army. His will becomes theirs...The men fought because they knew that Grant expected them to, and they trusted his judgment that they could do so."

The key to the relationship Grant forged with his troops was the success he showed in battle. The general is known to have lost as many battles as he won, but the "wins" he scored in the fighting were significant and game-changing.

Grant's soldiers followed him through thick and thin. I recognize, as an educational leader, that I will have to show successes before I can expect my "troops" to follow my vision. I realize the leaders, teachers, and parents in my schools will not support my work whole-heartedly unless I can prove that their adherence to my plans for student achievement will pay off in the end.

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    Jun 20 2013: Hi Scott,

    It is really nice that you, as the superintendent of schools in Kenilworth, came on here with this idea.

    Do you have intranet in your school district?
    I'm almost certain that you are able to email all the educators (faculty and school administrators)?

    Perhaps doing so, will give you an idea of what the teachers and administrators in your own distrect need, and what sort of leader they will ralley around?

    How about getting to know the administrators and teachers personally?

    Encourage them to watch (hopefully it comes on tv, or it is taped so anyone can then access it) a school board meeting, or attend one, help them to see what your job entails.

    From my personal experience as an educator, I never ran across teachers who watched or listened to the school board meetings, they always got the information second hand. Many lacked knowledge of the effort it takes to run a school district.

    I hope these simple ideas of mine helps you somehow.

    Educator, Life learner
  • Jun 19 2013: A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear then future Lions International President Sid Scruggs speak on leadership. He is a former Annapolis graduate and summed three types of leaders:

    1) I am the boss because I have title
    2) I am the leader because I have built the concensus among everyone
    3) Like your Grant example is the Ranger 2nd Lt. on the Normandy beachhead who says, " Follow me, I will get you off this beach!" and you follow because you trust him.

    Most leaders in education are of the 1st variety. They do not have their teacher's backs when troublesome parents come in, they play favorites, and they don‘t try to build rapport with their teachers. Some seem to to be looking for retirement the moment they reach that pinnacle and just don't care anymore--path of least resistant.

    Most don't realize the rubber hits the road in the classroom and the teacher is the contact point for improvement. For education to make the necessary future changes it's leaders have to build trust with all their subordinates. If someone complains that the district IT department are not performing up to par or the janitorial staff isn't getting all the garbage--the real leaders will listen, check into it, then make an informed decision with Solomon's wisdom. If you get the same report from more than 1 person, it probably is true.

    If you want your district to follow your vision, you need everyone to buy in to it. If you are a type 1 leader you will not get very far. Type 2 you will get more people to work with you but not all. You have to invest the time, build the relationships and build trust going both ways.

    I wish you luck in your endeavors, but you have a tough row to hoe in education because no one is very adaptable to change.
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    Jun 18 2013: Scott--the emotional tie to accomplishing a mission is so vital. The number of complaints I've had from students has been extremely low. The problem is it's impossible to please everyone and the people that love you don't beat down your supervisor's door. I've had student complaints and seen my other students rise up to defend me.

    Most classroom conflicts come from three different objectives that exist in the classroom. There is the teacher's objective which is to have people learn. The student's objective isn't always to learn. What they often want is easy answers or a step-by-step process so they can garner a certain grade. They often crave a paint-by-numbers approach, because it gives them a sense of security. But, those approaches are often least effective in teaching them the skills they need. They have been conditioned to crave certain things that thwart the learning process. Then, there is the objective of the bureaucratic boss, who often just wants to make sure things run smoothly.

    Some of it comes from a flawed leadership paradigm that administrators sometimes possess. They sometimes lead through control. Control is an illusion. Often the most controlling people are the ones that have least control of a situation. There is a huge difference between being in control and being controlling. It's the difference between influence and coercion. I much prefer the influence paradigm.

    An instructor is often the middle man between grade grubbers and pencil jockeys. Unfortunately, the system has often been set up by the pencil jockey. So, the system rewards conformity and squashes creativity. Teaching is an incredible art form, but the system treats it like something that can be boiled down to a cook book recipe. Teachers are often forces to be intellectual line-order cooks as opposed to mental Mozarts!
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      Jun 18 2013: Wouldn't you equate "control" with "insecurity?" My experiences tell me the leaders who work in a top-down manner are the least confident.
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    Jun 17 2013: Scott, When I was in school in the 40's ... teachers rules with a iron fist .. Principals were the "force" ... and I never heard of anyone going to or even talking with a Superintendent .... PTA was a power .... and my parents still had a fear of my teacher was she had taught them and the sins of the parent rained down on me ... I got swats from the teacher, principal, and really caught it when I got home.

    I bring all of this up as a difference of what we have now. My current picture is that the school has mandates from the federal government, state government, and the locals are left out. Superintendents are busy writing and searching for grants to keep the school afloat, principals are busy reading and complying with federal and local mandates and hoping that no one will sue (that is the national past time). The teachers have had most of their options taken away by the real educational power houses the textbook writers and the test developers. They follow the guides and plans given to them to cover the high stakes testing to follow ... in essence they now teach the test.

    As a superintendent or even a principal, or teacher .. you never see the parents of at risk kids. You see good kids and good parents ... and sometime those who want to burn you in effigy or sue you or their lawyers.

    Your plan is important ... how many parents or members of the community were involved in devising or implementing this plan? Budgets, STEM, high stakes testing, and community apathy are the real issues and the fight at hand.

    I am retired and very active in the school. Most of the time I am alone in my efforts and try to understand the position the administrators are in and work with them. I ask others to come help and they say why ..... what good would it do.

    Superintendents, principals, and teachers are getting a bad rap due to federal, state, and union interference and mandates. The dollar rules in education ... not the learning.

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      Jun 17 2013: Ah...a pessimist! I am a hopeless optimist and work hard (like I believe man of my colleagues do) to stay visible. I blogged about this for Edutopia. Below is an excerpt I hope you will read:

      "Be a presence in schools each day. I make a point to start my morning in the hallways and then conduct my walks before the day gets ahead of me. Start the day in the office, and you're likely to end the day in the office (save for that weekly administration team meeting). An educational leader's work clock runs at least seven hours. How much time can one possibly spend in meetings and doing office paperwork? Just by cutting one to two hours out of my office day to spend a few minutes in each classroom and hallway of my small school district, I’ve learned more about the little (but often very important) things going on than I would have learned from email, phone calls or hearsay. Besides learning about the evolving culture of my schools, walking the hallways every day and being highly accessible has been key to showing everyone that I care about the school district at every level."
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      Jun 17 2013: Hi Robert,

      You said, "The dollar rules in education ... not the learning."

      During my first year teaching, I had an incredible mentor. She said, "Everyone has been to school so everyone thinks he is an expert in the field."

      This statement is so true.

      So, yes the dollars do rule when it comes to policy.

      However, the dollars do not rule the teachers who are doing the job every day, made more and more difficult with every new piece of legislation.

      I suspect this is why the corporate reformers (with money) and teachers (without the money) have had such a rough time communicating. Those in the corporate world equate money and success. Teachers equate learning and success.

      Hopefully, for the sake of students and progress, us adults will learn to communicate effectively.
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        Jun 18 2013: Your right. The most common means of evaluating a school or a school system is to calculate the amount of money spent per child. The theory being if I spend a bucket full all the kids will be much smarter. This has been going on for years and is still used and is still wrong. The worst schools in the USA by the educational rating system is Washington DC and the BIA system. The big "F" for each of them is cost per child and the drop out rate which are the two key evaluation factors.

        This year the teachers evaluations are being basd on the student scores on the high stakes tests. This almost kills any teacher wanting to go to a innercity school .... the rating will follow you forever. Who thunked this up?

        I think we adults communicate well we just are not talking about the same thing.

        Thanks for the reply. I wish you well. Bob.
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    Jun 17 2013: The bond between teacher and student is a huge component of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the system works against it--at least from what I've seen teaching college. Political correctness poisons the whole process. If you offend someone you're in trouble. I know. It's happened to me. I was told I offended someone by a previous supervisor. However, I was never told what I said or did. So, I became timid in the classroom--not knowing what I could say or do! I was also told by this same supervisor that I was too much of a friend to my students and had to maintain professional distance.

    Now, how can one develop trust with others without open and honest discussions? How can you not develop relationships with people you deal with on a regular basis? How can you find out what makes people tick and how to motivate them unless you foster an emotional bond? How can you develop critical thinking skills unless you have intense discussions about issues that affect people and that they really care about?

    There is an assumption made in academia that removing our emotions from our ideas strengthens them--that we maintain an "objective" tone that is prevalent in academic research, writing, textbooks and most college lectures. It's a sham. No one is objective. And, logic and emotions are not separate, but intimately intertwined. The whole idea of bifurcating logic and emotion is a farce. I'm calling it's bluff.

    Deep education begins with emotional connections. It begins by forming personal bonds and creating community. The most important component of education is love--love between teachers and students, and love for the topic at hand. Our education system has become a sterile environment devoid of passion and human connection. Once those components are gone people are just going through the motions!
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      Jun 17 2013: One of the challenges for college instructors is that they don't receive any teacher training or typically any supervision/coaching once in the classroom. Teaching issues get attention from supervisors only if there is serious complaint. Lower ed teachers do get such training.

      In my experience, the culture surrounding college teaching is very different from the culture within k12 teaching.

      One of the notes of guidance I remember from my training on how to be an effective k12 teacher was "bring your heart to school." Teacher training makes clear that the effectiveness of learning is closely connected to the relationship of teacher and student.

      This does not mean, though, that the teacher's personal needs or wants and the students' should be on an equal footing. So whether you are effective just being your authentic emotional self depends on what that authentic emotional self is like. There is a power differential between teacher and students. Also you are there for the benefit of students more than to meet your emotional needs.

      Teachers need to develop judgment as to which of their life events are appropriate to share and which do not benefit the students to hear about, for example.
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      Jun 17 2013: You and I are completely on the same page. I just had a direct and brutally honest discussion with one of my administrators about the need to harness the power of relationships in order to "get the vision done." Heck, Lyndon Johnson was a pro at realizing this:
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    Jun 16 2013: Of course an educational leader must get buy-in! I took a cue from Bill Gates on this topic. Check it out:

    “There's a basic philosophy here that by empowering...workers you'll make their jobs far more interesting, and they'll be able to work at a higher level.”

    The resources you shared below are wonderful! Stephanek's work in Maryland is truly inspiring!
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    Jun 16 2013: People are also more likely to buy into a plan if they are part of developing that plan. Particularly in an organization of professionals, the staff may not think in terms of the military model of a leader and troops that you have in mind as you conceptualize leadership of the school district.
  • Jul 16 2013: Grant may not be the best example of a leader to follow based on personal choices. That being said, if he hadn't been involved in the Civil War, would the north have won? Just like criticizing Bush, not always a great person, but he helped heal the country after 9/11. Separating personal and professional choices is prudent here. And we will avoid politics.

    That being said, if you wish to lead, you must gain the trust of the people you will be leading. You must also have a clear vision of what it is that you wish to accomplish. To often, I have heard the mantra's of "all children will succeed", "no child left behind", "improve all test scores", etc ad naseum. They are all worthless if you don't actually know what you want. Grant had a battle plan that ended with him winning. Educational leadership often has a plan of "well here is the goal, I hope we make it" with no clear plan on how to get there.

    Building capacity in the school(s), enabling educators to lead and be innovative, expecting excellence, setting a clear path to success rather than a nebulous goal, and gaining staff buy in are all required to be successful. If you can do those things you will be on the right path to be successful.

    People need to see their part in the plan. That they have a critical role to play. That they are valued and respected and that you know that. That the students are important and come first.

    Sometimes that means praise, and sometimes, that means counseling students and teachers to find other places that they will be successful.
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      Jul 16 2013: Good points all around Everett. In the name of helping "people [see] their part in the plan," I have established a Superintendent's Community Advisory Committee. I already received notes about five interested parties in just one day of "advertising!"
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    Jul 6 2013: An educator taking leadership advice from a general? A 150 year old leadership model?

    What exactly was the troops response when he told them to put away their cell phones?

    There are better models out there. Look them up. Pick one with less "command and control." That style does not facilitate student learning.
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      Jul 6 2013: What a pleasure to see you back, Linda. It has been too long.
  • Jun 20 2013: I cannot really believe this conversation got this much attention.

    Grant was a drunk.
    Soldiers were illiterate by today's standards.
    Deserters were shot.

    Wars and Hero's are made by the media.
    Political office is made and filled by the media.
    Media is controlled by political advertising revenue sources.

    The Moon is not made of cheese.
    There is no Man in the Moon.
    The cow does not jump over the Moon.

    Reality is hard to like, but it remains what it is.

    I like ghost stories.
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      Jun 20 2013: Frank- I do not believe anyone here is suggesting Grant was an effective person, general, or president. It's hard to doubt scholarly research that pulls good leadership traits from flawed historical characters. Why can't we learn from the failures and successes of previous leaders?
      • Jun 20 2013: Scott, thank you, you wrote.
        "Why can't we learn from the failures and successes of previous leaders?"

        I want to answer with this. --
        As time passes, new generations without the historical experiences of their
        elders, accept most flaws in character that more experienced persons would
        find hazardous.

        US Grant, a Drunk was followed 150+ years later by GW Bush.
        These two national leaders exhibited behavioral flaws, and selfish traits,
        built upon acceptance by voters led by an overly well paid media.
        Their drunkenness's were careful hidden by their political caretakers,
        their families, and friends.

        Grant was a public success and Bush was not. In both cases the
        voters were deceived. Nothing new.

        Voters are deceived by our political circus 24/7/365.
        As long as the media can be paid to sway public opinion, those
        who pay to play, are our dictators. The really funny thing is that the
        US Dictators are always unseen shadows. Pulling the puppet's

        In summary, having a drunk, or a moral infant become the voters pied-piper
        is no big deal. Turn on your radio, television, or website, see a movie.
        You can be sure of the truth when told by any of them and Hollywood.
        Can't you?
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    Jun 19 2013: Spencer- I am so thankful for you sharing this! I can see the need for educational leaders to volley between leadership styles 2 and 3, depending on the circumstances and the culture of the school district.

    I like to think there has been a shift in leadership attitude over the years. I have noted the pessimism from posters on this threaded discussion and would surely like to see data that supports the notion that "most leaders in education are of the [first] variety." New Jersey has placed a cap on Superintendent's salaries and the result has been the retirement of many who belonged to the "old boys club." My hope (and theory) is that a new generation of educational leaders will (and is) rising up and recognizing the research on effective leadership (think Roland Barth, Sergiovanni, etc.).
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    Jun 18 2013: Scott--I would agree that control and insecurity are intertwined. Insecure bosses tend towards one of two extremes. They either are skeeter bosses, constantly buzzing around like some mosquito trying to micromanage everything. Or, they are completely hands off, because they want to avoid any kind of confrontation. The hands off ones usually won't last long. There is a third type, which is a hybrid of the two I call the Jeckyl-Hyde. These bosses are non confrontational marshmallows until the big boss is around. Then they become control freaks.
  • Jun 18 2013: Scott,

    I would recommend you take the time to read the short (320 pages) but apt book by Chip and Dan Heath entitled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I do not want to ruin the book for you, but to give you a short preview of the theory it contains. It suggests there are three aspects of change management leaders need to consider while trying to create change against all odds:

    - Get buy in at the emotional level

    - Once emotional buy-in exists, back it up with rational thought and by focusing on the bright spots within your organization by pointing to the destination and scripting the critical moves you need to get through to get to your destination

    - Shape the path / culture: Build habits that support your change and rally, in your case, your teachers.

    The book goes much more in-depth with some specifics and examples. These examples, generally speaking, are instances where individuals have no organizational power behind them to help push the change. These include amazing systematic changes such as saving endangered animals while working against the home country's dominate culture. This reminds me, in a very real way, of the kind of change that needs to occur in our school districts - often times against the prevailing culture to ensure real progress towards educational objectives. I also suspect that you are the type of leader that does not want to ineffectively strong-arm change. This book may give you at least some insight on how you might go about this. Scott, I would love to hear how you choose to tackle this very relatable problem and the resulting change in your schools. I am interested in a position in educational leadership myself (mostly on the finance side – I am an accounting and Computer Information Systems major at university hoping to find my way into school finance) and suspect I will find myself in a similar position in the future.

    Best of luck,
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      Jun 18 2013: Fair point LaMar, although I see no harm in "borrowing" bits and pieces of various leaders' failures and successes and applying these things (with adaptations of course) in the educational leadership setting.
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    Jun 17 2013: One of my problems is I care too much for my students--at least for how the system is set up. Being wired to teach, I constantly give myself emotionally to my students. They do respond to this, but it wears me out. The problem isn't that teachers shouldn't give, but that they get little to no support in giving. In class I need to set the stage and create a positive environment. That is draining to one's emotional batteries. But, there is little in place in the system to help instructors recharge those batteries. Too often administrators don't nurture teachers. Instead they become another huge drain on the instructor. Those instructors that don't care just come to work, do what they're told and don't worry about fighting the system. Those that do care are constantly giving themselves to their students and instead of being supported by the system are constantly fighting the system on behalf of their students. I'm at the point I'm just tired of fighting the system.
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      Jun 17 2013: I agree this is a problem Brett. So, what are YOU doing to solve this problem if others cannot solve it for you? Do you have an outlet after work? Do you have colleagues with whom you connect on a regular basis who, like you, need a recharge?
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        Jun 17 2013: Scott--I do a ton of writing. I've written several books connected to education. One is called, "Learning is Fun, but Education Stinks". A second is geared towards the Christian community called, "Go Ye Therefore and Teach". The basic premise of both those books deals with the fact that how we are teaching is incongruent with how people learn. I've written another book called "Theater of the Mind" which explains how the conscious and subconscious mind work together in the creative process. If you check out my website there are other books, but those three have direct applications to education.
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    Jun 17 2013: George- I think it's all in the delivery. I just got a promotion to Superintendent in my district that I think was largely based on my careful communication of the message that "we're all in this together." I pulled a Lyndon Johnson series of maneuvers (check out this blog post to understand my meaning- and leveraged my relationships to communicate the power of shared ownership-

    It's all (in my opinion) in the delivery!
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      Jun 17 2013: I love number 3. "You want to make it absolutely clear that your vision is all about children." Keep students and learning front and center in your vision.

      (And my biggest piece of advice is to make sure to include students, teachers and parents at the stakeholder table. Listening is a critical skill in leading.)
  • Jun 17 2013: So does anyone else really want this? Really? I was talking to a friend who was hired by a rural district here in Texas to really straighten things up.... He did.... The school board called him on the carpet to talk about this. Well I did what you wanted he told them. True they said............ and then theyfired him.
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    Jun 16 2013: I love your point and strongly agree with your concern about use of the term "product" to describe learning outcomes. Do you think parents can value process over product? I hope non-educators have the capacity (and guts) to look beyond policymaker rhetoric and recognize the extreme importance the evolution of knowledge acquisition is (as opposed to the focus on the end-"product").
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      Jun 17 2013: Thanks for the kind words.

      Yes, I absolutely believe parents can value process over product and I have a concrete example. I taught in a Title 1 public school for eight years. About half way through my time in the classroom, the district decided to do away with letter grades and go to entirely standards-based reporting. This was before technology was anywhere near ready for processing data coming from so many (too many) state and district mandated assessments. Frankly, in doing away with letter grades, assessing students became a lot more complicated and the new report cards lost all meaning to the parents. Parents just began to view 4's as A's and 3's as B's etc. even though they were not the same.

      It was around this time I turned to portfolios to bring back some relevance to reporting and I pieced together a portfolio system involving the student, the parent and the teacher. The worth of the portfolio relied on a student-led conference. When students are enabled to explain learning outcomes to parents, parents become engaged and accountable in the process.
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    Jun 16 2013: Stakeholders are critical to educational progress. My children attend school in a district where the vision is to be "the top producer of successful students in the nation." Producer? My children are not products. So, I wrote a letter expressing my feelings on the matter to the superintendent and school board a year and a half ago. I was pleasantly surprised to get a positive response to my letter, and it started a critical dialogue. One of my main questions was, "Who wrote this vision?" And, it came as no surprise to me that the most critical stakeholders, the students, were not involved in the process.

    Education reform isn't pressing to me because I fear we will lose some battle of the minds with another nation. I feel a sense of urgency in education reform because, as of next year, I will have a kindergartner and first grader in public schools, and public schools are not meeting my expectations. (I have no intention of placing them in a private school nor will I play lotto for a slot in a charter school. ) (Because, shhh, don't tell anyone but most schools really aren't all that different.) So, that leaves us with a system that could use some work, and I'm in!

    I'm going to submit another analogy for leadership. There are leaders who lead because others are afraid of something. This has more to do with submission and self preservation. Others lead with inspiration, bringing out creativity and solutions in those around them. (Leadership, in my experience, has less to do with the singular leader and more to do with the group. It has everything to do with what the leader(s) sees and inspires in those around.

    I see that you are an assistant superintendent and I am a HUGE believer in bringing peace into the conversation in schools. Check out... and possibly look into becoming a "Peace Certified Community" through the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation.
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    Jun 16 2013: It sounds like you are referring to only Leadership by Example . That's only one of many ways of influencing people by a leader. Another way is creating a compelling vision for which team will be inspired to go for even seemingly impossible goals. Another one is as described by Fritzie in his post here. Creating trust among followers is key to win people to make them follow, best way of achieving that is " walking the way one is talking" . And so on , actually in leadership there is no single cook book solution that will be successful in all cases, that's what I feel.