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Scott Taylor

Superintendent , Kenilworth Public School District

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Education leaders should model effective teaching by getting back in the classroom.

Woodrow Wilson was as noted a Princeton president (1902-1910) as he was later the United States Commander in Chief. Cooper (2009) talks about the special relationship Wilson had with Princeton's students ("the men" to which the biographer refers since Princeton was, like most universities of the era, an all-male school). Of note to educational leaders like myself is a description of Wilson's bond with the young adults in his care. Cooper notes a passage from Wilson's diary:
"Sometimes, when I go through the campus of Princeton at night, and see the brilliant display of lighted windows, I know perfectly well what is going on in these rooms. I have lived in those rooms myself."
What's more, Wilson continued to teach throughout his presidency because he didn't want "to lose direct contact with the men." Wilson taught two courses each year, Cooper explains, and remained approachable to students outside [school].

I've tried hard to heed this lesson by teaching classes each year. I begin by working with Seventh Graders (one class each quarterly marking period), engaging them in student-centered activities about cyber-safety. I move on to periodically relieve teachers from their day, taking their class loads in the elementary, middle, and high school. I "keep it real" getting back in the "trenches," and my faculty sees I am a continual learner and hard-core educator.

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  • Jul 27 2013: The greatest challenge I observed with administrators over the years is their loss of contact with the classroom. Some of it because they simply were not good educators and decided admin was their area of expertise, others because of the meetings and duties requiring them to be away from their school and in the district office for other "more important meetings".

    The best administrators I have worked with were in my classroom. It was not a shock to see them walk in and ask how things were going or participate or ask the students questions on a regular basis. They knew the kids. They would even teach on occasion. But the kids knew that they knew who they were, cared about them, and connected on a level beyond just "the guy in the office". As an educator, I always appreciated knowing that my admin would be in my class. It stepped up my teaching because I wanted to teach well for them. And it was fun.

    Get the admin back in the school and back in the classrooms as much as possible. Get rid of the unnecessary meetings and let them run their schools. That will help on a grand scale.
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      Jul 27 2013: Electronic tools easily allow educational leaders to cut out the "unnecessary meetings" and these folks need to be able to let go of the traditional face time they use to gather about mundane managerial needs.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly Everett.
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    Jul 7 2013: Thank you so very much for this information Della!
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    Jul 6 2013: Kudos, Scott! Whenever I learn the name of a new education reformer or influencer, I Google his/her bio/vita to see who has taught k-12. I could count on one hand the number who have taught k-12.

    My husband laughed at me during a moment of frustration in my searches and quoted, "Those who have never been in the trenches sure know how to dig the ditches."

    So, it's refreshing to read this.

    Also, I'd like to point you to http://ed.ted.com/. It's an amazing resource for educators and there is a Community forum on there as well that is getting pretty lively with ideas and questions, specific to education. https://community.ed.ted.com/teded

    Cheers!
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    Jul 2 2013: Just letting my mind go, I wonder if one of the students could somehow fill the superintendent's chair while you're substitute teaching. Of course they couldn't make the biggest decisions, maybe they could somehow do some of your duties with discerning help from your staff?

    I was influenced in this comment by my experience with Deep Springs College. Do you know Deep Springs, Scott, a tiny alternative college in the California desert? They strongly believe students should have a really large hand in the governance of the college. I believe they are at deepsprings.edu.
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      Jul 2 2013: I do not know of Deep Springs, but I just found it on the web and will look at the pages thoroughly. How about putting a teacher in the superintendent's chair?
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        Jul 3 2013: Yeah, brings up another issue, Scott, which it seems like it's easier for a person to move down and do the duties of someone below them than the other way. Like you can move down and substitute teach, but it's harder for a student or teacher to move up and do your duties. Well, who exactly does your superintendent duties when you spend a day substitute teaching, if they can do them perhaps a student or teacher could do some of them. Or a parent, I don't know, this is getting pretty wild.

        You got me to thinking about faculty cafeterias. That's a slightly weird phenomenon, isn't it, why do faculty at so many schools eat apart from the students, maybe it'd be good if they didn't? Maybe you should have lunch in student cafeterias sometimes?

        Yes, when I applied to Deep Springs I spent a couple of days at the college and at the end was interviewed by the admissions committee, about eight or nine people which was seven or eight students. It was pretty neat.
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        Jul 6 2013: Reciprocal administrating? *smile*
  • Jul 1 2013: Dear Scott, I am delighted to hear that you enjoyed occasional teaching classes to get contact with the students.
    In my view, I think every superintendent and other management professional staff should occasionally teach one or two classes every year, especially in low performing schools to have a "feel" of what's wrong with their performance.
    The reason I suggest this is because, if this is done all over the country, then as you educational leaders get together, everyone will have a first hand experience about the important reasons and/or methods of improvement by the current policy or practice. and more importantly, a strong consensus would more likely to be reached and a stronger voice be raised for any potential change or improvement consequently.
    My suggestion is not because of what I learned from this talk, but rather I really believe that that those who sit in the government education authorities wouldn't listen to the few teachers' suggestions unless they are from the consensus from the local leaders.
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    Jun 30 2013: Scott, I have been involved in education most of my life and your statement "Education leaders should model effective teaching by getting back in the classroom." assumes a lot. 1) The position of Superintendent here only requires a Mastrers degree ... allows for those who see education as a business to hire a MBA to fill the position. 2) that the "leader" is currently or ever was a effective teacher. and 3) dependent upon the contract signed.

    As I have stated in other posts to you, I admire your go getter attitude, however I wonder if all your staff see you the same as you do. Many would resent you entering their domain.

    As a board member I look at each prospective superintendent hire through many filters ... few of them involve teaching. Superintendents bring a specific set of tools to the job ... I need to ensure that s/he can obtain grant money, can fulfil requirement levied by state and federal mandates, has a working knowledge of laws as pertains to education, has writen and oral skills, has the people skills to deal with the public, parents, as well as staff, has some sort of a track record that demonstrates s/he has / can apply these skills, that s/he can not only design a budget but also has the flexibility to cope with a changing budget as is the current issue. There are many other questions and capabilities desired.

    I think it is important that administrators visit classrooms and keep abreast of best practices. In my opinion that should be a discussion between the superintendent and the principal who is the first line supervisor of the teacher (unless there is a department head). The reasons for a teacher to be effective or ineffective vary with each teacher. There is no one size fits all. What works for you may be wrong for me.

    Yes by all means administrators need to get out and about .... but they are hired as a administrator ... we hire principals and teachers based on the criteria for those jobs.

    I wish you well. Bob
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    Jul 29 2013: Thanks for the feedback Daniel. I may very well order The Rector from Amazon tonight .
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    Jul 29 2013: You would really like "The Rector of Justin" by Louis Auchincloss. Although fictional, it has extraordinary literary merit, and more to the point it would be a superb case study of an individual who spends their life educating others, despite the positions they assume which take them away from the day to day teaching. Auchincloss's study of the main character's thoughts on the importance of education, on how to educate, and why to educate is done with almost anatomical precision. Wilson's diary excerpt literally could have been written by the Rector, Dr. Francis Prescott. Prescott did everything Wilson did in regards to teaching that you pointed out and the novel gets at how it did and did not work out.

    It would really give you something to think about concerning if and how a teacher should get back into the classroom. And, yes, I said 'if' because while I generally agree with you, there are downsides to everything. 'Keeping it real' is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. You can't be so sure of what the other teachers or the students really sees or thinks you are. Get back into the 'trenches' all you want, you can't step into the same river twice.

    I applaud the idea of returning to teaching. I really like that you focused on how it makes you a 'continual learner' since that is where the real benefit comes from, not from your teaching, but from your learning.
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    Jul 3 2013: Co-mingling- teacher and students? Blasphemy!
  • W T 100+

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    Jul 1 2013: Thank you for your reply Mr. Taylor.

    Having taught in a district with over 400 schools, and over 300,000 students, I will again state, that it might be a bit of a challenge giving this kind of attention to individual schools.

    Nevertheless, it is a wonderful idea.
    I think that having a hands-on approach in administrating is a good thing, as George Lockwood states in his comment.

    The more I read about your school district, the more I wish I lived and worked in Kenilworth School District.
    It must be a very nice place to be a teacher, and a student.

    I think the only time I worked in a place where the administration had this hands-on approach was working for DODDS.
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    Jul 1 2013: A valid question Mary. I lead a small district of 1,500 kids. Why couldn't I require my principals and supervisors to teach classes on a routine basis in their schools? As a superintendent of a large school district, what would stop me from stepping into one classroom in each of my schools throughout the year?
  • Jul 1 2013: This is called hands-on management and with good leaders it works in schools, the military, and business.
  • W T 100+

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    Jul 1 2013: Scott, this is a great idea.
    But I would imagine that in big school districts it might be a challenge.

    How many schools are in your school district?
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    Jun 30 2013: Well, I do recognize that there is a trend to bring private-sector and/or government leaders to the superintendency, but I have to assume that the vast majority of educational leaders were at one time teachers.

    Over the last 16 years in the educational leadership field, I have not encountered direct resistance to my entering the classroom. Of course, I only enter a teacher's "domain" if he/she is willing to allow me to "take over," and I do approach tenured teachers with the assumption they will feel comfortable enough to express their concerns.

    I've gotten tremendous feedback about my work in the classroom. Perhaps I've gotten lucky? I tend to think it has more to do with sincerity, communication, and genuine care for children.

    Call me nieve, but I've spent 22 years in education and intend to "keep on keeping on!"
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      Jul 1 2013: You may be a fine teacher and your teachers may find you an excellent model of effective pedagogy. From your twenty-two years in education, you have probably noticed, though, that "sincerity, communication, and genuine care of children" are not the only criteria for teaching effectively. If they were, many more people would excel in classroom teaching than actually do.

      As you look at your principals, who are also administrators, some may have been model teachers and others not so much.

      I agree with Robert that in my experience the best teachers often do not seek promotion through administrative ranks and the best administrators may be those whose relative advantage is not in the classroom but in other functions.
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    Jun 30 2013: If the administrator has been an effective teacher, he/she can model effective teaching by teaching. In any case, as you write, it is useful for administrators to remain in touch with what teaching is like today and in the districts they lead.

    Often a superintendent comes from a district that is not very much like the one he/she leads. In the district where I taught, we had several superintendents who had never taught k12.