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Leadership Lessons from Brookline, Massachusetts
From The Marshall Memo #433
In this wise Kappan article, recently retired principal Robert Weintraub shares leadership lessons from his 19 years leading a large suburban high school (which both of my children attended and loved):
• Develop a unified adult voice in support of kids. This means making a concerted effort to get teachers, parents, and community members on the same page. “Adolescents need us to present clear expectations and values so they can push back, and then figure out what they believe and who they’re becoming,” says Weintraub.
• Respond to every phone call and e-mail every day. “You don’t have to solve every problem or agree with every inquiry,” he says, “but just responding quickly helps people feel they matter.”
• Get out of your office. “That’s not where school happens,” Weintraub insists. Being out and about “shows that you care about the school, helps provide supervision, allows you to interact with students and staff, helps you observe the main business of the school, makes you a visible, daily presence, and makes you human.”
• Teach or co-teach a class. Weintraub insisted that all administrators teach at least one class. Actually teaching “gets you into the rhythm of academic life of planning and teaching lessons, correcting and grading papers, talking to and helping students, communicating with parents about student progress, and completing interim progress reports and report cards. It’s a killer,” he says, “but it’s worth it… Teachers can never say, ‘The leaders make stupid decisions because they’ve been out of the classroom for so long.’ Instead, they just say, ‘The leaders make stupid decisions.’”
• Be happy. “No one wants to see an unhappy leader,” says Weintraub. “The principal is supposed to be the happiest person in the building.”
• Display energy. Schools are “infested with youth,” he says. “Fit in.”
• Don’t let students be anonymous. Notice their clothing, hairdos, tattoos, expressions, moods, accomplishments, and drama.
• Be present for people. “With so many distractions today, simple undisturbed human interaction is a treat,” says Weintraub.
• Communicate. Especially in a crisis, it’s vital that people hear four things from the leader: What happened, what it means, what we’re doing, and why.
• Work really hard. “There’s a lot to do,” he says. “Hard work earns the respect of the school community.”
• Hire people who love kids and support their work. Weintraub made a point of catching people doing good things and thanking them – including secretaries, custodians, and cafeteria workers.
• Nurture an intellectual environment. “Use inspirational words – yours and others’ – to motivate colleagues,” Weintraub advises. “Host intellectual events, which are both inspiring and symbolic. They polish the mystique of your school.”
• Embrace change, but don’t change if there is not a problem. “Do we really need individually wrapped bananas?”
• Acknowledge imperfections and give everyone a chance at redemption. “We are all imperfect,” says Weintraub, “teenagers in particular.” Enforcing the rules should not be our reason for being. “We come to work each day to inspire students, build strong relationships, and pick them up when they fall… It is about our faith in all human beings – that they ultimately want to do the right thing and to be responsible citizens of their community. It’s about our humanity.”
• Create a family within the school. Have regular staff breakfasts. Serve good food at meetings and retreats. Celebrate teachers earning tenure and serving for many years. Respect that people have priorities beyond the school. Weintraub quotes his former superintendent, Jim Walsh, who frequently reminded Brookline leaders, “Our jobs are perhaps the fourth or fifth most important part of our lives. The first three are about being a good husband, wife, or partner, dad or mom, brother, sister, and friend.”