The Naked Leader

July 21, 2009

Red Smith famously said, “writing is easy…you just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  No one believed him like Frank McCourt.  We lost McCourt over the weekend, but not before he gave everything he had to his readers and students.

McCourt didn’t stop the bleeding when he got up from the typewriter, one reason he was so good in the classroom.  He was exposed, completely.  His example suggests an intersection of great writing, teaching and leadership.  The more layers he removed, the more effective he became at making other people better.

One of the more powerful anecdotes in McCourt’s ‘Tis is about his transformation from an authoritarian, sadistic ruler of his students at Stuyvesant High School, among the most elite in the country, to someone with the devotion and empathy to excite young minds. We find him hiding behind a ridiculous front of dominance and power – and then, in an instant, he removes it.  And his life starts over.

Every day I teach with my guts in a knot, lurking behind my desk at the front of the room playing the teacher game with the chalk, the test, the eraser, the red pen, the teacher guides, the power of the quiz, the test, the exam, I’ll call your father, I’ll call your mother, I’ll report you to the governor, I’ll damage your average so badly, kid, you’ll be lucky to get into a community college in Mississippi, weapons of menace and control.

One day a rebellion starts to brew.  One student has had enough.  The class starts circling around McCourt’s dirty, little secret, which is that the tyrant at the front of the room never went to high school.

So, Mr. McCourt, I thought you had to get a license to teach in the city.

You do.

Don’t you have to get a college degree.

You do.

Don’t you have to graduate from high school to get into college?

You mean graduate from high school, from high school, from from from.

I suppose you do.

Tyro lawyer grills teacher, carries the day, and word spreads to my other classes. Wow, Mr. McCourt, you never went to high school and you’re teaching at Stuyvesant? Cool, man.

And into the trash basket I drop my teaching guides, my quizzes, tests, examinations, my teacher-knows-all mask.

I’m naked and starting over and I hardly know where to begin.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this decision leads to McCourt’s extraordinary impact.  This was his pivot from safety to influence.  Most leaders confront a similar choice at some point in their lives, usually the choice between impersonating a leader and actually leading.  By documenting what can happen when the mask drops, McCourt made it harder for the rest of us to hide.

Think Drill Sergeant and Trusted Advisor

March 9, 2009


In an article in the LA Times this weekend, Sam Calavitta was celebrated as an extraordinary high school math teacher. The author wrote “think drill sergeant and trusted advisor” in his description of Sam.  In an earlier post I wrote about the need to set both high standards and be on the side of your people in teaching and leadership. Sometimes it’s hard to visualize what this means in practice, and the article brings the concept to life. It sounds like Sam is a terrific role model for anyone working to make a difference in the classroom — and well beyond it.

Sam sees himself as a math coach. We often think of teaching and coaching as very different activities, but the differences are superficial. I stumbled on to how similar they are when my dream to coach college basketball was derailed by an injury. I thought I left coaching behind when I became a teacher, a painful decision at the time, but I soon realized I was coaching every day in the classroom.

The article ended with a poignant quote by Sam. It speaks to another truth in both teaching and leadership, which is that when it works, it’s not a one-way gift:

If you want to make a difference in a kid’s life, you have to first of all let them know that they make a difference in your life.

What Leaders Can Learn from Teachers

March 5, 2009

One of the pleasures and privileges of my job is the chance to observe a lot of teachers. This number has spiked recently, and I’ve been struck by the sheer diversity of teaching styles and mechanics.  I have come to believe that this diversity is not particularly relevant to classroom outcomes, despite my profession’s focus on it — it’s not style or mechanics that ultimately make the difference, but rather a very simple pattern in a teacher’s orientation towards students. Teachers succeed when they set high standards for students while also being firmly on their side in the learning journey.

When well-intentioned teachers struggle, it’s often because of an implicit belief that these two dimensions somehow trade off with one another.  You can demand excellence or root for your students, but not both, so goes the logic. For example, a new teacher who is worried about being taken seriously often sets high classroom standards but enforces them in ways that undermine students’ trust. Standards are high, but students don’t feel safe enough to take the risks that learning demands.  They’re highly distracted by judgment and performance, unwilling to follow the instructor into uncertain territory.

Other teachers stumble by channeling their empathy for students into lowered expectations. Even if students appreciate the choice on some short-term level, it destroys the learning dynamic over time by not pushing students beyond their intellectual comfort zone. They become disengaged in a classroom culture of mediocrity, in an environment that lacks a strong enough incentive for hard work.

The essence of great teaching, I believe, is learning how to set high standards while also being devoted to the student’s journey. And I think the same thing applies to effective leadership. A central challenge of great leadership is setting high standards for our colleagues while simultaneously being devoted to their growth and development. It’s not easy to achieve, but it’s vital to the success of both classrooms and organizations. And as I heard a colleague say recently, I won’t lower the bar because I like you.