The Art of Leadership

Watching the Golden State Warriors getting thumped by the New Orleans Pelicans. Game three of their first round NBA playoff series. End of the third, they’re down 20. First year coach Steve Kerr calls a time out. The network has a microphone in the huddle, so we get a master lesson in the art of leadership:

“Who lead the league in assists this year? We did. Who lead the league in scoring this year? We did. I don’t recognize the team playing out there. We have to move the ball and find the open man. Let’s go.”

Kerr’s calmness magnified the impact of his words. You’re mother was right, often it’s not what you say, but how you say it. It was the first time his team was getting schooled in the playoffs and he took the long view, knowing this was the earliest stages of a 16 step process. He had to save stronger emotion for the later, more consequential stages. Also, his calm communicated complete confidence that they could come back, which amazingly, they ultimately did.

The first four sentences are a positive reminder that they’re the best team in basketball.  “I don’t recognize the team playing out there,” is Kerr lowering the boom gracefully, subtly, and as effectively as possible. In other words, “That’s not the best team in basketball I’m accustomed to seeing.” Then finally, an ever so simple, two-part command, “Move the ball, find the open man.”

Effective leaders don’t overreact, they’re always bolstering the confidence of those they lead, and they communicate clearly. Just like the Warrior’s rookie coach.

What School Principals Get Wrong

Third in a series of overgeneralizations (installment one, two). So fun, I just can’t stop.

Principals get human nature wrong. Despite what you assumed as a child, teachers don’t retire to the coat closet in their classroom at the end of the day only to miraculously reappear the next morning. Teachers are human beings, meaning every one, to some degree, is insecure. In part, that’s why the best principals are impartial. Especially when it comes to public praise.

That’s why Centennial Elementary principal, Alice Drummer’s quote in this morning’s Olympian, made me cringe. Drummer, referring to Laura Currie, a Centennial teacher in her 45th year of teaching, said:

In my 38 years as an educator, I have worked with many teachers and can say without reservation that Laura Currie stands out as the best and most distinguished teacher kids could ever have.

Then, later that night at dinner, she announced to everyone at the table that her middle child had always been her favorite.

In fairness to Drummer, she communicated that in a “Teacher of the Year” letter she wrote on Currie’s behalf. Then again, Drummer willfully shared the letter with The Olympian.

Almost every teacher works hard in the hope that their students, their students’ parents, and their principal will think that they are the best teacher kids could ever have. Take that possibility away, the way Drummer’s public proclamation does, and a little bit of motivation may be lost.

There are two types of faculty cultures—one where professional success is a zero-sum game and one where everyone’s professional success is sincerely celebrated. Most are zero-sum, meaning if you’re flourishing in your classroom—the kids love you, parents extol your virtues all over town, and the principal says you’re the best and most distinguished teacher of all time forever and ever amen—I’m inclined to feel worse about mine. It doesn’t matter if it’s unflattering, it just is. Call it the “chopped liver” syndrome.

The most enlightened principals know most every teacher wants to be “the best and most distinguished” teacher possible and so they are mindful of how they parcel out praise and tend to highlight faculty team accomplishments.

More importantly, it’s high time teachers recognize “Teacher of the Year” awards as the scam that they unfortunately are. Here’s how the scam works. Instead of reinventing the profession more generally, by which I mostly mean improving compensation, throw some crumbs of recognition to a few teachers. I’m still waiting for a “Teacher of the Year” to reject their award on the premise that it’s a poor substitute for strengthening the profession.

Easy for me to write since I’ve never won a teaching award*. If I do some day, here’s how I’ll start my acceptance speech.

Thanks, but no thanks. I refuse to be a token. Until our work is a respected profession with much improved compensation, I’d rather not be singled out for the hard and excellent work most of my colleagues do day in and day out (exits the stage to either stunned silence or appreciative applause).

There’s one exception to my teacher award cynicism. Anyone with 45 years in the classroom deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award so you go Mrs. Currie.

* In actuality, I did win the World’s Greatest Educator award once in 1999 when I taught a social studies lesson in my daughter’s second grade Centennial Elementary classroom. It was a slide show discussion based upon a trip I took to China. I asked her how she thought it went. “Dad,” she said, “it was perfect.”