Richard Therrien

The School Leader as an Educated Person


One of the main functions of a school leader is to embrace the concept of an educated person. I firmly believe that this is a fundamental role, and should be pervasive and evident in the day to day, and the long terms statements, goals, and actions of every school leader. This is especially true in the areas of curriculum, interdisciplinary connections, cultural and gender issues, professional development, change, and collaboration.


As stated in the Connecticut Standards for School Leaders, this is an important standard. “ The school leader possesses an understanding of the educated person and engages staff, parents, and the community in developing a common vision of the educated person and in identifying the implications of that vision for students and the school’s programs. “

Connecticut State Department of Education. (1999) Standards For School Leaders.


            “The school leader understands major social, historical, and technological developments, and their implications for the knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions needed by citizens in today’s world.” CSDE Standards for School Leaders. The school leader has to share their vision of an educated person with the school community, and this should be reflected in the direction and goals the school is led in. No longer can the goal of a school be to simply “teach the facts” and to teach subjects in isolation. The goal of schools, as stated in Connecticut’s Common Core of Learning, is to produce educated citizens that “possess a core of basic, enabling skills and competencies that provide a foundation for broader acquisition of knowledge. These foundational, cross-disciplinary skills and competencies…… contribute to the development of understanding within and among the disciplines”. Connecticut State Department of Education. (2000) Connecticut Common Core of Learning. Stated simply, the purpose of school is not to produce encyclopedias, it is to produce learners. In this sense, a school leader, and especially one whose primary role is in curriculum, should always be emphasizing process over content, and connections over isolated facts. This requires encouraging, and development of interdisciplinary curricula, and courses. High schools should be offering courses such as “Science in Society” that tie together subject matter with its practical applications in today’s cultures. Middle schools can even offer yearlong courses, such as “The City” course that I have been involved in. Students can use literary readings on city life, do city planning with technology and computers, apply math and art skills to analyzing cities, and culminate with planning individualized projects that take place over three days in a local city. This is the kind of course that is a direct, immediate, obvious example of leading directly to this goal of developing students as responsible citizens, and viewing an educated person as one who can learn across discipline boundaries. In the report Breaking Ranks, the need to transform curriculum in this manner is often mentioned. National Association of Secondary School Principals (2000) Breaking Ranks: Changing An American Institution Reston, VA: NASSP. “The high school will promote co curricular activities as integral to an education, providing opportunities for all students that support and extend academic learning. “ and “The high school will integrate its curriculum to the extent possible and emphasize depth over breadth of coverage”. It is clear, that as students encounter a world that requires them to tie together various subject areas, that we cannot afford to treat subjects as isolated disciplines.


            Related to the ideas of interdisciplinary connections between subjects is the use of technology, by both leaders, teachers and students. This is a major theme in the Connecticut Common Core of Learning, stating that all students will be “confident users of technology”. This also means that school leaders must embrace and model the use of technology. School leaders must use the Internet as a resource, and evaluate the information and share it appropriately with staff and students. School leaders should expect teachers and themselves to use electronic mail and bulletin boards, electronic grading systems, and be able to use technology to facilitate communications with parents and the larger community. A description of a reformed urban Indiana high school includes many descriptions of the use of technology. Bertram, V. (2004, February) Reinventing a School. Principal Leadership. Bertram describes how a major goal in transforming the school was to “implement and maintain cutting-edge technology to enhance instruction… and narrow the technological divide that exists among our demographic subgroups”


            As an educated person, a school leader must keep the diverse needs of their various populations in mind at all times. This includes designing and implementing culturally sensitive curricula, hiring and promoting staff from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, as well as addressing gender and racial issues in the school. From the Connecticut State Department of Education Standards for School Leaders, a school leader “ understands the need for the educated person to value diversity, views cultural diversity as an asset and opportunity, and demonstrates sensitivity and respect for all cultural groups”. CSBE: Standards For School Leaders, 1999. Many sources are available to help school leaders find strategies to combat stereotypes, work with culturally diverse populations and meet the needs of all students.


            This means that teachers have to learn how to relate lesson content to the cultural backgrounds of their students. Two researchers have outlined a model that engages diverse learners. Wlodkowski, R & Ginsberg, M. (1995, September). A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Educational Leadership. The authors identify four conditions necessary before this can happen, establishing inclusion, developing positive attitudes, enhancing meaning, and engendering competence. This needs to be modeled and expected by school leaders for it to be successful, and even then, it is challenging. Most of the practical applications listed in the article involve identifying ways in which the teacher can make lesson content relevant to the particular culture and backgrounds of the students in the class. This leads to intrinsic motivation as the basis for learning, rather than the traditional “carrot and stick” approach.


            A population that more and more school leaders have to deal with is that of second language learners. (Also referred to as ESL, limited English proficiency learners). Not surprisingly, the strategies that work best with these learners are those that are most effective with populations as a whole. An effective school leader reinforces that idea in getting staff to buy in to modifying lessons to address this population. The challenge presented to educators is to help these students acquire language and content skills needed to succeed. Menken, K. & Look, K. (2000, February) Meeting the Needs of Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students. Schools in the Middle. Menken and Look outline effective strategies that include the need for the education community to make academic content accessible to LEP students, integrate language and content instruction, respect and incorporate students’ first languages in instruction, understand how differences in language and culture affect students’ classroom participation, insist that all educators take on the education of LEP students. These strategies are something that a good school leader models and insists on in all educators. The authors make the key point that high expectations are just as important, if not more so, for this group. Cooperative learning is not mentioned as much in this article, yet it is another key strategy in addressing the needs of this group.


            In order to model and expect these skills and techniques, it is important that a school leader continue to be familiar with the culture of the community they serve. This means taking such simple steps as walking around the community, talking to leaders and people to find their needs and habits, and being exposed to the media and issues that are important. Although being exposed to media and literature can help, there is no substitute for have first hand exposure to the culture and experiences that students bring to school with them.


            A key issue in being a school leader is being sensitive to gender issues in the classroom. Especially in my area of science and math, there are wide differences and perceptions between males and females in their skills, dispositions, and achievement. One way to combat this is to teach students ways to overcome stereotypes and expectations. It is often thought that girls are more suited to the school culture of learning that requires the liberal use of language skills such as writing and reading. Yet, it is still true that boys perform higher on standardized achievement tests in math and science. One study was reported on in a newspaper article that shows that this gender gap could be due in part to anxiety-inducing stereotypes. McNamara, M, (2004, January 20) In Fighting Stereotypes, Students Lift Test Scores. New York Times. The study, conducted by Dr. Aronson at New York University, involved the use of mentors at a junior high school. Girls that were taught that intelligence developed over time scored significantly higher on standardized math tests than girls who did not receive this information. The findings suggest that students who receive positive messages about their ability to learn and succeed academically they are less likely to conform to stereotypes, whether due to gender or background. Our education system rewards self-control and concentration, which would seem to favor girls. Poe, M. (2004, January) The Other Gender Gap. Atlantic Monthly. Poe reports that the acceptance rate into higher education has increased for girls, while it has remained steady for boys as their rate of identification as special education and increased. In math and science, teachers have to be constantly aware of the need to address different learning styles. This means such simple practices as using cooperative groups, requiring hands on labs, grading for participation, as well as written results, and using role models for students to be interested in the subject area.


            School leaders have to be an educated person in the sense of knowing about current theories and models in educational settings, from research to practice, as well as being well versed in all areas of curriculum, from science to history, from literature to the arts. However, they also have to be aware of the research and theory that are involved in leadership and supervision. As stated in the CSBE: Standards for School Leaders, the school leader “engages staff, parents and the community..”. This means that a school leader needs skills and abilities that make effective leadership. Some researchers have taken the idea of brain-based research and translated that into practices supervisors can use in conversations. Hurley, V., Greenblatt, R. & Cooper, B. (2003, May) Learning Conversations: Transforming Supervision. Principal Leadership. Hurley, Greenblatt & Cooper describe how leaders can use the new field of cognitive neuroscience to change the old “carrot-and-stick” method of summative and formative evaluations into learning conversations informed by cognitive theories of learning and memory. In this new model, the supervisor evolves into a mentor, and professional conversations are goal-driven, with a focus on developing reflective practice. The brain functions best when a balance is struck between creative tension and emotional safety. Too often, evaluators in a school setting choose between being strictly judgmental and strictly directive. Brain research shows that calm supportiveness, shared goals, paraphrasing, and conversations rich with content (left side of the brain) and context (right side of the brain), are most effective, and serve to cement mental links and develop lasting productive relationships between two colleagues. The authors also mention metacognitive reflection as keys to these learning conversations, finding about prior knowledge, and allowing for rehearsal and elaboration. If an administrator ignores or is unaware of the exciting implications of this brain based research on their daily interactions with other learning professionals, it is difficult to see how they can be thought of as an educated person.


            On important aspect is that a leader needs to be an active proponent of continuous professional development. In an article in Educational Leadership, Linda Darling-Hammond writes of the need for schools to be organized to support teachers’ continuous learning. Darling-Hammond, Linda (1998, February) Teacher Learning That Supports Student Learning. Educational Leadership. It is apparent that teachers need to understand their subject matter thoroughly, but more relevant to the role of school leader is the idea that there is a need to see how ideas connect across fields and to everyday life. A leader should make sure that the school is constantly infused with ideas of interdisciplinary learning, and that every teacher agrees on an overall cognitive map of the subjects being taught. This fits the standard that Connecticut has set that a school leader “knows that the educated person needs to understand the relationships among the academic disciplines, and how the disciplines are applied to real-world settings.” The author also mentions that teachers need to know how to decide what type of learning is most appropriate in various situations.


            In order to accomplish this for the teachers, school leaders have to be ready to examine new strategies for teacher learning. Simply talking about learning once a year as a large group is not always the most effective way to produce needed change. It is not surprising that the best teaching practices for students mirror the best practices for teacher professional development as well. Collaboration, studying, reflecting, group work, and practical application are the best way for teachers to apply new learning. I have found that mentorship programs are extremely effective, as well as intensive summer programs. Being involved with the state’s BEST mentor program has shown how effective the idea of teacher-produced portfolios can be towards guiding a teacher into increasing their own learning. It is not that the unit itself is a great improvement over others, it is the process of designing the portfolio around an essential question, producing daily reflections based on student learning, and working closely with a mentor through ought the entire portfolio process requires a teacher to do intensive self evaluation. Darling-Hammond relates programs that require new teachers to conduct their own inquiries through cases, action research, and structured reflections about practice. Sharing these reflections with colleagues and bouncing ideas off each other while in the actual time frame of teaching makes the learning meaningful and immediate. This role of the school leader as one who is a constant proponent of this type of professional development is crucial towards developing staff and leading them towards their own goal of becoming an educated person.


School leaders are often thought of as an instrument of change in their learning institution. It is important then, for them to understand the culture and trends that surround effective school change and leadership. Many case studies are available, including Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform, and a book by Michael Fullan. Fullan, M. (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco:Joessy-Bass. Fullan describes some important concepts in leading a school towards change. Several that a leader need to keep in mind include the goal is not to innovate the most, that a dip in performance and confidence is natural as one encounters new innovation, and that an open and caring culture is essential to effective change. This fundamental understanding of the key elements in a change process leads to effective results, as opposed to frustration and mistakes.


            One of the keys in effective school change is developing a collaborative relationship among the entire learning community. This is a key strategy espoused in the NASSP follow up report, Breaking Ranks II. NASSP (2004) Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform NASSP. The report outlines 7 Breaking Ranks II outlines 7 cornerstone strategies and 31 recommendations for school leaders to fundamentally change high schools. The book describes the need for meeting the three clusters of recommendations: Collaborative Leadership and Professional Learning Communities, Personalization, and Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment.


            Creating collaborative leadership and a professional learning community seems like an ideal for any aspiring administrator. A great emphasis is placed on the models used in successful schools for putting together school improvement teams, involving faculty as well as students and the community, and using data to initiate and drive curricular, schedule, and school culture changes. The continuation of the changes with ongoing professional development and personalized learning goals for teachers mirrors the invested learning activities of the students in a Breaking Ranks school. Once again, the most effective school leadership skills are translated to the most effective teaching skills.


            Being and modeling the idea of an educated person is important for all school leaders. It involves being knowledgeable about different subjects, current issues, cultures and background, educational research and theory, as well as effective strategies and trends. It involves modeling good teaching, communication, and relationship skills to all members of the community. It involves sharing a vision of learning with others, and using that to collaborate and work together. A school leader that has this in mind as their primary function; to share the vision of an educated person, will be the highly successful.