Hardest Hue to Hold

Look, up in the office: it’s a bandwagon! It’s a juggernaut! It’s education by the numbers with accountability! This movement, combining the best managerial principles of Lady Bracknell[1] and Marshal Stalin[2], says that any statistics are better than none, that statistics are normative not descriptive, and that when a principal or teacher is shown by dubious statistics to be doing, or presiding over, a bad job, the best decision is excision.

But there are alternative and truly effective ways to produce good results, and so here are stories about people of my acquaintance—principals, other administrators, teachers, and, yes, even a consultant, who worked outside the Bracknellian-Stalinist paradigm to bring good education to their schools. Historians, anthropologists, and parabolists all know the educative and explanatory power of good stories judiciously told and used, so why not educators?

One day back in the 1990’s my principal and I went to the Orange Farm “informal settlement” (shantytown) southwest of Johannesburg. We were in a large truck carrying unneeded school supplies to the Leshata Secondary School, which had made news because its graduates had scored between 95 and 100% passes in the “Matrics,” South Africa’s comprehensive school-leaving exams. The results were unprecedented, but after we arrived, I came very quickly to understand what was happening.

The Principal, Mr. Moeketsi Molelekua, welcomed us at the gate. When we came in, we discovered that the students, all in uniform, were coming out to the school’s assembly-ground (no auditorium: too expensive) to greet us too. The students, most of whom lived in shacks without heat or electricity, stood in files to gave us a traditional black South African welcome with thanks: they sang in Sepedi, the predominant mother-tongue. The singing was joyous, full-throated, and beautiful. My principal and I briefly thanked them for their welcome, and they listened attentively and silently even though (we knew) most of them could not understand American-accented English.

After this welcome, than which a more moving one could not be imagined, Mr. Molelekua immediately gave a speech that turned out to be more moving. Within about ten seconds I understood why this school was getting 95% pass rates. Mr. Molelekua had an extraordinary charisma, forensic power, and eloquence, which he used in the service of his belief that education would transform South Africa and improve the lives of its people, in particular the students standing before him.

During out talks after the assembly (his office had his own modest desk, two plastic chairs for visitors, his assistant’s table, a small copy machine used sparingly, and a computer without an internet connection), I realized further that Mr. Molelekua’s belief was strong and genuine. He himself achieved a university education under the old regime in spite of economic and legal impediments while holding down a full-time job and supporting his family, and he pictured his students as in some very important ways exactly like himself.

He and the teachers kept the school open after hours into the evening on school nights so that the children, who often had no light or heat to study by and were crowded with their families into single-room shacks, would have a place to do their work. Believing that parents’ help and advice was essential to the operation of a good school, he would regularly see up to forty parents a day, seeking them out when they didn’t come to him. He invited parents to help him choose new teachers, and he accepted their advice. He visited the neighborhoods served by his school, where he was well known to parents and other members of the community.

In short, he was an educational leader, not a businessman. While I doubt that any administrative credential could confer on anyone the qualities that Mr. Molelekua brought to his calling, I feel saddened and upset that in the U. S., states and school districts seem to be moving away from the belief that educational leadership, however recognized, is what is needed in a principal or a superintendent, and instead that a programmer or a publisher with a plan and a knife will know better how to run a school or a district.

(The sad turn on “nothing gold can stay,” if my information is correct, is that Mr. Molelekua is no longer at Leshata and that the school’s results have sunk to ordinariness. I hope it is not true. Part of the reason that “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” in 1990’s South Africa was the unpretentious but white-hot conviction of (extra)ordinary people like Mr. Molelekua that their decisions and actions would make a difference in their and their children’s lives, and that these beliefs, not statistics, were their guidance. So dawn goes down to day.)

But good education need not be the result of decisions by administrators. I had the happy good fortune to work at a high school that over a period of eight or ten years developed a remarkable productive collegiality among teachers. It was as if a roomful of Messrs, Mmes, and Mss Molelekua found ways to transpose their convictions into good teaching and learning without a single administrative ukase. Our principal generously kept to a laissez-faire style of running the high school because that was exactly right given the conditions. Some of the credit was due to the ingenious consultant Mr. Martin Skelton, for his approach respected teachers and gave them the time they needed to embrace his suggestions, which included a plan for the evaluation of teachers not by administrators but by their colleagues. We also devised a program of “writing across the curriculum.” We had a wonderfully varied offering of “activities” for our students in addition to the core of academics. My own contributions included help in the revamping of the English curriculum, work on the adoption of reading and writing assessments that we devised and graded ourselves (we used them to assess our programs, not our students and certainly not our teachers), supervising the adoption of “writing across the curriculum,” and running an outreach program to a nearby orphanage. I also set up a “TOK trip” on which students taking Theory of Knowledge camped by a riverside and mixed fun with work on their culminating “TOK Presentations,” which were given in a conference setting outside the classroom. Ms. DM, the I.B. Coordinator,  taught physics, rode horses, and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with students when she wasn’t running the I.B program. Mr. JW established an international Model United Nations conference. Mr. BK, the Activities Director and P.E. teacher, helped run the MUN conference, set up a program in which NBA players met with local disadvantaged students in a kind of basketball clinic, and organized invitational tournaments in I forget how many sports. Mr. OF, an Olympic medalist with a Ph.D., made student government real for many years, except one, during which XX, a clever and energetic stinker, was the student body president.

It is important to see that the good work described here has nothing to do with strategic planning or business models. It has nothing to do with statistics. It has nothing to do with elimination of undesirable elements. Instead, it has to do with educational leadership, whether by inspired principals or by devoted teachers. It has to do with verve in the service of deeply held beliefs. It has to do with respect and nurture that regard the materials they work on as live and fragile and not as lumber to be hammered, nailed, or burned.

[1] “Statistics … are laid down for our guidance.”

[2] “No man, no problem.”

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