Stephen Sroka

Tips from the Trenches: Administration

During the last few months, I have had the chance to talk with several speakers who strongly affected their audiences. I started to think about the remarkable leaders with whom I have worked over the years and how they have made huge differences with their incredible wisdom, insight, and actions. I contacted some of them and asked them to comment on working in education in these difficult times. I asked them to share some take-away messages, so that, if they were speaking, what would they want their audience to remember? Read the other installments in the series: school safety, student services, and teaching.

Leadership is essential to effective education. Here are some "Tips from the Trenches" from the school leaders and leaders of national education organizations themselves.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone and recent speaker at the National School Boards Association's annual conference in Boston:

  • "The cost of education is cheaper than the cost of incarceration. We must invest more with kids who need more now, or pay later."
  • "Our world is changing. Businesses have seen a need for change and have made changes. Why can't schools?"
  • "We need to stand up and fight for our kids. Our job is not to try to figure out what our kids can live without, but rather what can our kids live for."

Esther Monclova-Johnson, director of equity affairs for Virginia Beach City Public Schools:

  • "Our purpose in education is to help create learning environments that are culturally responsive, engaging, and respectful of the young people that we serve."
  • "In order to fully engage in this tremendous learning experience that lasts 13 years or more, we should honor the true relationship. If we want to know what interests and excites our youth, we need to talk to them and share in constructive dialogue. If we want to ensure that they acquire the skills they need to be successful in life, then we have to make learning relevant, rigorous, and exciting."
  • "We have to pay attention to the development of resiliency skills in their educational experience."

C. Ed Massey, president of whole child partner National School Boards Association:

  • "Leaders in today's world must be flexible. Adaptive leadership is meeting the challenge of a changing educational environment."
  • "Leaders must push people to their potential while not pushing them beyond their capacity."
  • "Leaders must rise above the trenches so as to see the battlefield globally rather than locally. By doing so, problem solving becomes contextual."
  • "Leading is dangerous work and not for the ill of heart. Many times those not familiar with the issues at hand dislike the message and as a direct result, they blame the messenger. Leaders continue to promote a message even in the midst of travail. They understand that the conveyance of their message is their role and they don't take the criticism personally. As a result, persistence has a chance to prevail."

Betsy Landers, president of whole child partner National Parent Teacher Association:

  • "It's simple: parent involvement equals student achievement. Decades of research continue to show a direct link between family engagement and student success, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, religion, or background."
  • "A 2010 study examining school improvement work in Chicago's lowest performing public schools found that success depends on five necessary ingredients. Not surprisingly, family engagement is one of them. Like baking a cake, researchers found that if even one ingredient was not in place, there was no recipe for success. We know this to be true, yet we continue to fail to see family engagement made a priority in many reform movements."

Barbara-Jane Paris, principal at Canyon vista Middle School in Austin, Tex., and president-elect of whole child partner National Association of Secondary School Principals:

  • "Programs don't change behavior, people do. Chose the right ones. Fire a few."
  • "Work smarter, not harder. Give everyone a productive role by knowing what drives them."
  • "If you put the wrong task with the wrong person, they work harder, but the mission fails. It's like straightening the chairs on the Titanic."
  • "Speak with one voice. In difficult times, there is rarely one solution—if there were, the situation would never have happened. Pick an underlying principle and stick with it."
  • "Above all: students first."

Senator Richard Marcellais, North Dakota State Senator (D-9), chairman of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and president of National Indian School Board Association:

  • "Native American schools have the lowest AYP scores in the nation. What happened with No Child Left Behind was that it was for only non-native schools."
  • "As a Native American, I believe that non-natives need to understand the culture of each tribe because each tribe is different and has different beliefs."
  • "In order to educate the Native American students, I believe educators need to better understand the issues and concerns and be able to communicate on the culture level."
  • "As a senator, I am on the education committee because I believe education is the most important thing to help everyone in their lives."

© 2013 Stephen R. Sroka, PhD, Lakewood, Ohio. Used with permission.

Stephen Sroka, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, and president of Health Education Consultants. He has worked in schools for more than 30 years. Connect with Sroka on his website or by e-mail at

Comments (1)


August 20, 2014

    The article above includes some truly wonderful ideas to get education on track.  While all contributors suggest worthwhile ideas, I resonate most those of Monclova Johnson and Paris.  But no one has mentioned a real key upon which we must start to bring focus to improve education in America.

    There is too much testing starting in the elementary years, and this testing has changed the nature of teaching in the USA.  The whole idea of the testing is accountability—we need to hold teachers accountable so we can get rid of the bad ones.  Principals need to look good on tests, so they put pressure on teachers to do well.  Teachers want to look good for their own sake, and so they spend more time initially teaching and later reviewing the skills that are tested.

    The focus once placed on curriculum objectives changes to a focus on objectives tested by the state.  And, again, teachers spend more time initially teaching and later reviewing those objectives.  Teachers forgo teaching some of their very best units to do this.

    My statements aren’t theoretical; I’ve witnessed this, and I’ve done it myself.  In addition to written tests, my district even started giving a computer test to elementary students and above for which the teachers were allowed to know neither the questions nor the answers.  Still, the students would receive scores which were given to the teachers and parents.  How can a teacher possibly trust the scores from a test for which he/she are not allowed to know the questions or answers?  How can a teacher explain them to the parents?  And how does the teacher improve his/her teaching so that the child will score better on the next test?

    How many teachers have been fired because of poor test scores on these tests?  I don’t know of one, although I would imagine it does happen in some places in the nation.  I just know that in my 30 years teaching, I saw two teachers I believed should have been fired.  The others knocked themselves out.  Every Friday before school the staff lounge was full of exhausted teachers having that cup of coffee to get them started on the day or resting their heads on the lounge tables until the bell rang.

    So though this massive amount of testing we have detected a very few inferior teachers, but we have taken away teachers’ freedom to teach their very best. 

    And if we look at Finland’s approach, the approach that leads the world in learning by students, we find no testing at all in the elementary grades, and little through high school.  Good grief.  In the USA we have placed the accountability of teachers and administrators above learning by students.  Accountability is our goal, not learning, and as we have sewn, so do we reap.

    Let’s end almost all the testing, place learning over accountability, and take a fresh look at what children are and how they learn.  Because if there is one thing we’ve proven with all this testing, it’s that we have forgotten children, and even what children truly are, in the USA.

    How do children learn best?  I think we have lost sight of that in the U.S.A.
Let’s see what we can borrow from the nations with more successful student learners, and maybe on the way we will start to relearn what a child is and how to help him or her learn to their potential.  There is no time to waste.

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