Published Online:

Books: Readings

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In The Measure of Our Success, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, writes an open letter to her three sons--and to the American public. The book is organized around "25 lessons for life,'' a sampling of the author's life observations, made up of equal parts advice, historical anecdote, and inspiration. In lesson 20, excerpts of which follow, she describes the traits of leadership and how the impulse to serve may be nurtured:


[O]pportunities for young people to serve their communities can play a major role in restoring hope and moral example to our nation. Young people need to believe they are needed and adults need to be reminded that our children and youth all have something to contribute and are precious resources to be nurtured and cherished. The development of youth-service programs across the country reinforces both of these crucial messages, unleashing the creative energies of young people to combat some of our most pressing social problems.

The days of thinking about service as something to occupy the time just of middle-class youths in the suburbs have passed. Indeed, poor and minority youths may profit the most from service activities and give the most in return, if we provide the resources in low-income communities to create such opportunities, and if we remove the barriers that sometimes keep them from participating.

Leadership and service are by no means limited to visible public roles. Be a quiet servant-leader and example in your home, school, workplace, and community. You have a role to exercise either positively or negatively every minute of the day.

Have you ever noticed how one example, good or bad, can prompt others to follow? How one illegally parked car can give permission for others to do likewise? How one racial joke can fuel another? How one sour person can dampen a meeting or one complainer sap positive energy? Well, the converse is also true. One or a few positive people can set the tone in an office or congregation or school. Just doing the right and decent thing can set the pace for others to follow in all kinds of settings. America is in urgent need of a band of moral guerrillas who simply decide to do what appears to be right heedless of the immediate consequences.

As one anonymous leader said (better than I can): "The world needs more men [and women] who do not have a price at which they can be bought; who do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; whose handshake is an ironclad contract; who are not afraid of risk; who are honest in small matters as they are in large ones; whose ambitions are big enough to include others; who know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; who do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; who still have friends they made 20 years ago; who are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion and do not believe in 'consensus'; who are occasionally wrong and always willing to admit it. In short, the world needs leaders.''

The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours, by Marian Wright Edelman. Copyright 1992 by Marian Wright Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass. 02108.

The most effective school leaders are not "top down'' authority figures, writes Thomas J. Sergiovanni in Moral Leadership. They often substitute the traditional and bureaucratic lines of authority, the Trinity University education professor says, for a more persuasive, results-oriented brand of leadership. Mr. Sergiovanni calls such authority-wielding "stewardship'' and shows, in the passage below, how it is exemplified by a Philadelphia principal who involves her whole community:

Shortly after becoming principal at Blaine School, Madeleine

Cartwright organized a raffle to buy a washer and dryer for the school. They are used every morning, to launder the clothes of many of the children. Ms. Cartwright often does the washing personally, believing that this is the only way many of the children know what it is like to have clean clothes. In her words, "This is one of the things you can do to bring about a change. My kids look good.''

When Ms. Cartwright arrived at Blaine, she found a school that was "black as soot.'' She told the parents, "This place is dirty! How can your kids go to school in a place like this? We're going to clean this building this summer. Raise your hands if I can depend on you. Keep your hands up! Somebody get their names!'' Eighteen parents showed up and began the work. "We cleaned it, and cleaned it good. I made these parents know that you don't accept anything less than that which is right because you live in North Philadelphia!''

Parental involvement at Blaine is high. Parents help supervise the yard in the morning and the hallway during the day. They work in classrooms, help prepare food, and decorate the school. "Everybody is involved in the washing.'' ...

Some experts on the principalship might comment, "All well and good, but what about Ms. Cartwright's being an instructional leader? What about her paying attention to teaching and learning, to charting, facilitating, and monitoring the school's educational program?'' Ms. Cartwright does that, all right, and with a flair. As the writer Richard Louv points out [in a 1990 article in The New York Times Magazine], Ms. Cartwright maintains that there are two types of principals, "office principals'' and "classroom principals,'' and she is clearly the latter. She is in and out of classrooms regularly, often taking over the teaching of classes. She not only communicates high expectations but also demands performance from her staff. She is a no-nonsense disciplinarian, as well as a devoted and loving one.

But all this "instructional leadership'' just is not enough to make this school work. What makes Blaine work is that Ms. Cartwright practices leadership by washing clothes, scrubbing the building, and, yes, cleaning toilets (one of the chores that Mahatma Gandhi cheerfully claimed for himself as part of his leadership in the Indian independence movement). Both Ms. Cartwright and Gandhi were practicing something called "servant leadership.'' In the end, it is servant leadership, based on a deep commitment to values and emerging from a groundswell of moral authority, that makes the critical difference in the lives of Blaine's students and their families.

As Mr. Louv explains, "Maybe Madeline Cartwright's dreams are naÃive, maybe not. But they do make a kind of mathematical sense: one safe and clean school, one set of clean clothes, one clean toilet, one safe house--and then another safe school ... and another ... and another.

Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement, by Thomas J. Sergiovanni. Copyright 1992 by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94104.

In America's Best Schools, Daniel Seymour, a consultant, and Terry Seymour, a New Jersey English teacher, examine the tactics that 30 "teachers of the year'' employ to meet the needs of their students. A common trait, they find, is assertiveness, or the ability, as they write, to "act forcefully, if necessary, to get what they consider necessary for their students.'' That capacity is illustrated in the excerpt below by the story an award-winning Wisconsin teacher tells the authors:


Unlike the stark abandonment that typifies the lives of many kids in the projects of Brooklyn, indifference in Beaver Dam, Wis., is more subtle. Lee Schmitt directs a science fair each year, a voluntary program in which 60 percent to 70 percent of the students get involved. The projects require a tremendous amount of time on the part of Mr. Schmitt and the participating students. "A few years ago,'' [he says,] "a student's parents decided to take a vacation for the
week that we were doing our science fair. The student was in tears, because she had worked very hard on her project, and she wanted to be there and have the interview--and have a chance at a ribbon and perhaps go to the state competition.''

"It took some doing, but I made special arrangements for her to

talk with the people who were going to be the judges, to set up her project in advance, and I found a friend to watch the project and take it down--the inconveniences went on and on. She did not wind up with a ribbon and didn't go to the state competition. And, to be honest, the project was not fantastic. It was a good project, and she got a very good grade, but it was not competitive with the winners that year.''

It would have been easy to stick to the rules and ignore the student's enthusiasm, but the weekday warriors of this book simply don't let that happen. Back to our story.... "She came up to me afterwards and said, 'Why did you do it? Why did you go through all that hassle for me when you didn't have to?' I stopped for a second, because I hadn't realized I had done all this extra work. I said, 'It's my job.' ... Teaching is a people business, and you have to make a sacrifice for the students who are learning. To tell the truth, I never even thought about it. I probably spent six or seven hours just on that. I didn't win anything. I don't know,'' he laughed, "I'm thinking about this now and wondering, 'Why the heck did I do all that?' Because a light had gone on in her head. She's in college now, a chemistry major.''

America's Best Classrooms: How Award-Winning Teachers Are Shaping Our Children's Future, by Daniel Seymour & Terry Seymour. Copyright 1992 by the authors. Peterson's Guides, Box 2123, Princeton, N.J. 08543-2123.

"The basics of school''--teaching students citizenship, commitment to community, and the democratic tradition--are practically being forced out of the classroom, according to George H. Wood, author of Schools That Work. The Ohio University education professor examines schools that cultivate these basics, despite the impediments thrown in their way. A prime source of these impediments, he implies in the following excerpt, may be the "legislated-excellence movement'' in which state mandate can overpower local initiative:

Having watched the performance of our state legislatures, I am not optimistic that much can be done in this area. With mindless abandon and in a seeming rush to get elected, legislators mandate one quick fix after another that does little but hurt schools. Driven by a myopic concern with standardized test scores and possessing little understanding of life inside schools, the states, charged with control of public education, seem destined to continue making the same mistakes of overregulation....

The new accountability movement reflected in the legislated-excellence drive is anything but genuine accountability. How can we believe that a teacher who is told how to teach, what to teach, how long to teach it, and how to test it can be held genuinely accountable for the outcome? It's like telling a physician how to diagnose, what treatment must be given, when it is to be given, and then holding him/her responsible if the patient dies. Instead of using this straitjacket approach to schooling, legislatures could better direct their attention to enabling schools to promote excellence rather than attempting to force them to. Two simple things are called for.

First, set clear state goals for public schools that are reasonably related to the schools' missions. Goals such as guaranteeing every student a job will not work. Employment is a function of a healthy economy, not diplomas. Goals that establish reading levels, graduation rates, and public service are feasible. These goals should be widely debated and publicized and become the hallmark of each state's schools.

Second, get out of the way. While ensuring that students will not be discriminated against, or put in physical danger, legislatures should remove many, if not all, regulations placed on how schools operate. The amount of time spent on subject-matter areas, staffing, and length of day, for example, should be left up to the local school district. If, and only if, a district proves itself unable to handle this responsibility, the state should step in. Short of that, schools should be encouraged to make their own way in designing the types of experiences that enrich the lives of children.

Schools That Work, by George H. Wood. Copyright 1992 by George H. Wood. Reprinted by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Books, 375 Hudson Street, New York, N.Y. 10014.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented