Education Opinion

Welcome Back to New York, Commissioner Elia

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 31, 2015 3 min read
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What is leadership....really? Who wants a leader....really? Is leadership always just a moment in time when all things come together? Could we believe that the Florida Superintendent of the Year for 2015 was a leader? Who would believe how soon after receiving that honor the superintendent would be terminated with a buyout of over a million dollars? And, who would believe that this resilient woman would become the Commissioner of Education in New York State within months after the buyout? Well done, Mary Ellen Elia. But what does all this say about public education, how it is governed and who leads it?

The moment we received the announcement that Mary Ellen Elia was named New York’s new Commissioner of Education, news outlets and bloggers broadcast her Florida departure raising questions of all sorts, looking for reassurance or dirt.

The NY Times reported:

A former school superintendent in Florida who led efforts to tie teacher evaluations and pay to student achievement and was fired after clashing with her board was appointed New York State’s education commissioner on Tuesday. The State Board of Regents voted unanimously to select MaryEllen Elia, the former superintendent of schools in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa and is the country’s eighth largest district.

This manner of meeting a new leader is not uncommon. We all know stories of a new superintendent being hired by a district while administrators and teachers form opinions before the new leader even walks into his/her new office. We are doubtful and untrusting or overwhelmingly relieved if the new person appears to carry our agenda into the position of power. So, what’s the New York background and who wins with the Elia appointment?

The previous commissioner, John B. King, Jr., was only 36 years old, had primarily a charter school background, was promoted from within and was New York’s first African American commissioner. He made few friends, brought in change that rocked the boat, was blamed for changes brought about by Governor Cuomo, seemed not to listen well, and most notably, alienated the teachers’ union. The call for his departure was clear. Few were unhappy when he moved on. So, who is surprised that the new commissioner’s profile is so different?

She is in her mid-sixties, has been a public school superintendent for 10 years (of a very large district at that), came from out of state, and is New York’s first female commissioner. Most interestingly, however, is the portrayal of her that is gaining traction in New York is that she is a teacher. She began her career teaching in western New York back in the 1970’s. She has been enthusiastically received by the teachers’ union leadership. Could there be a more clear opposite selected?

Now, we have a new opportunity with a new Commissioner. She knows the terrain....Common Core, tests and teacher evaluations...all were part of her time in Florida. How will we welcome her?

Who better than to learn from on this point is Diane Ravitch? A staunch supporter of education she sits firmly opposed to her own position of years past. No longer a supporter of testing and choice she is a welcomed speaker and author based upon not what she believed decades ago, but what she believes today. Perhaps, even what fuels her fire today and propels her thinking are the lessons learned in her own evolution after watching policies past fail.

The lesson seems a simple one, yet it is one that takes hard work. Children need, it, schools need it, organizations need it, our world needs it...open mindedness and open heartedness. Neither means we should not keep our eyes open and pay attention to what we learn along the way. But, they mean to extend welcome and allow the child, the parent, the teacher, the leader to demonstrate who they are and, then, let our trust follow.

Let us welcome Commissioner Elia by creating the space for her to lean into her new role without demanding she defend or explain things past. Let’s welcome her as open minded and open hearted educators. Let’s do our share to restore hope and embrace change in our system leaving cynicism and doubt behind. Certainly, our eyes remain open as we allow for trust to develop over time, but, first, extending welcome is key. New York is a leader in so many things, let this be an opportunity for New York to step up and begin with a new commissioner. Her job isn’t easy. New York is a tough place. But, most would agree we need a leader as commissioner...whatever that means. We will let her define it as she works.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.