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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘The Aspiring Principal’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 11, 2019 10 min read
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Baruti K. Kafele agreed to answer questions about his book, The Aspiring Principal: 50 Critical Questions for New and Future School Leaders.

A public school educator in New Jersey for nearly 30 years, Baruti K. Kafele has distinguished himself as a classroom teacher, a school principal, and now as a sought-after speaker on education.

LF: Your book is “targeting” educators who want to be assistant principals and principals and those who are new to those positions. This may be an unfair question, but of all the advice you offer in the book, what do you think would be the most important question that they ask themselves—and why do you think it’s the most important?

Baruti K. Kafele:

I actually love this question. The first question in the book, “How will I reconcile the reality of the correlation between my leadership effectiveness and the success or failure of my school?,” sets the stage for the remainder of the book by getting the reader to understand that the effectiveness of the school they lead hinges on the effectiveness of the leadership. I wanted the aspiring and new leaders to fully consider this before we moved on to the other questions, which are all rooted in this first question.

The most important question that I want them to ask themselves, however, is the second question: “How will I maintain a focus on my number-one priority—student achievement—while dealing with the minute-by-minute challenges that I will encounter daily?” This question is huge and must drive all aspects of school leadership because the bottom line for this thing that we call school is learning, and we measure learning on what students achieve and how they achieve it. The leader has to drive learning through solid instructional leadership. The leader must set the tone for learning though his or her daily walk. The leader has to ensure that learning is not just a buildingwide priority but THE number-one priority for the entire school.

The challenge is that the principal doesn’t solely wear the “achievement hat.” The principal wears countless hats, including hats that they have never conceptualized before. Somehow, as principal, they have to wear all these hats while still making student achievement their number-one priority. This will require ongoing assessment as to how they lead the effort of shaping the overall climate and culture of their schools, how they utilize and empower the human capital within their buildings, how they go about prioritizing student achievement, and how they supervise staff. I say to principals in my leadership seminars daily that the purpose of their supervision of staff is the continued improvement of their instruction. When the competing hats take up the majority of the principal’s time and energy, it limits the amount of time and energy they have toward helping teachers to become better instructionally, and students are the ones who suffer.

LF: You discuss the difference between equality and equity. Can you “unpack” the differences between the two and how a new administrator might proactively respond to educators who don’t understand how to best deal with those ideas in the classroom?

Baruti K. Kafele:

I am known to say that as it relates to equality in schools, the only place for equality is in a museum. In a nutshell, equality is the goal of giving all students the same thing, regardless of need. In a typical classroom, there are a variety of skill levels, ability levels, interests, and needs. Additionally, each student is bringing his or her own unique experiences, realities, challenges, obstacles, goals, and aspirations, which all factor into a youngster’s interest, aspirations, and ability to learn. A teacher’s “equality mindset” is not going to get it done in a classroom with such diverse needs. On the other hand, in an equitable classroom, the teacher recognizes the individuality of the student and makes it a priority to meet each and every student where they are through relationships, differentiated instruction, and personalized learning approaches.

School leaders must be in classrooms observing instruction regularly. They must not only observe instruction but conduct ongoing pre- and post-observation conferences. An important component of these discussions would be assisting the teacher with creating and developing a truly equitable learning environment and then homing in on the evidence of equity during observations.

Children invariably suffer in equality-based classroom learning environments. These classrooms typically include the following characteristics:

  • Teacher-centered learning environment
  • Culturally irresponsive relations with students
  • Culturally irrelevant pedagogy
  • Potential for unconscious, implicit, and/or explicit bias
  • Unhealthy climate and culture
  • Ongoing behavioral infractions and/or disciplinary referrals

In comparison, in an equity-based classroom environment, children have a much higher probability for success because in the equity-based classroom, it’s all about the students. These classrooms typically include the following characteristics:

  • Student-centered learning environment
  • Culturally responsive relations with students
  • Culturally relevant pedagogy
  • Teacher’s willingness to embrace possible biases (unconscious, implicit, and/or explicit)
  • Healthy classroom climate and culture
  • Reduction in behavioral infractions and/or disciplinary referrals

As a school leader who has prioritized student achievement, the ongoing conversation with staff on equitable classroom practices is unavoidable if meeting the academic needs of all students is the priority.

LF: You particularly highlight the importance of four “prongs” that were important to you in your principal leadership:

* Culturally responsive teaching and learning

* Culturally relevant curriculum

* Empowerment of young men and young women

* Buildingwide culture of motivation

Can you paint a picture of one action you took to make each a reality?

Baruti K. Kafele:

The aforementioned variables were cornerstones in who I was as a building principal. Following are one action each that I took toward maximizing all four:

a. Culturally responsive teaching and learning

As a leader, I had to ensure that staff knew their students beyond the names on the rosters and were building solid relationships with them, relating to them, understanding them, demonstrating their care, concern, appreciation, and respect for them, demonstrating empathy toward them and a commitment to them. What was key here was the relatability between teacher and student with the teacher not judging, denigrating, or condemning a student because of different cultural backgrounds but, instead, the teacher making it a priority to relate to the student culturally. This required an earnest effort in getting to know students beyond the confines of instruction.

b. Culturally relevant curriculum

Throughout my years in education, I have been a staunch proponent of culturally relevant pedagogy and a culturally relevant curricula to the extent that when I was a principal of a middle school in a New Jersey district that had a 98 percent black student body, I sought permission from my superintendent to create curricula and programs that reflected our students racially, ethnically, and culturally. I was granted permission and, thus, created the Sojourner Truth Middle School Institute of African-Centered Studies. This was inclusive of the addition of three African-centered history courses and ensured that all other courses were culturally relevant to our student population. The results were dramatic and were evident in the overall climate and culture of the school, which became the vehicle for achievement to soar in the early years of No Child Left Behind.

c. Empowerment of Young Men and Women

I have always worked in urban communities, where there was often a sizeable absence of fathers in the lives of my students. I felt my students suffered enormously for not having their fathers in their lives. I felt that my boys suffered because it deprived them of important models of men in their immediate space. Though many of them had men in their lives, there was a shortage of “men,” as I am known to make the distinction. In other words, as I say to young men often, “You are born male. You have to earn your manhood.” To meet this need, I created a “Young Men’s Empowerment Program” that utilized the men on my staff and hundreds of men I recruited from the community from all walks of life to have discussions with young men about a wide assortment of topics. Just as I mentioned with the culturally responsive curriculum, this program also played a significant role in raising our achievement levels. We taught our young men leadership, history, oratory, goal setting, purposeful living, and a host of topics that would be useful as they worked to become successful, upstanding men in society.

I was inspired to put this program in place by national data and I encourage other schools and districts to do the same regularly. Interestingly, young ladies in my school district began to question why I didn’t have a similar program in place for them. This was when I was a high school principal. Because so many of them approached me, I launched a “Young Women’s Empowerment Program.” It, too, was a huge success. It was led by women on my staff, and, as with the young men’s program, we recruited successful women in the community to become involved and serve as mentors. Both programs made it a real joy to come to work every day.

d. Buildingwide culture of motivation

There’s so much that I can say here, but in the interest of time, I will reduce my response to two actions I made in relation to early morning. I knew instinctively that neither my office (nor my car driving in) was the place for me to be when students were entering the building in the morning. If I was going to successfully build a “culture of motivation,” I needed to be outside greeting them all. I let nothing interfere with me greeting my students (not even freezing temperatures) as I knew it had a tremendous impact on the overall climate and culture of the school.

Once the students were in the building, I needed to build upon the morning greeting with the morning message (from me). In some cases, this was in-person in the auditorium as a convocation and, in other cases, it was delivered over the PA system. The bottom line was to deliver a message that laid a solid foundation and tone for the day and mentally prepared students for learning, regardless of the challenges, obstacles, or difficulties occurring in their lives. I brought a message of hope, upliftment, and empowerment every morning that played a significant role toward creating a buildingwide culture of motivation. As a new or aspiring principal, you, too, must always be thinking about what you can do to keep not only your students motivated but your staff as well.

LF: What’s the biggest mistake you made as a new administrator, and what should you have done, instead?

Baruti K. Kafele:

I’m not sure I would call this a mistake, but I will call it a lesson learned. As a new, first-year principal, I thought that if I could create order in the building, the academic side would take care of itself. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As an urban educator, I had this stereotypical disciplinary mentality. My primary focus was on order and discipline. I had to grow into my instructional leadership over time. As I saw that order and discipline were not necessarily translating into achievement, it didn’t take me much time to figure out that I needed to make significant adjustments in who I was as the leader of the school.

In order for learning to occur at optimal levels, there is, in fact, a need for order and a need for discipline, but neither is the be all, end all. They are both vehicles to get to the number-one priority: student achievement. I learned that rather quickly once I saw that the former didn’t work and I have maintained that instructional-leadership focus ever since.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Baruti K. Kafele:

There’s a chapter in the book entitled, “Thoughts to Consider for the School Administrator Job Interview.” I have met many potentially great prospective assistant principals or great assistant principals who were ready for the principalship who couldn’t move to the next level because they didn’t know how to successfully interview for the two positions. I was flooded with emails, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, etc., for years for advice. It got to the point where I couldn’t handle the volume of inquiries so I made a few YouTube videos on how to prepare for the interviews for these two leadership positions, and they went viral. Hundreds got hired. How do I know? Because hundreds reached out to me to tell me they were hired. I decided that this information needed to be in written form as well so I devoted an entire chapter to interview preparation for the administrator’s job interview. I am confident that hundreds more, if not thousands, will benefit from this vital information and be able to use it to land their next leadership position.

LF: Thanks, Baruti!

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