Moderator Deborah Jewell-Sherman (from left) speaks with panelists Roland Barth, Allison Gaines Pell, and Irvin Scott on "The Future of Leadership: Perspectives on the Principalship,” a panel exploring a range of topics, including the changing role of school principals, the importance of accountability and standards, and the development of teacher leaders.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

A matter of principals

4 min read

Panel explores need to foster empowered teachers, interested students

“Learn, or we will hurt you” is a prevailing gospel in the nation’s primary, middle, and high schools, a longtime educator said during a panel discussion Wednesday, and it’s one that needs to change.

“Think about all the ways we have devised to hurt people who don’t learn,” complained Roland Barth, a former Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) faculty member, who described measures like detention of students and the threats against educators who could lose their credentials if they fail to comply with certification demands.

Barth, the founder of HGSE’s The Principals’ Center, described coming across a group of high school students who were nearing graduation. The students, gathered around a burning 55-gallon barrel on the campus, were joyfully tossing their books and notes into the flames.

“What those students were telling us is, ‘You can’t hurt me anymore. I am throwing this stuff away, and nothing bad is going to happen to me.’ ”

To combat that pervasive attitude, educators and administrators need to make the problem more visible, Barth said, and transform their message to become “learn or you will hurt yourself.”

Barth made his case during a panel discussion at HGSE’s Longfellow Hall to honor The Principals’ Center’s 30th anniversary. For three decades, the center has supported current and future education leaders through programming, networks, and professional development.

The panel, convened to discuss “The Future of Leadership: Perspectives on the Principalship,” explored a range of topics, including the changing role of school principals, the importance of accountability and standards, and the development of teacher leaders.

A vital part of promoting effective leadership in education, and in turn effective teaching, involves teachers themselves. Principals can’t do that alone, the panelists agreed. Teachers need to be recruited by principals to take on leadership roles in their schools. From helping organize a supply closet to figuring out ways to work with students who break the rules, teachers can lead in important ways.

When teachers take leadership responsibilities, the teacher/principal relationship transforms from one of adversaries to colleagues, said Barth. Such teacher/leader roles also “unlock the tremendous overabundance of underutilized talent that gets left in the parking lot every day.”

Asked about the future of education, Irvin Scott said he is hopeful, in part because of current Harvard work aimed at identifying great teaching. Scott, the deputy director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, cited the ongoing “Measures of Effective Teaching,” a comprehensive national study led by Tom Kane, HGSE professor of education and economics, and backed by the foundation, that is developing a common understanding of “what great teaching looks like.”

Such teaching, Scott said, needs the support of principals.

“Great leaders … understand how to protect teaching and ensure that teachers come together and collaborate in a powerful way.”

A mentor — “someone that you can just speak honestly to, who will listen to you and who knows you, and can reflect back to you what you are saying” — can offer a school leader vital support, said panelist Allison Gaines Pell.

Pell, founder and principal of the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters school in Brooklyn, New York, also encouraged the current and future leaders in the crowd to become mentors themselves.

“Both of those types of relationships are very important and very sustaining,” she said.

The event’s moderator, Deborah Jewell-Sherman, former superintendent of Richmond Public Schools in Virginia and a senior lecturer in education at HGSE, asked the panelists for parting thoughts. Scott offered a poetic response.

“Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow,” he said, quoting from author Langston Hughes’ work “Dreams.”

Millions of children and teachers come to school every day with dreams, Scott added, “and principals are at the critical space of ensuring that those dreams come true.”