A is for Audacity

By Cedrick

A Is for Audacity:

Lessons in Leadership from Lorraine Monroe Kathy Checkley Lorraine Monroe helped transform an apathetic, low-performing school in central Harlem into a place of high expectations and greatly improved student achievement. The former teacher and administrator now directs the Lorraine Monroe Leadership Institute, and she is tireless in her quest to help other educators adopt her model for reform. Monroe knows firsthand what kind of leadership is required to achieve change.

It's been more than 10 years since you led the overhaul of Intermediate School 10 and turned it into the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York. What helped you accomplish what many thought was impossible? What lessons in leadership can we learn from that experience?

We were able to achieve what we did in that school because we believed we could. We were up against an attitude—an assumption—that the geographic location of a school could determine whether great education could happen there.

However, I had attended a great junior high school, JHS 81, in central Harlem, and I gained the skills and knowledge I needed to go on to a good high school and beyond. So, I looked back and reflected on why the schools I attended were so good, and it came down to the principals. They had vision, and they acted on their vision. Many leaders don't get beyond the envisioning stage. You have to have the dream, but you also have to know what particular actions—and I really mean specific strategies—will make that vision a reality. I knew how excellent the Frederick Douglass Academy could be, and I also identified what we needed to do to achieve the dream.

It's vision plus action, then.Can you give us an example?

Certainly. Let's say we have kids who come to us who don't have the basic skills. Our vision would be to bring them up to grade level. Then, we would have to figure out how to do that. At Frederick Douglass, we decided to implement mandatory tutorials for the students who were not achieving at grade level. The students had no choice—they had to go to the tutorials. Why? Because I just don't think a 12-year-old has the maturity to understand the long-term ramifications of deciding to opt out of receiving help.

A year after that policy was implemented, we went from a bottom- to top-ranking school in reading and math. Soon, we didn't even have to ask kids to attend the sessions. They would come to me and ask, “When is that tutorial going to start, Dr. Monroe?” The students saw the efficacy of this additional tutoring. Kids aren't stupid—they know they should be getting smarter every day, and they want to succeed.

You also instituted nonnegotiable rules for students—they must come to school prepared for class, they must not wear hats in the building, and so on. Teachers had to be disciplined in their teaching, as well—they had to list learning objectives on the board every day, for example. Why such an emphasis on order? So many children today—and not just poor children—come from chaotic and unpredictable homes. Order in school gives them the stability and structure they need. In my teaching model, all kinds of programs can fit in the structure. However, without question, there is order.

Every teacher has to have a plan, for instance. Every teacher must identify the aim of his or her lesson—the goal, objective, or purpose. No student should be left to wonder what he or she is going to learn that day or that period. In my system, students come into the classroom and immediately set to work on what we call the “Do Now.” It's a warm-up or starter, and it helps teachers demand from students exactly what a good boss requires of employees: “While you're here, I expect you to be on point, on target, and I expect you to accomplish a goal—or, at least, a piece of it—every day.” I also think students should leave the classroom with the ability to articulate exactly what they learned that day. Students can't just say, “I learned math.” Rather, they must know that “Today, I learned to add mixed fractions.”

Too often, when I visit classrooms and ask a student what he or she is doing, the reply is, “I don't know.” Or the response is vague: “I learned grammar,” instead of “I learned the names of the eight parts of speech.” Excellent teachers know they need order and a plan, and they always make their expectations clear: “Let me tell you about all the delightful things that are going to happen in my class. Let me also tell you that there will be some difficult material here, but I'm going to be right here for you—you're going to get through it.” This is essentially what great teachers, great principals, and great leaders do. They tell their students or staff, “You're going to work hard, but you're going to like working hard.” In many ways, your reform model—you call it the Monroe Doctrine—emphasizes the same things that No Child Left Behind does: You want to make sure that every student achieves academically.

If students fall behind, schools must offer assistance, such as free tutoring. And you hold educators accountable for this. We've heard a lot, pro and con, about NCLB. What are your thoughts about this legislation? When a large population of kids has always been left behind, of course you have to offer academic assistance. But it's also important to provide the other things that make a well-rounded person—the clubs and social events and sporting teams for which students love to come to school. Therefore, I believe that you can't have a program like NCLB without putting adequate money behind it to fund extracurricular activities and additional tutoring. At the Frederick Douglass Academy, and in the other schools that follow my model, those enriching extracurricular activities go hand-in-hand with our emphasis on academic achievement. I tell students that the purpose of school is to help them see that where they are now is not where they're always going to be. So, while we're going to do the reading and math, we're also going to play soccer and volleyball; learn to fence; learn to love art, music, dance, and drama; and visit museums and go on other field trips. All these things will help launch them into a great future: I want attending cultural events to be a routine occurrence for my students; I want them to want to take advantage of all the delightful opportunities available to them. Therefore, talking about leaving no children behind is great if you also fund the things that make for an exceptional liberal arts education.

Excellence must be financed! How did you finance excellence at the Frederick Douglass Academy—and what advice do you have for others in these days of tight budgets and tough times? Basically, I used what was available to me. In the beginning, I had very little help. I learned that there is money available. But you have to learn to look for funding. In the first days, I received an external grant from the Annenberg Foundation. And then I learned how to use that money in ways that supported excellence. I used to give my teachers who went “above and beyond” a small bonus check around the holidays—it wasn't much, but it did let the teachers know I valued them and their work. The teachers appreciated the gesture, and the return on that small investment was great. That being said, I must point out that for many children of color, times have always been tough—and they will remain tough. So we also need to focus on fortitude and creativity. Leaders must say, “Yes, times are hard, but we are going to survive. Our programs will go on.” Tough times bring out the gristle in great leaders, who will make the most of the human capital available to them.

These leaders must always remind teachers that it's never OK to use a lack of money as an excuse for not providing high-quality instruction. Great leaders encourage teachers to sit down together and figure out how they are going to manage in tough times because our children's lives and futures depend on them doing it. In your latest book, An ABC Guide to What Great Bosses Do, you make a distinction between leaders and bosses. Why do you make this distinction? You can't be a good boss without being a good leader, that's true. But, as I wrote in my book, there's just a lovely, lilting L sound to the word leader, whereas there's an explosive B in boss. Say leader, and conciliation and collaboration come to mind. Say boss, however, and you think, “No excuses—just do it.” Now, of course, leaders need to collaborate. You have to take other viewpoints into consideration. But there comes a time when a boss has to look at his or her staff and say, “OK, I've heard you, there's validity in what you're saying, but we have to move ahead, and here's what we're going to do.” So a boss has to be decisive? Yes. The boss is the one who is willing to stick his or her neck out.

I learned at the Frederick Douglass Academy that it's a terrible thing to work under a leader who's wishy-washy. People there were just hungry for strong leadership, for someone to say, “This is a travesty. It's unconscionable what's happening here, and I have some ideas for changing this school.” Being boss is about conveying to staff that there is a larger purpose to our work. Being boss means tapping into that yearning in human beings to be involved in something important and grand. Really great leaders, whether they are in education or industry, have this capacity to exude something—charisma, perhaps, and intentionality—that makes other people say, “I will follow you.” It's not just that these people are interested in pleasing the boss; they want to bring into reality that new or improved product. In education, that product is increased student achievement and changed lives. People sometimes ask how long it took to turn things around at the Frederick Douglass Academy.

Looking back, I realize it didn't take as much time as I thought it would, and I think that was because I told the staff: “I will release you to be creatively crazy and wonderful for these students. What we're doing here is bigger than any individual ego in this place, and so we will all just do whatever it takes.” They just did it. Frankly, it's just galling to me how so much time can go by in some schools before something really happens. We can't have that—because the clock is ticking on our children's lives.

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