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The Principles of Becoming an Excellent School Leader

An interview with Thomas Payzant, Bank Street trustee and national educational
leadership expert

By Leah Ingram with Lisa Palmer

According to Bank Street trustee Thomas Payzant, it doesn’t matter where a school is located—an inner-city neighborhood or next to a cornfield—every child should have access to an excellent education. As the former superintendent of large urban public school districts, Payzant has a unique perspective on the challenges that an urban environment brings to educating children.

The realities are that many students show up for kindergarten lacking basic skills, and they may come from families that have struggled emotionally and financially. In his leadership positions, Payzant said time and again that he didn’t want to hear about what teachers couldn’t do for these kids. “That just leads to defeat,” he recalls. Instead, he took a glass-half-full approach and made that mandate clear to his staff. “We can make a positive difference, and we can be responsible for results. And every child, as result of spending time in our school, in our district, from September to June, ought to make progress and achieve.”

According to Payzant, the way you make schools responsible for their actions is finding a leader who believes, as Payzant does, that there is “no excuse for backing away from high expectations for learning for all students.” He says that good principals understand the importance of collaboration within a school. “They have to share leadership with teacher leaders and with others to bring the school together,” says Payzant.

In his decade of leading the 58,000-plus student Boston Public Schools, Payzant worked to change the culture in the schools from one where “principals hire the best people they can and let them go into their classrooms, close the door and do the best they can with the children” to one where there was more common time for teachers to plan together so that every teacher felt like she was working on a team, not as a single person in an isolated classroom.

Part of the leadership equation is the superintendent, even in school districts as big as Boston. Payzant always took a hands-on approach and expects that other successful superintendents should, too. “After my first couple of weeks in the district, I would visit [schools] unannounced,” says Payzant. His typical drop-in visits would start with a sit-down with the principal. Then, he would walk through the building, and “drop in to some classrooms and see first hand what teachers were teaching and students were learning.”

To Payzant, being a school superintendent was more than just being “an image on the six o’clock news or at school board meeting,” he says, adding, “It was always uplifting for me, whether I was having a good day or bad day, to get into schools where the children would remind me of the importance of the work [we do in education].”

One thing that Payzant recognized during his four decades in school administration was that there wasn’t a lot of mentorship for principals and superintendents. New teachers were assigned mentors but not new administrators.

In 2002, while still superintendent of the Boston schools, he started the Principal Leadership program. “A lot of urban school districts have to grow their own [administrators], because they can’t recruit from elsewhere,” he says. This leadership program was designed to “grow” future administrators through a yearlong, hands-on initiative.

These future administrators—some were teachers, others were assistant principals who aspired to be a principal of their own school—would spend four days a week during the academic year in full-time internships with hand-selected principals in schools where Payzant thought the leadership was excellent and would be good models. Since a future principal couldn’t afford to take a year off for an internship, Payzant turned to outside sources to fund the program and provide salaries. Though Payzant retired in 2006, the program continues still.

These days Payzant is offering a different kind of mentoring, through The Broad Superintendents Academy. Started in 2001, this program provides leadership training for those who hope one day to lead urban school districts. Payzant says he became involved right at the beginning, “because they wanted three or four urban superintendents that were having success to be advisors to people going through academy.”

Not only does Payzant mentor during the academy’s yearlong program, but also he provides support services as an executive coach during a graduate’s first year in an urban superintendent position. Payzant finds this part of the program most attractive because he knows first-hand how difficult it can be as a new superintendent coming into a school district. “Superintendents don’t generally have mentors or coaches,” he says. “They report to school boards, and there is really nobody they can talk to and learn from.”

Payzant believes that good leadership can start at the college level, and praises Bank Street’s teacher- and leader-education programs for the way they prepare future teachers and school leaders. “Bank Street understands that the two most important variables that schools control, at least to some extent with the goal of improving instruction for all students, are the quality of instruction in the classroom and the quality of the leadership in the schools. [Bank Street’s] mission is aligned with the preparation of high quality educators who can take on those important roles.”

Payzant also believes that those who graduate from a school like Bank Street and go on to do educational research and policy analysis are critical to the future of education. “They will provide information on what is working and what is not [working in education], and hopefully influence policy makers in the decisions they make to support the improvement of education for all students,” Payzant says. “Data are our friends and not something to be feared. We need good information about what’s happening to our students.”

Thomas Payzant has enjoyed many years working in education.

Here is a chronological look at his experience:

Teacher, Tacoma, WA (1963 – 1965)

Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent, New Orleans Public

Schools (1967 – 1969)

Superintendent, Springfield Township, Montgomery County, PA

(1969 – 1973)

Superintendent, Eugene, OR (1973 – 1978)

Superintendent, Oklahoma City, OK (1979 – 1982)

Superintendent, San Diego, CA (1982 – 1993)

Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, US

Department of Education (1993 – 1995)

Superintendent, Boston Public Schools (1995 – 2006)

Professor of Practice, Harvard Graduate School of Education (2006 – present)#



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