“A rose by any other name…” Did Shakespeare’s Juliet get it wrong?
The phrase that begins the title of this piece will be recognized by most Americans who took freshman or sophomore English in high school. It comes from Juliet’s encouragement to Romeo to continue to woo her, ignoring the fact that they were born into feuding families. She suggests that names are meaningless; all that matters is what you are. It’s a very idealistic metaphor that we love to quote.
I was thinking about that phrase today with regard to school leadership. Over the last hundred or so years, certain names or titles have been adopted by education, for example, the term superintendent. This term came into vogue in the early part of the 20th Century right along with the factory model of schooling. When you look up the word superintendent in dictionary.com, the first definition you get is the following: a person who oversees or directs some work, enterprise, establishment, organization, district, etc.; supervisor. Superintendents were common in 20th Century factories. They were responsible for the product turned out by their particular portion of the manufacturing process, including how well the individual workers performed. Their job was to see to it that the product in question was produced quickly and efficiently with high quality. We all get that, don’t we?
What we’ve learned over the years, despite the attempt to move the clock backwards by the Common Core Initiative, is that schools are not factories, students are not widgets, teachers are not assembly line workers doing a simple, albeit important job, and superintendents, in the sense used in manufacturing, don’t even belong in this equation. Individuals in what we now call the role of the superintendent should be leaders, i.e., out in front looking for and providing the best resources for teachers and students, not heavy-handed autocrats whose every whim is to be obeyed, especially when it comes to using those truckloads of test-practice workbooks he or she provided for those teachers who can’t possibly know how to prepare their kids for The Tests. Unfortunately, this kind of superintendent seems to be on the rise. I’m thinking of the Broad-trained superintendents (such as Mike Miles, currently in that role in the Dallas school district), who are trained in disruption. The theory is that a new superintendent needs to come on the scene and shake everything up, which they routinely do, undermining much of what is good about a district, and leaving it in shambles, fair game for another Broad-trained candidate. Given what we have learned about how the best leaders lead, this is clearly not what the role requires. Teachers and students need role models and support in dealing with difficult and often unexpected situations, over which their control may be limited.
So, here’s my suggestion. It’s not necessarily new, but perhaps it’s time has come. Let’s change the titles of the leaders in our schools and districts. One of the things research has shown us is the importance of the concept of lifelong learners. We teach our pre-service teachers that they must continue to learn once they leave the hallowed halls of academia. That’s what professional development for practicing teachers is all about. Isn’t that true for principals and superintendents as well? If teachers are ongoing learners (some would have us call them the chief learner in the classroom, or even the Learning Designer), shouldn’t principals be the Chief Learner of the school, and by extrapolation, shouldn’t a superintendent be called instead something like Chief of Learning for XXX School District?
As I said, this is not a new idea, but here is why I think it is important to push for this now. One thing psychology has shown us is that what we call someone repeatedly eventually sticks. If we call our children stupid, they come to see themselves incapable, even if they are in fact very capable. If we label someone in a certain way, they tend to live up or down to their names. As long as the labels we give principals and superintendents are unrelated to their major role as leaders of learning, we can only expect them to take on the attributes of the roles for which they have been named. If a person carries the title Chief of Learning instead of Superintendent, wouldn’t that encourage the person to see his or her role in a different light? I think so. I think this would help both the individual in the position, but also those in the schools and the parents and public adopt a new mindset about what the job should be, because ultimately it shouldn’t be about test scores and budgets. It should be about how well students are learning and how supported teachers feel in their own learning and professionalism.
So, what is in a name? Quite a bit, Juliet, as the rest of your play made crystal clear.