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Public Opinion: Remember the Academics

Are paperwork and meetings consuming your day? How to make teaching and learning a priority

With the new school year well underway, it is now more important than ever for educational leaders to have their priorities straight. With the new pressures created by NCLB, the need to be sure that conditions are in place to support higher levels of student achievement can not be understated. Surprisingly, your greatest obstacle to doing what it takes to serve the needs of all students may not come from the usual sources-budget woes, conflicting state policies, personnel challenges, political battles. Rather, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the tendency to give insufficient attention to the most important task at hand teaching and learning.

If you succeed at making sure the buses run on time, the Xerox machine is humming along, and there's a teacher in every classroom, it is possible to fool yourself into believing you have really accomplished something. If you respond to every phone call and e-mail message, fill out all of the paperwork that comes your way, and respond to the questions and concerns of the people hanging around your office in a timely and responsive manner, you may win points for efficiency. You may still not be succeeding in the most important aspect of your job.

You cannot provide instructional leadership from the comfort of your office.

The greatest challenge for every administrator is to not be consumed by the immediate crises, large and small, that are thrust into your lap each day. While it might seem like a great feat to be on top of the operations of a school or district, remember that the things that eat up most of your time may not be directly related to teaching and learning. This is not to say that the operations are unimportant, just secondary, at best, to making sure that teachers are teaching and students are learning. If you are the one who must provide instructional leadership and support to teachers, you must find a way to monitor the quality of instruction and to intervene effectively and decisively when necessary.

Focus and Communicate

Instructional leadership cannot be carried out if you are busy reacting to the various crises that come your way each day. Administrators must be proactive to provide instructional leadership. They must plan and, most of all, they must be physically present in classrooms; you cannot provide instructional leadership from the comfort of your office.

Educational leaders who understand the importance of maintaining a focus on teaching and learning must be able to do at least three things. First, they must be the "keeper of the vision;" a vision that makes it clear that academic excellence is the school's most important goal. Without a clear vision it is easy for staff to lose sight of where they're going and what they're trying to achieve.

Second, you must carry that vision to your teachers, parents and students so that they have the opportunity to discuss it, modify and fine-tune it. This way, it is their vision, too. Finally, you must constantly ask for evidence that the district is meeting its goals? You certainly cannot wait until test scores are released in the summer or fall to find out how students did in the past year. You have to constantly look for evidence of how your students are doing.

Rise to the Challenge

Admittedly, this is a tall order and a complex assignment. It is clearly not a job for the faint hearted or for those who are unable to handle more than one task at a time. Educational leaders have one of the toughest jobs in the nation. To have the ability and wherewithal to lead schools at a time when we have been charged with ensuring that all students are learning is a formidable challenge. Yet, this is what leaders must do if our schools are to become the just and caring places that our society needs for them to be.

Although you may not have a classroom assignment, remember to keep the classroom first, and keep in mind that maintaining smooth operations is not your most important job.

Pedro A. Noguera is a Ph.D. who teaches education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. His book, City Schools and the American Dream, was published this fall by Teachers College Press.