This past February, I applied to the New York City Leadership Academy. The Department of Education bills it as its elite institution for training new principals. Critics claim that Academy alumni are robots who faithfully execute every last directive handed down by Bloomberg.
To me, it did not much matter which interpretation of the Academy was closer to the truth. I wanted to become a principal in order to carve out a little island of sanity within the Department of Education. The Leadership Academy was merely a means to an end. I have met many people from the program and, to say the least, I was less than impressed. If these people could get into the program, then why not me?
The process started with a written application which required, among other things, three small essays with very strict word limits. The first essay required an explanation of how I would react if I was a principal and faced with many different problems happening all at once. The second one required me to describe a time in my career when I played a leadership role. The final essay asked me to describe anything about myself that might be relevant for them to know. I was not terribly confident in my answers because I answered truthfully and did not calibrate it to what I thought they might want me to say.
So I was a little surprised when, two months later, they called me for a group interview. Upon arriving at their Long Island City office, I saw around 30 people in cubicles working on computers. On top of that, offices ringed the entire floor where other, presumably more important people, were working. I wondered what in the world these people did all day and how many of them were being paid six figures to do it.
They herded me and around 9 other candidates into a stuffy room so they could process some of our paperwork. We were left alone with each other for around 10 minutes. People started exchanging stories about their experience. At least two of them were administrators. Everyone seemed to be trying to one-up each other with who they knew at Tweed and which jargony words they could throw at each other. At least half of them were people in their 20s who must have had just the bare minimum of 5 years education experience required to apply. I was the only person who remained perfectly quiet throughout this entire sizing-up process.
Then they led us into a bigger conference room with a round table that contained name tags for each of us. They were assigning us seats, I thought. We would sit around the table while one person, a facilitator, asked us questions and two other people looked on and took notes. The people taking notes were certainly in their mid-20s.
All of the questions revolved around a hypothetical scenario of what we would do if we were assigned to take over a failing school. Some of the questions were “what problems concern you the most?”, “what information would you look at first?” and, of course, “what would you do?” Most people played it safe. Some other people just could not stop themselves from talking.
One particular candidate was not even from NYC. Her answers all included looking at standardized exam scores and the importance of data. She went to the front of the room in order to draw a diagram of her education philosophy. It was a circle around which she wrote the words data, instruction and environment. In the middle of the circle she wrote “success”. Another candidate, who just wanted to “add on” to her “impressive” diagram, drew a picture of a tree trunk under the circle that said “stakeholders”. Again, I remained completely stone-faced throughout this exchange so as not to betray the disgust that I was feeling inside.
For the last 10 minutes of the interview, we were asked to work together to come up with a plan for the first two weeks of school. The first week would revolve around what we would do with the staff. The second week would be what we would do with the students. After everything was done, we would present our plan to the facilitator.
Again, certain people just wanted to dominate the conversation. The woman who drew the diagram was interested in laying down the law to the teachers and “showing the door” to those who were not on board with her philosophy. It took her a good 5 minutes to express that simple idea to the group. The conversation about the students was a little saner, but just a little. Everyone seemed to think that dividing the school into small learning academies was a good idea. What sounded even better to them was the idea of advisories where students would spend a period everyday talking to their teachers about their problems.
Once 10 minutes were up, we had to choose who was going to present our conclusions to the facilitator. One candidate volunteered to present the first week for the teachers. The second week for the students was a much murkier discussion, which is perhaps why she offered the chance for someone else to present that part. Volunteers were not forthcoming, so I saw my opportunity and volunteered. After all, I could organize my presentation while the first one was in progress.
I kept my presentation short and sweet. My notes allowed me to synthesize the salient points upon which we had agreed. It took me two minutes to roll out the simplistic ideas of learning academies and advisories. I made sure to look everyone in the eyes and not betray any nervousness. The facilitator asked me a gotcha question which I hit out of the park. It was the high point of the interview for me.
Despite my presentation, I was not confident at all of my overall performance. My answers were my own, not what I thought Tweed would want to hear. Everything I said had a different tone and tenor than what everyone else was saying. On top of that, I am sure I winced in horror a few times when I heard something particularly stupid from another candidate. We were told to watch for an email letting us know if we were moving to the next stage or not. I was not getting my hopes up.
Yet, the next week, they invited me in for the final stage of the process: an individual interview conducted by two panelists. At this point, I thought I was home free. I was told to bring in a resume, college transcripts and two pieces of student work. There was no way to prepare for this, so I decided I was going to dance with the date that had gotten me this far: being myself.
When I arrived back at Long Island City, they stuck me in another stuffy room and asked me to write a paragraph about what I wanted the interviewers to discover about me during the process. I forgot what I wrote, but it was something about being a city kid who had a deep and abiding passion for urban education.
When called into the interview, they immediately asked to see the two pieces of student work. They wanted one from a “struggling” student. After a couple of preliminary questions, they finally got around to what they really wanted to know: how does this assignment that I gave align with the Common Core Standards? It was a research paper, so I spouted some nonsense about it requiring students to read “informational texts”. I said that term about 5 times, since that seemed to be all I could say about Common Core without revealing my disdain for it.
Then they asked me to pretend that they were veteran teachers at a school I had just taken over. I was the third principal they had seen in three years and they were jaded. They wanted to know what I would “do for them”. I started by asking them what they thought the problems were. They said “the students are lazy” and “they have no motivation”. I could see very clearly that they wanted me to recite the “no excuses” cant so popular in education reform.
I told them that it was their job to motivate the students. As principal, I could provide them with the materials they needed to teach: books, copies and a safe environment. They said they already had that. I asked them what else they would want? They wanted to know what I would “do” for them. I said, if you feel safe and have the materials you need, what else would you want? Along the way, I explained the importance of having deans, which did not seem to sit well with them. I also said that I would back them up as much as possible so they would not feel under pressure from the hammer of students and the anvil of administration, which also seemed to turn them off.
Honestly, their questions were annoying. They seemed to be acting out a caricature of the “lazy” and tenured teacher. At many points, I spoke over them and let it be known that their questions were ridiculous, although not in those words. My tone was very self-righteous and self-assured. In 12 years of teaching, I never asked a principal what they were going to “do for me”, especially in the arrogant tone in which they asked it.
I left the interview, once again, not feeling confident. This time my feelings were well-founded. Two days later, I received a rejection email. I had made it this far, all the way to the final stage, just so they could wish me luck in my future endeavors.
Despite my low expectations, I was very disappointed at being rejected. I have seen the dead wood, the anti-education drones that come out of the Leadership Academy, and felt insulted at having been turned away. On the other hand, I am proud to say that I did not sell myself out or say anything at any point that ran counter to my beliefs as an educator. Ultimately, I think this turned out to be my undoing.
However, I do fear who was accepted to the program. Was the woman who drew the incredible diagram for the group accepted? It would be scary if she was.
What this also means is that my future is up in the air. It is obvious to me that teaching does not do it for me anymore. The constant media bashing along with seeing so many great teachers being destroyed first hand by vindictive administrators has taken its toll. I still love my subject and I love teaching it to kids, but I ultimately feel part of a dirty system. Maybe I could be persuaded to teach a little longer if I could find a spot at my alma mater, Brooklyn Tech. Otherwise, I want to be around education and I want to fight against education reform, I just do not feel as if I can do it from the classroom anymore.
So, feel free to email me if you know of any places where I can make a living doing such a thing. I have a great resume and stellar communication skills. Just do not expect me to shill for corporatists or the programs they currently use to undermine the teaching profession.