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Leadership in Education

Parent Tips > Education, Schools & Tutors > Leadership in Education

Path to Becoming A Leader


by Zachary Roberts, Ed.D
Head, Gateway School

(A Nov) ZacharyRoberts_HeadGateway.jpgWhen I first learned about that I would have a welcome convocation as the Head of Gateway School last year, I jokingly called it my "coronation". That slight-of-word joke was funny to me both because I knew it was the opposite of what that lovely evening was meant to be, and because my vision of leadership is closer to service than to kingship.

Many of the foundations that make me who I am as a leader, and what I believe is important in leading schools in our test-crazy, market-driven, global economic context,  can be traced back to experiences I had as a child, where I was giving the chance to discover motivation and passion, where my voice was listened to and accommodated, and where the arc of my development was attended to and respected. What follows are a few stories that illustrate the critical moments in my life where these ideas gave me the opportunity to become my future self.

Story #1: As a child I had what's called a lateral lisp, in which the air blew out the sides of my mouth as I spoke. My speech was comprehensible, but unusual. In third grade I began taking speech therapy, which continued for the next seven years. Twice a week I headed down to the resource room, where I attempted to make my Js, CHs, and SHs  properly. I was treated with respect, and I never felt the need to hide the fact that I received this special instruction. Sadly, my regular out-and-about speaking grew no clearer. I worked diligently, did all I was asked, and occasionally I even thought about the techniques for tongue position and airflow when I was out in the world -- but truly, there was little carryover into my daily life.

My transformative experience came in eighth grade. I was working on a project with a friend to describe the major moments of the French Revolution, and we decided that our vehicle would be a series of humorous skits presented as a video. We wrote the script with great relish, cracking ourselves up at our less-than-respectful portrayal of Robespierre and other historical figures; gathered and created the necessary props and costumes; and recruited some help to run the camera while we acted all the parts. And then, we entered the editing room, and I heard (and saw) myself speaking on video. Now it's pretty common for people, when hearing their own voices, to say "I sound like that?" with some disbelief, because how we sound in our heads is different than how we sound to others. In that moment, at the editing station, what I finally and truly heard was not the tonal qualities of my voice, but the sounds of the sounds that I spoke.

Needless to say, I didn't think it was so funny at that moment. In the pangs of my early adolescence, I was, in fact, devastated by how I sounded....And so, when I returned to the resource room later that week, I approached my speech therapy with a critical new ingredient I had not had before; motivation. I had known that I sounded wrong, but I hadn't truly understood what I did sound like; I had known I should work hard, but all those years of speech therapy I had been working for someone else, not for myself. That all changed in an event that neuroscientists call a spike of gamma rays followed by the forging of a new neural pathway, and what the rest of us might call an "aha moment". In the course of the next 15 months after the video project, my brain made countless more new synaptic connections, and I learned how to make 32 different sounds properly. By the middle of my sophomore year of high school, my speech therapy was over and my file was closed.

The educational field is rife with dialogue about how to preserve and grow students' motivation, because the research is clear that when children feel intrinsic motivation, they respond with intellectual engagement and emotional resiliency that can never be achieved by gold stars, high grades, and other external reinforcements. Finding ways to motivate a child to tackle an area of great challenge -- not just pursue an area of interest -- remains one of the outstanding opportunities that needs more research, but from my own experience, it's clear that a child must be cognitively and developmentally ready to embrace the struggle as his or her own, not because the surrounding adults have said to do so.  As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Story #2: Growing up outside of Boston, MA, my parents expected my three older siblings and me to each play an instrument. My sisters and brother already had the oboe, clarinet and trumpet locked up, and I was confused why my parents rejected my first proposal of the bassoon. I was equally confused that they accepted my second choice, which was the French Horn, but thus began nine years of hideous torture, both for them and for me. You may think it's not possible to play Christmas carols in a quartet of oboe, clarinet, trumpet and French Horn, but at our father's insistence it was attempted in the winter of 1984, and then again in 1985, 86, 87 and 88.

My siblings were much more dedicated, and possibly more talented, musicians than I was at the same age. They practiced more, they worked harder, and they were rewarded with first chair positions in youth orchestras and wind ensembles run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New England Conservatory of Music. By contrast, I disliked practicing, found the instrument annoying, and was rewarded with third chair seating in the second tier orchestras, largely, I am convinced, as a pity placement to my parents by the band directors. So while my siblings' youth groups toured South Korea, Norway, and Argentina, just to name a few places, my youth group gave joint concerts with the Plymouth High School band out on Cape Cod.

Athletic endeavors were as mandatory in the Roberts household as musical instruments, and I grew up playing ice hockey, soccer, and lacrosse, with a little bit of baseball mixed in. BTW, if you ever want to talk Boston sports, I'm your guy. In this I was more evenly apace with my siblings, or perhaps ahead, and thus it was that I was playing highly competitive ice hockey as a teenager. In the winter of my junior year, however, an event occurred that would bring to a sudden end my active engagement in contact sports: during a game, I was involved in a violent collision that broke my two upper front teeth.

Good thing I had already learned how to say all those J, CH, and SH sounds correctly, or that could have been really challenging!

Yes, my siblings delighted in singing "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" to me, but there was a secret silver lining to this painful event: my embouchure was ruined! I could no longer control the airflow into the horn. I then began to petition my parents to allow me to stop playing the French Horn, and to buy me....a guitar. Typical, right? Which, to my total surprise, they agreed to do. Now, I was passionate about playing the guitar, and began to teach myself and study informally. When I left for college I took my guitar, and since then it has been a vehicle of comfort in times of sorrow, a way of connecting with others when I am alone, and a means to give form to the shapeless thoughts in my head. My first guitar now lives in my office at school, and over 20 years later, I still love playing that instrument. Seven years ago I began playing the mandolin, and when I left my prior school in June 2014, as a going-away present the faculty gave me a banjo -- a new instrument for my new adventure.

One of my big takeaways from that experience as a child is that I should have asked my parents to let me stop playing the horn years earlier, but I could never find my voice to do so. I think about that often; how are we honoring the voices of our children, as we navigate trying to put structures and boundaries in place that help them develop into the adults we hope they will be? How do we listen closely to what they say, and say by not saying? How do we invite them into the conversation? I ask myself these questions as both an educator and a father to three young children, ages 12, 9 and 3.

The other major point that stays with me from this is the idea of being allowed to discover and pursue your passion. My siblings all stopped playing their instruments within a year of getting to college; turns out it wasn't their passion to begin with. How do we provide our children with a wide range of experiences that may spark their passion, and also support them as they pursue those? Robert Heinlein the great science fiction writer, has a quote about this I find especially inspiring: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

As a Head of School, I find myself thinking about this a lot.

Story #3: I mentioned earlier that I grew up in outside Boston; more accurately, I grew up in Newton, a large and relatively affluent suburb to the west of Boston. As a child I attended Newton public schools, which were and still are considered one of the top five school districts in the state, for those who measure that sort of thing. I can tell you that as a student, I was not valued for my scores and grades; I was seen and loved simply for being me. It is no small thing in our modern society that emphasizes productivity and success to be greeted with love every morning, and sent away with that love every afternoon. I especially continue to be indebted to Penny Benjamin, my third grade teacher, who both launched my love of writing and taught me the value of being kind and compassionate; and Merton Teft, my fifth grade teacher, who opened me to the broad world of culture and history, and made me feel confident and comfortable with taking intellectual risks.

Another thing I learned at an early age is that not every school is right for every child. While my oldest sister and I went to public schools throughout K-12, my middle sister and my brother did not. My second sister went to the Cambridge School of Weston, a fabulous high school that uses a "mod" system of intensive six week blocks for courses. My brother left public schools in sixth grade, going first to Park School in Brookline and then on to Milton Academy, an elite New England prep school. And so it was I learned as a child that not all learners are the same, that not all schools are the same, and that independent schools play a vital role in the field and in the civic dialogue about what a great education can and should look like.

No matter the school -- public or private, traditional or progressive -- teacher quality is the biggest factor in student growth. When faculty love their work, their colleagues, and their students, they bring a gift of connection to the people whose lives they touch.

Joan Saia, the Resource Coordinator at Gateway School, brought a powerful quote to the attention of our faculty last summer. In 1862, during his address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln said "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves".

I've written about motivation and passion; about helping children find their voices, and learning to listen to them; and the transformative role that teachers and schools play in the lives of students. And I think that these ideas are part of why many families choose to have their children at independent schools. We offer an alternative to the dogmas of the quiet past that dominate the national narrative about education. We seek to understand how the brain works, and use that understanding to shape our instruction. We seek to integrate the intellectual and academic with the social and emotional lives of our students. We seek to pursue a school mission that weaves together academics, character building, social responsibility, mindfulness and self-knowledge.

We seek to disenthrall ourselves from a high-stakes testing culture that thinks frequent testing leads to student growth, that weighing a chicken more often will actually help it grow bigger, rather than simply feeding the chicken some healthy foods -- or better yet, giving it a little bit of free range. We seek, ultimately, to help each child find his or her passion, and ignite the spark of wonder and joy of learning that so many of us cherish in our own lives.

So let our students be seen as individuals, and respected for their capacities. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, a six year old is not half a twelve year old. Let our students not just learn about writing, but actually see themselves as strong and capable writers. Let our students not just do science, but learn to think like scientists by posing questions and learning skills of investigation and inquiry. Let our students pursue their creativity and imagination in all forms. Let our students understand how their own brains work, where their strengths and challenges lie, and how they can use their strengths to address their challenges.

Every school is a complex place. Schools are a community of mind and values, and also diverse and varied in many ways. They are a second home, full of joy and playfulness as well as conflict and struggle. I would encourage families, however, to "disenthrall" themselves from the idea that the ROI on your child's education could only be evaluated in high school or college placement, AP or honors classes, awards or grade point average. Indeed, I will gladly argue that the goal of elementary school is not middle school preparation, and that the goal of middle school is not high school preparation; the goal is something far greater and far more important, which is to motivate, excite, and engage our students; give them opportunities to learn meaningful content in support of higher order thinking skills applied to real and relevant problem solving; and teach them agency as scholars and owners of their own educational careers. If we do this, then our students will be more than ready for high school and beyond, because we will have prepared them for their future success throughout their lives.

(A Nov) Marc-Roberts_FatherofZacharyRoberts.jpgEarlier I mentioned my father, who passed away the summer before I began at Gateway. Though his taste in holiday quartets was questionable, he gave me very good advice on the subject of choosing a job. When I was first considering moving from the classroom into administration, he said "There are four questions you should ask when thinking about your work: do you like it, can you make a living at it, are you good at it, and does it make a difference to the world?" His own work, in the field of international health policy, made a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Like him, it's that last question that means the most to me. Working in administration is my act of altruism.

I believe that people work hard and are motivated when they feel they are doing important, good work. For me, there is no greater or more important work than fostering the self-transformation of the next generation of citizens. I approach my work as a position of service to others, and as an expression of my own commitment to improving our society. Perhaps, if I'm lucky and skilled, the children for whom I work will find their motivation and passion, their voices, and their own desires to change the world for the better.

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