Photo by Sam Hodgson
The San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees announces its pick for superintendent, Central Elementary Principal Cindy Marten (left).
It’s quite fortunate for us that the one educator and principal we’ve spent the most time with in the past several years is the one suddenly picked to become the superintendent of the entire district.
The choice of rock star Central Elementary Principal Cindy Marten to lead the district might be a stroke of genius. The decision to select her only 24 hours after Superintendent Bill Kowba announced his retirement was, as Greg Dawson at NBC 7 put it “a bold, quietly orchestrated move by a district known for neither.”
I join the many who hope deeply for her success. The alternative isn’t something we can contemplate.
But it won’t be easy. Marten, like most leaders of large organizations, will rise and fall based on the leaders she installs below her. And it’s here that the star principal will face a deep irony.
She’ll be the one who hires and fires the most powerful people in the district and, yet, this freedom to hire and fire your team is a flexibility she never had before. Principals do not get to hire the teachers they want. And they certainly don’t, at least very efficiently, get to fire struggling staff.
Whether it’s the general manager of a football team or the mayor of a city or the head of company, high-level executives make their mark with the people they put in charge. No matter how well they make all the other decisions, these are the ones that matter the most.
Now, Marten will have to manage people like Stan Dobbs, the new CFO of the district. Even a role as straightforward and mathematical as the CFO’s can be much different depending on the approach the person takes.
This may mean firing some leaders who aren’t performing. It could mean promoting people who are better at their jobs than people more senior to them.
These, again, are all things a principal is not allowed to do.
And on this point, and all of the decisions she makes, we have to wonder how Marten will interact with the school board. Are they her bosses or partners? What will they trust her with?
Will they let her hire and fire the right people?
These are the great questions of the Cindy Marten era. She has four months of orientation while her predecessor transitions out. It will be a boot camp on the confidential dilemmas and stunningly complex financial systems that the district has weaved.
We’ve been going through our interviews with Marten. We’ll be looking deeper into her success at Central Elementary, I’m sure. But Will Carless helped me find a section of an interview with her about this point: hiring and firing teachers.
She had described how she used existing evaluation processes and other means to persuade struggling teachers to improve or to push them to look for a different profession.
It’s worth a read and provides a window into her philosophy on how to deal with underperforming teachers:
When teachers aren’t doing a good job, they know they’re not. Telling them something they already know doesn’t feel good. But if it’s the truth, I’m not just here to say what you’re doing here is not working, I’m here to help. How can I help you? What do you need to feel better because you didn’t come here to not feel good?
You came here to change lives. You came here to educate children. And what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working so how can I help you with that?
And then they want to engage and they want to get better.
So let’s go back to the magic wand, though. So I’ve got the business people and everybody coming to me telling me: ‘Cindy, you know, good for you for trying so hard and my god you’ve turned around a school it’s been nine years you got the staff you want. This is what we want everywhere.’ But, you know, they want to wink at me, you know: ‘If you could have just fired a few people in the beginning it wouldn’t have taken you nine years, right?’
OK, fine. So I’ll give in to the argument. And I’ll say, OK, give me the magic wand right now. Give me the magic wand right now and tell me this whole reform, the whole teacher evaluation has just been reformed overnight. And I can now do what you think I should be able to do, which is fire those bad teachers that are out there.
There’s not one person I would go wave that wand on right now.
I would say that if there’s a school or principal who was waiting for that magic wand to — I finally got that power, to go and fire the — I can’t stand the word “bad teacher” — to go and fire an ineffective teacher somehow that power was just given to me. If a principal is waiting for that power to be able to have a teacher give children what they need, that is more of a problem with the principal than it is of an ineffective evaluation system.
I don’t need to wait for that power. I can’t wait. If I had waited for that, I’d be in trouble. I would still have too many ineffective people here. I’ve used the Stull evaluation process and the PLC process and the support of my area superintendent and the support of my deputy superintendent to improve teaching and learning at this school by improving teacher practice through everything I’ve just explained to you. I’ve used the Stull evaluation process to improve teacher practice or to invite people to find another profession.
She may not have a magic wand yet. But she’s getting a pretty powerful wand.
Wonder who she’ll wave it over.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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