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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Stand for What's Right: Courageous Leaders and the Future of No Child Left Behind

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

When leaders know something's wrong but find it difficult to step up and generate needed changes, it's the time for courageous leadership.

Courageous leadership is, above all else, not followership. It is not safe. But it has integrity. It is developmentally, theoretically, empirically, pragmatically, and morally grounded. From this grounding, good people can embark on different paths and agree to disagree. However, they share a common goal of visualizing and relentlessly pursuing what their students truly need for success in school and life.

The courageous leader is not afraid to assert that despite all the efforts at school reform -- the expenditure of all that time, talent, and money on education -- our education system still has not reached its fullest potential. Courageous leaders in our schools understand the interpersonal life of schools; it takes place in classrooms and hallways, during recess and lunch, on buses, in study halls, within teams and clubs, and at formal and informal gatherings of students, staff, and parents. The success of these relationships depends on the character of the people involved and the skills they have to enact their tasks effectively.

Courageous leaders know that conducting business as usual will not solve the challenges facing our students and our schools, today or tomorrow, and they are willing to say so even when they have few like-minded peers. Indeed, they know that their position is correct morally, empirically, pedagogically, and pragmatically. And they know that what they are saying is in the hearts of many educators and parents who are waiting for a leader to spur them on to congruent action.

The evidence shows that students' academic success follows from their engagement in school, and that follows from organized and well-coordinated, schoolwide efforts to promote positive, supportive, and challenging classroom climates and social and emotional excellence. The rationale and methods exist. You can find them in abundance at Edutopia.org and other Web resources, including the following sites:

We need courageous leaders who will help us move toward the vision for New Jersey schools that the Developing Safe and Civil Schools initiative makes clear:

"Students entering schools in New Jersey will feel they have a positive purpose in being there. They will feel engaged, attached, and connected and see the schools as a place where they can learn and do things to contribute to the world around them, advance their sense of purpose, and become more literate in academic, media, artistic, and civic areas.

"This will be accomplished in part because the students will experience coordinated and continuous efforts to build their social-emotional skills, positive character, service-learning contributions, and health, and to prevent substance abuse and violent/bullying behavior in a safe, civil, caring, supportive, and ethical environment."

If this is what you would want for your own child, then it's time to act courageously and create the conditions to actualize this vision for all children. Please share your thoughts.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Do only strong leaders make effective classroom teachers?

Dawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My definition of a leader is someone who has a vision and inspire people to work toward that goal. It's not about who has the strongest exterior or loudest mouth or is more social. You simply must have a vision and inspire people to follow you. Effective classroom teachers all have a vision for their students and inspire them to learn.

Kim H.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. Many quiet, knowledgeable, and effective voices have led students to great success.

Kimberley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dawn, I totally agree with you. I see the strong leaders in my school as those who are willing to stand up for what they believe in! They have a vision and work to get everyone on board with their idea. These strong leaders are also very effective classroom teachers.

Joy S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I see this article as a call for courageous leaders. A courageous leader can be any type of person, as long as they are willing to work to accomplish their goal. In this case the goal is a better learning environment for the students in New Jersey.

Rick Rood's picture
Rick Rood
Director of After-School Program in Livermore, CA

A friend of mine who specializes in leadership development writes and speaks extensively on the difference between leadership and management. While management is merely marshaling non-human resources, leadership is the art of "bringing into existence that which would not have existed except for..." the leader's vision.

That's what I'd want in a teacher. Literally bringing knowledge and skill into existence.

Rick's Blog

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