Transcription of the episode “The principal as ‘keeper of the vision’: Fostering and protecting an ethical community”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Our guest today is Jill Herman. Jill currently leads conference groups and advises students in the Principal’s Institute at Bank Street College and as a consultant to the New York City Department of Education. Among many other roles in her career, she was the founding principal of East Side Community High School, a 6 through 12 secondary school. Welcome, Jill.

Jill H: [00:00:39] Thank you. Nice to be here.

Amy H-L: [00:00:42] You’ve said that everything is about relationships. What kind of relationships have to exist to create an ethical school and how can a principal foster them? 

Jill H: [00:00:53] So I think, you know, as I said, for me, nothing happens without relationships. We have to develop relationships, trust people, and I think that that needs to permeate every aspect of the school. Obviously the principal needs to develop strong relationships with teachers. And when I say relationships, what’s embedded in that is knowing a person well, and when you know a person well, and then you come to understand each other and trust each other. I think that’s where you can, certainly, in my work as a teacher where I could push students, but they knew that I was doing it out of love. And in much the same way, and I’m not talking about a romantic love, you know, in the same way you work with teachers and develop strong relationships so you can perhaps, as a leader, take them places they wouldn’t go by themselves. Likewise, you want teachers to develop relationships with students.  As Sizer would say, you can’t teach someone you don’t know. So knowing someone well, developing relationship with students so they are willing to take risks in the classroom, they are comfortable in not knowing an answer. And so now you ask, how do you have that in a school? Well, I think one of the ways, well, now, you know, I don’t want to say something that doesn’t give credit. I think it was Bill Ayers who said, small is necessary, but not sufficient. So one must have, I think, a small school because you can’t, you know, I can’t imagine developing deep relationships with 2000 students and 300 you know, faculty. So although you might not be able to sit around a table, you should be able to sit in a room. And so I think size does matter. The size of the classroom matters because you can’t give meaningful work, you can’t know students well when you’re seeing, you know, 35 kids or whatever for five different groups. You can’t know teachers well, and when I say know teachers well, be in their classrooms frequently, understand the way that they work. You start to get a rhythm of how they operate. Likewise, if you go to many of the classes, you see patterns, things that you know reflect the culture issues that maybe you didn’t notice. So, for example, I remember one year, having gone to several classrooms, I realized, although they’re all having discussions, teachers seem to be having difficulty asking a question or actually changing the question that would give entree to the students or giving students even a very simple enough wait time to answer something. So you see patterns. 

I  think size does matter. And when I talk about relationships, and I actually, I have to laugh in a way, and I’ll share it. I think there were five or six teacher marriages at East Side, and there were students who married each other obviously way after they graduated and they were in different grades. And then I began to worry that we have become a cult of some sort. But I think it’s kind of like, “Oh, a  relationship.” So what does that mean? And what is like a good relationship, You know,  because you can have good relationships and bad relationships. So as I said, it is really knowing a person well. It Is also really developing trust and respect. You don’t have relationships with people you don’t respect and you don’t have relationships with people that you don’t trust and you know, good relationships. And. I feel it kind of, I don’t want to over simplify it, but on the other hand, there’s something very simple and  comfortable about it that makes the daily everything in the day easier and more honest.

Jon M: [00:05:45] You’ve said that the problem with many SEL or social emotional learning programs is that they’re separate from everything else that’s going on in the school. How could a principal incorporate SEL into the school culture? 

Jill H: [00:06:00] So firstly, I think we’d have to come to an agreement as a school or as a community. What is social emotional learning? What does that mean? And you know, when I think about it, I have to think about that for a long time because it’s sort of like, what do I think it is and what would be evidence of it in a classroom or in a student? So I don’t want to answer it in some ways, flippantly, but I think what you need to do is, because schools are places of education. They’re not therapeutic communities by themselves although one could say, you know, the learning and things, there can be therapeutic aspects of it. But I think that what we, what one has to do is not just focus on “Are you happy? Are you unhappy? Why are you angry?” I think we have to present. We have to be in the work and we have to be experiencing things.

So firstly, I would argue that school and education is a social experience. Period. A good social one, you could be the popular kid, you could be the ostracized kid, you could be thought of as this, that, whatever. So school, by its definition, is a social experience. So what are the opportunities that we have to practice our socialization skills when we work with one person, in a pair, when we work in a group, what are the things, I don’t know what the word is, that we want young people, or even even teachers, because teachers don’t necessarily know how to collaborate? What are the practices we want them to have that facilitate the learning of everybody in the group and that don’t shut people down?

I also think with the curriculum, what are, you know. So, for example, when a student writes, it’s, let’s say they’re a middle school student and they’re reading about slavery, and they give an assignment for them to write as if it were their diary about their experience either being a slave or being a runaway. So what are you creating? You’re asking someone to step iinto another person. So you’re looking for empathy, you’re looking for an understanding, and you’re looking for, for them to see a point of view. Likewise, if you have debates, you know, can you argue both sides of? Could you switch? Could we be having a debate on something? And then could we switch? I think those are aspects of social emotional learning. I don’t think it’s just about how are you feeling. I think also the more we help young people, be it in a social situation or an academic one, feel confident that their ability to express their ideas and you know, their ideas reflect what they believe about things, it makes them more comfortable to be able to express themselves when they feel someone wronged them or something went in a way that, you know, wasn’t what they had wanted.

Amy H-L: [00:09:49] What about the New York State Education Department’s Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Framework? You’ve observed that culturally responsive education is just good teaching. What does that look like in practice?

Jill H: [00:10:02] So in thinking about that term, because I don’t really know how it’s presented to all schools, but for me, I have to come to a definition, and the way I would do it is to unpack it and kind of deconstruct it. So I would be looking at what does culturally mean, what does responsive mean, and how do they weave together?

So in taking it a little bit backwards, I’ll start with the responsive. I think the responsive piece is what I did, what I would call good teaching. It’s knowing the students well. It’s having a relationship that’s built on trust and respect so that enables one to both support and push the student to take risks in their learning.

I think that, you know, it also goes on to now what does that mean, I would say in terms of what does culturally mean? So for me, and I think, you know, especially, it’s essential that all curriculum content reflect who the students are. In other words, students should be able to see themselves. There are Black and Brown people who write novels. They should be able to read their stories. They should be able to study history that is about them. And not necessarily deficit history, but, you know, what is the history of African nations? What is the history of Afro-Caribbean as well as, you know, what are some of the struggles and influences, but they need to see themselves in the work.

Now, how do we weave those together? And I think that’s where, what are the opportunities we provide? So let’s say if a middle school students read “Of Mice and Men,” would they put George on trial? Would they, who would defend them? Who would prosecute it? Would they write a different ending to that novel? So there you’re getting students to be not only thinking about the content of what they read but also the hard, what are hard choices that one makes in life, and what do they feel are ethical choices that need to be thought about?

And you know, one of the things that I thought about in terms of, you know, we talk about weaving this in and out, and this is not necessarily curriculum, but how do you, you know, this notion of being responsive. So you have to feel, you belong to something, that you’re a part of, a community, and actually that you have impact. So I used to have a saying. And I would always say to the kids, “When I have a problem, you have a problem, we all have a problem.” And we had this incident where the kids were flooding, after gym, the water fountain, and kids were slipping and hurting themselves. So I addressed the students and I said, “Look, this is our problem and I don’t really know what to do, so I’d like you all to get into advisories. Each advisory discuss, decide how do we handle this for now, I’m turning off the water because I really don’t want to have somebody haven’t split their head open and I want your suggestions and then I’ll meet with a representative from each advisory.” Well, needless to say, some of them came up with draconian if we find the person, you know, they’re banned from gym for their life, or they can’t go out of the class, you know, but it was a way of having kids think about these things, and I would say school is kind of like, it’s the dress rehearsal. It’s where we practice these kinds of things.

The other thing I want to just add in terms of culturally responsive, you know, and this is rhetorical, can you have a culturally responsive school in which the principal does not model that and is culturally responsive also to teachers and families? Does the principal know the teachers well? You know, do they have relationships of trust? Same with families. So I would say that it’s kind of a big term and it needs to be unpacked. And I would say, I mean, I give the way I begin to make sense of it, but I would say that schools have to do the unpacking themselves. What, what does it mean to them? And once again, what’s our evidence that we’re actually practicing it and where do we need to be better at it?

Amy H-L: [00:15:18] May I ask you how you would define culture?

Jill H: [00:15:22] The way, I was actually a sociology major, but the way I’ve come to define it in schools, and it’s a little bit different, it’s kind of like what do we see? What are our artifacts? If we were coming from another planet, we walked into a school, what do we see that’s important? So if we go to the board, let’s just take something like bulletin boards. What do we see? Do we see trophies? Do we see pictures of movie stars? Do we see student work with comments? What do we see? So we kind of see what’s important cause what you have you’re exhibiting is what’s important. 

Then I go a layer down and it’s how do we do things around here that reflects our cultural beliefs? Do we work in, do the adults work in groups? Do kids work in groups? Do students have choices about which assignments they take on? Do teachers have choices about what they assign? And then it goes very deep and it’s what are our underlying assumptions? And this is hard because this is really peeling an onion to the point of, you know, I don’t think you see this in a moment.

But, for example, I would say in my former school, our underlying assumptions were that every student can achieve at high levels, and it is, because it was in our, actually, in our mission statement, and it is the school’s responsibility to get them there. It is not the child or the family’s responsibility. I’m not saying you don’t work together, but in other words, it’s not like, “oh, he better not take he, you know, no one’s making him do his homework” or “I don’t think he can,” you know, making an assumption that I don’t think that student can achieve. And, as I had one student say, “Jill, better to get a C minus in calculus than an A in business math,” you know. So it’s what our underlying assumptions about our beliefs and children are. Are they suspects, criminals? Are they people that need to be treated with, you know, full respect? And so I think the underlying assumptions are not necessarily visible, but there probably are places where you can indicate it.

I kind of, for this purpose, use culturally responsive, meaning the culture and background. It’s a little bit more superficial of students because I think about my high school experience, and maybe, you know, yours. Most of the novels I read had male heroes. I don’t really recall reading about anybody, any female in history that really, you know, was achieving things. I don’t. And of course they were probably all white. So I think the notion is what speaks to who they are and how can they feel part of a fabric of a society if they’re not, they don’t see themselves in it. You know, I once was having a conversation at another school where an assistant principal shared with me a six year old student was talking with her and said, “You know, only white people can be teachers.” Because that’s what he saw. And so I think it becomes important. Do they read authors that are gay? Do they know that? So I think it becomes very important. And I’m not saying there aren’t great books, but a lot of times I’ve gone into high schools and they’re reading the same books I read, and there’s much more current literature and, you know, of other groups now, certainly then than there was when I, you know, 500 years ago.

So I think that it’s important for everybody to kind of try to understand their culture or somebody else’s equally. Right. We had a question, an essential question, once that drove some of the high school curriculum, “what is civilized and who decides?” So this notion of, is it because you wear a certain outfit or you live here that you’re not, you know, how do these decisions get made? That of course I think also goes down the notion of responsive, of thinking, getting people to think about it, of looking at five textbooks and see what have they put in about the Spanish American war. One has a sentence, one as a paragraph, one has two pages. How does that happen and why and what do we believe?

So, as I said, it’s kind of like I take these two culturally responsive and I try to kind of have them be woven together into, and it gets bigger and probably messier. But that’s, that’s what makes it interesting. 

Jon M: [00:20:53] So, few people would describe the New York City Department of Ed as an ethical institution. How can a principal create and protect an ethical school within the DOE or other large bureaucracies?

Jill H: [00:21:09] Oh, I knew there was going to be a stumper. A, B, C, D, and all of the above. I wish this were a multiple choice. Well, I would partially say not easily, because there are so many competing factors that go on.

And I think firstly, a principal has to decide, of all the things that I have to do, be it compliance, be it this report, be it that, talk to this person, they did that. What are the most important things? So the way I came to see it is this. The most important thing that goes on in a school is teaching and learning. Then where should the principal focus primarily, and that’s in the classrooms. Because if the principal is the person, and I’m putting in quotes, “in power”, being in the classroom shows this is an important place to be and this is where I’m going to be. And so I think part of it is deciding where is your focus going to be and how do you manage your time.

So are you doing all this other stuff at some other point? I think also you, the other part is this notion of being ethical. Now who are we as ethical to? And that’s kind of a rhetorical question. Are we ethical to ourselves? Are we ethical to our superintendents? Are we ethical to our students? Are we ethical to the families? Are we ethical to I don’t know who else. So sometimes I think, well, you know, you pick and choose. Now, part of the way you think about it, for the honor of having this job, of being with these wonderful children all day, I will do certain things that allow me to continue to do it, but I think that being ethical is actually something personal and comes from yourself. And I guess I remember, and you remember Herb, and when I started East Side… Herb Rosenfeld was also was with Debbie [Meier] when she started  Central Park East Elementary School. Herb was the one who had recommended me for the job at East Side, and the one thing he said to me when I opened the school, he said, “Jill, you are the keeper of the vision,” and somehow that was something that always stayed with me because it became my, I guess, like a rudder. It was, I am the keeper of the vision, so you know what, I can hand this person that and hand this person that. But am I being true to the vision of what I said this school was. Does that answer it partially?

Jon M: [00:24:34] Yeah, it does. And I think, I guess what I’m also thinking of, is you and other people obviously have talked about the principal’s role as a buffer, just because, as you said, there are all these different interests and things like that going on, and that, you know, when we talk about large bureaucracies and, and the DOE and the idea of whether they’re ethical or not. I mean, it seems to me that they are not inherently guided by what you’re talking about, what needs to be happening in the classroom and needs to be happening in the school. That there are all these things going on. There’s power issues going on, there’s compliance issues going on. There’s publicity issues, not wanting to be on the front page of the New York Post. There’s all these different kinds of things. So how does the principal, on the one hand, cope with all of these things and on the other hand, try to protect the safety and the peacefulness, if you will, of the teachers and the students and the parents.

Jill H: [00:25:44] Well, I mean, I think the other skill that helps is you have to be fairly organized. I used to go in every day. I always have these big index cards. Now, of course. I’d have 12 things and if I got, I finally got, to the point where if I got four done, I thought I was terrific. But I think you do have to be organized. But once again, you have to have your priorities. Like, you know, when you talk about being ethical, I’m sure that many people feel giving standardized tests is ethical because it holds a bar for our students and hold schools accountable. Now, I would say, I don’t think tests are the only way, but you see the notion of what is ethical is problematic. And it goes again to who are we accountable to and how do we know how good is good enough? So one of the things I used to say, actually, to the teachers and to myself, “Walk around your own school as a principal and say would I send my child to this school. And if you would, good. And if you wouldn’t, well, what are you going to do about it.” So it’s kind of, I think that that’s kind of one way to look at it. I think the notion of being a buffer is there’s so much information. So for example, even with this pandemic. First, everybody was using Zoom, then they were told they can’t use them. So they went to Google docs. This is, you know, then now they’re told they can go back to Zoom. But meanwhile there’s been some loss because kids not seeing, you know. So now, did principals wait till they heard from the superintendents? Did some people stay on Zoom? I mean, I don’t know. Did some schools set up some other kind of way and say, “Look, this is what makes sense.” I think that’s where the point you say what makes sense for our community, and as long as it’s nothing illegal or, you know, people have to take a risk and say, this is what makes sense for our community. Let’s say you have an exceptionally fragile community. You, you might not want to change things because this was disruptive enough, and this might just be too traumatizing. You have to make decisions.

Amy H-L: [00:28:23] Jill, you’ve said it’s hard to change principals’ attitudes and behaviors once they’re in their positions. So selecting principals who empower their teachers and their families is really important. Who currently makes those selections and what should the selection process look like? 

Jill H: [00:28:45] Well, I’ve been out of the system now for a while, and I think now it’s back on superintendents. There was a time when many schools were left to interview themselves with the support of their network leader. But I believe that has gone back to the superintendents. So the thing I want to say is actually people have their beliefs and values, whether they’re a teacher or if they become a principal, and actually, I’ve actually seen some people become principals who start to talk badly about teachers who were pro-teachers and then they become principals and somehow feel, now they are in this position to evaluate. So it’s almost like when you say the word “principal” or “guidance counselor” or “assistant principal,” I think for some people, there’s like a whole dropdown menu of words that come with it. So that people start to lock in. It’s sort of like husband and wife, right. People live together for x amount of years, then they get married and then they get divorced, right, because it’s like these definitions come in and muddle things. So the thing is, what should the selection be? Well, firstly, I feel that the school community and the true school community, which means students and even elementary school students, teachers, and parents should be the ones who really promote the candidate.

I think that it probably, I know it has to have somebody’s approval. When I began, the principal was very different. My interviews were with the superintendent, then all of the suits at 110 Livingston Street, and then I actually had to meet with the chancellor. You know, now that doesn’t happen, so they’ve kind of gone through variations, but I feel that, and when I say school community and the thing why I somewhat hesitated, because I don’t want to be disingenuous, but I’ve seen like school leadership, you know, SLTs and school leadership teams and parents  kind of sit there. And I’ve seen ones that are very active and they really have a voice, but others where they don’t really have a voice.

So. I think that it should be the school community, but I think it has to be done after a careful and honest assessment of what does this school need. So let’s identify what the needs of the school are, and then how might we craft our questions towards potential candidates and select someone that we as a school community can really support, but I think that also involves in a lot of education and a lot of shifting of power and transparency to all the constituents.

Jon M: [00:31:58] Yeah. As a coach in a leadership program, how do you help a potential principal candidate decide if they really should become a principal? 

Jill H: [00:32:08] Oh, that’s a good question. And I’m kind of going to go to the end. Some of the people that I coach actually didn’t want to be principals and they actually enjoyed the teaching, but they found that a lot of our work was so helpful in working with teachers in organizing teachers teams and actually in having a stronger voice with the administration. In some cases, some of the experiences, because everybody who’s in the program develops projects that have leadership aspects that they have to implement in their school, and sometimes, and oftentimes, which is fine, they come up against a roadblock or a stumbling block and people don’t come to the PD. People don’t want to participate. And what you see is some people will stick with it and say, “okay, I gave a parent workshop and I had only three parents come. I have to rethink this and do something differently. And then next time, 15 come, and then the next time, 40 come. So those people kind of practice a resilience and the ability to be flexible.

Other people just get so angry at the people who didn’t do what they were supposed to do. So we talk about it and why is that? And is that going to help to change anything and move things? And I think that after a while and in seeing what the job in a deeper way is, some people say this probably is not for me. It’s too unpredictable. And there’s too much resistance that I don’t want to necessarily deal with and maybe I need to find something else. But it’s about developing an ability to reflect on themselves, to see who they are, to understand their strengths, but to also accept, you know, their their limitations or the parameters that they’ve constructed.

Amy H-L: [00:34:27] What are some characteristics of good professional development in a school? 

Jill H: [00:34:31] Yeah, so for me, professional development is something that’s ongoing and daily, and it manifests itself in many ways. It’s talking to the other teacher who taught what you taught and talking about “How did it go? I had a problem with this. What did you do?” It can be casual and informal, and then it moves to how do teachers work and plan and support each other together. I don’t think PD is this thing that happens after school and somebody comes in and does their show and then all the teachers are expected to recreate that show. So professional development is just like learning. If we have, if we had an algebra II class once a month, none of us would remember what happened the month before, but good professional development is thinking and I think it also believe it needs to, it should come from the staff, either a small group or a larger group. What do we think we need to be working on? What’s going to give us the most leverage? And let’s think about how we can take this on. But it’s ongoing and daily, and it comes from a variety of sources, really like spokes, you know, wheel, you know.

Amy H-L: [00:36:08] Thank you so much, Jill Herman of Bank Street College of Education. And thank you listeners. Check out our website, for more episodes and articles. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easier for you to use in workshops and classes. We offer professional development on social emotional learning, with a focus on ethics in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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