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Proactive Leaders Series: Ada Dolch

Ada Rosario Dolch has spent the first part of her career shaping NYC public school students into leaders, thinkers, and doers. She taught at John Dewey High School for 15 years and was principal at the High School for Leadership and Public Service from 1995 to 2004.

Today she is executive director of the Executive Leadership Institute—a organization committed to crafting, mentoring, and inspiring public school leaders in NYC. Ada’s passion, enthusiasm, and strength are contagious and she is well suited to inspire future generations of NYC’s brightest principals and administrators.

She has also movingly contributed to Forever After.

In the following interview Ada talks about how important it is for leaders to be passionate. In our last post we discussed how important it is during these times to stay committed to the core values and not to throw out the ‘baby with the bath water’. In no area is this more important than in the field of education where leaders are challenged to make sure that in their effort to deal with the economic crisis they make sure that they keep their focus on the essentials and realize that quality education must survive all the turmoil that may come with short-term economic upheaval. This interview with Ada highlights many of these points and is relevant for those not only in education but for any proactive leader trying to take charge in these times.

1. How many NYC principals do you work with?

The Council of School Supervisor’s and Administrators (Union for NYC school administrators), itself supports over 5,000 active members… …and so we can have any one of those 5,000 members going through these doors at any time–attending our workshops or getting help.

2. Recently I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot of news discussing Department of Education job cuts. How is that affecting the morale and hope of the teachers, principals, and leaders within the Department?

In my office we’re very concerned because a lot of funding we receive comes directly from the Department of Education and the City Council or public funding or even grants. The funding we may get is being cut. Maybe people who would have been quick to donate may not even have the funds anymore.

So yeah, an entire world is in an economic mess. It was just this morning that the governor was unveiling his new taxes (5 cents on water [laughs])! We’re all facing that fear…we don’t know about our jobs…Bloomberg gave a ray of hope to us the other day by saying that education cuts won’t be made and it’s been a relief…but still principals are worrying about future cuts…and it’s worrying principals and causing a drop in hope everywhere.

3. How are you sustaining momentum and keeping hope alive during this crisis?

Day in and day out my work and the work of a principal is not about worrying about the budget, although I do have to be a good steward of my dollars, but I have to think about what I have to deliver to my kids every day: it’s called education. I also need to worry about the welfare and safety of these kids.

4. So the momentum is ‘ingrained’?

Yes. Exactly, recently I had a friend ask, ‘How do these times effect a teacher; the classroom?’  I remember lean years. The principal would give the teacher two pieces of chalk and say, “Here, it’s for the whole week”…We have no clue what that means today. It’s been great for, what 7, 10 years now, but it’s changing again.

Part of what sustains the momentum right now is that a lot of us have experienced some of this. The younger supervisors haven’t obviously, but there are enough of us that have been through lean times before and we realize that a lot of the frills are gone but we still have to do our job well.

5. It is important that a staff maintain a sense of collective cohesiveness? Is it more difficult to build this during more trying times?

I’m going to say the opposite. If you have already established a culture of real kinship in your school with your staff and others in the school community, then in difficult times we rally around each other and support each other.  If you haven’t established that then this isn’t the time people will come together. People aren’t feeling comfortable and people are starting to hurt.

6. Does a leadership style need to change or adjust to the economy?

If you’re a leader people already look to you for answers. People will look to you to solve the problems and I will say what I said before…if you can establish respect in your building and have developed a team, then you don’t need to change anything.

7. What if you haven’t set up a team and are a rookie principal or leader?

If you’re new and you haven’t worked towards establishing a team, the job, your job, will be more difficult then ever. When you walk into a building for the first time, the staff, will expect you to perform miracles…you may be coming into a building on a negative footing [laughs]: former principal retired or quit and the community is already connected oftentimes in a negative way.

You don’t have to come in as a hard-liner—you have to bring the troops together and ask the good questions: What do you need? What can I do for you? What are you’re concerns? What are you afraid of? …You have to build a relationship of trust.

8. Can you elaborate on your team building-strategies? Maybe give some tips when it comes to developing a strong team?

Heart. We think it’s all about headwork …It doesn’t matter how much physics you know or what math you know…if you have heart you can win over any staff and even the students …if you demonstrate what it is to believe in people…they begin to do the same thing with you and it becomes a ‘give and take’ thing.  A “How do we make this work together?”… If you already established that climate, or you can, you will have a lot more people joining you and jumping on board with your ideas rather then fighting you.

9. What if you don’t have the heart?

Sometimes, unfortunately, it happens. My job, a principal’s basic job,  is to empower the teachers. You have to protect them and…give them the tools they need. If I can do that as a school leader my job is done. A principal has to be a cheerleader and support your team…If you don’t have it it’s you’re loss, the teachers loss, and the students loss ….as the song goes, “You gotta have heart!” [laughs].

10. What do you do when you have a plan and it falls through? How do you save face and avoid the ‘abandoning ship’ feeling?

I’m going to say that there is nothing you can work towards that you will need to completely ‘scrap’. There’s a part of every project that you can always use… Some parts may have to wait awhile but you can still use some of you’re ideas.

Let’s say you are planning a retreat…but it falls through…you can still do some of the activities you planned in your building and do the other stuff later. The beauty of planning is planning—it’s working with other people and encouraging them and hearing from everyone.

11. Do you try to keep a tough game face on when things turn bad?

No…but sometimes you have to come across as a ‘hard-liner’. Some people don’t want to move a certain agenda but sometimes you can’t make compromises.

You don’t gain much by being too tough ….you get more with honey…but you can’t let people take advantage of you, that’s the innate character of most people [laughs] but you have to set clear goals and you can’t lead from your office, you have to be “out” and see what’s going on and sit in on different meetings…you need to be aware of what’s going on and make sure everyone knows the goals.



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