While leading the nation’s largest, most complex and likely most bureaucratic school district, Joel Klein drove remarkable improvements in New York City schools from 2002-2010. And even more remarkably, as we find out in The Atlantic excerpt of his new book, “Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools,” he did so without a direct line to the vast majority of the people he was leading—the roughly 80,000 teachers who educate New York City’s 1.1 million school children.
In the excerpt, Klein talks about the importance he initially placed on connecting with teachers and sharing his vision of change:
But before we could start on raising the interest and quality of the existing teachers, we had to get them to agree that change was necessary, possible, and preferable to the status quo.
I decided to start a dialogue with them, both in writing and in person. My hope was that, as I invited teachers to group gatherings, brown-bag lunches, or meetings in schools, we would get to know one another as human beings. (I confess, I hoped some would say to themselves, “Hey, that Klein’s not the jerk I thought he was.”) Since it was physically impossible for me to meet 80,000 teachers face-to-face, I decided that, in addition to lots of small meetings, I’d write e-mails to them all as a group. What was to stop me? After all, I was their boss. Shouldn’t we be able to communicate?
He came to find out that the answer was no. Union rules, Klein writes, “did not allow me to approach teachers directly on any matter that touched on their actual work.”
That’s a tough spot—leading a massive change initiative in a sprawling and complex organization while not being able to talk directly with 90 percent of your people about their “actual work.” And yet, Klein went on to become the city’s longest-serving chancellor in more than a half century, made schools better for tens of thousands of families, and inspired urban education leaders across the country to follow his path—a “Lesson of Hope” indeed.