Before an audience of more than 125 friends, colleagues, Neag School graduates, students, and faculty, two high-profile Neag School alumni took to the stage this Tuesday at UConn’s von der Mehden Hall in Storrs to share their insights on leadership, as well as their own preparation program experience at UConn, as part of the School’s inaugural educational leadership alumni forum.
‘Leadership Is Not About You’
Three-time Neag School alum Desi Nesmith ’01 (ED), ’02 MA, ’09 UCAPP, now chief school turnaround officer for Connecticut’s state Department of Education, spoke in part about some of the challenges currently facing many school districts – particularly large, urban districts – across the country, including negative perceptions, teacher turnover, and the ever-present pressure to raise student achievement.
“Because the pressure to perform becomes so great, we oftentimes forget what we need to focus on in the classroom at the student level,” said Nesmith, who has previously served as an elementary schoolteacher and principal in Connecticut, and in 2014 received the prestigious Milken Educator Award. “As school and district leaders, what are we going to do about it? The keyword there is ‘we.’”
“Good leaders don’t do it alone. They create a community of leaders around them – people they want to support, people they want to empower.”
–Desi Nesmith ’01(ED), ’02 MA, ’09 UCAPP
According to Nesmith, being a skillful educational leader is about far more than “having a business card and your name plate on the door.” It requires collaboration – successfully getting parents, students, as well as teachers to “buy into your vision and help you move it forward.” Leadership, he added, “is not about you.”
Nesmith also emphasized the time and investment it takes to shape qualified educational leaders, and credits the UConn Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP) with providing the vision and robust set of learning experiences – including a cohort model and thoughtful internship placement – that he believes are necessary to creating well-rounded leaders.
“Good leaders aren’t made in a day, a week, or a month,” he said. “It takes time. It takes experience. Good leaders don’t do it alone. They create a community of leaders around them – people they want to support, people they want to empower.”
Evolution of a Leader
Garth Harries ’12 ELP, superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, also spoke about how his Neag School experience, as part of the Executive Leadership Program (ELP), helped shape his own evolution as a leader.
Harries shared a story from his time in a previous role in New York City, where he led a controversial decision to close Bushwick High School in Brooklyn. Though he initially faced great opposition from the community, Harries ultimately opened three new, successful small schools in place of Bushwick High, and the graduation rate tripled.
“When I left New York – before I went through the Neag program – I had one perspective on that: It was a lesson in what is possible, on the urgency of the work we do,” he says. “It was a lesson in the inevitability of controversy as we try our mightiest to provide the education we believe our students deserve.”
Now an ELP grad and a third-year superintendent, Harries says: “I’ve come to see other layers of that story.”
In part, he told the audience, “Where I once may have taken a somewhat paternalistic sense [that] we did what was right, and in the end we were successful, what I’ve come to understand is … the need to engage the full community.” Harries talked about bringing the lessons he learned at the Neag School with him to New Haven – for instance, involving the teacher’s union in education reform efforts, acknowledging the importance of the instructional core, and coming to the understanding that “students are not just evidence of success; they are agents of success.”
Following their talks, Nesmith and Harries together fielded questions from the audience.