On Discovering Role Models

I didn't know who Jeff Gilbert was a month ago. Today, I look at him as a role model.

Jeff Gilbert, principal of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, was the subject of my paper for my class, Leading U.S. School. Over the last month, I've interacted with him a handful of times. He gave a guest presentation in class, describing the redesign he helped lead at Hillsdale High School. I also was in the audience when he received an Alumni Excellence Award from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and heard him give an excellent speech about changing the world and the "why" behind careers in education. I got to see him in his element when we shadowed him for a day at Hillsdale. I also was able to interview him and ask him questions.

In my paper I described Jeff as a "masterful politician," an allusion to Larry Cuban's three core roles of principals: managerial, instructional, and political. I mean politician in the noblest, most selfless sense. Jeff is as good at navigating school politics as anyone I've observed, and much of it is a result of his humility and inclination to let others speak before he does. His political skills were evident in meetings and one on one conversations throughout our day shadowing him. One of the theories of my paper was that Gilbert's political acumen is a necessity in the governance structure he has helped implement at Hillsdale -- Small Learning Communities (SLCs) led by an SLC Council. Gilbert describes this as a "legislative branch," not an executive branch, which is probably a more accurate comparison for the principalship at most traditional public schools. Jeff legitimately cedes his power on major policy decisions to his colleagues. One of the things he told us has stuck with me: “There’s no way I can know as much about what’s good for the school as the collective wisdom of the staff.” I think there are a lot of teachers who wish their principal believed that. 

One quick excerpt from the paper that I think paints a picture of Jeff Gilbert as a person:

"At one point, as we sat in Gilbert’s office asking him questions, we heard what turned out to be an autistic student crying in the hallway. Gilbert stood up and walked toward his office door. Initially, I expected him to close it. Instead, he walked through the door to make sure there was an adult with the student and that everything was okay."

Jeff Gilbert is a good person.

I bring this up because I struggled with one aspect of this paper. I am supposed to be, to the extent possible, an objective observer. My job is to analyze the behavior and actions of actors within the school system and evaluate them to draw conclusions. I'm not supposed to choose sides, and I'm not supposed to be rooting for any particular person's success.

I am not good at this.

One thing I learned (or confirmed) about myself is that I am not programmed to be on the sidelines objectively observing. I'm supposed to be, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, in the arena. While I did my best to separate my biases from my analysis in my paper, at the end of the day I can't deny that I'm rooting for Jeff Gilbert's success. I want him and his school and his teachers and his kids to succeed. I admire him and how fully he has embraced his version of distributed leadership at Hillsdale. Two more excerpts to explain what I mean:

"This decision-making method is incredibly difficult and has the potential of putting Gilbert in the untenable position of defending a decision that he personally does not agree with. However, to Gilbert, 'the process is more important than the decision.'"


"At the end of the day, the principal of a school is responsible for school failures, and very few leaders are willing to delegate their power to the collective community when their jobs and reputations are on the line, even if it is better for the school in the long run. Gilbert maintains his integrity and commitment to the process even when his side loses on important votes."

That's a pretty profound statement about leadership. No one could argue that Jeff is not bought into the Hillsdale system -- a unique system in the world of education. I'm not familiar with many schools who operate like Hillsdale does, or with many leaders who operate like Jeff Gilbert does.

When Jeff Gilbert received his award from the GSE, he gave a speech that resonated with me. One of the assigned books for my History of School Reform class is Tyack and Cuban's "Tinkering Toward Utopia," a book about how difficult school reform has proven to be in the U.S. "The words 'utopia' and 'tinkering' each have positive and negative connotations," Tyack and Cuban write. "Tinkering can be condemned as mere incrementalism or praised as a commonsense remedy for everyday problems." The way that each of us interprets that word, and whether or not we identify with it, says a lot about us. Gilbert spoke about being young and in graduate school and wanting to change the world, and how that has changed since he was a student. 

“I still want to change the world, but now I’m okay being a tinkerer. I’m even proud of that,” he told an audience of students, faculty, and alumni. “I take pride in tinkering toward a better tomorrow.”

How can you not root for Jeff Gilbert?