In this episode, I focus on the educational leader as a variable. How can an educational leader make a positive difference in the school community?
Former school board member, Eric Robinson, joins Dr. Lisa Hassler to discuss the educational leader variable in the education system and the importance of policy. He is an U.S. Navy veteran, managing partner for a CPA firm in Venice, boards of directors for United Way of South Sarasota, South County Habitat for Humanity and Sarasota Humane Society, member of American Legion Venice Elks Lodge and Sertona of Venice, former chairman of Sarasota Manatee International Airport a former trustee for the State College of Florida, served on the Financial Advisory Board for Sarasota County School Board, currently on the audit committee for Sarasota County Schools and was a board member for Sarasota County Schools.
While in office as a school board member, Eric used creative methods to bring attention and help to the needs in his district through policy reform. In order to close the achievement gap , he helped change the curriculum at Emma E. Booker by using salary to purchase books. He also proposed a way to help Sarasota School District help recruit teachers to help in the teacher shortage by offering teachers free after care and pre care for their students. From mowing lawns and other janitor duties, to donating his salary to purchase curriculum, he listened and advocated for the people in his district like no other.
So here is the call to action: find out what problems are in your school system and be the voice for change through policy.
It is my hope that educational leaders, teachers, and parents be a part of a policy solution to change the educational system in America.Support the show
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· Eric Robinson
· Lisa Hassler
LH: Welcome to the brighter side of Ed podcast. I am your host. Dr. Lisa Richardson hasley here to enlighten and brighten the classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables and how do we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I focused on the educational leader as a variable. How can an educational leader make a positive difference in the school community? Eric Robinson is on today's show to discuss how he discovered and addressed the various needs in his school community. He was a school board member on the Sarasota County School Board and while in office, used some creative methods to bring attention and help to the needs in his community. Welcome to the show, Eric.
ER: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.
LH: Just to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we begin?
ER: My name is Eric Robinson. I'm a local CPA. I was trying to find my place in the world and I was volunteering at a variety of different organizations habitat Board, United Way, the local airport authority. Then I started getting involved in governmental stuff and then I eventually landed on the local community college and I kind of saw that I had a little bit bigger impact on things. And then I ended up getting on the financial advisory committee for a local school district and I kind of felt my home and I was able to mirror my CPA finance background with my love of education and have it an impact. And then from there I ran from school board, then I got on the school board and from that moment on I started causing trouble and I enjoyed it. The way you look at it, one of the things that you have to do in order to create change is don't care who gets credit, number one. Number two, don't care who you have to work with as long as you're able to get those results. And number three, be student focused. And if you go in with those mindset, it allows you to partner with teachers, allows you to partner with parents because as long as they have those same goals and also I'll just go and tell you I'm conservative, but it allowed me to partner with the union teachers union, which you don't normally see. And so if I can tell one of my stories, yeah, sure. I had decided that I've been blessed privately and I decided I was not going to take my salary. Instead I was going to give it back. And so the teachers union came to me and they said, hey white wing wacko, are you really going to give away your salary? And I said yes. And they said, well, our lowest performing school in the district decided that the teachers got together and they decided they did not want to use the same curriculum that they always did. And what was happening was at the district level it was a onesizefit all. And so the district who knew best and the curriculum leaders who knew best decided that everybody got the same reading program regardless of race, creed, colored, national origin, because they were going to not play favorites, not discriminate. But by doing that they did discriminate because there's a discrimination based upon how people learn different people learn differently. Some people learn multiplication tables by singing them. Some people learn their multiplication tables by just sitting there and rewriting the multiplications over and over. And there's a variety of paths to do it and sometimes those paths are cultural in nature and sometimes you have to adapt the curriculum to identify that right. And so this school happened to be a heavily African American and nationwide African Americans are about on grade level about a third of the time versus whites who are on grade level about 70% of the time. And so the teachers came together and said that they didn't want to do the same thing that worked at the Rich white school was not working at their district. And so these teachers said we know what works in our district, but the district is going to keep giving us their curriculum, so we have to go out and buy our own curriculum.
LH: Oh wow.
ER: And so the union came to me, said again, hey white wing wacko, are you willing to put your money where your mouth is? And I said yes. And we partnered together and we went out and got textbooks and curriculum guides and all that good stuff and it was SRA. And you also need to understand if you're an educational leader that you may be leading but you're not the one knowledgeable you have to realize who has the knowledge, the teachers in the classroom. Because at the end of the day you close the door and it's a teacher in front of 18 2021 students. And if you're a good leader, all you're doing is standing outside that door waiting for that teacher to open up the door and tell you what she needs. It is not your job to stay in the classroom with her and tell her what she needs. It's your job as a true leader to let other people lead. And when you do that, amazing things happen. That school went from a D to a B in two years. We were able to allow them to have flexibility. McGraw Hill, the publisher of SRA, came down and did a documentary with us.
LH: Oh wow.
ER: And I remember walking out of that documentary and they came, they interviewed us and the people from our landings, what we call our central office, people from the central office. Of course there was cameras, documentary. Then they wanted to be there, right? Then they wanted to say how great this was, but they provided no backup, no support, no nothing. And in fact, they really didn't like it because it minimized their power, which is a lot of the central office is about power and authority, right.
LH: Controlling curriculum is a very big part of that power.
ER: And allowing teachers to dictate their own curriculum and saying, teachers, you know what's best, rather than the person on the high mountain whose dictates down, that's a shift in power. And they don't like that because it makes them useless.
ER: It takes away the necessity for them. And really what they should be doing, in my humble opinion, as a leader, is you should be vetting. And it's like going to a restaurant. You should vet the curriculum to make sure that it doesn't have any appropriate content, that it actually works, and then allowing the teachers to look through that menu and saying, this works in my class and with my teaching. It's not just the culture, but just think about the teacher style, right. Some teachers teach better one way versus another. So when you mirror the culture of your students, the technique of the teacher, you can end up with the better end result. And that's the end of the day. That's what you need to be concentrated on. What's going to help the teachers the best? Instead, some people concentrate on what's going to keep my power, what's going to make sure that I have a fiefdom, I want to make sure I have my assistant. And not only do I want to be a director, but how do I get to become an executive director? By extending my responsibility. When you start taking their authority and pushing moving it down the chain to the teachers, it takes power away from them and it puts it back on the teachers, which central office really doesn't like that. Most of the struggles that we saw was between school based and administration based, always a fight, at least in larger districts of that size. So it ended up doing well. And so we're walking out of the documentary, and I go to the chief academic officer, and I said to her, when can we start replicating this? And she turned to me and says, we will never do that. In fact, this little experiment that you have will come to an end soon.
LH: Oh, wow.
ER: Yes. I looked at her and she was like, Pollyanna, Mary Poppins, very nice school mom, always. And then when she said that, I saw Mary Poppins evil twin, and I was like, oh, my God, you have to be kidding me.
LH: It was so successful. So why wouldn't you want to replicate that? Absolutely.
ER: Because it diminished her role as the chief academic officer. Because she's the chief academic officer, and she decides what academics is the correct thing to do. So I decided, well, I'm an academic leader. I'm above her. I'm a school board member.
ER: And so I push forward a policy that would allow each individual school to pick their own curriculum. As long as I was on a state approved curriculum list.
ER: And that is not how it then happened. It happened was the district picked the curriculum and it got funneled down to everybody.
ER: And so it got approved because it was hard to argue against that fact.
ER: But then the superintendent famously said, the principals can pick whatever they want, but if they pick a curriculum that I don't support, they're fired.
ER: And so the principal of that school at that time is no shortly thereafter, was no longer the principal of that school.
ER: And the SRA was no longer being presented in that school, and the grade dropped.
LH: How long did that impact last? Like, how long did you were able to fund that new curriculum and help that school? Was that like a one year thing? A two year thing?
ER: How long did that, so this whole story I just told played out over two, two and a half years. The grades are tested every year, so it takes two years, essentially. So the teachers, when they had their meeting, they waited. It was the last day of school, students were gone, they could do whatever they wanted, and they all decided to meet in the media room. And that's when they hatched their plan to do this. They just didn't know how to do it.
LH: How to do it.
ER: And so they needed the support of people like the union
LH: and people like you, educational leaders that are listening to their needs.
ER: Right.But at the end of the day, the power still resides at the end of the day with the people on the high mountain.
LH: And even though you were able to change that policy, it still never really went into effect. When it came to our school's changing,
ER: We had debates about how's the funding going to work. If you tell somebody it's this, how do they get the funding for that? So we went through that whole process. If you said that their curriculum was going to be x dollars, then they should be able to take that x dollars and use it for their students.
ER: And so we went through this whole rigmar war. How is this process going to work? Because it's not simple. We'll just let them do what you want. There's still accountability pieces. How do you make sure that they're doing a curriculum that's aligned with the tests, the testing, the FSAs? So there's a lot of things that went into it simply. I'm not trying to imply, well, it's all hands, do whatever you want. It's a free for all. That's not what I'm trying to say. There has to be some constraints. There's some reason for administration, but administration should be creating those guardrails, and the teachers should be in that race car racing around that track, trying to get to where they need to go and they should just provide these guardrails so they don't get off the race track, but it shouldn't stop them from moving forward, right.
LH: And basically getting to that end, right. Meeting that finish line and being successful.
ER: When I met people in the district who said, well, I'm responsible for all the curriculum, and they were trying to brag about it,
ER: and I just shook my head and I said, that's sad. And they didn't understand what I meant. They were so proud of themselves.
ER: I would have English teachers. So we have end of course exams here, where certain courses have end of course exams. So literature has an end of course exam. And so the end of course exam is Macbeth, is the test on Macbeth. But I had teachers coming to me and saying, I can teach better with King Lear, I can teach better with Romeo and Juliet, I can teach better with the Odyssey. Why can I only teach Macbeth?
ER: As long as the kids are learning things about illusion and symmetry and all these kind of things, what's the issue here? And of course exams, unlike the FSAs, FSAs are statewide and of course exams are district wide.
ER: And so their question was, as long as we're given the autonomy here, why don't you give that autonomy from the district down to the school level, right. And then we'll get all the literature teachers at each individual high school, and we'll come up and we'll decide what books work best for our school.
LH: Yes. Seems reasonable.
ER: Seems reasonable, but it was not because somebody down in central office wanted to be the arbitrator of which book was the right book.
LH: So it's interesting to me that working within those constraints, you were able to look at the lens from a teacher to see how that policy affected the success of the students within the district, like a voice of reason and someone that was kind of looking from the outside. So is a great angle for you to be able to look at. And wonderful, because when you think about policy changes, you were able to implement those policy changes.
ER: So one of the things I did, besides I gave away my salary, is I also did work days.
LH: Now, is that question, this thing here is that we're going to talk about? Can I ask the question, or, Okay?
ER: I want you feel like this is your podcast. Can we put your name on it?
LH: Thank you. This was one of the questions I'm wondering if this is what you're talking about. Okay. So when you're referring to the work days is this while you were in office and you did those various jobs, you were cutting grass on the weekends. I remember you were getting up really early and then you were in the classroom and you had done some lessons there. You did bus ride along, which not for the reason why many superintendents or principals will do ride alongs. When it comes to something bad, it was you were doing it so that you could see, well, I don't want to take away your rationale, but you were doing it for a very different reason, even lunch, serving lunch.
ER: So one of the reasons why I did bustle it, one was to learn about transportation. But one of the things is we're on an order from the federal courts where African Americans are desegregated. We have a desegregation order from the what that causes is kids in one group of neighborhoods are forced to be bused to another, farther school because that school is predominantly white. When they live in a predominantly black neighborhood, so that they don't go to a predominantly black elementary school, they end up getting bus to a predominantly white elementary school. What happens is that bus ride could be 45 minutes, maybe an hour long in both ways.
LH: That's exhausting
ER: That's exhausting.
LH: It really is.
ER: And so I wanted to be on that bus ride.
ER: I want to see how exhausting it was, because it's one thing for a parent to tell you, and it's one thing for the people. And the people in the administration say, oh, it's not that bad, right. Let me see how bad it is. I'm going to go ride that bus, and I'm not going to buy it once or twice or three times. I'm going to ride it multiple times from multiple different schools. So I get the perspective. So when somebody comes and tells me about it, I'm like, oh, yeah, I know that route. I've been on that route four times now. So it gives you a perspective. And so when we had people who come in who did not want, I would say bluntly, they didn't want those type of people with their kids.
ER: And I would always ask the same question every time. And after I asked the question, two things would happen. One, I wouldn't get my answer, and two, they would never bring it up again for a couple of, like, six months. And the one question I asked was, are the African Americans at the predominantly white school performing the same, better, or worse than African Americans at a predominantly African American school? And they would not answer the question, and they would change the subject and.
LH: Move on to something else, because what was the answer?
ER: The answer was that they performed better.
ER: And of course, if they performed better, why would you put then the next question is, if they performed better? Because I knew the answer. I knew the answer. They knew the answer, and the answer would be, well, then why are you pulling them out?
LH: Why would you want to change that? Your students to be able to receive the best education and to perform to the best of their ability.
ER: Yeah, that's the kind of troublemaker I did.
ER: I'll tell you some of the other trouble. You want to hear about the trouble trouble I cause?
LH: Well, before we do that, I want to say, okay, so now you talked about the bus ride, but, like, why did you mobilize go to the cafeteria, do the teaching lessons? Why did you do, like you did various jobs?
ER: I would challenge people. You think we have a tough job? Call me. I'll do your job. And so I had a lot of people who felt that nobody understood them. Nobody understood what they were doing. They would come with issues or problems, and people like, he's the guy who cuts the grass. I mean, what do I mean? I have a PhD. Why am I talking to this person? And it's like, no, if this guy doesn't cut the grass, there's going to be mosquitoes for the students. They're not going to be able to play in the playground. I mean, everybody plays a role, right? I mean, I did ditch sticking. I did plumbing. I did custodian. And I can tell you as a custodian, I learned that middle school boys have bad aim. I just want to put it out there.
LH: I've lived with middle school aged boys, and I would concur.
ER: Obviously, teaching jobs, cafeteria, but the support people was important because they were the unsung, invisible people. And the way I looked at the support people is when they're doing their job really well, you forget about them.
LH: Because it's like they don't no one's doing it because there's no problem, right?
ER: Because the buses are running on time, cafeteria foods gets there, and it's just all automatic, and nobody even gives it a second thought of all the work they're doing on behind the scenes. When you come in your classroom every morning, it's all clean. It wasn't the Keebler elves who did that. And so I like doing the custodian job. And so then what happened was because people forgot about them. People forgot about them. And so when people forgot about them, guess what happens? Vacancies go up, pay gap goes up, and the quality goes down, and then it starts infecting the education, and now you do remember who they are, but it's for all the wrong reasons. And now it's actually impacting the educational environment, right? And so you got to pay attention to that to make sure it doesn't impact the educational environment. And so along those same lines, one of the things that caused trouble about was I believe that you can't pay people enough to make them happy. And so part of the pay gap and quality of life for teachers in particular, is to make sure you show that you care, is make sure that your understanding of their issues and that if they believe that you care, that goes a long way to creating an affinity of cooperation and teamwork. And that just simply if someone's miserable in the job, throwing money at them just makes them miserable with the job and getting paid more money.
LH: That is true. I think empathy and being able to have open communication is very important because it builds that solidarity within that community. But then that kind of brings me over to when you were in office, you proposed a new what was it? A way to help Sarasota school district, help recruit teachers. And I remember this proposal going up. I thought it was fantastic by the way I proposed a bunch of things to recruit teachers. Did you? Okay.
ER: Which one are you talking about?
LH: I'm talking about the ones with the before care.
LH: That's what I was going to do with the children. Do you think that would help? Right now, we're in the great resignation, they're calling it, with the teachers leaving. And do you think one or some of these proposals that you're going to talk about would help?
ER: Yes, because if you care about my kids, I care about you. If you don't care about my kids, I don't think you really care about me. You can't tell me you care about me, but you don't care about my kids.
ER: Right. And so what I did was, I said, hey, we have people like a teacher's aide. A teacher's aid makes $12 an hour, but it costs $12 a day to put your care. And after care, well, if a parent wants to have a parent teacher conference with the teacher's aid after school, the teacher's aid is actually losing money when you count for taxes.
ER: So they don't want to meet with the teacher, the parents.
ER: So who does that actually help?
LH: Right. They're frustrated because you're don't understand the fact that it's costing them money to be able to be there to support.
ER: And you want the teachers to stay after school. You want the teachers to come in early. It helps with Camaraderie, with the parents sometimes really need a parent teacher conference. Just check in. Hey, Dr. Hasler. How's the little Joey doing? I know he had the spelling test. He's really stressed out about it. Do you have any advice on how I can deal with the stress, how to do? Just a myriad of questions. Just a quick 92nd conversation. Don't need to create a whole parent teacher conference and block out time. And everybody teaches like, oh, my God, what's his parent going through? And so offering up well, you would have thought that I was killing someone's baby. No, did not go over well. Our CFO was against it. The chief academic officer, she comes back again. She was against it. And so they were fighting me with it rather hard about it. And they came back. Initially, they had said that they couldn't do it because it was going to be taxable income to them. And I said, But I'm a CPA. I know a little bit about paywall and tax. That's my practice. I don't believe that to be an accurate statement. But you try to acquiesce and work with people, right? And so I modified my motion instead of requiring them that the staff would explore Precare and after care and that they would direct staff to work with Eric Robinson to determine how to implement this. And I made that, like during the summer, okay, we're coming up on Christmas. And I went to the CFO and I said, hey, what's going on? We just don't have this. Because, well, you said that the motion was for us to look at it. I looked at it and decided not to do it.
LH: Oh, no.
ER: I was like, oh no, then I'm going to have to make another motion, right? So I brought it up in January, made my motion again.
ER: And the CFO was arguing to be back and forth, and I had chapter and verse where it wasn't taxable and how it wasn't going to cost any more money. And one of the issues was that it's not fair, you know? And I was like, well, wait a minute, you guys have your own gym here at the landing, at the administrative buildings. Why? How is that fair? You guys have pizza parties. They don't have that. You guys have a lot of parks here at the administration building that they don't have at other schools. And the people at the schools have cafeterias. You don't have a cafeteria. So you can't try to fairness. The chief academic officer came in and she started berating it. So finally I just said, you know what, I'm willing to acquiesce. I'm willing to give in. You know, I'm willing to lose. I just want to know one question because we have teachers watching and teachers aides, and people really want this. I just want you to answer one question. What's it like to be rich? I said, both of you guys make $185,000 as assistant superintendents. And so that's a pay that most teachers will never achieve. So if you can tell them what's it like to be so rich, you don't have to worry about child care, what's it like to have so much money that you don't care what happens to your children? If you could just answer that one question, it won't get them, these people's, child care, but it gives them something to strive for. So they know what it's like to be so rich.
LH: Right? Over they did not answer my question. I don't think they would, no.
ER: And instead they said, we will do it for six months trial, okay, to see how this goes. And we're going to show you how much it costs, Mr. Robinson, and we're going to bring it back. And then you, Mr. CPA, are going to be able to determine whether you want to make this permanent. And I said, That'll be great, because one or two things are going to happen. Either one, not a lot of teachers use it, in which case it doesn't really cost that much, so who cares? Or two, a lot of teachers are going to use this. It's going to cost more money. But that means a lot of our teachers are using it and then they want to use this. So I look forward to that six month report.
ER: Do you know what happened?
ER: I did not get my six month report.
ER: Because I came to it. I said, hey, what happened to my six month report? They said, oh, we decided not to do that.
LH: They could do that even though they said they were going to? Like, this is shocking to me. It is shocking to me
ER: because they decided we're just going to make it permanent. Oh, so they made it permanent.
LH: Okay. So it still exists?
ER: No. Once I got out of office,
LH: it was pulled.
LH: What I'm hearing is all the different things that you did within the school system and you pushed it to the limits. You were creative, you were collaborative, you listened. And these are all strengths of a great leader.
ER: I was collaborative with certain people.
LH: Okay, but you needed to collaborate with when you're thinking about not only school leaders but also teachers and unions and people that were doing all kinds of things.
ER: I collaborate with those people. Yes, but if somebody else wanted to collaborate to stop that, I wasn't really collaborating with them. If somebody said, teachers don't know we're up in administration, we know better, that's not the person I want to collaborate with.
LH: Right. So you are collaborating with the people who are making a difference day in and day out with our student success and trying to make it so that they were able to you were help supporting them.
ER: Again, people who will never receive any credit.
ER: So if you don't care about who gets the credit and you're focused on the student, teachers by definition are focused on the students. Teachers by definition are not focused on countywide curriculum and trying to make sure they become executive director.
LH: No, they want to make sure that the child that's sitting in front of them day in and day out is happy and they're academically successful. That's what they strive for.
ER: Right. That's why I started up with you got to make sure that these particular criterias exist. And if these particular criterias exist, then that's the people you want to work with. That's how you get to success.
LH: Did you find that you were very supported by the teachers?
ER: Yeah, I think so.
LH: Yeah. And how did the parents were they supported?
ER: I was former chairman of the public and Party. I got endorsed by the teachers union. That doesn't happen every day.
LH: No, that doesn't. That means you were on the right track in my mind. So that's pretty impressive. I did put here no, we did that one. Before we wrap up or is there anything else that you would like to add before I ask this last question?
ER: No, I'm. Worried about. The last question has always got your questions.
LH: No, it's not a got you, I swear. What advice would you give a teacher or a parent looking to make a policy change within their school?
ER: Well, first of all, policy changes don't exist just in a school.
LH: In a district.
ER: In a district. So policies are usually district wide.
ER: And so when someone's looking for a policy, it's usually district wide. What I would say is go talk to people in private first.
LH: For that buy in.
ER: For that buy in to get understanding. If you started open the public, you've lost.
LH: So you need to have kind of more of a grassroots people supporting you to say, yes, this is a good idea. Bounce back and forth.
ER: Like what the easiest to do is to get staff involved first.
LH: Oh, okay.
ER: Because majority of the issues are driven by staff. Like I was saying, it takes a lot of capital to fight with staff. And so when staff leaves the station, they're on a train. And so if you stand up in front of the train, so long as you get run over, which I'm no longer a school board member, so that's an example. So it's best to try to work with staff initially.
LH: Okay. All right. And so I think that's pretty good advice, especially for a lot of people that are listening and they're thinking about there are certain things in their schools like the daycare and don't give up.
ER: They try to wait you out. They see parents come and go, and so they can wait you out. They can ignore you, they can put you off, they can label you a nut.
LH: So consistency and go around, through, over.
ER: Under that person doesn't work, you go to another person.
LH: Is it hard to have a policy change?
LH: I think that you saw that because there are policies that you put into play or try to, and you were met with some resistance.
ER: The more common sense it is, the harder it is to get the policy change. Because if it's not a common sense, then it's easier. They just dismiss you out of hand and you don't get to talk to anybody and you're like walled off. It's the common sense ones where they can't debate will they have to label you. And if they don't want to do it, those are the harder ones, the ones that make sense, the fights that are worth fighting. They're the hardest fights to fight.
LH: Okay, good advice. Thank you. All right, well, so here is the call to action, and that is to find out what problems are in your school system and be the voice for change through policy. It's a grassroots effort with this one, for sure. And it is my hope that educational leaders, teachers and parents be a part of a policy solution to change the educational system in America. Thank you, Eric Robinson, for taking the time to join me today to discuss the importance of policy in our education system and how educational leaders, as we as individuals, can impact policy change.
ER: That's really good. Right on top of your head.
LH: Yeah. In our next episode, Dr. Carlo Sparks will be joining me to discuss the difference she's making in teachers at the university level and how her book be, the Manatee, is a guide to change. Now, if you have a story about what's working in your school that you'd like to share, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my email@example.com and send me a message. It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads affecting positive change in schools. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our children's success.