Recommitting to the Endeavor of Hope
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, National Association of Secondary School Principals Ronn Nozoe sees a bright future for American education
Ronn Nozoe wasn’t planning to be an educator. The son of a teacher and a school administrator, he grew up determined to find a different career path. “Every day, I saw how hard my parents worked. And I thought, ‘No way am I going to be an educator!’” Nozoe recalls. “I’m going to be a lawyer or a banker, make some money and be rich.”
But, as Nozoe put it, fate intervened. In college, he became an unofficial writing coach to his fellow students. “I helped my classmate with a paper, and he was so proud of how it turned out,” Nozoe says. “He got his first B ever, and he was so excited about it. Soon I was helping out other friends, and then friends of friends, and I got hooked on it.”
Today, Nozoe helps out on a much larger scale. As the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), Nozoe advocates for middle- and high-school leaders across the country. He came to the job after a career as a high school teacher, a middle school principal, a district superintendent, and state policymaker in his native Hawaii. “I got into this whole profession because I just couldn’t fathom how I could be sitting in a college classroom with kids who didn’t know the fundamentals of writing,” Nozoe says. “It’s not right that some kids have a better education while some kids just don’t. Now we call that an equity issue, but even back then we knew it just wasn’t right.”
Nozoe speaks with the upbeat intensity of a middle-school principal kicking off a pep rally, and it’s impossible to not be energized by his enthusiasm. I didn’t know Nozoe before our conversation, but I loved speaking with him and getting his perspective on where American education is headed in the aftermath of the pandemic.
What makes school principals so valuable in terms of advocacy and insight on education policy?
There’s no other role in the K–12 system that is so uniquely positioned to understand both students and the community they come from. A principal’s job is to advocate for the families and students and teachers they serve, to push for real actions to benefit their schools and maintain public support.
People who go into teaching, administration, school leadership—it’s not for pay, it’s not for status or prestige. It’s the commitment to service, to humanity, to justice, to doing right by all the children in this country. Principals are a special part of that. No one else in the K–12 structure has all those points of intersection, has the mandate to play that bridging role between the students, the teachers, the parents, and the wider community.
It’s why I love my job now, being part of an organization made up of school leaders. Everyone on our board of directors is a sitting school principal, and our job is to bring everybody’s talent and expertise together and shape it as a force for good in American education.
You’ve talked to school leaders about their needs and worries throughout the pandemic. What’s on their minds right now?
What keeps them up at night is all this extra stuff they’re being made to do now, becoming experts in contact tracing and ventilation and quarantine regulations. Those are not supposed to be a principal’s primary responsibility. Principals are supposed to know each and every kid at their school, what those kids need, and then how to move resources to maximize the opportunities for their students. But principals can’t bring the capacity to be visionary while they’re dealing with health emergencies.
Is federal relief funding going to help? Schools are slated to get a lot of extra funding over the next couple of years to help deal with some of these emergency issues. How are principals planning to use it?
The additional money definitely helps. We’ve long known there aren’t enough resources, there aren’t enough staff, there aren’t enough computers, the air conditioning is outdated. It’s sad that it took a pandemic to bring all this to the fore, but now that it has happened, how can we build on that recognition?
The American Rescue Plan is a good start, but it needs to be a permanent part of the education landscape. We talk a lot in this country about a first-class education system, a world-class education system, but we’re still not there yet. Anyone who’s honest with themselves can see that.
The whole ecosystem of K–12 education needs to shift and change and evolve, and we need to make sure principals have a seat at the table where those decisions are getting made. You can’t just make up stuff and dump it on the principal’s desk to pilot or implement. It can’t just be experts and policymakers making decisions far from schools. We need principals at the design table, to take what they’ve learned as we have this conversation about rebuilding.
What are some of those key lessons from the last year and a half? There’s certainly been a lot of change and experimentation.
In some areas it has gotten better and in some it’s more challenged. Remote and hybrid learning have brought that out for some children and families, where the increased individualization has actually benefited them and elevated their voices. When you’re in a class of 30 kids, sometimes you don’t want to speak up. But in a virtual environment, you can email your teacher, chat with your teacher, find time for one-on-one conversations. And some kids do better in that environment, not being in a room with everybody, having a more focused communication over screens.
But that’s not the norm. For most students, in most circumstances, in-person is just a better, more wholesome experience. Figuring out how you capture some of the benefits of online learning, some of that individual attention and pacing, while keeping the value of in-person teaching—that’s just incredibly hard. It’s incredibly difficult to run multiple teaching configurations in one school in one day. Having to prepare for in-person and hybrid and remote—that’s definitely more than one job. Everybody being everything to everyone is not sustainable. Smart districts and smart schools are trying to figure it out, sometimes by offering virtual instruction from a central source.
But you have to remember that school is about much more than the academic learning. Sports clubs, fine arts, socializing with peers—all of these other things round out the school experience and that really is the secret sauce for many students. You can’t replicate a football game on Zoom. People have done band concerts and choir concerts on Zoom, but it’s not the same. We don’t have an answer for how to do that successfully in a virtual format.
Rippowam Middle School principal Matthew Laskowski registers students to receive Chromebooks on September 03, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut.
Beyond covid, it seems like school leaders are having to deal with a lot of contentious issues right now: debates about curriculum, teacher shortages, balance of authority between states and local districts. How do you stay focused in an environment like this?
I try to focus on the moral imperative at the heart of what we do. Education law is civil rights law in our country. The right to a free and appropriate education—it’s the building block, the foundation for everything else. If we agree that public education is the foundation of a democracy—that every kid in America should have a world-class education and it should be well-rounded—then we can work together.
Take out the acronyms, the rhetoric, the news cycles, and ask any parent, “What do you want for your child?” They want their kid to be smart, to have a future. And to do that, we need to be asking bigger questions about this industrial model of education we’ve had for more than a century now.
Our education system is designed to sort. These kids are going to college, those kids are going into the trades, these kids we need to work on. That system is not serving us well for a future where the next generation is going to change jobs 15 times, where they’ll need to prepare for careers that don’t exist yet. We need to step back and put our energy into reengineering our future.
Are you hopeful about our ability to come through this hard moment and build something better?
I am. I really am. I believe that people are basically good. In our individual and quirky ways, we want to do good and be good. All of us have encountered situations in life that may have changed that trajectory at times, but I think the instinct is there.
I had hoped that the pandemic would be a wake-up call to bring us back to that, and I think it still can be. I really believe, with the uglier things, the stronger desire for most people is to say, “Enough already!” Having the same fights over and over again, there’s just no point in it.
Our members, the school leaders we serve, they come from all walks of life. When we talk about things, we may have political disagreements, but at the end of the day, through all of this chaos, our members have been focused on what their kids need and how they can get it. I think if we could tone down the rhetoric a little bit, tone down the heat a little bit, we’d remember that all I want is for your kid to be fine, and for my kid to be fine, and I think you want that, too. I really believe that.
Education is an endeavor of hope. It’s about providing people with hope that there’s a better future on the other side of whatever you’re going through. If I ever stop believing that, I need to leave the profession.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.