An Interview with Paul Cummins
“I would encourage students to pursue educational leadership because the field desperately needs leaders. But I would also tell them explicitly that what the field doesn’t need are more cult leaders who are conventional thinkers and who will continue to do things the way they have always been done, because what has always been done isn’t working very well.”
Paul Cummins is President and CEO of New Visions Foundation, a non-profit corporation with a mission to serve at-risk youth by starting new schools and other educational projects, located in Santa Monica, California. A particularly successful project that he spearheaded is the P.S. Arts program, which raises money to put the arts back into public school curriculums.
Paul has been a leader in the educational arena for several decades. Before launching his professional career, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Honors History from Stanford University in 1959, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard University in 1960, and a PhD in English from the University of Southern California in 1967.
In your own words, what is an educational leader?
Educational leaders are frequently the heads of schools, but they can work in other capacities as well. For example, while I used to be the headmaster of a private institution called Crossroads School, I decided to start a non-profit corporation to serve disadvantaged youth in other ways. I am a little embarrassed to say it, but people often refer to me as an innovator and a visionary in the field of education. So you can be a leader in this arena without necessarily running a school on a day-to-day basis, as long as you are passionate about making positive changes to reform education.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming an educational leader,” what would your response be?
I would encourage students to pursue educational leadership because the field desperately needs leaders. But I would also tell them explicitly that what the field doesn’t need are more cult leaders who are conventional thinkers and who will continue to do things the way they have always been done, because what has always been done isn’t working very well. And so I would advise them to take classes that stretch their creativity along with the required courses like administrative management. You should do things that you haven’t done before so that you start looking at things in a different way, because the area of educational leadership urgently needs creative thinkers.
What level of education is necessary to become an educational leader?
You need at least a bachelors degree to work in education, and the further into a subject you dive the better will be your sense of understanding. You should not be satisfied with the “how to” classes that show you how to teach mathematics or manage a school, but the amount of education that you need will vary quite a lot according to which direction you want to go with educational leadership.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become an educational leader?
Yes, there are some certifications that you will need to obtain if you want to work in public education. If you want to teach, you need to earn a teaching credential. And if you want to be an administrator, you must earn an administrative credential through graduate school. However, those credentials may not be necessary if you work for a private school or a charter school. I would say you should still get those certifications and credentials, but realize that the classes you will take often merely skim the surface of educational policy without taking you deeply into any one particular field.
Why did you decide to become an educational leader?
I decided to go into educational leadership because I was dissatisfied with the system that I grew up with. In high school, I was hungry for knowledge but nobody fed me. But in college, I was surrounded by exciting teachers and students who wanted to be engaged in the learning process. I started to think about why I loved learning in college and why I didn’t in high school. The difference I saw motivated me to examine the public education system and try to make meaningful changes in it.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming an educational leader?
My only misconception about being a leader in education is that I didn’t realize that it would be an all-consuming job. I had a day job, which was running the school. But it also seemed like I had a night job, which was performing community outreach and meeting with parents and committees. I was extremely busy and I am not sure that I was fully prepared for that at the start of my career.
What do you enjoy most and least about being an educational leader?
I don’t know that I can point to an aspect of educational leadership that I don’t find some enjoyment in. But what I especially love is to light the fire in someone about learning. I like to see students from disadvantaged backgrounds find something to get excited about at school that will keep them there instead of being in a gang or simply drifting around the neighborhood.
What is a typical day like for you?
It is difficult to say what a typical day might look like because, as the head of a foundation, much of my time is spent networking. So I often meet potential partners or affiliates for lunch without necessarily knowing if anything will come out of that meeting. I am a businessman because my projects have million-dollar budgets, so I perform some administrative work each day. Finally, I tend to reserve my evenings for reading or writing. I have authored 9 books so far.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
I no longer have trouble balancing the work and career aspects of my life, although I used to. At this stage in my career, I am no longer the head of a school, so I get to design my own working hours. At age 74, I have slowed down a little and I start work later and leave earlier than I used to. I have gotten much better at balancing my private time with my public time.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as an educational leader and what traits would hinder success?
A personality trait that I think that it is very important for a person who wants to go into educational leadership to possess is passion. You ought to be a passionate fighter with a fire in your belly to keep you excited and working hard to make changes. On the other hand, a personality trait that will hurt you is an inability to recover from losses. There will be obstruction to your ideas, and to combat that you will have to get used to a certain inevitable amount of heartbreak when a plan goes awry.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
If I could go back to college, I would put time and effort into learning a second language. With each passing day, it becomes more important in this country to be able to understand and interact with people who come from different cultures. Unfortunately, I am still monolingual.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming an educational leader?
My advice is to be bold and daring when taking classes in college. Take classes in areas where you are clueless because it will stretch your capacity to think in different ways. The broader your knowledge base, the more creative you will become. With creativity comes the ability to solve problems by envisioning a better way of doing things.