In late December, Dr. Rob Glass, the superintendent of Michigan’s Bloomfield Hills Schools, was awarded with the state’s top prize for school administrators. The Journal recently caught up with Dr. Glass to learn more about his experiences and insights as an educator and to get his thoughts on the challenges that lie ahead for students and teachers.
Dr. Rob Glass
Tell us a little bit about your background. I grew up in Metro Detroit, graduating from Groves High School in Birmingham, MI. I pursued Telecommunication at Michigan State University, and returned to Groves High School to manage a TV studio and assist with TV production courses. It was then that I realized how much I enjoyed the education process, so I went to Wayne State University to obtain a Masters in teaching. I worked as a teacher and administrator in a small parochial school and even spent a short time managing a vocational school in India. When I returned to the US, I taught 4th and 5th grades in Northern Michigan, obtained a Masters in Administration, and served as an elementary principal in several districts. After moving into a central office instructional role with the Birmingham Public Schools, I later became superintendent for the Dexter Schools, eventually being named superintendent here in Bloomfield Hills. My wonderful wife, Cynthia, is an administrator in higher education. We have four sons and a daughter-in-law, all in their mid-twenties.
When did you first become interested in education?
I never gave teaching a thought until had the opportunity to work with high school students during my first job after college, which involved assisting with a TV Production class and running an after school TV Production Club. I really enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm of students and felt that I had the ability to help people learn. While I knew I would enjoy secondary teaching, I pursued elementary education because I could obtain the certification in half the time. From the moment I began student teaching, I knew I would like teaching younger students just as much as I had enjoyed working with high school students.
As you made the transition from classroom teacher to principal to administrator, what are some of the key things you learned?
Looking back, it’s amazing how much learning one must do on the job. No matter how well trained in the university classroom one might be, there’s just no substitute for experience. I learned that it is wise to steer clear of petty political issues, and to try to develop each person and team to their fullest. In my early years as a principal, I valued candid feedback from the superintendent and really liked being part of a larger administrative team that was pursuing excellence. Over the years I’ve tried to create an aspirational team environment for those I work with on a regular basis and find that works well on both district and school levels.
Our students have a lot to teach us if we will listen, and the more we give them control of their own learning, the deeper and more authentic their learning is likely to become.
Do you have an overall philosophy about education that has guided you?
In this age of abundant, instantaneous content knowledge, I have moved further away from the idea that acquiring content is paramount. I have become more of a constructivist, believing that students construct their own understanding through their experiences and reflections. I tend to prefer more inquiry-based and Socratic approaches as those that will best serve our students in a rapidly evolving future. I believe that the ‘4 C’s’ (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity) are a set of crucial skills we must teach (and learn to authentically measure) in conjunction with core content standards. I believe that learning is the most natural thing for humans to do, but that our ambitious educational environments need to be careful not to orchestrate all of the wonder out of the learning process. I believe learning should be inquiry-based, transdisciplinary, applied, authentic and allow for creation to the maximum extent possible. I further believe that education should inspire students to ultimately find their own voices and become architects of their own futures. I believe in the quote attributed to Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
In other interviews, you’ve talked about the importance of the community in supporting schools and a district’s educational goals. Can you expand on this?
All education takes place within the context of community, whether at the classroom, school, district or regional level. When a community helps shape and is in fundamental alignment with the strategic vision of the district, the support of the community becomes like a tailwind, providing all manner of resources, and the work of the district becomes easier. Conversely, when any segment of the community–even those whose children have long since graduated– begins questioning the districts goals or the actions of its administration or Board, the resistance of the community becomes like a headwind, making even simple things difficult.
Looking ahead, what are your goals for Bloomfield Hills schools in the coming years?
I think we are entering a time when we will begin to deepen and strengthen the innovative practices already in place. We have redesigned our high school experience by creating learning communities for our 9th and 10th graders, and in the coming years we will look to create unique learning experiences for our 11th and 12th grade students. We will be looking at ways to evolve our middle school experience while creating a more unified system of supports for our elementary school students. We will definitely continue to build a more inclusive and equitable school system, and one of the ways I believe we can best accomplish this is by listening more to our students. Our students have a lot to teach us if we will listen, and the more we give them control of their own learning, the deeper and more authentic their learning is likely to become.
Last year, Michigan passed a third grade reading bill that will hold back some students if they cannot achieve reading proficiency. Even though the law doesn’t go into effect until the 2019-2020 school year, what sort of preparations are the Bloomfield Hills schools working on to help make sure students succeed in reading?
We are in the process of strengthening and unifying the multi-tiered system of supports already in place for our early elementary students. We have a number of supports and data tracking systems in place, but they are all somewhat unique, which can sometimes limit our ability to share and amplify best practices across the district. By condensing around practices and procedures yielding the best results, we believe we are able to increase the likelihood that our students will be proficient in reading by the end of 3rd grade.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing educators today?
Without question I believe it is our national political obsession with improving education primarily through high stakes testing and accountability. While I certainly believe that data and accountability are important elements, I believe that capacity building and an investment in professional capital are better drivers for improvement.
What advice do you have for teachers who are new to the classroom or those who are, like you have done, looking to move into an administrative role?
Continue striving for excellence, look for opportunities to lead from where you stand. Follow your ideals and your instincts. Keep learning and growing in your professional practice and stay networked with others of like mind. Don’t operate from fear or complacency–take on new challenges as often as you can. Know that the administrators around you are cheering you on and are there to support you. Our work is noble and vital for the continued success of our country and our democracy!
Dr. Glass will next be considered for the National Superintendent of the Year—the winner will be announced in March.