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School leadership is largely about inspiring people and making sure everyone is empowered to do their best in all areas.

From musician to U.S. Department of Education leader: A Q&A with Dr. James Lane


School leadership is largely about inspiring people and making sure everyone is empowered to do their best

Key points:

Running a school district is a lot like conducting an orchestra; it’s all about bringing out the best in every player. That’s according to Dr. James Lane, who went from a traveling musician and music educator to landing a job in the Biden-Harris administration.

In this Q&A, Lane discusses his career journey, the biggest challenges facing educators today, and how schools can leverage technology to serve all students.

The interview was conducted as part of the Visionary Voices video series. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you go from being a musician to working for the President of the United States?

I studied to become a professional trumpet player and got amazing experiences to go on the road. After a few years, I really wanted to share my passion for music with students, so I became a band director in Durham, N.C.

I didn’t teach traditional band music. We played Earth, Wind, and Fire, hip hop songs… we did all this cool stuff and eventually grew that band program into a championship band program. Just a few years later, over 50 percent of the school was in the band program. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to become a principal because I started thinking, “What if every classroom in my school could be as impactful?”

I became a principal in Middlesex County in a school that struggled with some test scores. Sixth grade math had a roughly 50 percent pass rate. We put in place my seven steps to improving test scores, and a year later, our pass rate was over 90 percent.

“What if every school in my community could be as impactful?” I knew I wanted to become a superintendent, and I eventually ended up at one of the largest school districts in the nation–Chesterfield, Va.

After a few years, the governor called on me to become state superintendent, leading 1.3 million students in Virginia and an $8 billion budget. Every dollar we had, every regulation we created, we tried to make a difference for kids.

I later had the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Department of Education with Secretary Cardona and to lead the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. This was one of the greatest honors of my life, and no greater opportunity to have impact. I led all the title programs, assessment and accountability, the American rescue plans, ESSER funds. We did so many amazing things to help the country recover from the pandemic and to improve education in general. To go from a musician and from a small town in Kentucky to having meetings at the White House, I’ll forever be thankful for that opportunity.

I now lead PDK International, where I have the opportunity to work with future teachers and to make sure we end this teacher shortage.

What is one of the most important elements that you’ve brought from your life as a musician into your role as an educator?

In every job, I still think of myself as a conductor. When you’re running your organization, the trumpet section can be perfect, but maybe the clarinets need a little bit of work. So, we’ll stop and make sure the clarinet part is perfect. Then we’ll put the whole piece back together.

As a leader, my job is to make sure every facet of the organization is maximizing its potential. And sometimes there are things we want to work on over here to get better. And then there’s other things over here going really well. But when we put that whole orchestra back together, we make magic and beautiful music together and make a difference in people’s lives.

That passion for music drives me. I think about leadership and inspiring people and making sure that we’re doing the best that we can in every sector of our work, just like the sections of our orchestra.

Part of your role now is to find ways to address the nation’s teacher shortage, including through grow-your-own programs like EdRising. What levers have you seen work to address educator recruitment and retention?

If you talk to any education leader, they’re struggling to find the right person that’s perfect for every job.

First and foremost, we have to pay our teachers more. I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t have a side gig. You shouldn’t have to have a side gig to make a living as an educator.

The second thing we need to do is focus on teacher working conditions. We’ve got to make sure we’re protecting teachers’ time to look at their students’ data, make adjustments, and create plans for each individual student.

Finally, we have to build a teacher pipeline. Sixty percent of teachers end up teaching within 20 miles of where they went to high school, so if you’re a district leader and you’re not recruiting in your home community, you’re never going to eliminate the shortage.

Teacher and staff shortages in special education are especially acute. How can leaders ensure students with IEPs receive the services they need? What innovative solutions should schools explore to do so?

One of the things we’ve got to do is reduce the caseloads on our IEP leaders and our co-teachers so they’re working with a smaller set of students in a much more individualized way on their individualized IEP goals. By bringing additional staff, that’s what’s going to allow you to reduce those numbers and reduce those caseloads.

[Teletherapy] is an innovative solution. It’s flexible in time and space and place. There were times where we really struggled to find speech language pathologists, occupational therapists (OT), and physical therapists (PT). It would have just been game changing for the way we could serve our students.

Parents, too, want to be involved in their child’s education. To think that speech services and PT services and OT services have to only happen during the school day is really an older way of thinking. The parent could be allowed to sit side-by-side with their student and think about the strategies the specialist is working on and emulate those strategies. It could become a parent and educator partnership in helping the student to work through their learning needs. It would just be incredible.

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