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Lessons in Leadership from Well-Regarded Educational Leaders

Paul Defendini (left) and Dr. Eustace Thompson (right)

As local school districts grapple with the impact of the coronavirus and the transition to online learning, educational leadership is more important than ever.

Recently, when Nassau BOCES announced its Education Partner honorees for 2020, the names resonated in a rare, two-generational way for the Hofstra University School of Education: Dr. Eustace Thompson and one of his former students, Paul Defendini, were recognized together.

Defendini, superintendent of Farmingdale schools, said that’s not as coincidental as it might seem. The two leaders are closely connected by a philosophy that emphasizes people first and a strong ethical foundation, which Dr. Thompson imparted.

“He shaped who I wound up becoming as an administrator and as a person,” Defendini said. “He had this beautiful, infectious smile and disposition about him that made coming to school great. I want to do that for someone else, too. I want to make someone feel really great about who they are.”

The Education Partner Award recognizes people who have made a substantial impact on public education in Nassau County. Here is a closer look at the educational journeys and philosophy that these two inspiring leaders share, plus their insights into the challenges facing educators due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Dr. Eustace Thompson, Professor, Hofstra University School of Education

Dr. Thompson began his career as a social studies teacher in Brooklyn, at the middle school and high school levels. He majored in political science at the City College of New York and minored in secondary education. He went on to earn a master’s degree in secondary education from Long Island University and a master’s in educational leadership from New York University.

In 1980, Dr. Thompson became the principal of Turtle Hook Junior High School in Uniondale, eventually rising to become the district’s deputy superintendent. In 2003, upon retiring from the Uniondale school district, Dr. Thompson came to Hofstra to oversee the educational leadership preparation program. He became the program director for the advanced certificate program, a doctoral faculty member, chair of the leadership department and, later, chair of the Teaching, Learning & Technology department. Currently, he is the co-chair of the doctoral program.

Q: What approach should an educational leader take during these difficult times?

A: The response of educational leadership to this crisis is of critical importance. Effective leaders have the capacity to mitigate the anxiety and fears of stakeholders. Leaders must identify and activate their own knowledgeable and insightful information sources. The accuracy and breadth of information is of prime importance.

In addition, leaders must evaluate the effectiveness of their existing communication structures that will enable direct communication with all stakeholders. Through their communication systems, leaders must not only disseminate accurate and precise information but also clearly formulate instructions and procedures for stakeholders to follow. They may have to reach beyond their existing communication sources and tap into their community resources for the dissemination of information. Leaders are also called upon to interpret frequently conflicting information and firmly address misinformation.

Of key importance is for leaders to carefully link their actions as related to the coronavirus to instructional goals. Plans and strategies for mitigating the impact of the virus on current and future instruction should be provided to stakeholders. Stakeholders need to know the potential negative impact of isolation on the progress of their children toward promotion and graduation, and the potential time and financial modifications that may be required of them.

Q: What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about becoming a superintendent or a principal?

A: In today’s milieu one has to be very cognizant of one’s own ethical stance. The old adage, be true to oneself, is really very, very important. A lot of decisions one has to make, they’re not easy decisions. In the case of educators, our focus should be on the children and what’s good for them. One has to have a passion for the field. One has to understand the notion of preparing students for a future and having a vision for how one wants to position children to meet challenges in the future.

Q: What are the biggest issues facing students today?

A: Probably, securing employment. We have a situation where the education they’ve acquired might not be sufficient for them to meet the needs of a changing employment market. The role of educators is to try to anticipate what kinds of skills and what types of attitudes will be appropriate for students in the future. That’s very difficult to do, of course. In addition to that, students face the uncertainty of where they’re going to live and what kind of world they’re going to be living in. Those are things that we worry about for our children and that put enormous stress on our graduates. Also, the role of technology. Have we prepared them for a highly technological world? What kinds of new skills and understanding will they need, and are we supporting them in those efforts? It’s very often daunting.

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of in terms of your leadership?

A: Here at Hofstra, in terms of preparing teachers to become administrators, I hope that when they work with me they get a sense of their own power. I hope I’m able to empower them so they can realize their goals and also realize, in effect, how smart they really are so they’re able to meet challenges in the future. When I was the high school principal in Uniondale, which was a predominantly black school district, I introduced an advanced science and technology track. As a result of that work, two of our students were recognized by the Westinghouse Science Foundation. They were winners, and it was a huge, huge accomplishment to the extent that a school was capable of restructuring to provide this type of quality education where students could be successful. This notion that an educator can empower students—and it’s not along racial lines, it’s whoever an educator meets—that’s something I’m most proud of. I want people to look back upon their work with me and say that I’ve truly made a difference in terms of how they view themselves and their abilities to lead.

Paul Defendini, Superintendent, Farmingdale Union Free School District

After graduating from Farmingdale High School in 1997, Defendini worked as a custodian in one of the district’s elementary schools for four years while attending college. After earning his degree in education, he got his first job as an English teacher in Farmingdale schools. He’s held the posts of dean of students, school business administrator and assistant superintendent for business. In 2018, at age 40, he was named as the district’s superintendent. Defendini’s father taught in Farmingdale schools for 34 years, and his children attend elementary school in the district.

Q: What approach should an educational leader take during times of crisis, like we are facing today with the spread of coronavirus?

A: During this time, we as educational leaders need to create platforms where teachers and administrators can share best practices. We are all working in an entirely new system of teaching and learning, and the ability for professionals to share strategies will provide better and more efficient resources for kids. I am overwhelmed here in Farmingdale by the thoughtfulness that is coming from our team. Our collective best is so much better than any singular effort. 

Q: What advice would you give someone thinking about becoming a superintendent or principal?

A: Make sure that you are, in every way, the person who you expect other people to be. If you’re trying to inspire a culture where people are trusting, loyal, honest and ethical, you’d better be all of those things to an incredibly high level. People pick up on your character very quickly. If you’re a leader who wants to build an organization and a culture that’s predicated on all those beautiful foundations, you have to be a model for that. Before you venture into any type of leadership position, you’d better make sure that everything under the hood is where it needs to be first. Then you don’t have to worry about trying to be someone different in front of different people. That’s why I can live in the same community where I am the superintendent, because I’m a very consistent person.

Q: What is the biggest issue facing students today?

A: If I were to pick an overarching issue, it’s mental health-related issues. The things I had to deal with growing up, they’re not the same. They’re dealing with a higher level of expectation and are being exposed to more things at an earlier age than in the past. A lot of students have a hard time coping with that. From a school district standpoint, it’s trying to corral the resources that are needed to help people where they are. We want to be able to identify when someone is going through a crisis and get them the help they need before it’s too far gone. If we can organize that, then the academics become a lot easier.

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of in terms of your leadership?

A: I believe in the team, I don’t believe in a singular effort, so I don’t know that I would chalk my name up to anything specific. What I’m most proud of is that I’ve built a lot of really solid, strong relationships that are built upon all that good stuff—trust, loyalty—and through that, the school district has been able to do some pretty cool things. Our facilities are in incredible condition because our community supports the efforts we’re making. We have a lot of really cool and innovative things going on: our launch lab, our innovation lab. Our music program is exploding. Our robotics team is nationally recognized. I don’t take credit. I’m smart enough to know that there are a lot of really smart people out there, and if you can give them the support they need—financial or emotional—and the capacity to do their job well, people will flourish.