From Never to a Lifetime
The tension started early in Ronn K. Nozoe’s education career. As a developing teacher in the mid-1990s, NASSP’s Breaking Ranks revealed to him that educational success relies not just on an effective teacher, but on a well-functioning education system. “But I always gravitated toward the kids who didn’t fit into the system,” Nozoe recalls. “I was teaching students labeled as 9R, 9RR, and 9RRR—the ones who were repeating ninth-grade English one, two, or three times. And it perplexed me that we keep trying to shoehorn some students into a model of education that was not built for them to succeed.”
That dissonance accompanied Nozoe through roles as a middle level teacher, principal, local superintendent, deputy state superintendent, Obama-administration education official, national nonprofit leader, and now CEO at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
It’s a surprising trajectory for someone who never intended to go into education. The son of an elementary school teacher and an intermediate school principal, Nozoe witnessed the educator’s reality up close—and aimed for law school instead. “I’d see my mom planning and grading papers late into the night and my dad getting called to school in the middle of the night to board up a window that was vandalized, and I thought, ‘Do I really want to work that hard?’”
But then in college, a friend who was failing English asked for Nozoe’s help with a paper. The friend was excited to get a B with Nozoe’s help and asked if he could help his girlfriend—and then some other friends. Before long, Nozoe had become the de facto class writing tutor, and he finally understood what his parents’ work was all about. He rerouted his path at the University of Hawaii-Manoa to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in education, and never looked back. “I really liked helping people get the best out of themselves. And, no matter what role I’m in, that’s what still motivates me today.”
That motivation received an adjustment while Nozoe served as deputy superintendent in Hawaii. It was the early 2010s, the age of federal Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, and Nozoe was pushing hard to fulfill federal compliance for Hawaii’s students of native-Hawaiian ancestry. While working through a complicated assessment issue, a group of highly respected Native Hawaiian language and cultural experts gave him a quick-but-painful refresher on culturally responsive education. “They taught me that despite all of our personal and professional efforts to understand the rich history of Hawaii’s indigenous and host culture, we could not and would not ever begin to truly understand until we could mindfully set aside our ‘Western’ perspectives and learn to see things from the indigenous worldview as the starting point.”
For Nozoe, whose wife and children are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, the conversation was a startling wake-up call to regard culture and language as strengths instead of deficiencies—and to recognize one’s own implicit bias. Only then could Nozoe create time and venues to work with instead of on the community to build solutions that honor and value their vision of education. “It’s a powerful lesson I carried with me to my federal and nonprofit leadership roles,” Nozoe says, referring to his tenure as deputy assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration and as associate executive director at ASCD (originally the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). “Our work toward culturally responsive schools calls for more than a short-term diversity initiative. Race and culture affect curriculum, how we teach and interact, how we assess, and our expectation of who is and who can be successful. Getting it right means going deep, challenging assumptions, speaking up and speaking out for what’s right, making the changes that need to be made, and being constantly vigilant.”
Nozoe made another key discovery teaching underperforming kids in high school: the importance of getting it right at the middle level. “My mentors instilled in me the belief that middle school is the most important piece of the K–12 continuum. It is the connection between learning to read and reading to learn,” Nozoe shares, describing his decision to transfer to a middle level school. That notion later followed Nozoe to a district superintendency—or complex area superintendency, in Hawaiian parlance—where NASSP’s Breaking Ranks in the Middle provided a formative influence. “It gave me a lot of insight into the importance of relationships and providing personalized experiences,” Nozoe says.
On the way, Nozoe served five years as a principal and vice principal. The decision to pursue administration proved to be pivotal one, though Nozoe explains it was not really a decision. “My principal Cynthia Chun gave me the speech, the same speech that every principal has heard: ‘You’re doing so well with your 150 students. Imagine what you could do with a whole community.’ That’s not fair, by the way, that speech,” Nozoe jokes, also admitting he has delivered that same speech. “How do you say no to that?”
Looking back, what Nozoe discovered was that the principalship occupied the intersection of educational practice and systemic influence. “The principal is the one responsible for bringing a host of initiatives, directives, groups, and dynamics together, making sense of it all, soliciting input from and earning buy-in throughout the school community, and effectively communicating those perspectives in ways that go far deeper than head nods and hand raises—these are deep behavioral and systemic changes that take time and skill to effectively lead and manage. To armchair quarterbacks, it may appear easy, but to those who’ve done the work, and to those who are in the know, school leadership is one of the most difficult and, at the same time, rewarding professions a person could choose.”
His regard for the principalship prompted Nozoe to reach out to principals for the “real story” of schools while he served at the state and federal levels. “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” Nozoe says. “If you really want to know, you have to talk to the people who are doing the work at the point of impact.”
While at the Hawaii State Department of Education, he created the Deputy’s Principal Roundtable for just that purpose. NASSP 2014 National Principal of the Year Sheena Alaiasa, then of King Intermediate School in Kaneohe, HI, knew Nozoe both as a principal and as deputy superintendent and participated in his roundtable discussions. “Ronn always believed in the talent of principals and sought their input,” Alaiasa says. “He would genuinely listen, and then he would face the hard challenges head-on with a smile of ‘aloha’ and a ‘we got this’ mantra.”
Nozoe is the first to admit that his regular consultation of principals had a selfish motive. “It just produces a better outcome,” Nozoe says. “But the consultation has to be genuine and meaningful. Nothing drives me crazier than a request for feedback when it’s too late to act on it. It’s like asking someone to taste a cake that’s already baked. Maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you’ll have suggestions. Either way, it’s too late to change the recipe. So, I learned to seek both input and feedback all through the process, inviting people to co-create solutions. Those are the solutions that ultimately work because they are grounded in reality.”
That combination of inclusiveness and deep understanding of the principalship caught the attention of the CEO search committee. “Ronn is about building relationships—making all stakeholders feel heard, respected, and part of the whole,” says NASSP President Robert Motley, who led the CEO search. “Yet throughout his career in education leadership at all levels—and in nonprofit organizations—Ronn has exerted particular effort to make sure the principal’s voice is heard. That commitment stems from his deep belief that the principal understands best the nuanced impact that policies have on schools.”
Nozoe credits the leaders he worked under for modeling the inclusive decision making he values so much. He learned early the feeling of respect that comes with being consulted in a meaningful and substantive way from his mentors. It’s how you elevate everyone around you—by building common understanding and ownership of an initiative, a school, or an organization.
That’s the kind of consultation Nozoe plans to bring to NASSP, in working with both NASSP’s internal and external stakeholders. “I’m thrilled to be working with a board of directors who are all principals, and with the primary stakeholder group of principals NASSP serves. Many of the executive directors of our state associations are principals or former principals as well, which means there’s so much genius we can synthesize from all of them—wisdom and experience that we can use to build on NASSP’s solid foundation,” Nozoe says, noting that NASSP’s programmatic and financial position is “incredibly stable” despite the pandemic, due in large part to stewardship from the board of directors, the leadership of his immediate predecessor JoAnn Bartoletti, and Gerald Tirozzi before her, and the amazing and talented NASSP staff.
Not only does Nozoe plan to model inclusivity, he plans to demand it of policymakers as the new presidential administration ramps up. Having witnessed firsthand as a local, state, and federal official the effects of policies that fail to incorporate educators’ voices, Nozoe will push hard to amplify principals’ individual voices and secure NASSP a seat at the policy and program table on principals’ behalf. That activity is more important now than ever as we “embark on a bold transformation in education” following the pandemic.
“The pandemic has exposed the gaps in our educational system,” Nozoe says. “And despite the heroic efforts of educators, those gaps won’t be closing overnight because they are systemic and institutional. Financially, this is 2009 all over again. We’ll see painful budget cuts in the coming months, and they’ll be deep. Support for kids most at risk, student and educator well-being and school safety, mental health and social services, and funding for professional learning will all be challenged.
“There’s always a lot of talk about our country’s commitment to a world-class education system that brings out the best in every child,” Nozoe continues. “And now’s the time to dismantle the legacy structures that have prevented this dream from becoming reality and for all of us to work together to create the educational system that will raise, cultivate, and nurture the immediate and future generations of citizens that will take our country and the world to the next level.”
And true to that young 90s-era English teacher in Hawaii, Nozoe believes that transformation is long overdue. “For all of our progress, our current educational system at its core is still designed to sort people and create workers for an industrial economy. It was designed so well that we can’t break it, even though everyone knows we have to,” he says.
“Yet principals give me a lot of hope,” Nozoe adds. “They constantly innovate in spite of the system they’re immersed in. We need to flip that script so principals are encouraged, empowered, and supported systemically to continue innovating. I think conditions are right for that to happen now. That’s why it’s such an exciting time to serve the leaders that make up our nation’s premier organization for middle level and high school principals.”
Bob Farrace is the chief communications officer for NASSP in Reston, VA.