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Professor Prepares Educational Leaders for Top Posts


Professor Prepares Educational Leaders for Top Posts

Sheldon Marcus, Ph.D., says superintendents of K-12 school districts must remember that students come first.
Photo by Gina Vergel

By Gina Vergel

Sheldon Marcus, Ed.D, professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Graduate School of Education, has been educating future K-12 school leaders at Fordham for more than 40 years.

Many of his students hold such high-ranking positions as superintendent of schools, deputy superintendent, principal and vice principal. Marcus doesn’t mince words about their relative importance.

“I try to impress on them that they are there to serve the students,” he said. “If [the school leaders] don’t come to school tomorrow, the schools will still open. But if the students don’t show up to school tomorrow, there is no need to open the building.”

Marcus joined the University faculty in 1968. Eight years later, he was asked to create and lead the graduate education component at Fordham’s Tarrytown campus, and did so for 17 years. Students say he is passionate about transferring his knowledge to educators who will lead schools after they earn their degrees. He supplements his teaching of theories of administration with anecdotes and stories about the hundreds of alumni with whom he keeps in contact.

Recently, many of those alumni have been telling him that the number of applicants for superintendent openings has diminished. The drop off, Marcus said, is due to the increased qualifications needed by applicants and the increased pressures on new superintendent hires.

“The doctorate is growing more important as a passport to becoming a school superintendent,” said Marcus. “It’s also a demanding job—one that offers an attractive salary and benefits to make up for the beating that you’ll get.

“In the New York metropolitan area, it is not uncommon for superintendents to earn $250,000 annually, plus fringes. Many people then think because they are paying you that much money, they own you. And they expect you to be a miracle worker,” he explained.

“Of course a lot of superintendents are constrained by collective bargaining contracts. And like any other field, Willie Mays only comes along every once in a while,” he added. “Most people are average, and it’s no different in this field. Most school leaders cannot create miracles.

“One only need look in a local newspaper to see numerous stories about superintendents who resign under pressure,” Marcus said.

“Unfortunately the better ones are not concerned with survival. They will do the right thing, which is based on what is good for the kids,” he said. “Those superintendents don’t usually last as long as the ones who are more political.”

The demands of the job are not based on the district’s location, Marcus said. He recalled a student who was a New York City district superintendent, who bemoaned the challenges of the job, and said that he wanted to work in the suburbs. Later that same week, an administrator from a suburban district in Westchester County expressed how she wished she could work in the city because there would be less pressure on her.

“I told both of them, ‘No matter where you are, you have enormous problems,’” Marcus said. “Maybe the pressures would be different, but there is no problem-free, pressure-free district. You’re dealing with budgets, parents, staff and kids, dealing with the aspirations of parents who trust us, as educators, with their most important possessions—their children. Thus, no one wants to hear excuses for lack of success.”

Marcus, in addition to teaching courses in administration and leadership, also teaches a course on the impact of prejudice on minority groups in America. This was a field in which he has had a lifelong interest that reached its apex when he interviewed the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the infamous “radio priest,” for a biography published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1973.

Marcus is the author of several other books, including Hot-Button Issues for Teachers: What Every Educator Needs to Know about Leadership, Testing, Textbooks, Vouchers, and More (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007) and Hot-Button Issues in Today’s Schools: What Every Parent Needs to Know (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2006).

He is working on his next book with Philip D. Vairo, Ph.D., a former Fordham faculty administrator.

“It’s basically about us and how to improve schools. We are two children of immigrants, talking about America and its education system as we have experienced it,” Marcus said. “Phil and I both grew up in the Bronx. Phil’s dad was a dishwasher. Mine was a laborer. We haven’t forgotten where we came from, although between us, thanks mostly to Phil, we have held positions ranging from public school teacher and administrator, to the college level as professor, dean, vice president, and president.”

Marcus paused to reflect on his 40 years at Fordham. “I have the best job in the world,” he said. “Most professors don’t realize they have the best jobs in the world. We interact with some of the most interesting people in our classes and we get paid for it.”

Save for a cast on his foot, the result of a basketball injury, he shows no signs of slowing down.

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