Public school principals who convened for the seventh year at the Graduate School of Education’s (GSE) Annual Leadership Conference received words of encouragement and an earnest reminder of who it is that they ultimately serve: students.

Dennis M. Walcott, GSS ’80, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, offered the keynote address at this year’s March 12 conference, “The Children First Agenda: Looking Forward and Looking Back,” sponsored by GSE’s Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy (ELAP) division.

Chancellor Walcott, who oversees a system of more than 1,700 schools with 1.1 million students, 136,000 employees, and a $23 billion budget, said that his visits to schools make it apparent that principals are not in an easy line of work.

“What strikes me is how difficult your job is, plain and simple,” Walcott told principals gathered at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. “You’re not just a pedagogical leader, you’re also a building manager, you’re a social worker, you’re a school safety worker. You name it—you as the leader of that building are totally in charge of all aspects of the school on behalf of our students.”

Moreover, new challenges are on the horizon for schools and their leaders, Walcott said, including transitioning to the common core curriculum, phasing in new methods of teacher evaluations, and continuing to prepare students for standardized exams.

“You are directly responsible for setting the future vision and goals for our children to become successful adults,” he said. “And that’s a lot of pressure. That is a lot to call on one individual to do—to make sure that she or he is laying the foundation for future generations of students.”

Nevertheless, he reminded the principals that such challenges are just what they as leaders thrive on. And as a man who continues to set the bar higher for himself—learning to skydive at 50, running a marathon at 60, and training for a triathlon at 61—Walcott spoke about the thrill of rising to a challenge.

“Leadership is trying something different. Leadership is constantly challenging yourself and the community that’s around you. Leadership is setting the bar high, not just for yourself, but for the people that you work with and, most importantly, for the students you are there to educate,” he said.

James J. Hennessy, Ph.D., dean of GSE, opened the morning’s event by reading a welcome letter to the principals from New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Following the chancellor’s address, a panel of six principals discussed the unique challenges of leading a public school in New York City, such as instructing one of the most diverse student bodies in the country and confronting waning parent involvement.

Hennessy urged principals to revisit these discussions at the 2014 leadership conference, especially as new regulations regarding common core and teacher evaluations begin to take hold around the state.

“How, as instructional leaders are you dealing with [these issues]?” he said. “Are we going to accept common core standards as passed down to us, or will there eventually be pushback? …What are you going to do to ensure that in the process of implementing the new systems [of teacher evaluation and accountability]we don’t do damage to the people dedicated to teaching the kids of New York?

“Those are some of the questions I would like to see us revisit next year.”