Guest Column

Ready to Leap From Business to the Superintendency

by TOM WATKINS


Education is too important to America's future to be solely left to educators.

No, I was not hit in the head by a golf ball. Neither do my doctors suggest I am suffering from an early form of Alzheimer's. But yes, I tell my colleagues in business, I do plan to serve the community and children one day as a superintendent of schools.

After the eyes stop rolling, the smiles fade and bewilderment begins to subside, they chuckle and ask, "Why? Are you masochistic?"

Actually, my desire to lead a school district has its roots in a deep commitment and value for all children; a belief in all children's ability to succeed; a love for the ideals of democracy and a belief that public education is the foundation of a successful democracy; the belief that one person, working with a team with a shared vision and common agenda, can make a difference; and, ultimately, a belief in my ability to lead change.

Frankly, I also fear that with the constant chaos and public criticism swirling around education, too many capable school leaders are calling it quits or being forced out and too few innovators and risk takers are taking up the challenge.


Aware of the Challenge
I am not delusional enough to believe that "if only schools were run like a business" all would be fine in public education. Through my involvement as a parent, tutor and Junior Achievement instructor, my hands-on experience in creating charter schools in two different states and my service as board chair of a national youth service learning organization, I have an inkling of the trials and tribulations of school leaders today. It is not an easy job. However, it is a critical and vital position in every community in America.

An eclectic background like mine--as director of a billion-dollar state agency, management consultant, political organizers, youth counselor and school reformer--could add value to public education today.

John P. Kotter, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of the book Leading Change, emphasizes "the critical need for leadership to make change happen." Yet, it seems change is the most talked about and least acted upon concept in school reform today. We need leaders willing to change public education for the better.

Filling the Gaps
I have been recruited by headhunters to apply for several superintendent positions. I came in second for the top position in the largest intermediate school district in an industrial Midwestern state (only to hear my 10-year-old-son humble me by quoting a Nike commercial that "coming in second only makes you the first loser!"). I also have been offered a superintendency of a 6,000-student district. Yet I knew there were gaps in my learning to address before I could accept a superintendancy.

I have attempted to build on my experience in several key ways. I completed coursework for an Ed.D. in education administration. I take every opportunity to listen to and learn from public school parents, students, teachers and administrators. I volunteer in classrooms and at the district level. I also participated as one of 12 cohorts in the 1998 Superintendents Prepared Program co-sponsored by The Institute for Education Leadership, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the McKenzie Group. All the while, I continue to build my business, political, media and community relations abilities that are vital for anyone who wants to be an educational leader.

It has been a humbling and transformational process. I finally feel I am getting closer to my goal to lead a school district.

Today I believe stronger than ever that:

  • change agents, innovative leaders and advocates for children from diverse professional backgrounds need to be welcomed by school officials if they are truly interested in serving children rather than protecting turf;

  • diversity in race, gender, culture and, yes, educational background and experience bring richness to the enterprise called public education;

  • it is far easier to sit on the sidelines and criticize than to get inside the system and attempt to fix it. I want to lead from the inside.

  • Awaiting My Chance
    I do not expect to be the captain of the varsity football team in my freshman year. However, I am watching, studying, listening and learning from educators, parents, students, business and community leaders. And today I will be a better leader and team player when the coach puts me in the game.

    Certainly, leading a public school system today is a great challenge, regardless of one's background. Though my experience differs vastly from the overwhelming majority of school superintendents, is this such an awful distinction given the state of too many of our schools?

    I do not expect it to be easy. However, I strongly believe the children are worth the effort.

    Tom Watkins is the executive director of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, 1555 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., Suite 400, West Palm Beach, FL 33401-2375. E-mail: tdwatkins@aol.com. He formerly was director of the Detroit Center for Charter Schools and special assistant to the president of Wayne State University for public school initiatives.