Guest Column

A Moose in Your Backyard: A Leadership Fable

by SARAH J. NOONAN


One day a moose was walking along a well-worn mountain trail. The moose moved down the range, emerging from a wooded area just above a creek. Gazing toward a row of townhouses nearby, the moose moved on to an unsuspecting property owner's backyard.

Anyone who lives in an area where wildlife coexists with the locals knows that once the moose settles into your backyard, it stays, despite your ownership claims to the property.

School problems are a lot like moose. Sometimes they just take up temporary residence in a district's backyard. Your role as a school leader is to learn to live with the moose. A potential moose in your school system's backyard might be caused by any of the following illegal or immoral circumstances:

 

  • parents who seek results for their children but are told there are too many students, not enough resources or institutional procedures that cannot be overcome;

     

     

  • overt and covert acts of discrimination and/or the perceived mistreatment of individuals within or outside the system;

     

     

  • conflict between the public good and private interests;

     

     

  • a leadership team that is rewarded for conflict or divided by self-interest;

     

     

  • lack of fiscal responsibility;

     

     

  • poor performance of students;

     

     

  • systems that fail to reward excellent performance and fail to hold marginal or incompetent employees accountable; and

     

     

  • other acts that potentially violate the public trust.

     

    Barriers That Isolate

    Here are some insights and practical advice about the moose that may be roaming in your backyard. The moose is there for a reason. Learn to think like a moose. Try to figure out how to get the moose to enhance your property value!

    If you think about your school district as your personal backyard instead of the community's, you are in trouble. Superintendents are accountable for every imaginable thing that goes on in the school system, yet have limited control over what issues, people or events will take up residence there.

    The moose has a right to be there, and even if you put up a barrier, problems will ensue. Sometimes the barrier keeps animals out, but it can also isolate you from others. Instead, invite people over to dinner and put in a picture window. Encourage others to visit your backyard and share your problem--maybe the moose will notice that the seasons are changing and will move on.

    Expect the media to show up for pictures and stories, usually told from the moose’s point of view. If the only story in town becomes you and the moose, people soon will assume that all you do is live with the moose.

    Understanding the Habitat

    Think about whether you did anything to make your backyard the most appealing place to visit. Talk to the longtime residents--they will tell you why your backyard seems to attract more moose than anywhere else.

    Don't panic. A moose sitting in a thicket of bushes off the road is a magnificent sight, but a charging bull moose is life threatening. You can anticipate the charge without annoying the moose or challenging it.

    Don't starve the moose. Help it return to its natural habitat by involving others with you. If you don't, the locals will ask you--not the moose--to move on. Some moose have lived in a district's backyard for years and some communities have more wildlife than others. Ask good questions before you buy a house.

    We must become naturalists and understand the habitat and survival needs of the moose, balancing those needs with the needs of students, the system and the greater good of the community. Sometimes the conflicts in the community are played out in the school system, including the struggle between the haves and the have nots, the need of some individuals and groups for identity and power over others and the change in our society from civility to disrespect and violence. These are circumstances that take on a life of their own and place the district under siege, putting an unstable moose in the district's backyard.

    One or a Herd?

    Now there isn't any way to know when a moose might pick your backyard. It may just be an act of nature or the result of an honest mistake. But if the moose is there, you must deal with it before the herd settles.

    When you work with difficult issues, study the terrain. You may grow to understand the reasons the moose is camped out in your backyard. Perhaps the moose turns your thinking around and lets you learn a valuable lesson. There are many lessons to be learned from nature, but the most important one for school administrators is simple: When there is a moose in your backyard, it's too late to put up a fence!

    Sarah Noonan is superintendent of the River Falls School District, 852 E. Division St., River Falls, WI 54022. E-mail: Sarah.Noonan@rfsd.k12.wi.us

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