Executive Perspective

Getting It Right

by Paul D. Houston

Have you ever noticed that everyone wants something from you? Usually in our work this involves answers, resources or solutions. I often joke that if I ever write a book on the superintendency (and watch out, after June when I retire I might just have the time to do so), I would call it, “What are you going to do about it?” That question seemed to be the one I always got when I was a superintendent.

Superintendents are the answer people. They are the Mr. or Mrs. “Fix-its.” They are asked to just make it all better. They are asked to take away the pain of others when that very act can cause them pain.

As leaders, we may get caught up responding to someone else’s agenda — taking care of their needs, doing their bidding. This means it is often hard for us to do what we know we need to do. In fact, since we are always responding instead of thinking, we might not even know what we need to do. How can we think when we are so busy doing?

A Few Clues
This demand for action so central to our work is one thing that makes us less effective. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to step back. Reflective practice is at the heart of effective leadership. Great leaders not only do the right things, they know why they are doing them — otherwise you are just pulling the handle of the slot machine and hoping for the best.

So what is it we should do? The lead article this month in The School Administrator gives us some clues. It features a conversation between authors Tom Friedman and Dan Pink on the challenges facing our world and the implications for educators and administrators. Friedman’s pitch, which has been misinterpreted by many to say that we must produce more engineers and scientists to compete with India and China, is that we must produce more creative people, including scientists and engineers.

That has been my tune for several years. America’s greatest strength historically has been our ability to innovate and create. Friedman and Pink say yes, we need to do even more of that in the future. And we need to do so with a spirit that allows children to use both sides of their brains and to be in touch with their whole selves. Friedman calls the American ability to integrate art, music and literature with the hard sciences the “secret sauce” that America has that other countries do not.

One of the greatest dangers of our emphasis on high-stakes testing, standards and accountability is that the secret sauce is being left off the meal. We are so focused on those things that can be counted we are leaving out those things that count. We are leading in a world that is not “either/or” but it is “and.” We need rigorous learning and a breadth of curriculum. We need students to know facts and to have a sense of fancy and fantasy. We need students who can do what our politicians seem unable to do — to hold more than one complex idea in their minds at one time, to allow for the notion that things that seem contradictory or unrelated might just be able to reside together and be necessary. To borrow Friedman’s book title, the world might just be flat and round at the same time.

How do we as leaders help teachers and our communities come to understand that education must be about the whole child and the whole mind? How do we slow our world down long enough to know what are the right things we should be doing? That is the real challenge for today’s leaders. While I have certainly supported the idea of data-driven decision making, it is good to remember that it is not a lack of data we suffer from. It is a lack of wisdom.

Touching Lives
It always has seemed a great irony to me as educators whose jobs it is to promote thought and learning, we find ourselves so strapped for time we don’t think and learn ourselves. It is not that superintendents read too little — we read too much of the wrong things. It is reading that is fragmented and piecemeal and does not lead to wisdom. It is not that we don’t think — it is that we are forced to spend so much time thinking about the wrong things. Memos and letters of complaint might inform us, but I doubt if they make us wiser. We must spend more time in reflection and in thinking deeply about what we ought to be doing and what the important issues of our work are.

Friedman says in his discussion with Pink that we need more “yes but-ers” in the system. I think that is the essence of the role of superintendents. We have to be the ones who say yes to things — to turn the lights on. If we are the -“no-ers” in the system, we can never be the knowers. We have to empower folks around us to seek new possibilities.

Friedman also says that superintendents need to “know what you believe and stick with it.” You have to be the compass for those around you — letting them know where true north lies. He reminds us it is about standing our ground. I would remind us it is also about knowing the ground you are standing on.

Some of that ground must be about what the right kind of education is needed — education that integrates learning and that emphasizes the connections between things and people. It must be education that speaks to their whole minds.

And we can’t lose sight of the very essence of what we do. We are alchemists. We touch people and make them something else. Education is, at its core, the task of taking something of no apparent worth and making something priceless out of it. We have the opportunity, through our caring and our wisdom, to enhance the lives of others, to help them be something they are not — to spin straw into gold.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.