Executive Perspective

Finding Our Voice

by Paul D. Houston

My daughter Suzanne has wanted to be an actress since high school. She was in every school play, majored in drama in college, taught drama after college, did summer theatre and dinner theatre and finally put herself on the line and went to New York City to pursue her dream.

But before she acted, she sang. In fact, as a small child she had this BIG Broadway voice and she would sing along to the car radio and you would have thought some large lady was singing in the backseat instead of a diminutive 5-year-old. She boomed it so that when she sang, “the sun will come out tomorrow” you believed it!

She was lucky to go to school in Princeton, N.J., which has an amazing vocal music program that starts in kindergarten and just gets better and better as the kids get older. But a funny thing happened with Suzanne. As she got older, her voice got better but it got smaller. As she was trained to sing “properly” and learned to blend her voice with others as part of an ensemble, she let go of her BIG voice. As her harmony improved, her individual talent was smothered. She still had a beautiful singing voice, but it just wasn’t so special anymore and “tomorrow” sounded a long way off.

Recently, I was in New York and Suzanne suggested we go to see “Mamma Mia” because her current vocal coach was one of the stars. We did and were able to go backstage after the show for a guided tour by the coach and star. As we were walking on the stage, Suzanne’s coach talked about her work with Suzanne and how proud she was that Suzanne had had to learn to “belt” (which is “Broadway speak” for having that BIG voice).

The coach asked me if I had heard her use that newly acquired voice and at first I said no, but then I realized I had — when she was 5. I mentioned she sang that way when she was young but hadn’t for a long time. The coach said that Suzanne had had to find her “natural voice,” which was the BIG one and that school had taught her how to sing properly but not naturally. The coach then told us about her own journey as a singer and that she had finally found a way back to her own voice.

A Voice Inside
What a powerful lesson for us all. Shouldn’t education be about helping children find their own natural gifts? Shouldn’t we help them find their own “voice?” Shouldn’t we do that for ourselves? How many of us use our “natural voice” as leaders? How many of us have the confidence and courage to lead in our own voice? Are we willing to write and speak in our own voice? Do we act from our own voice — that one that we know leads us to truth in action?

We all have that small, still voice inside us that acts as a guide. Do we listen to that voice? Would we have as much chaos with out-of-control politics or out-of-the-mind reform if we had more leaders using their own voices? Shouldn’t we be speaking more about reforms that don’t make sense, which come from “reformers” who know nothing about teaching and learning? Shouldn’t we be saying more about the need to solve the right problems rather than the obvious ones? Shouldn’t we be singing loudly that if we lose public education we lose any chance for a sunny tomorrow for America?

Leaders are expected to lead, but they are expected to lead authentically. Leadership comes from the inside out. It derives its strength from the essence of who and what we are as humans. To lead effectively, we have to know what our own voice sounds like and then we have to use it.

In Harmony
But leadership is also about helping others find their own voices. What do we do to help our staff and teachers discover and use their voices?

One of the leader’s greatest frustrations is our need to try to get everyone singing from the same page. Singing the same song is good, but if they are all singing the same notes it is pretty boring. You need a variety of tones to make the music interesting.

Suzanne had wonderful preparation for blending her voice with others. She is amazing at harmonizing. But her gift is also the ability to belt a solo. Don’t we want all our teachers using their gifts to greatest effect? Wouldn’t education be more effective if we could encourage them to use what they have and what they know?

We are living and working in a time when schools and learning are being minimalized and marginalized. Education is being equated with the results of norm-referenced tests — seeing who can repeat a few limited notes most accurately. It is also focusing on what you know, not what you can do. I read music, but you would never want me to sing for you. Yet if we really expect our children to learn, they have to be let out of the box and allowed to find their own expression and be encouraged to make the music.

Real learning will happen when leaders use their voices to help teachers find theirs so that students can sing with openness and freedom. The balancing act for us is to make sure they learn the notes and know how to blend their voice with others without giving up their unique gifts.

The meaning of “educate” comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to bring forth.” The essence of what we must do as leaders is to use our abilities to help our teachers bring forth all that is within them so that they can do the same for children. If we can do that, the sun really will come out tomorrow.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.