Feeding the Superintendent’s Mind

Personal reflections on 15 books that profoundly influenced thinking and acting

What do fish, cheese and Ferraris have in common?

They are all woven into the content of best-selling titles about effective leadership. These books, including Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen Lundin, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and Leadership Wisdom from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma, have become staples of executive leadership seminars and paths to personal development.

Effective organizational leaders are searching for the key to being more effective, to being more efficient, to being greater visionaries. Most turn at some point to a good book for motivation, inspiration, insight and even a touch of humor. They seek out books by leadership gurus like Ken Blanchard, politicians like Rudy Giuliani, spiritualists like the Dalai Lama and back-door philosophers like Dr. Seuss.

Reading, whether it’s a professional journal, an online newsletter or the latest trade best seller, helps effective leaders stay on top of current research and trends, understand multiple perspectives on important issues and develop a foundation for making effective decisions today, tomorrow and further down the line. It also inspires leaders to grow emotionally and spiritually, opening their eyes, expanding their minds and providing rich food for thought.

Carmine Gallo, author of 10 Simple Secrets of the World’s Greatest Business Communicators, interviewed dozens of prominent CEOs, executives and entrepreneurs. “One of the qualities of a great business leader,” he says, “is the ability to stay fresh, current and topical.” Much of that freshness, he says, comes from keeping their minds sharp, staying on top of current events and finding ways to renew themselves.

Gallo quotes Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz as saying: “Companies that embrace the status quo and do not push for reinvention or self-renewal will find themselves in deep trouble. I think great leaders continue to run, take in new information, are willing to make mistakes and refine their style.”

Time is precious, and many leaders may not be able to read books as often and as thoroughly as they would like, but as Mortimer Adler so aptly put it: “In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

With the plethora of books on leadership from which to choose, what books do today’s superintendents turn to for knowledge, advice, inspiration, comfort and guidance? Interestingly enough, their mental nourishment comes from books that have made The New York Times bestsellers list and from books that many of us have not heard of--books that range in topics from economics, ethics and values to risk taking, nurturing and faith.

What follows are personal reflections by 15 current and former superintendents on a single book that has carried substantive impact on their professional thinking and behavior. The diversity of their selections is a testament to the diversity of our nation’s school leaders.

We hope you will be inspired by their reflections and motivated to carve out time for your own reading.

A Dog Tale About Connections


After attending a meeting of Boston school principals during the past year, I was asked by one of our high school headmasters if I’d heard of a book with a curious title about learning and dogs that had recently appeared in paperback. The headmaster recommended the book because it provided a unique story of one person’s struggles to overcome tremendous obstacles in order to achieve success in school.

Like all major city school systems, Boston has been focused for the past decade on working with students to overcome obstacles to learning and to meet high academic standards so the headmaster knew I’d be interested in the story.

Lauralee Summer’s autobiographical Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars turned out to be more than just a good read. A memoir by a young woman who attended Harvard after spending much of her life as a homeless person, the book is an affirmation of the power of education and the tremendous influence that teachers and other adults can have on helping young people meet great challenges.

The story takes the reader from the author’s childhood through her wanderings with her mother and their struggles to manage their lives despite often-desperate poverty. It depicts a series of relationships between Lauralee and caring adults who helped the author to surpass expectations and shatter the stereotypes about people from low-income families.

I cannot imagine anyone who chooses a career in education who doesn’t at one point question the decision to work in a field where the financial rewards are not excellent and where the work never seems to be done. Managing a classroom, running a school or leading a school district, educators are always aware, sometimes painfully, of the students we have not reached, the schools that are not improving quickly enough, the parents and families who feel unsatisfied, or the political pressures that demand simple explanations for issues that are sometimes as complex as the human spirit.

After nearly four decades as an educator, I understand when someone jumps to the private sector or grows frustrated or begins to despair that the challenges of education, particularly for children in poverty, may seem insurmountable. For me, Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars is the antidote to this despair.

What is inspiring for me in Lauralee Summer’s story is the way it depicts the people along the journey of her life who helped her to dream, to believe in herself and to set high goals despite her circumstances. Her story proves the axiom that whatever our aspirations, none of us can achieve them alone. For me, her story is an illustration of what education is all about--caring people investing themselves in helping others to learn how to learn and, in doing so, how to take care of and be increasingly responsible for themselves.

I am proud to have learned that Lauralee, having graduated from Harvard, has just finished her first year as a teacher in one of our Boston high schools. I’m sure there are as many reasons why people choose education as there are educators. I haven’t asked Lauralee yet why she chose teaching, but from her story I’m sure that the powerful connections she made with a series of committed and imaginative teachers have had a strong influence on her career choice.

Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars helped me reaffirm the choices I’ve made in my life, and reminded me of the power of the connections with others that have helped me throughout my own journey.

Tom Payzant is superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, 26 Court St., Boston, MA 02108. E-mail: tpayzant@boston.k12.ma.us

Learning to Live Life


Although I read Scott Peck’s TheRoad Less Traveled for the first time nearly 25 years ago, the book has continued to have a major impact on how I see life, work, myself and others. The book begins with three simple and profound words: “Life is difficult.” Accepting that fact has prepared me for living it.

The Road Less Traveled is about self-reflection and the long journey of spiritual growth. This book introduced me to many concepts about the struggle called life that have continued to help deepen my understanding of it. I share three of those concepts here.

• We want to make a difference. It’s been said that no one looks back on life wishing he or she had worked harder. That may be true, but I believe we will all look back and wish we had made more of a difference.

I work now for a foundation committed to social justice. We feel a great sense of urgency and commitment about our work, which involves helping urban districts close achievement gaps and increase student achievement for all students. Yet at times we look back and realize in frustration that we could have done something else to make more of a difference. How do we really make a difference in the short time we have on earth? This question helps keep us focused.

Humility is important. As a superintendent, I learned a lot about the need to be humble. Then and now I am only one member of a team, totally interdependent with the other members of my team. I need to be the best I can be, give others the support they need and hold myself and the others accountable for results. I am not the center of the universe; I am a player with my own individual part.

• Life is about people. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Each summer we visited my grandparents at their farm in Kentucky. It was a wonderful experience for city kids. I stripped tobacco and baled hay. I got up early and pumped the oil wells with my grandfather. I swam in the creek with my cousins. I helped my grandmother pick vegetables for dinner.

Two years ago my husband and I were in Tennessee and decided to make the two-hour trip to visit the farm. I had not been there for almost 40 years. When we arrived I got out of the car and stood there, looking around. After about 10 minutes I was ready to leave.

My husband wanted to see the creek and all of the other places that I had talked about so we toured the farm for a while, but it didn’t feel the same to me. Seeing the barns, the fields and even the old farmhouse was OK, but I really missed the people: my cousins, grandparents and extended family around the big old kitchen table.

Reflecting on my years as a superintendent, I realize that those experiences, too, were about the people--the people I worked with, the team that we built, the community leaders who supported us and the young people we served. Life is about the people.

Life is difficult, but I am thankful for the many people who have helped me learn: Scott Peck for planting many of the seeds and the others in my life who have helped those seeds grow.

Jane Hammond, a former superintendent, is director of the Stupski Family Foundation, 2 Belvedere Place, Suite 110, Mill Valley, CA 94941. E-mail: janeh@stupski.org



One morning in 1993, during my superintendency in Jackson, Miss., I awoke from a dream in which I had revisited the pain of seeing my grandmother—who raised me from birth to adulthood—crying.

The incident happened when I was a teen-ager. My grandmother asked me to drive her to the cemetery on the Ashley Plantation in Madison Parish, La., to visit my grandfather’s grave. As we approached the bend in the road, which was our clue to look for the cemetery, we saw not headstones but chest-high cotton.

Upon closer inspection, we found numerous headstones in the ditch, apparently pushed there by the plantation owner. The now-unmarked graves of my grandfather and countless others were covered in acres of cotton. My grandmother fell to her knees, crying, “Lord, look what they have done to my Bennie’s grave.” Seeing her cry made me cry, too.

So on that morning in 1993, I found myself particularly drawn to a book I received in the mail—Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest by Peter Block.

Although the dictionary definition of steward is “one who manages another’s property, finances or other affairs,” from my vantage point as the first African-American superintendent in the Mississippi capital, my personal experiences related to the stewards of segregation who had carried out their duties to protect the self-interest of a racist society. So it was natural for the title to catch my eye.

In the superintendency, however, you quickly learn not to confuse the headline with the article. So it was with the title of Block’s book. I was concerned the author would be promoting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a realistic fact of life for all Americans regardless of race, creed, color or socioeconomic status.

The foreword, however, quickly allayed my concerns. Block said he would point out the inconsistencies in what we as a nation profess to believe and what we actually do. My interest was piqued.

Block wrote about stewardship as a means for making real change in the workplace by moving away from the traditional management tools of control and consistency that tend to “strangle the human spirit, wilt faith and hope, and ultimately end up creating a sense of helplessness.” He described the traditional leadership style as using compliance and control to ensure the future survival and prosperity of an organization. Having grown up in the segregated South, I was familiar with this style of leadership and knew it was one I did not want to replicate.

You create a superior system, Block said, when all members have an active and productive voice in decision making. Through stewardship, he suggests, we can be accountable and give control to those closer to the work, an idea that resonated with me. I had been trying to create such an environment in the Jackson school district but found out how difficult it is to change the learned behavior of subordinates and the attitudes of new leaders who tried to use their stewardship for self-interest.

Stewardship helped me keep a keen sense of fairness and has kept me from being overly judgmental in situations in which race could have become an issue. As a superintendent/CEO, I could not fully implement Block’s stewardship model, but I did create an environment that allowed all staff members to participate in decision making.

Ben Canada, a former superintendent and past AASA president, is associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, P.O. Box 400, Austin, TX 78767. E-mail: benjamin.canada@tasb.org

A Cause Bigger Than Oneself


Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx was brought to my attention in what I expect is a fairly typical way superintendents anywhere come in contact with books: A community member, a friend, a colleague recommends it. In this case, it was a new school board member.

My first outward reaction was a polite “thanks,” while I was thinking “I really don’t have time for this.” I’m also not particularly inclined to read sports books. A few weeks passed, including several interactions with the board member, though he never asked whether I had read the book. What he did do during each encounter was to describe how this book had touched him, his professional life, his personal life, his beliefs regarding the role and importance of mentoring.

His approach to encouraging my reading worked. Whether intended or not, the book moved to the top of my stack of reading material. The subtitle, A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood, may turn off some people or cause some potential readers, particularly superintendents who are focused on more academic titles, to miss this great little book. Season of Life is a quick read with a powerful, common-sense message.

It is about the need for and importance of role models in our lives. It is about the positive and negative impact of competition. It drives home the importance of learning to maintain balance in our lives. For superintendents, Season of Life is about causes bigger than ourselves, service to others and leading courageously.

In a personal note, the book’s focus on relationships meant much to me. Marx, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, reminds us not to take for granted those we love and care about deeply. He reminds us that we must continue to let them know how we feel about them. He ends by telling a touching story about getting to know his father as a real person. He points out how we can go through life being too busy to really know or take time to learn about those who are closest to us--something I have been guilty of, as I suspect other superintendents have as well.

I have passed this 177-page book on to many of my friends and colleagues and, most importantly, to my sons. I am grateful to the member of my school board for caring enough to give me this book and for his gentle encouragement to actually read it.

Ken Bird is superintendent of the Westside Community Schools, 909 S. 76th St., Omaha, NE 68114. E-mail: kbird@westside66.org

Reaffirming Critical Life Values


What do you send or give to graduating seniors who invite you, the superintendent, to their year-end open house? The perfect solution in my case is the short, but cogent (and reasonably priced) book by Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.

I read again her “Twenty-Five Lessons for Life” each time the book is given to others. My own life’s journey of faith is renewed thereby, and my service to others is newly inspired. What I most need on my professional journey are answers to the “why” questions, not the “how” questions, because basic values flowing from the why are what give direction, meaning and reward in my life. 

Four things about Edelman capture and extend my thinking. First, her values resonate with my own. As founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., she writes about ensuring every child has a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life with the support of caring families and communities. When my own mission becomes blurred, her 20/20 vision restores me. 

Second, she reminds me that opportunity comes to those who prepare themselves well for leadership and who grow on the job. Edelman worked in the trenches of the civil rights movement and directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Miss.  

Third, the author exemplifies this truth: Respect for self and by others is earned when risks are taken for great causes, such as public education. Courage to act, to lead and to stay in the fray are powerful standards when my own energy, patience and vision are sorely tested.  

Fourth, a well-lived life as a professional means not neglecting loved ones. Edelman pinpoints the importance of a support community including God, parents, spouse, children, family and friends. Her words help me remember there is great peril when self alone is the source of strength when working, leading and trying to promote what is good for society.  

I easily identify with a highly respected superintendent nearby who lamented: “I am so bombarded these days by ideas, advocates and alternative persuasive arguments that I can barely remember what I truly believe for myself and why I came into education in the first place.” He bespoke a value crisis, a pending loss of an internal gyroscope.  

That is precisely how The Measure of Our Success helps me. Edelman’s 25 simple, straightforward, life lessons reaffirm my own life choices.

Don Draayer is a retired superintendent who was the 1991 National Superintendent of the Year. He can be reached at 5906 Holiday Way, Minnetonka, MN 55345. E-mail: dondraayer@mn.rr.com 

Soulful Work


What if we superintendents would start every meeting with five minutes of silence? And what if that silence were proportionate to the difficulty of the problem to be solved? Would we find more clarity, more truth, less ego-dominated conversations in our efforts to solve problems?  

Parker Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life--Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World, says silence allows us to confront things within. Getting quiet causes us to come to terms with memories, feelings and issues that well up and are difficult to cope with.

Palmer, who is a senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education and designer of the Fetzer Institute’s teacher formation program, says getting quiet is the first step toward cultivating an inner life. He speaks about our apparent need, even drive, to frame and shape reality with our words in the way we want reality to be. We manufacture reality through our words. We believe if we stop talking, the world will fall apart. 

Palmer believes that “going into silence,” where we spend time letting go of trivial matters, will lead us to finding inner truth. Deep reflective silence brings forth greater clarity. We can learn the simple discipline that disarms the ego, our need to win, our agitation to promote ourselves and our own way. When we practice silence, we are able to let go of the need to have our own way. The silence quiets our need to win. 

Palmer sees our reluctance to embrace silence as a fear of death. Keeping the noise going seems to prove we are alive. If we discipline ourselves to let the need to win die, we will find a new form of life. 

Palmer’s belief that we need to live undivided lives resonated with me, as did his desire to find congruence in a world of fragmentations. He describes the “circles of trust” that can be cultivated in communities and among colleagues. These circles of trust can lead us to reclaimed integrity, wholeness, community and transformation.

What if we could find silence and in so doing reclaim our souls? Better yet, entire school communities could become circles of trust.

Palmer and I were on the same graduation stage in May 2000 when both of us received honorary doctorates from Ripon College in Wisconsin. I already had learned about his gentle and eloquent style in reading The Courage To Teach, his earlier work. References to his Quaker background are very much in evidence in his books, lectures and reflection circles that he and the Fetzer Institute host for corporate leaders, educators, clergy and community members.

His video, “Teaching from the Heart: Seasons of Renewal in a Teacher’s Life,” has helped facilitate the joyful reawakening of many teachers and administrators in the Milwaukee area. We are deeply grateful for this good neighbor living in Madison, Wis., who has helped so many of us in education scout out this inner terrain.

Sarah Jerome is superintendent of the Kettle Moraine Schools, P.O. Box 901, Wales, WI 53183. E-mail: sarah@kmsd.edu

Categorizing My Leadership Experiences


How often does a group of superintendents get to trade war stories with the likes of Ron Heifetz and other distinguished faculty members from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard? That is exactly what happened to me and 11 others fortunate enough to be part of the Wallace Foundation’s Project LEAD.

Up until that point, my leadership development experiences had consisted of education-related seminars usually arranged by an association like AASA or by a school of education. At our first meeting, Heifetz was quick to point out he was not an education expert. Frankly, after 23 years as a superintendent, I was curious about what new concept I might learn from the likes of Heifetz and company, and that feeling was shared by most of my colleagues. One of our first assignments was to read Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

I became fascinated by the book. It provided a framework that allowed me to sort and categorize my leadership experiences. Furthermore, the framework was not limited to schools, classrooms and board rooms. It applied to all aspects of life. It made me aware of the fact that “to lead is to live dangerously,” as was clearly stated on the book’s jacket.

Through introspection and lively discussions with Heifetz and his colleagues, I came to appreciate the differences between my intuitive responses to challenges and preconceived, strategic behavior. Had I really been a good administrator all of those years or had I merely been lucky? Was I truly confronting the real issues or was I merely engaging in what Heifetz refers to as “work avoidance?”

I learned many excellent strategies. I had assumed, for example, that as a leader my job was to step up and solve everyone’s problems. Short term, we may be heroes to those whose problem we’ve solved. Long term, every happy solution causes discomfort or unhappiness to someone else. Eventually, the numbers of unhappy people add up to a critical mass that could lead to our undoing. Heifetz’s solution? Give the work back. Let people work through their problems. Guide them, counsel them, but don’t take the work off their shoulders.

My only regret is that Leadership on the Line was not available much earlier in my career. By most accounts, my 26 years as a superintendent were successful, but I can’t help but think how much more effective I could have been had I really known what I was doing.

Dan Domenech, a former superintendent and past AASA president, is a senior vice president of McGraw-Hill Education, 210 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. E-mail: daniel_domenech@mcgraw-hill.com

Rules of the Game for Women


A good friend of mine (and a former boss) gave me a copy of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman on her wedding day. I took the hint she thought I was in serious need of some assistance and immediately read it. Indeed, there were many lessons learned and reinforced. At Christmas, I gave copies to my two principals who had just commenced their administrative careers--and my personal copy was passed on to my daughter-in-law who was interested in pursuing a supervisory position.

Author Gail Evans’ style appealed to my educational instincts in that it is a “rule” book. Her matter-of-fact directness contributes so many helpful hints that I’ve reread the book several times. Her section on “The Object of the Game” brings home the simple idea that “loving what you do is self-empowering” and this is the game’s first rule.

By likening the workplace to a game, Evans suggests how we can develop a strategy for succeeding on that playing field. Playing to our strengths and characteristics as women is important. Acknowledging this, Evans encourages us to use these skills to enhance our professional success.

In my working life (which included three years a theatre manager), I’ve adapted her advice to my interaction with the school board and with other stakeholders in education. Her Fourteen Basic Rules for Success (which conveniently are listed under the chapter titled “Playing the Game”) make good sense. Tooting my horn and anguishing about minor issues were a couple of rules that really hit home. In the chapter “GenderBender,” which deals with vocabulary words, I could recognize behavior on my part that could be construed as weakness and waffling.

When playing the game, Evans says keeping score is critical. Often we denigrate ourselves and downgrade our accomplishments, which in turn diminishes others’ perceptions of our achievements.

Reflecting on my reactions and actions and adapting them to school system leadership was not a stretch. Whether working with staff or with the school board, this book has been a great guide to assessing my strengths and weaknesses. Although many concepts aren’t new or deep revelations, it was an easy tool that appealed to a common-sense attitude.

As Evans states in her conclusion: “Have a good time. Be yourself. Love your life. And love the game.” In this game of work, it was a refreshing reminder that all of us need to be more of a cheerleader for ourselves.

Becky Canty is superintendent of the Elverado Community Unit School District 196, P.O. Box 130, Elkville, IL 62932. E-mail: bcanty5@yahoo.com

Restoring Progressive Values


Irwin Blumer, a colleague and mentor, once told me it is the vision you articulate and the values you hold dear that provide the real leadership to move a school district forward. In his own tenure as superintendent, the values of equity and respect for human differences were paramount, and everyone in his district knew it. Today, in an era of standards, testing and accountability, it is all too easy to forget the larger mission of public education and that values matter.

Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education is a collection of essays by members of the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation that affirm the vital importance of the quality of children’s lives and the ideal of participatory democracy in education.

I became superintendent in Hudson, Mass., in 1993, the same year the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was passed. I was familiar with the work of the North Dakota Study Group, which gave me a rich understanding of progressive practice and a progressive vision of education. Those were heady times. A court case had moved the Massachusetts legislature to create a more equitable funding formula and a set of progressive reform policies. The national math teachers’ organization had broken with tradition by creating a set of standards framed around core concepts and an instructional model guided by inquiry and investigation. These soon were followed by science frameworks that called on teachers to transform their instruction from didactic lectures to inquiry-based investigations. Much progress was made in the early years of reform.

However, current national and state policies have set back authentic reform. We have become obsessed with testing in contrast to learning. As Susan Harman, one of the book’s contributors, points out: “Our infatuation with tests has become a toxic obsession.” When our primary goal in education is to broaden the horizons and perspectives of young people and to stimulate their creativity and curiosity, we continue to narrow our focus to what can be tested. The frustration over the current direction of reform is palpable among many educators.

Holding Values can rekindle our motivation to try new methods, restructure schools and reach for higher standards because it reminds us how deeply we care about our children and the future of our society. For me, Holding Values is an eloquent reminder of the power of progressive values to guide my work along more child-centered and democratic lines and to reclaim the original vision of public education--developing thoughtful citizens who can sustain our democracy.

As former Harvard dean Vito Perrone says, “To lose a focus on democracy--not to be closely connected in our practice to the world, its problems and its promise--is to lose the moral base of our work.” It is also a reminder that, more than ever, the voices of superintendents and the clarity of their values are needed to steer the ship of reform back on course.

Sheldon Berman is superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools, 155 Apsley St., Hudson, MA 01749. E-mail: sberman@hudson.k12.ma.us

Failing Forward to Succeed


Failing Forward by John Maxwell is a series of stories about people who succeed by failing forward. Maxwell weaves humorous tales and memorable quotes up and down the 15 solid steps to achievement and his answer to the secret of success.

The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. As a young boy in school, Maxwell learned to be afraid of failure and to avoid it. In life, he says the question is not if you will have problems but how you are going to deal with them.

My first assignment in a large school district’s business department was very different from anything I had done before. Bob Flach, the business manager, assigned me to a team led by Diane Schweitzer, a food service professional. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed to learn something about the back-office operations of the food service department. I knew nothing about the business, I did not know how to work with the team, and I was not a good listener. I was failing and it wasn’t the first time.

Flach was a brilliant manager who believed in developing the skills of the employees in his department. He gave me books to read and asked Schweitzer to share her teaming resources with me. I spent evenings poring over books on time management, teaming and managing people. I took listening lessons. Flach gave me the tools I desperately needed to succeed, although I didn’t realize it at the time. He was teaching me to learn from failure. Schweitzer introduced me to the works of John Maxwell.

In Failing Forward, Maxwell comforts us with the knowledge that all of us have experienced failure in our professional or personal lives. Most people who do not fail forward blame others for their mistakes. They work harder and faster at what they do, but they never accept the responsibility for their actions.

Educators teach for success. We want A’s. We reward A’s. John Maxwell teaches us to embrace failure and to learn from it. In classrooms, we should be teaching students how to learn from their failures. What did they do that went well and how might they improve? As leaders, we should encourage our staffs to try different strategies and support them when they fail.

As an administrator, one is often challenged with difficult tasks. We may even procrastinate because we are afraid. We may have been in a situation like this before and failed miserably at it. Maxwell encourages us to get over ourselves. He presents the tools to make a plan and to complete the task. He teaches how to deal with failure. Maxwell says we must finalize goals and order the plans. We must risk failure by taking action. We must welcome mistakes and realize that we advance based on our willingness to accept responsibility and changes in our character. We must take the time for quiet reflection on our practice.

Kathleen Hickey is superintendent of St. Anne Community High School District 302, 650 West Guertin St. Anne, IL 60964. E-mail: hickeyk@sachs.k12.il.us

Covey’s Principles


I came across The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey in the early 1990s when I was a central-office administrator in a small school district just outside of Boston. I consider the book foundational as I think about leadership. (I am now superintendent in a central Massachusetts district with nine schools and 6,000 students).

I could write about Covey’s view that leadership is more about being genuine than it is about strategies or his reminder that people, regardless of age and experience, are very tender on the inside. However, two ideas from the book have been pivotal to me: Leaders should devote much of their time to issues that are “important but not urgent” and weshould use “empathic listening” in dealing with conflict.

By committing time to issues of importance (what Covey calls quadrant II in his management matrix), I have focused on hiring and supporting high-performing administrators who manage and lead their buildings and departments. As the 13 members of the leadership team deal with day-to-day operations, I concentrate on what might be called the leadership agenda. The team’s biweekly meetings generally are concerned with the direction of the district (long-term financial and facilities plans, student achievement, professional learning, etc.). Therefore, we tend to prevent crises (at least of our own making) and our lives as administrators are often less frenetic.

Empathic listening helps me deal with parents who make requests of the system that only the superintendent can ultimately resolve. Covey has taught me that working to understand the nature of their concern while trying hard to identify with their position can be of enormous benefit in reducing tension and resolving the issue.

The best example I can give is when we redistricted the entire system a few years ago and moved many 4th graders to different elementary schools for 5th grade. Understandably, parents of 4th graders were very reluctant to move their children for one year, given that 6th grade was in the middle school. I met with several sets of parents during that spring. In each meeting, I indicated I was disposed to help, but knew that many students had to be redistricted to make the plan work. Along with the parents, I probed to see if a particular child’s situation was exceptional. In doing so, the parents began to join me in suggesting solutions and viewed me less on the opposite side of the decision-making fence.

At the conclusion of the meetings, I told parents my strong interest was that their children have a successful year in the new school and I would visit each child in the third week of September. I did visit each child. As you might guess, each was happy in the new school and one even whispered to me in the hall, “I like this school better than the last one.”

Covey’s book provides me with an essential value and a strategy for dealing with those who look to the superintendent to resolve problems. I use both regularly.

Anthony Bent is superintendent of the Shrewsbury Public Schools, 100 Maple Ave., Shrewsbury, MA 01545. E-mail: abent@shrewsbury.k12.ma.us

Hope at the Heart of the Matter


A Hope in the UnseenAn American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League is a story of Cedric Jennings, a young man with a heart of a lion who through sheer force of will and tenacity survives a tough and dangerous high school experience at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., and gets himself accepted into Brown University.

The book chronicles his senior year at Ballou where he is scorned for being a serious student and his freshman year at Brown where he finds himself in a social and academic environment he could never have anticipated. It is an inspiring and heart-wrenching story of a kid who decides he is going to make it and does.

The title of the book comes from a line from the New Testament Book of Hebrews—“the substance of faith is a hope in the unseen.” It was a line brought to Cedric’s attention by a teacher during a difficult time in his junior year of high school. Later, after his sophomore year at Brown, Cedric reflects on that thought. 

Author Ron Suskind writes: “As he searches and learns more in classes and discussions about the country’s immigrant past, the phrase ‘a hope in the unseen’ continues to resonate. That’s the thing, he figures, that built the country, that drew often luckless people across oceans to a place they could barely imagine. … He had hope in a better world he could not yet see that overwhelmed the cries of ‘you can’t’ or ‘you won’t’ or ‘why bother.’ More than anything else, mustering that faith, on cue, is what separated him from his peers, and distinguishes him from so many people in these literal, sophisticated times. It has made all the difference.” 

It is that hope this book reaffirms. The section that deals with Cedric’s senior year at Ballou details the all-too-familiar and dispiriting inadequacies of a large urban high school. At Brown, Cedric faces altogether different challenges as he enters an environment that, while civil and earnest, is replete with thorny awkwardness in matters of race and class. 

From each of the environments, however imperfect, individuals emerge--a teacher here, a counselor or friend there--whose support and advice are essential to Cedric’s ultimate success. Yet it is Cedric who provides both inspiration and the moral of this story. It is Cedric’s unrelenting insistence on a preferred future that fuels the intensity of his effort and his capacity to prevail. 

To all of us engaged in the ongoing national discussion on measured accountability and defined proficiency, this story offers a useful counterpoint. Aspiration remains at the heart of the matter. Raising bars is easy. Nurturing aspirations is where the real work lies. 

David Roach is superintendent of Millbury Public Schools, 12 Martin St., Millbury, MA 01527. E-mail: droach@millbury.k12.ma.us

Scriptural Meaning


The day my doctor called and told me I had a malignant tumor in my right kidney my world skidded to a halt, though only briefly. This was the big game. I was staring into the face of the ultimate beast—death itself. And even though I had read many books that inspired me to be better (a better husband and father, a better school administrator, a better golfer), the messages and promises in only one book—The Bible—provided the comfort I needed at that dark hour.

The peace that passes all understanding, promised in Philipians 4:7, gently came to me. I stood strong, ready to deal with whatever waited down the road.

Fortunately for me, the deep issues of our human existence, such as suffering, sin, life and death and eternal destiny had begun to weigh heavily on me some 20 years earlier. I searched for explanations that were consistent on each issue. In the end, only the Bible tied them all together, and in my quest I also found meaning for my everyday life. 

Every individual has a personal basis of authority upon which he or she acts and thinks. Additionally, as public school leaders, we are expected to behave ethically as the foundation for conducting our public service. I openly admit the Bible is my ultimate authority in matters of doctrine and ethics. While it is true that I often fail to observe the teachings of Scripture, it is my sincere desire to be faithful to what I believe is the word of God.

Dennis Smith is superintendent of Trico Community Unit School District 176, P.O. Box 220, Campbell Hill, IL 62916. E-mail: djsmith@trico176.org

Aspiring to Level 5 Leadership


A new governor with a reputation in the private sector as a shrewd and decisive businessman reappointed me Virginia’s state superintendent in spring 2002. During our first meetings, he questioned many of the assumptions upon which decisions in public education are based. He demanded data to support accepted beliefs and practices and inform decisions about the next stage of Virginia’s standards-based reform.  

His new administration faced an immediate challenge common to all mature standards-based reforms: What can the state do to improve teaching and learning in schools that are resistant to change and that are characterized by low expectations and achievement? The governor wanted answers. I could only reply that school improvement is hard work.  

I went searching for answers, not in the latest education journals, but in the business aisle of a local bookstore. The cover and title of Good to Great, now a fixture on the bestseller lists, caught my eye. The opening sentence of the book reads, “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.”  

Author Jim Collins and his team of researchers had spent five years studying the characteristics of companies that had gone from good to great and compared these companies with organizations that had yet to make the leap. The concepts and strategies they developed were based on hard data.

The book was my constant companion for weeks. As I closed the cover, I could not help wondering whether its lessons on what it takes to advance from good to great would work for schools and school divisions and even state agencies? I was convinced they would.

In July 2003, I had the opportunity to hear Collins speak in person. I was inspired by his passion and awed by his description of the drive and determination required to go from good to great. No silver bullets, no quick fixes, but rather the application of timeless principles in a culture of discipline. Collins says greatness is not a function of circumstance but a matter of conscious choice. Can we develop such a culture in our schools, our central offices and our government? I believe we can.

Collins’s description of Level 5 leadership forced me to examine my own leadership style and much of what I believed about the role of a leader in an organization. Collins convinced me I had placed too much emphasis on the dynamic, almost celebrity-like personality of the men and women I perceived as great leaders and hoped to emulate. Many of the traits I admired are common to Level 5 leaders but their ambitions and goals are for their organizations, not themselves.

The combination of vision, professional will, unwavering resolve and personal humility is powerful but rare. Can all of the principals, administrators and superintendents entrusted with education of America’s children become Level 5 leaders? Perhaps not, but it sure seems worth the effort.

Jo Lynne DeMary is Virginia state superintendent of public instruction, 101 North 14th Street, 25th floor, Richmond, VA 23219. E-mail: jolynne.demary@doe.virginia.gov

Staking Out the Main Challenge


Thomas Friedman, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has written this generation’s equivalent of the 1980s’ “A Nation at Risk.” His 2005 best-seller, The World Is Flat, A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, posits that the greatest challenge to the United States’ position as the leading economic and political power is not the terrorist threat but our ability as a nation, people and educational system to respond to international competition in an era of Internet-accessible knowledge and commerce, which knows no geographic boundary.

Those of us who were in educational leadership positions in the 1980s remember all too well the impact that the Carnegie Commission’s report had on our schools. In many ways, No Child Left Behind has become the natural outgrowth of “A Nation at Risk’s” warning it was not the Soviet/Communist threat we should be concerned about but our low scores on international tests compared to the then-powerhouse economies of Japan and Germany.

Friedman provides examples of how the shrinking world of the economic marketplace has affected outsourcing of American jobs to Asian countries and India and the increasing opportunities for entrepreneurs, scientists and marketers to perform their jobs from wherever they live. One anecdote recounts a conversation with Bill Gates in which Gates says he’d rather be a genius born in China than an average guy born in Poughkeepsie because country of residence has become immaterial.

Whether or not one accepts Friedman’s hypotheses, those of us leading educational enterprises must be aware of this growing conventional wisdom. It affects how we address our instructional priorities and budget allocations, our students’ use of technology (since communication and research are no longer bound by where people live) and the relatively small number of native scientists and mathematicians we produce (now that foreigners need not move here to compete with us).

Whether Friedman is reading the future accurately will be assessed by future generations. For my part, I’ve found community members accepting and understanding of the international challenges their children will face and, therefore more supportive of program improvements, even when they cost money.

Marc Bernstein is superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, 1 Kent Road, Valley Stream, NY 11580. E-mail: bernstem@vschsd.org