Guest Column

Run to Daylight

by PATRICK W. MARTIN

Football coach Vince Lombardi always inspired me. One piece of advice the late coach promoted to his professional teams was “run to daylight.”

In football lingo, running to daylight means that when a player has possession of the football and it is his mission to carry the ball to the goal, he is to look for blue-sky openings between the opposing players who are attempting to tackle him and arrest his progress.

For educators, running to daylight is the mental habit of looking for opportunities and seizing upon them for the good of the educational process.

Enviable Reputation
Several years ago I was appointed principal of the South Orange Middle School in South Orange, N.J. At the time, the school employed Cindy Buress, a superb music teacher and choral director. I was thankful right away for Cindy for several reasons.

First, she conducted excellent music classes where the students in grades 5 through 8 were delighted to learn about everything from half-notes to Scott Joplin.

Second, Cindy presented a no-nonsense persona that demanded respect and, strangely enough, adoration. She was able to quell student uprisings of all shapes and varieties both within her classroom and throughout the school.

Third, her choral productions and musicals put the school on the map. The school gained an envied reputation due to her activities, and students, parents and faculty enjoyed the pride associated with such notoriety. Certainly some of the school’s deficiencies (often having to do with the new principal) were overlooked because, after all, we were “the school that did those wonderful musicals.”

The difficulties began when Cindy walked into my office one fine summer day and told me that another school district had lured her away. Always the lady and the professional, she was charming in the manner in which she departed from the school, but I was devastated.

A Lost Feeling
The school brought on a replacement instructor who sincerely attempted to maintain the musical tradition. There were performances and shows. The staff and I patted each other on the back and said everything was all right, things were back to the way they were with Cindy.

But they weren’t. Cindy was gone, and it was different. The magic wasn’t there.

What I did not realize at the time was that the magic was still at the school — it just wasn’t there in the music room.

I am ashamed to admit I moped around for a year, not really knowing what to do next. I would overhear others, sometimes students, saying that the school was different, not so much fun anymore — and I blamed myself.

I am even more ashamed to admit that several teachers approached me with ideas for student activities and co-curricular approaches during this time. I approved these ideas, but I did not enthusiastically jump behind and support them.

I recall one instructor who wanted to begin a chess club and to accompany youngsters to tournaments. Another, a science teacher, joined the faculty and talked about working to make the school’s lab experiments eye-catching and fun, providing a new backbone to the math and science curricula. And then there was an energetic paraprofessional who worked in the after-school program who asked me about starting a Saturday basketball league.

All of these were excellent initiatives, but to me they were not the musical masterpieces of the past. Any one of them could have been the new, vital, talked-about, lifeblood project at the school. Any one of them could have been the thing for which the school was known and around which our school community might rally.

But I didn’t see it. And it wasn’t until years later, after I had departed South Orange Middle School and become a superintendent elsewhere that I slowly began to notice how all schools evolve over time. Emphasis changes. People move on, and it is rare that a successful effort continues unabated for generations of students.

I had been attempting to run the same old play — the Cindy Buress play, and when it did not work, I was baffled. What I was doing was akin to running the same football play over and over again without any alterations, expecting to gain ground against a defense that knew what I was doing before I did it.

I needed to look for daylight. The daylight was there — in the form of chess tournaments, basketball leagues, science experiments and more — but I just did not see it. Cultivating fresh, unexpected ideas in our schools is essential for continued effectiveness.

When running to daylight, you must distinguish between seizing upon programs and seizing upon the people who are fired-up with an idea. It’s the people who are our daylight, our blue-sky opportunities. Every school district has unique staff members and over time individuals change their interests and passions.

Seizing Chances
Looking for daylight truly is like carrying a football each new time a play is run. The players change, bright ideas come and go, enthusiasm peaks and wanes, and so the daylight changes. As school administrators, we must recognize those changes, seize upon the opportunities they present, and cultivate them with funding, space and time, publicity, and, importantly, a willingness to let them go when they have run their course.

The next time an employee walks into your office and says, “Hey boss, you might think this is crazy, but I’ve got this idea,” jump up from your desk and exclaim: “Daylight!” Coach Lombardi would be proud.

Patrick Martin is superintendent of the Ringwood Public Schools in Ringwood, N.J. E-mail: martinp@ringwoodschools.org