Executive Perspective

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

There is the old axiom that “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” While these days sometimes I have trouble seeing either one, that saying came home to me when I had the opportunity to spend time in the rain forest on two different occasions.

The first was several years ago when I spent a week on the Amazon where I observed the mysterious and dark forest flow past our boat. The Amazon basin has been called the “lungs of the earth” and concern has been raised as it is being obliterated by humans. Also, its biodiversity of plants and animals remains a source of many new medical discoveries. A lesson once again on how what happens in a distant place can affect us directly. If the earth’s delicate balance of oxygen is upset, what do we breathe? If an obscure plant holds the secret for a cure for cancer, are we not all affected if the last one is destroyed?

As we went for hikes in the rain forest it was hard to see much. Our path was so overgrown with vegetation we had to hack our way through, and the mosquitoes were so thick they coated our clothing and turned it black. We were too busy dealing with the realities of foliage, mud and insects to revel in our surroundings. On occasion we would spot an unusual bird or hear the cries of a monkey, but then it was back to the slog.

What we were able to see came with lots of hard work and sweat. Walking in the rain forest is not a stroll in the park — it is hard, dirty work.

Breakneck Observations
My second encounter with the rain forest was on a recent trip to Costa Rica. This time I got a different view. I went for a canopy trip, which according to the brochure offered a “leisurely trip across the top of the rain forest where one could appreciate the sights and sounds of the unique environment.” Because I had already seen things from the bottom, the top sounded good to me.


They took us up a mountain on a land rover and after a short bumpy ride, we were let off for an equally short and bumpy trudge up the mountain where we were asked to climb a ladder, which took us to a platform on the side of a tree. This was to be the stepping off point for the “leisurely canopy tour.” At that point one of the guides strapped us in a harness and informed us the harness would be attached to rope that was connected to a very long, very high cable that connected to another tree far, far away. Our canopy ride would be on a zip line where we were to sail at breakneck speed hundreds of feet above the floor of the forest. Then we were to land on another platform high in another tree where the process would be repeated.

Before we stepped off into the void, folks were taking pictures. I am sure somewhere there is a picture of me with an expression on my face that clearly communicates, “You want me to do what?”

On the zip line you have to place your gloved hand above the line and press down to control your speed. If you press too hard you will slow your ride and stop many feet short of the platform where you will dangle high above the jungle floor wondering what to do next and why you had not opted for the leisurely day at the beach. If you don’t press down hard enough you gain too much speed and sail full speed into the platform and the tree it is on making for a sudden and unpleasant arrival.

The first few times you do this you are busy trying to master the technique to get the right speed and avoid embarrassing yourself that you get to the next platform not having seen anything but your hand and your feet. But after a few zips you start to relax and stop worrying about the mechanics of the ride. You realize you are not going to die, that it is really quite beautiful up there and the exhilaration of the ride is intoxicating.

Gap in Perspective

It struck me that the canopy experience was in many ways my experience as a new superintendent. At first I was so intent on just getting to the next stage I didn’t have any sense of the journey. As I gained more experience and confidence, I was able to look around and enjoy the view. I think the lesson for us as leaders is to make certain that we master the techniques and mechanics of our work to the point they don’t interfere with our ability to see around us. And you have to lead with a light hand — not too much pressure on the line and not too little. The right balance will get you where you need to go.



Another lesson from my rain forest experiences is that the view is very different between ground level and up at the top. The beauty at the top allowed me to forget the mud and the misery that was just a few hundred feet below me. Walking in the rain forest and riding above it are two very different experiences just like there is a huge gap in perspective between policymakers and those who have to do the work.

The final lesson comes from the understanding that just as the rain forests are the lungs of the earth and breathe life into us, public schools are the source of life for a democracy and must be preserved for our diversity and future. Finally, mosquitoes are an annoyance but they come with the territory. We have to focus on the big picture, not the bug picture.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.