Executive Perspective

Going Where the Water Is


On a trip to Eastern Europe we were visiting yet one more museum when our guide started talking about a series of kings, all of whom were assassinated. She ended her little talk with the thought: “That was a bad time to be a king.” I couldn’t help but think about the times our educational community now faces and the feeling we often get is that this is a bad time to be an educator.

Certainly we are under immense pressure to create results without sufficient resources and to provide accountability without authority. We are scrutinized, vilified and occasionally crucified for our efforts. But as the thought goes, “tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” These are truly the times when we have to dig down and make things happen despite the challenges.

While on that same trip, we were taking a river boat trip along the Danube. As the tour guide was explaining the workings of the boat, one passenger asked if they used a Global Positioning System, or GPS, for navigation. The guide replied, “When you are on the river, you don’t have to know where north is, you just have to know where the water is.”

Newfound Appreciation
What a wonderful bit of guidance for us as we navigate turbulent times. Sometimes we spend so much time trying to gather data and information that we get stuck in what management gurus call “analysis paralysis.” We know so much we can’t move. Yet what we have to do is focus on following the course of the water, avoiding the sandbars and seeking the center channel where the water runs deeper and safer. And while we are watching for hazards, we shouldn’t forget to take in the view.

Several years ago when I was diagnosed with an eye condition that if left untreated would threaten my sight, I noticed an immediate change in myself. I started paying attention to things. I noticed the sunsets. I looked at the hills and trees with new eyes. I not only stopped to smell the roses, I really looked at them. You never appreciate something until you are threatened with losing it.

Well, given the pressures on public education, we are facing real and grave threats. Now is the time for us to appreciate what it offers and to share that appreciation with others. Public education is messy, imprecise and inefficient and falls far short of the dreams we all have for it. But it is also the one institution that holds our democracy together and offers dreams to our children.

Later on the trip we were visiting a school outside of Prague, where the principal explained to us that he had been the principal there in the early 1970s. He left education for nearly 20 years and had returned to the school in the early ’90s to resume his work. He noted that he had left for political reasons. He said, “They (the communists) wanted me to teach things that were not true. And they wanted me not to teach things that were, so I had to make a choice.”

Good leadership is always about making that moral choice to lead toward the truth and to overcome the darkness of deceit.

A Rescue Mission

On the way home I was seated on the plane next to several gentlemen from Great Britain. One was a firefighter from a small village in eastern England, who on the days just after Sept. 11 had gone around his village raising money for the families of New York City firefighters. He had raised more than $20,000 for those families and he was flying to New York (accompanied by a TV camera crew) to present the check to the fire chief.

I asked him why he had made such an effort on behalf of people he didn’t know. He looked at me with the same look of bewilderment that I saw on the face of our tour guide when I had asked about the boat’s need for a Global Positioning System. The firefighter said, “I had no choice. I had to do it. They would have done it for me.”

It struck me that the firefighter and the principal from Prague both offered me the moral equivalent of a GPS for leaders in tough times. When it comes to questions of morality and principle you must make a choice. You must choose to stand up and do what’s right. And I believe, if you are a leader of principals, you have no choice but to do what’s right. That is truly understanding where the water is and following the right channel in the river.

Just after the British firefighter told me that he had had no choice but to help his peers in New York, one of his companions asked me, “What, didn’t you do that too?”

I’ll leave that question with each of you. Every day, we face a search-and-rescue mission for our children. What choices are you making?

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.