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The High-Flying Power

of a Team  



Imagine this phone call — a Navy admiral is nominating you to fly with the legendary Blue Angels! A moment of disbelief. How did this happen?

The admiral explains I’ve been selected because of my leadership in the community, congratulating me as the 2011 Washington State Superintendent of the Year and one of four national award finalists. While his nomination did not guarantee I’d be selected for the flight, I agreed to “apply,” which meant completing the required physical exam and pursuing their recommendation to increase my daily workout so I could comfortably run a five-mile race. I prepared just in case I was picked for the ride.

The next call went something like this: “Ma’am, congratulations! You have been chosen by the U.S. Navy as a ‘Key Influencer,’ and we would like you to fly with the Blue Angels in August.” My heart rate skyrocketed. I realized this was going to be an experience of a lifetime.

Uncontained Excitement
That was enough motivation to continue my workouts, now with more intensity knowing what they were leading toward.

Mary Alice Heuschel
Mary Alice Heuschel flew with the U.S. Navy's
Blue Angels in a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet

The excitement was hard to contain. The briefing I received on flight day that perfect morning included strategies for (a) withstanding the G-forces, (b) preventing passing out, and (c) clearing ears to prevent a burst eardrum. I also was granted “permission to scream” in free-fall maneuvers in negative G-force stunts. Then, they asked if I still wanted to fly. Without hesitation, I signed the next round of paperwork.

The takeoff was at four Gs — a vertical climb into the sky. I am happy to report I did not pass out. It was a bright, sunny day, so overlooking the Seattle area as the Boeing F/A-18 fighter jet headed for the Olympic Mountains was breathtaking.

The pilot talked to me about the different maneuvers we would perform, and the fact that the planes are a bare 18 inches apart during the show. When I made a comment about not being able to make a mistake, his response was, “Ma’am, we try not to.” I chuckled, but reflected on the amazing expertise and teamwork required to become a Blue Angel.

His remarks made me think then and again later about our work in education. Some clear parallels exist. I definitely can attest to the importance of individual preparation but, more essentially, the importance and incredible power of teamwork. The same qualities and characteristics that allow the Blue Angels to move through space in such close consort are what fuel our teachers, administrators and staff to work in collaboration to overcome the factors that negatively influence student learning.

The power of high expectations, clear standards, strong accountability and summative assessment (that safe landing) took on new meaning. The experience crystallized my understanding of the importance of teamwork — the coordinated, collaborative effort that creates and sustains student success, even in the most challenging circumstances.

The last stunt, the pilot explained, was the bomb drop. This time, I could really feel the impact. It was a straight climb, flip to the left and free fall to a swift power-boost swoop, leveling out to hit the target drop point. Unbelievable! The pilot shared, “Ma’am, you now have bragging rights — that was 7.4 Gs.”

It was hard to believe when we landed that more than 45 minutes had passed. It was quite a ride! I truly felt as if I had run a marathon when it was over, but I would run it again, at five times the distance, in order to have experienced this.

Heroic Teamwork
Again I thought of the heroic teamwork of educators and the immense satisfaction teams feel when their work has produced an amazing result. Exhilaration in the classroom is also a reality.

I thank the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels team and all of the individuals who choose to serve our country in the military forces for the difference they make in our world and toward our future. I also thank every educator team that supports students in realizing their dreams. These educators are truly the students’ “Blue Angels.”

Though few educators have the opportunity to experience Boeing’s F/A-18 Hornet up close and personal, I can confirm, based on my brief experience that sky-blue day, that those of us who choose education are the Blue Angels of our country’s future.

Mary Alice Heuschel is superintendent of the Renton, Wash., School District. E-mail: maryalice.heuschel@rentonschools.us



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