Rearview Memories

By documenting the joys and lessons of her life’s work, a veteran superintendent resets the proper frame of mind for the inevitable troubling times that arise by Gwen E. Gross

I love my job, so much so that it bears repeating. I love my job. Still, the role of superintendent was not my first calling.

As a University of Wisconsin student majoring in radio, television and film in the late 1960s, I was mesmerized by Lee Dreyfus, the dynamic and sought-after professor of mass communication who delivered spellbinding lectures about the burgeoning media world. Dreyfus’ mentor was Marshall McLuhan, who began his long and distinguished career at the University of Wisconsin.

Many memorable McLuhan quotes became part of my psyche, including, “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror” and “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. … We are all crew.” McLuhan and Dreyfus instilled a sense of quest and a perspective on the complexities of our world that guided me through my 36-year career as a teacher, principal and superintendent of several districts in California.

Looking back, that foundation in the liberal arts conspired with my small-town Midwestern upbringing and my family’s reverence for education to place me on the track toward the superintendency — although I was unaware of it at the time. What I did know was that after college graduation and an unusual stint working in a locked institution for behaviorally disturbed men, I took a detour from my mass media aspirations. I instead returned to school, where I earned my credential in education with a focus on special education. I soon would learn the joys of dedicating my life to young people.

Bouncing Back
It was the early 1970s, and Public Law 94-142 (the forerunner to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) brought to the public schools a flood of students from private settings. I was teaching children with learning and behavioral disorders, and we were learning volumes about how they grasp and process information and how we could capture their attention to help them thrive. This extensive training in diagnosis, prescriptive teaching and assessment established a foundation that has been invaluable throughout my career.

Robert Ramsey wrote a terrific book titled Lead, Follow or Get out of the Way that describes the qualities of 21st-century leaders and introduces the concept of buoyancy — that ability to bounce back from setbacks. The superintendency is loaded with ups and downs and unexpected challenges, such as the sudden loss of a student or a troubled staff member who’s going through a major life change.

These challenges can test the concept of buoyancy. And that’s when my thoughts turn to the special-needs children I worked with early in my career. They taught me to be persistent, reality-based, optimistic and hopeful, and with them as my moral compass, I always have focused on bouncing back quickly and working hard to be a courageous champion for children.

A Lifetime Lesson
Don Clifton, of How Full Is Your Bucket? fame, was the featured speaker at Widefield High School in Colorado Springs in August 1978. It was opening day, and I was just beginning my administrative career as a principal when he stepped into a spotlight on a dark stage and shared this poem by R.L. Sharp:

Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And common people like you and me
Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass, a book of rules.
And each must make ’ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.

I have quoted this poem hundreds of times and have reminded those with whom I work of the awesome responsibility we have as common people with uncommon responsibility for guiding children’s lives. I often check my behavior, my actions, my words and my thoughts with a few simple questions: As a leader, am I a stumbling block or a stepping stone? Do I bring confidence or do I deflate drive? Do I inspire and build confidence for an eternity?

Like it or not, the emotional challenges of this business don’t wait until you’ve had time to settle in. In fact, one of the most profound experiences of my career came during my first few weeks as the new, 29-year-old principal of North Elementary School in Colorado Springs.

I had a 6th-grade student by the name of Eddie, who lived with his stepfather. His mother had died of an overdose three years earlier. The stepfather did his best as an enlisted man at Fort Carson Army Base, but his work required that he bounce from base to base. Late one night, I received a call that Eddie’s stepfather had been killed in a freak construction accident at one of his work sites.

I was awake all night worrying about this feisty, rambunctious and challenging boy. Where was he going to end up? As I pulled my car into the parking lot very early the next morning, I saw him standing in the doorway of the school in the rain, huddled in a corner. I approached him and asked, “Eddie, what are you doing here so early?” Tears falling from his eyes, he started to tell me about his stepdad. I hugged him tight and told him that I already knew. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m scared and I thought it would be safe here.”

Sadly, there are Eddies everywhere. No matter what kind of community, there are children who look to our schools as their safe havens. The story of Eddie remains painful to recall, yet it also continues to be motivating and inspiring because Eddie’s story did not end on that rainy day. Eddie was adopted by a school district employee and went on to graduate. In that wonderful Colorado district, common people provided a stepping stone for a young man after a life of stumbling blocks.

Saving Memories
I’m a saver. I have files of crumpled, yellowed news clippings, magazine articles with frayed edges and scribbled napkin notes. I have saved outlines from every speech I’ve ever given and countless notes from speeches I’ve heard.

I have copies of student work that have struck me as touching or heart wrenching. I have notes from parents expressing gratitude and journal entries documenting my own gut-wrenching and profound experiences. I keep a “funny file” of classic comments made by students and a “treasure chest” with those random pieces of life that still inspire me.

When I work with teachers or beginning administrators, I encourage them to start saving those treasures that have touched them. Reading a few of those scraps of paper often provides the lift they will need on those inevitable down days.

Joy of Writing
I learned at an early age that writing was a joy, thanks to a mother who loved the written word. Years later, I discovered this passion was shared by quite a few of my colleagues, marking the genesis of a professional writing group with six other dynamic superintendents. We met in 1997 at a superintendents conference, where a conversation emerged about how each of us had discovered the power of stories in our professional careers. We had all meant to write them down — we just never really got around to it. So we decided to get moving.

We shared our stories and we wrote with candor and wisdom about our successes and our mistakes. We wrote “on the job” stories that were tragic, heart-wrenching and sometimes hilarious. Weekend after weekend, month after month, we shared our stories, eventually publishing them. The books, Eight at the Top (2000), Effective Superintendent-School Board Practices (2006) and The Superintendent’s Planner (2008), gave us an opportunity to share our perspectives, experience and insight with others.

When you write, you reflect, ponder, wonder, clarify and better understand your world. Recorded memories are a treasure for the writer and for the writer’s family. When I read what I have written over the years, I am always amazed at the many invaluable lessons I have picked up and the great moments I have shared.

Transparent Communication
When I was hired as superintendent of California’s Beverly Hills Unified School District in 2000, I arrived with full knowledge that budget shortfalls were looming in the facilities program and the general fund budget. There was little time to settle in quietly.

My very first step — after just one day on the job — was to contract with a top-flight school finance accounting firm that would dig deep and wide to analyze the challenges and recommend strategies to correct an upside-down budget. The issues were more grim than anticipated, and within a month it was clear that massive cuts would be necessary. I had an action plan and we accomplished every step, but it was rough going.

From August to December, I presented a budget-and-facilities road show dozens of times and in every conceivable setting. I outlined each detail about the challenges and actions we needed to take immediately to correct the downward spiral. Every night for weeks, I was out in the community with the story.

At the end of January, just five months after I came to the school district, the board took action to implement scores of cuts that were downright depressing and terribly disheartening for our community. And we then started anew. Because the community fully understood our story and supported our efforts, we were able to pass a $90 million construction bond with 83 percent of the vote. Best of all, we were ultimately able to give district personnel the 10 percent raises their colleagues in neighboring districts had received.

The lessons garnered were enormous. I learned the importance of digging deep and gathering comprehensive, verifiable budget data; developing a clear plan of action with target dates; sharing bad news openly, sincerely and completely; and perhaps most important, following through and rewarding the collaborative effort.

Whole Child Focus
When I arrived in the Manhattan Beach, Calif., Unified School District, I discovered that the nursing team maintained an ever-growing list of medical professionals they could contact about specific student health issues — experts in adolescent medicine, asthma, diabetes, childhood obesity, orthopedics and a range of other specialties. A dedicated group of these medical professionals, who were also district parents, began meeting quarterly to assess district health policies and procedures and provide guidance regarding specific situations. Thus, the Medical Advisory Board was born.

This amazing panel was key to our work whenever health issues emerged, but its most significant contribution came the day we lost a popular student from a drug overdose. The entire community was shell-shocked following the death of this young man, and the Medical Advisory Board stepped up to provide the board, administrators, staff and the entire community the support they needed. Ultimately, a drug abuse prevention task force was formed and a multifaceted action plan instituted. We committed to doing whatever we could to prevent the loss of another student.

When I left Manhattan Beach to assume the superintendency in Irvine, Calif., one of the first groups that I commissioned was a board of medical advisers. As physical and mental health needs of children explode, the support of this board continues to be an indispensable component of our district’s services. Hundreds of hours of contributions, years of expertise and an unwavering commitment from this dedicated and committed team have reaped peace of mind for our staff and students’ families and, ultimately, greater security for our children.

Nirvana in Irvine
Irvine Unified, where I currently serve as superintendent, is a place where we never talk about anything other than getting better.
When I joined the school district two years ago, I discovered a district with a deeply rooted culture of values that drive every action. Well-crafted documents outline our core values of integrity, trustworthiness, collaboration, empowerment and learning, but there also is daily, visible evidence that these values are lived individually and exhibited organizationally. The strategic initiatives and the continuous improvement efforts that have been developed over time are remarkable. And we read them, study them and act accordingly.

This district has been created with great wisdom, depth and foresight, and its enduring reputation for excellence has been the result of significant time, as well as adherence to 30-plus thoughtfully crafted founding leadership principles. Organizations must strive for momentum, not stability. Outrageous expectations should be standard. Students must be the focus of all efforts. Leadership is contextual and will be found at all levels in the organization. These are not just pithy slogans; they are constitutional truths, practically woven into the DNA of this district.

Looking Back
Driving ahead, using only my rearview mirror as a guide, I find the joys of the superintendency are all around me. All these years later, I feel nostalgic, grateful and overjoyed that I was bestowed the gift of leadership, and I am especially honored and privileged to be the superintendent in Irvine, with its incredible legacy.

As I share my professional life with colleagues, I know there are many joys for them, as well. Sure, we’ve all had our setbacks and challenges, and more treacherous moments await each of us. But when you document all the joy associated with students — with kids — being your life’s work, your thoughts are rightfully nudged back into perspective. If you neglect to record the good memories, however, it’s all too easy to remember only the troubling times.

Poring through my funny file, I recently came across a letter from a student I knew while en route to my first superintendency in Hermosa Beach. She wrote, “I hope you have fun being superintendent. I am sad that you are leaving. On the first day as superintendent, you need to meet the principals of your new schools, pack a good lunch and don’t lock your keys in your car.”

Fortunately, I avoided the latter crisis, and it’s been quite a ride ever since.

Gwen Gross is superintendent of Irvine Unified School District, Irvine, Calif. E-mail: GGross@iusd.org