Thursday, November 18, 2010
Myths And Mission Possible
As a sixth grader I was enrolled in a unique program that featured readings of the classic Greek myths. I was captivated by the tales of Gods and mortals, and their battles of weapons and wits. So when I have a chance to reach back and use a myth to clarify an issue, I take advantage of the opportunity. I want to emphasize the value of a school's mission - the reason for being, the purpose and meaning of the institution.
What does the venerable "Bulfinch's Mythology" and the early 1980's groundbreaking business best-seller "In Search of Excellence" have in common with school leadership? The synthesis of the two provide an interesting perspective for school leaders regarding the importance of the value and belief system embodied in the mission of a school.
Although Greek mythology has escaped the attention of reading assignments in educational administration many people have been exposed to the work of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman and other writers over the years who have provided insightful examinations of value systems and culture in organizations. Many of the books of this genre have found that virtually all of the excellent companies were headed by leaders who developed a value set and reaffirmed it with a deep commitment. As stated in In Search of Excellence:
"Let us suppose that we were asked for one all purpose
bit of advice for management, one truth that we were able
to distill from the excellent companies research. We might
tempted to say 'Figure out your value system.' Decide what
your company stands for." (p. 279)
What does our school stand for? Are the actions of our staff, in particular the leader's, consistent with what is espoused as the guiding goals for the school? What are the values and beliefs of the school?
Karl Scheibe says, "What a person does (his behavior) depends upon what he wants (his values) and what he considers to be true and likely (his beliefs).
How does this relate to school? Let's look at the results of two different studies that investigated schools and school leaders. David Dwyer of the Far West Laboratory for educational research and Development conducted a study of the roles of leaders in instructional management. One of his findings illustrated the significance of the leader's belief system, personality, and previous experience in forming a sense of focus for effective schools. These leaders consistently acted upon the direction established by determined values.
John Goodlad, in "A Place Called School," noted the discrepancy that too often exists between the pronounced goals of a school and what actually happens in practice. Most schools, for instance, claim to prepare creative, independent learners. It is a noble target we frequently miss because our actions fail to reflect a firm conviction toward this goal. Goodlad cited the example of a teacher who assigns a book report to students and accepts the report even though they knew it was lifted word for word from a book. This reinforces a behavior in opposition with the stated goal.
An effective leader must utilize his or her position to express the mission of the school by presenting a pattern of acceptable and appropriate values and insure that the activities of staff members are reflective of this attitude. Live the ideology of the school in a visible manner. Create a vision of what you expect the school to be and work with everyone toward attaining that mission.
And now, a message from Greek mythology that will summarize our message. Antaeus was a giant wrestler. He lived in a hut beside the road and compelled all travelers to wrestle with him. He was the son of Mother Earth and was invincible as long as he remained in contact with her. Therefore he always met with victory. The he constructed of the skulls and bones of his victims attested to his ability.
One day Hercules came walking by the road. He had no way of rejecting the required wrestling match to the death. No matter how many times Hercules threw Antaeus down on the ground he got back up with renewed strength. Not long afterward Hercules perceived the relationship between Antaeus and Mother earth. Hercules then proceeded to lift the giant off of the ground and strangled him.
If our organization departs from the mission, and supportive value and belief system, it may suffer a fate similar to that of Antaeus when he was disconnected from the source of his strength.
We must consistently provide evidence of what matters most. Mere lip service, without supportive and demonstrative proof, does nothing but erode integrity and invite skepticism. Actions count, deeds matter. If you don't observe sufficient evidence of that through my behaviors as superintendent then our efforts will dissolve and our credibility will be lost.
We expect to nurture an organizational culture at Heatly that promotes growth, sustains hope, and nurtures dreams. We value relationships and interaction, care and compassion, communication and a sense of community. If we can manifest those qualities then our performance levels will rise, as well as other measurements of effectiveness. It's not a myth, it's a mission that is possible.