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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dawn Hochsprung and Moral Courage

I never had the good fortune to really know Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, though we all know of her now because she was among the innocent victims of an unimaginably heinous mass shooting yesterday. However, on a different level I feel as I do know her. She was a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Sage Graduate School in Albany, New York. I completed the program there just a few years ago. So did Dr. Janice White, former superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District who was a member of the same cohort. Janice has retired from school leadership and is an adjunct professor at Sage. She was interviewed over the phone last night by CNN’s Anderson Cooper because Janice instructs a class in which Dawn Hochsprung was enrolled. The focal point of that class is moral courage and leadership. I also experienced that class and read the same books and engaged in comparable discussions on values and convictions, meanings and missions.

All of the classes in that Sage leadership program require projects and presentations that demonstrate an understanding and application of concepts and skills. Dawn not only demonstrated what moral courage means, she displayed her commitment by making the ultimate sacrifice while exercising responsibility for those she served.

Yesterday morning, immediately after hearing the “pop, pop, pop” of what proved to be gunfire, Dawn and two colleagues (the assistant principal and the school psychologist) burst from the conference room where they were attending a parent meeting, and ran in the direction of the sounds. The assistant principal crawled back to the room wounded; Dawn and Mary Sherlach were later found dead. Who knows how much time passed between the point at which the shooter saw these two staff members and the time he raised his automatic pistol and proceeded to kill them in cold blood? Perhaps a matter of seconds. But, those seconds proved to be a precious amount of time to others who were scrambling to find refuge from an unknown assailant. One can only conclude that in their attempt to intervene in a crisis, these staff members saved others from a similar fate by giving them more time to react to the threat and hide.

Imagine that you are a parent or teacher and acting as a member of an interview committee at your local school. Your task is to hire the best candidates for a vacant staff position. However, you have to choose between two separate options: either a person devoted to obtaining medals for test scores; or a person dedicated to confront the scores of tests of their mettle. Which one do you pick? I firmly believe that before you can lead improvement in test scores you must be able to prove the test of your mettle. Once you have earned the trust, respect and credibility that form moral leadership and thus develop the political and social capital and integrity required for successful change efforts, then the performance rates will increase, but the reverse placement of those two qualities will not necessarily produce the school climate where I would enroll my son or daughter.   

Now, I’d like to share an essay I wrote that was published in the "Harvard Desktop" about schools and crisis following the tragic consequences of the terrorist acts of 9/11 that I believe is as relevant today as it was eleven years ago.

Opposite Directions

It was perhaps the most conflicted of any week in a career that spans two dozen years as a principal. Never before had I experienced such a wide sweep of the emotional pendulum in such little time. The difference between the beginning and the ending was tragically brief, 94 years separated by a matter of days.

On Saturday, January 5, 2002 I attended the 100th birthday celebration honoring the great grandmother of one of our kindergarten teachers. That was the first time I had ever met a centenarian and she readily qualified as the oldest person I had ever known. Three days later, I was informed that a six-year-old kindergarten student in our school, had died. He was the youngest person I had known who passed away.


The tiny elderly woman bounced around, almost as aimlessly as a pin ball in an arcade game, as she shuffled from person to person and posed for photographs. Her movements had the same effect that directors obtain by conveying speed in films through slow motion. I had seen her several times at school when she came and played an astonishingly active role in assisting her great granddaughter with class parties. She helped shepherd the kindergarten children about the varied activities without a trace of discomfort or inconvenience. It was truly amazing and inspiring.

At the party, a display of mementos highlighted her life. The front page article in the local paper that day called attention to her 100th birthday and chronicled her migration from Hungary, along with other personal accomplishments. It was surrounded by faded and yellowed photographs of the past, various newspaper clippings heralding special occasions associated with her life. There were countless other artifacts. The most interesting piece of the collection was a copy of her driver’s license, which listed her birth date as ’02, predating cars and before anyone imagined the turn of another millennium and the resulting confusion computers would have with another ’02.

The hall was festive and full of people. Most of them were members of a vastly extended family that stretched from New York to Alaska. They were renewing connections that had withered by separations measured in time by calendars. I could see people of all ages, from newborn babies to the 100-year-old honoree. The occasion provided a human landscape that an anthropologist could examine with the same delightful intrigue of a paleontologist investigating fossil-filled rock formations. Mixed in were people like myself who shared interests and acquaintances with the woman somewhere along those 100 years. There was her doctor, the mayor of the small town where she resided, fellow senior citizens, friends, and neighbors.

The diminutive woman, perhaps no more than four feet six inches, hustled about fueled by the adrenaline and excitement of such a special event. She was the center of attention and absorbed the notoriety, transferring it into energy that allowed her to scurry about the room and among her well-wishers. She shook hands, received pecks on the cheek, and posed for countless photographs. Her smile broadened with each flash, her eyes sparkled with every kiss.

It was a remarkable ceremony that left me in awe of everything she must have experienced, from Orville and Wilbur Wright to Neil Armstrong, from World War I to expansive military conflicts too numerous and frequent to assign Roman numerals. The perspective afforded her by virtue of living 100 years is unbelievable and profound.


However, I would soon feel the shocking reminder of the frailty of human life, a life that would only experience six birthdays, six Easters, six July Fourths, six Thanksgiving Days, six Christmas Days, and six New Years Days. 

The phone rang in my office at 7:30 that morning. I recognized the name of the caller as a mother of two children enrolled in our school. Her voice was weary and her words fragmented. She volunteered that she was speaking on behalf of her neighbor and, in a tone that grew noticeably more morose with each breath, she reported that the boy next door had died just hours earlier. The boy’s Down Syndrome condition had fatally exacerbated a viral infection. She explained that she was serving at the request of the parents and alerting the school of the tragic incident.

There have been few surprises in my lengthy administrative career. This was one of them. I spoke without thought and only measured my words after hanging up the phone and attempting to recount what had transpired. Somehow it didn’t seem believable or official, yet it was hardly something to question.

I assembled the office staff who had trickled in while I was on the phone. I closed the office door and explained what had happened. We agreed that our primary focus in replying to this terrible situation was to maintain our composure and pursue a course of action in concert with the values and beliefs that have governed our school culture. We decided to exercise the same constancy of purpose we had enacted following the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. That approach was articulated in the memo issued September 12 to the staff, and re-created below:

This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test and concern ourselves with the test of our mettle.

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow.

Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion.

When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.


We easily found the church, despite never having been in the tired-looking industrial town that hugged the Hudson River. The bulbous dome that capped the Ukrainian Orthodox Church stood above the run-down brick factory buildings. That dome, plus the lengthy trail of parked cars that flanked the street, beckoned us to the right location.

The word somber does not describe the emotion that blanketed the gathering of people brought to this small, nondescript spot of earth for the expressed purpose of extending a saddened, tearful goodbye to the young boy.

We stumbled past the grief-stricken gauntlet of people who stood motionless on the sidewalk and made our way into the church. The pale and aged exterior of the facility disguised an interior of bright azure walls accentuated by icons splashed with gold. The Russian letters, except for a backward R, were familiar, but the combinations of jumbled consonant and vowel arrangements they made left the words foreign. There were a number of older people who stood along the walls and encircled those seated in the pews.  These parishioners spoke with appropriate accents and followed the prompts of the priests and the choreography of the church rituals.

No matter the age and background of those present, the common denominator among the crowd was the focal point of their eyes. The small casket that was placed on a table at the front of the main aisle was a magnet. Of particular attraction was the size of the coffin. I had never seen a coffin so small. It was a startling reminder of the child’s short life.

The route to my heart was navigated by a sense of sound that was overwhelming. A stooped, older man sitting in the front pew with gaunt cheeks and puffy red eyes distinguished himself as the boy’s grandfather by his weeping as much as by his age. He seemed forlorn, and desperately willing to trade places with the small grandson he had outlived, unlike the expected path of successions of generations. The plaintive wailing of the grieving mother resonated throughout the small church, engulfing those who came to say goodbye to the child. Cantors, although chanting in a foreign tongue, expressed themselves in the universal language of loss and grief, with dirge-like tones and depressing rhythms.

The length of the ceremony was extended by the use of English and Russian languages to convey faith based farewells to the six year old. An hour later the congregation moved from the church to the next phase of the funeral, ushered to the cemetery by state police cars. The tombstones announced rows and rows of eastern European names. The somber, wind-swept cemetery was bereft of color save the green carpet, mimicking grass, that covered the mound of dirt from the excavated site of the grave.

It was soon over, after a few shovels of dirt were ceremoniously tossed upon the casket prior to lowering it to its final resting place.

While newspaper headlines splash plenty of ink across the land with tales of questionable practices and woeful test scores, the events of this week reinforced that schools are in the business of providing care, first and foremost. This essay is not meant to diminish the significance of academics and the responsibility of educators to effectively deliver instruction. Instead, it asserts that the fundamental basis of schooling exists within the following adage –

People don’t care about what you know, until they know that you care.
Dawn Hochsprung really cared.

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