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Monday, March 14, 2016

The Wizard of Smiles

There have been two distinct instances during my lengthy administrative career when I had to reach deep down inside myself to identify the core of what it means to be a school leader. First, as I met with the parents of an incoming Kindergarten learner to review data following the registration process, the child looked up at me and asked, "What is a principal?" Second, as I prepared a high school graduation commencement speech for a class of learners I had watched grow from Kindergarten through Twelfth grade.

There are job descriptions and assessment instruments that define expectations and responsibilities of a school principal. So, the role is not difficult to articulate. But, while the adjectives and terms may suffice for those involved in education, the real question and resulting response must be presented in a manner that is meaningful for the consumers - the learners and parents who receive services from the principal. Therefore, jargon and degrees do not constitute an acceptable reply that a child or parent can digest.

I found the thought process to be similar to reducing fractions to their lowest terms. Eventually, I arrived at an explanation for the inquiring Kindergarten. "I'm the director of smiles for the school." I went on to state that as I welcome all of the children each morning at the school entrance my duty is to check for smiles and, if I discover someone without a smile, I would check on the youngster to determine what took their smile away and to develop a way to return the smile to their face. I offered some examples; a lost lunchbox, someone teasing the child, a problem at home,.... and indicated how I and other adults working at the school would replace any frown with a smile. I concluded my discussion by pointing out that I also station myself at the exit at dismissal time and check to make certain that every child leaves school with a smile, or intervene and explore a way of recovering their smile. Perhaps, I suggested, they had difficulty with their math assignment, or a misunderstanding with a staff member, or....

That summed up, from a child's perspective, what we must accept as our essential role. Serving the "whole child" by being attuned to the social-psychological-physical-emotional-intellectual needs of each individual. We can't successfully 'teach them' unless and until we can 'reach them.' We must pledge ourselves to integrating individuals into a sensitive, responsive, and inclusive learning environment that respects each and every one of them.

I stumbled on the words I wanted to use to express my appreciation for the 13 years, 2,340 days, and 15,210 hours comprising the odyssey that the high school graduates were completing on commencement day. I was proud of their collective accomplishments, their endurance, and their commitment. But what did I actually contribute to their progress? How did I help shape their development over the years?

The answer came to me as I thought of one of my favorite examples of leadership - The Wizard of Oz. Now, I acknowledge the wizard was misleading and certainly purported to be someone he really wasn't in real life. But, after Toto pulled away the curtain and exposed him as an ordinary man seeking to perform extraordinary feats, his work become more understandable. That is, when he was confronted by the angry travelers, each seeking something magical from the Wizard, he apologized for his lack of magical intervention and instead carefully explained how the Lion found his courage fighting off the flying monkeys; the tin man found his heart when he agreed to accompany and support Dorothy; the scarecrow discovered his brain when he cleverly thwarted the diabolical efforts of the Wicked Witch; and Dorothy always had the power to return to Kansas, simply by clicking her shoes together. In other words, the Wizard did not exercise skills or magic in bestowing the travelers with added qualities. Rather, the Wizard helped them by showing them what they already had. He didn't add anything to them, he provided the conditions that revealed their inner qualities.

Michelangelo was once asked how he carved such warm and compassionate figures out of a cold slab of marble. He replied that instead of imposing his vision on the subject, he just chipped away at the stone and liberated what was already inside. That's what effective school leaders should adopt as a goal when supporting learners.        

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