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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Value of Empowerment

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

We, We, We

Horace Mann Junior High School in Amarillo, Texas labored beneath the weight of evidence that consigned it to an educational scrap heap. If you measured any aspect of schooling you would barely find a pulse. It was commonly considered an albatross among the district’s forty-seven schools. There was evidence of gang activity within the building. In addition to learning the names of the nearly six hundred teens in the school there were many who had street nicknames that were valuable to know as well. Guns were confiscated every now and then. 

False addresses were given by newly enrolled students bent on breezing into the city to expand their drug trafficking business. The school had a cooperative relationship with the city police department which provided part time services of an officer at the school as a liaison. There were a few girls in the Junior High School that were pregnant. There were a few girls suspected of pushing tricks.

I was asked to become the principal of the school. In two years, as a result of an inspiring staff and committed learners and parents, it made strides in virtually every measurable component of effective schools research. More importantly, it also experienced success in many areas that couldn’t be measured. As a result of the perceived dramatic transformation the school attracted the attention of the media. Word spread of the school’s accomplishments. The success was further acclaimed because the school had been the downtrodden anchor of the district. It was a much maligned secondary school that had been fraught with the social and economic ills that plague too many learning institutions tucked away in the shadows of the inner city.

I was lucky to be the principal of the school. I was sitting on a gold mine. Beneath the dull veneer of the
school was a treasure of experience and energy waiting to be released from the benign neglect that had shackled the staff and learners.

By the end of that first year together we had received a growing amount of positive coverage by the media. The turnaround also attracted the attention of the public as well as colleagues from the other seven junior high schools. We were infused with increased confidence. Every correlate with effective schools research manifested a significant increase in performance. The success snowballed. The final chapter offers specific information on this overall effort.

I was surprised to receive a nondescript looking letter in the school mail one afternoon. It was cloaked in the type of envelope and unfamiliar address that would normally relegate it to the trash. For some unknown reason I opened it. The contents gave rise to suspicion of a prank being cast upon me. It claimed to be a philanthropic organization wishing to grant me a check for $3,500.00 for “your leadership ability that has inspired Horace Mann in a pursuit of excellence.” (O’Brien, 1988) 

I shared the letter with the assistant principal and we tried to figure out who would be capable of such a
joke. Finally, we decided to call the number on the letterhead. It was legitimate. The John and Mary O’Brien Foundation wanted to recognize and reinforce the leadership traits they felt were associated with the progress at Horace Mann. In fact, they had arranged a press conference to announce the award. I was stunned.

To put this in perspective, the amount of the award was nearly 8% of my salary at the time. Our family of four could always find something to do with the money. However, after indulging in fantasies of spending the funds, my wife and I made a simple decision. We never expected the money. I was just doing my job to the best of my ability, something that should be standard in any working relationship. I was not solely responsible for the sudden improvement at the school.

In fact, I would describe my role as one similar to the Wizard of Oz. Despite the perception people had of him wielding magical powers, after Toto pulled the curtain open the Wizard was exposed in reality as a small, unassuming man who helped people discover skills they already had but weren’t conscious or confident of. 

That is all I did.

Therefore, my wife and I decided to redistribute the money. The amount was split evenly among various formal groups within the school that represented the entire population. The Parent and Teacher Organization, the Student Council, and the school’s Shared Decision Making Team each received a fourth of the money. I accepted a fourth as well.

This decision, when revealed at the press conference, did nothing for my relationship with my peers. Several principals thought I was crazy and felt that if the award was ever given again it would put pressure on future recipients to follow suit (to my knowledge the award has not been given to any other principal since that time). Nonetheless, I received one of the great benefits of empowerment. The more you share power the more influence you receive. Or, as I once heard it stated over a cup of coffee, “Power is the only thing that multiplies when it is divided.” Waterman contends that a crucial lesson in managing is: “To be a true leader, you need to give up control in a narrow sense in order to get control in a much broader sense.” (Waterman, p. 31)

Virtually the entire staff of Horace Mann was in attendance at the televised press conference. After I explained that I was not alone in facilitating progress at Mann and informed them of the decision to redistribute the money, they honored me with a standing ovation that was worth much more to me than the money. The long term benefits of their support would outlast anything the money could buy. In addition, their involvement in the difficult work of improving the school made the demands of my professional life more palatable than any remedy that could be obtained with that money.

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