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Monday, August 29, 2016

Looking Inside

Noted psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his research on what he referred to as a hierarchy of needs among humans. Wikipedia explains this theory: "Maslow described human needs as ordered in a prepotent hierarchy—a pressing need would need to be mostly satisfied before someone would give their attention to the next highest need." 

The ultimate level of satisfied needs is reached and satisfied when an individual meets their potential and is considered "self-actualized." Maslow later suggested that a person who becomes self-actualized is not necessarily someone who has been the recipient of qualities added along their path in life, but rather someone who has been free of obstructions and has not had qualities taken away.

My lengthy career as a school leader leads me to suspect the staff of a school has a similar, collective arc. That is, for a staff to meet their potential as a team, they must not depend on someone or something contributing additional resources to their effort. Instead, their progress is aided by the absence of interventions that sap their energy, distract their vision of a preferred future, and misdirect their route to reaching their mission.

As the principal of Molly Stark Elementary School I adopt the manner depicted by the Wizard of Oz at the end of that famous film. No, not the part whereby the Wizard projects himself as a larger than life figure with mystical powers. I fashion myself the type of leader he reveals himself to be when confronted by the disappointed travelers who yearned to reach the Emerald City and obtain the ability for Dorothy to return to her native Kansas. It was when the Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy reacted with anger at discovering that the Wizard was in fact a simple, ordinary man who had enlarged his status and power, misleading them into undertaking an arduous journey beset by wicked witches and flying monkeys - all for nothing!

That's when the Wizard revealed his true power - a power we all have. The power of insight, empathy, optimism, and belief. At that critical point in the story, the Wizard explains how the Lion, who was searching for courage in his quest on the Yellow Brick Road, had possessed that attribute all along, and demonstrated it when he fought off the threats of the flying monkeys. The Tin Man, looking for a heart, had also displayed evidence that he already had a heart, and exhibited it when he committed to helping the lost Dorothy seek her way home. The Scarecrow joined the group, convinced he had no brain but the Wizard explained how the Scarecrow already had a brain and proved it when he helped outwit the Wicked Witch. And Dorothy? Well, she already had her ticket home in the form of the ruby red slippers she wore on her feet the entire trip. All she needed to do was click the shoes together.

The Wizard performed one of the most valuable of leadership skills when he helped others see what qualities they already possessed. He didn't have to add anything to the growth of individuals to help them reach their potential. They were not dependent on him to imbue them with additional skills or knowledge in order to meet their goals. They just needed someone to hold a mirror up to them and reveal the existence of their potential. With that, it was amazing how ordinary people working together could perform at extraordinary levels.

That's my task at Molly Stark Elementary School. It is a charge that I have accepted at each leadership position throughout a career that approaches forty years of experience as either a principal or superintendent. It's a responsibility I embrace because of the satisfaction gained while observing people discover their identity and optimize their capacity. It's a rewarding journey.     

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Role of a Teacher

Robert Fulghum remains one of my favorite authors. I recommend his work to everyone (check out his facebook page and his web journal). His books are a series of collected essays and observations that are amusing, profound, and thought provoking. I can't recall exactly which book contains this particular narrative that forms the basis of my Blog entry today, nor can I commit to the exactness of my memory, but I can remember the essence of the story. Here it is:

One such experience that Fulghum shared with readers involves a class taught by a wise professor who closed a lesson by asking if there were any questions. A member of the class attempted to upstage the teacher and steer the lesson off course with levity by asking about the secret of life. 

The sage instructor reached in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. From within his wallet he gently extracted a small shard salvaged from a broken mirror. He held it aloft and redirected the sun that peeked into the classroom and cast the reflected light into a darkened corner of the room. The professor explained that when he was a young boy in Greece during the second world war, he discovered a dead Nazi laying on the road next to a wrecked motorcycle that the soldier was riding when he was shot by a member of the resistance army. 

The boy picked up a piece of the shattered motorcycle mirror and saved it. As the boy confronted life in a war torn country littered with the vestiges of death and despair, he struggled to make sense of life. While contemplating the trauma of his life he found that by manipulating the mirror and capturing rays of light he could bring light to darkened areas. 

That was the secret of life - how humans have the capacity to enlighten, with hope and dreams and projections of what could be. That is my challenge as a school leader. Bringing light to those shrouded in the darkness of doubt and despair. And, that task begins tomorrow when 400 learners open the school year by filling a building short on space and long on promise. A school that has been under-performing and mired in misery associated with low expectations, burdened by assumptions and perceptions of demographics, stereotypes, and surrender.

In researching the school and Bennington prior to applying for the vacant position of principal at Molly Stark, I came across a quote attributed to General John Stark, commander of American forces in the area during the Revolutionary War. On the eve of a battle that would prove to be critical in preventing the British from reinforcing their troops in Saratoga, thirty miles away, Stark declared - "There are your enemies, the British and Tories. They are ours, or else this night Molly Stark (his wife) sleeps a widow." That was a clear commitment to the goal of victory. He would win, or he would die trying.

As I addressed the staff of Molly Stark Elementary School days before the start of another school year, I echoed Stark's words, though with far less sacrifice. I stated - "There are our enemies, doubt and despair. They are ours, or else Molly Stark will have another principal in two years." 

I concluded that if achievement levels did not rise (according to the website, School Digger, we are currently the 172nd ranked elementary school among 175 in the state of Vermont) then I would accept that I am not the right leader to guide our improvement and would step aside so that someone more skilled can replace me and breathe life into the hopes and dreams of the children at Molly Stark.

We'll see....

Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine

The last three days of professional development activities have provided me with several opportunities to engage with the staff at Molly Stark Elementary School. The staff is impressive, and the members reflected a desire to inspire. These experiences were productive and served to cultivate the direction, scope and meaning for our collective efforts this year. We will make magic, meaning, and memories on Monday when we open the school year.

A teacher asked me why I chose to accept the position of principal at Molly Stark, rather than search for a role at a more accomplished school. My response echoed a remark made many years ago by one of my heroes, Thomas Paine. Paine, the author of many profound essays that sparked the spirits of Americans during the revolutionary war era, such as "The Crisis," was confronted by Benjamin Franklin's statement - "You will find me where you find liberty." He responded by saying, "You will find me where there is not liberty." Paine was committed to liberating those who were oppressed and denied freedom. In fact, after spurring on the populace in America with his passionate and patriotic words Paine went to France and promoted the efforts of the French to overthrow the ruling monarchy.

My career is a documented path of work designed to elevate the performance of under-served school populations burdened by low expectations, depressed levels of confidence, and untapped potential. The prospect of experiencing success and observing the personal growth that emerges from improvement is motivational. It's an exhilarating experience that I look forward to celebrating with our staff in the not so distant future.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

That Back to School Feeling

The "Back to School" sales advertising is fading as we near the approach of the opening day of school in Bennington this coming Monday, August 29th. That first day is always accompanied by surging optimism associated with the start of another year. Children boast new "school clothes" outfits, hair styles, and shoes as they amble into school armed with notebooks, pencils, and backpacks full of hopes and dreams for the future. There is a collective sense of renewal as staff and learners alike begin again with a clean slate and restored energy, anxious to meet each other and develop relationships. The "newness" is exhilarating.

This is my forty-first start of a school year. I love the feeling of the first day of school. It recalls the positive spirit that emerges just prior to Thanksgiving and seems to have an emotional shelf life that expires as soon after New Years Day as most resolutions. During the holidays, there appears to be more positive interactions among people. People are more patient and cheerful, more accommodating and generous. 

I've often heard others remark wistfully about how nice it would be if that attitude prevailed throughout the calendar year instead of just around the holidays. I maintain the same hope regarding the impact of the first day of school. Why can't we pledge ourselves to sustain the hope and optimism, and the renewal and excitement of that opening day - throughout the entire school year?