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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Full Meetings of Empty Calories

Wikipedia defines "empty calories" with the following words: "In human nutrition, the term empty calories applies to food such as solid fats or added sugars supplying food energy but little or no other nutrition. The USDA advises, "A small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy."

I have labored to endure a series of monthly meetings of a coalition that has mired itself in the consumption of empty calories that lack any form of nutrition. In other words, the members, though well intended, appear to measure themselves by the number of meetings they attend and the amount of words they deliver. They routinely arrive, address vague goals and undefined outcomes, dispense with updates on what their organization, watch the clock, and then bid each other farewell until next month.

The lack of cohesion toward a clear purpose and the meandering progress of the coalition have prompted my decision to invest my valuable time and energy elsewhere. I can't sustain myself on empty calories.

Go To Your Corner

The demands and challenges of school leadership, or virtually any leadership position, can be taxing. At times, the onslaught of people seeking answers, advice, or an opportunity to complain, can become overwhelming. Once emotional fatigue seeps in, subsequent decisions can be negatively impacted. Responses can be exaggerated, wrong, or emotional.

Before it reaches the stage of fight or flight, I seek refuge in an environment that has the potential to restore energy, reaffirm purpose, and return to equilibrium. It has varied from assignment to assignment, but it's always a welcoming atmosphere. It's usually been a particular classroom where a visit serves as a reminder of why we're involved in leadership, includes learners and teachers who are positive and constructive, and overall breathe life back into an otherwise deflated soul.

Among a few specific retreats within the building I work, one stands out. The kitchen is occupied by several women who are committed to providing nourishment for the bodies of our 400 learners in the form of two meals per day, and provide nourishment for the self-esteem of our 400 learners in the form of personalized communication featuring comments of recognition and acceptance. Both of these functions are exercised at high levels of performance. On top of those contributions, the kitchen staff members have a collective sense of humor and offer support through casual banter. They treat me like a person, not a boss.

As I thought of how the kitchen staff is a source of revitalization, I conjured up the image of the trainer and medical staff that jumps into the ring and supports a boxer during breaks between rounds of a boxing match. They provide the boxer with advice and encouragement. Similarly, the kitchen staff uses smiles, laughter, and personal stories (and a taste test of whatever meal they are preparing) to offer a brief respite from the daily work that often seems like the jabs and punches the boxer tries to dodge.

Who vs. What

We have recently been conducting search and selection procedures in an effort to fill a few vacancies and long term substitute positions. This process usually involves a number of different methods and people. Despite the time and questions and responses and ... the decision is reduced to the "who," as opposed to the "what."

That is, who the candidate is, not what the candidate is. The resume of the applicant reveals the degree status, schools attended, certifications held, work history, and often grade point average. To a large extent, this data, or "what," is very similar among all applicants. Each prospect must possess the required certification - which also correlates to a particular degree, and assumes a grade point average necessary to receive a degree. All teacher applicants have at least a student teaching experience, many have some experience (though not too much, because it means the candidate is sacrificing their seniority status in their current position, and it increases their expected salary at a time when most school districts remain operating under budget constraints).

What separates prospective employees is "who" they are and "who" they want to become. My experience leaves me feeling that the vast majority of candidates prepare themselves by emphasizing the "what," and enter the process lacking a description of the "who."

Board of Education Decorum

Recent actions evidenced by those casting ballots in Bennington, Vermont have been reaffirming. The results of the latest budget and Board of Education vote reveal support for the financial map outlined for the district, and a firm, collective voice for a new direction for the School Board.

Three incumbents were swept from their roles in a clear mandate that welcomed replacements with distinctly different perspectives. Together with an individual who was running unopposed to complete the remainder of the term of a member who had resigned several months ago, and these three new members, the majority of the seven member Board will be new to their positions. The fact that there were seven candidates seeking the three seats on the Board up for election was indicative of the toxic turmoil that had prevailed for too long at Board meetings. The people have spoken, and they want a re-orientation for the governing body that represent them.

The former Board was dysfunctional and entangled in a spider web of personalities that were either too strong or too weak. A casual observer at these meetings would leave thinking that the two most vocal members, strident in their opinions that were sprinkled about with impunity, were actually the Chair and Vice Chair of the group. Rather, it these formal leadership roles were actually in the hands of two well-mannered but docile members who sat by and acquiesced to the dominant pair that operated on a belief that whomever spoke loudest and longest would control the day. This was perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Board.

Members of the district's staff or public who did not share the views and beliefs of the two domineering Board representatives were often victimized by a condescending, or worse, a vitriolic dismissal in the form of a rant or rave, often accompanied by eye-rolling, finger wagging gestures of disdain.

Ah, but one person opted to adopt a firm stand and methodically articulated evidence of the hypocrisy of the Board's two primary mouthpieces, exposing them as bullies who assume that the speaker who expresses themselves the longest and the loudest prevails. The resistor's presentation was deliberate and delivered in a soft spoken tone before a large, supportive audience that had anxiously awaited such a rebuke of the pair of autocrats. He highlighted major points of the irreconcilable differences between his values and beliefs, and those of the most vocal board members. In addition, he faulted the Board for not delegating responsibility for instruction to the superintendent, follow appropriate policies (most notably, the district's anti-bullying policy, and the restriction that prohibits responding to questions at Board meetings that were not agenda related) of governance, Two separate standing ovations punctuated his speech, but quickly turned to gasps when he revealed his intent to resign his position at the conclusion of the school year.

Within weeks, the annual voting occurred and the community displaced three incumbents.