Several years ago, during the recognition of TASA Honorary Life members, a superintendent was walking across the stage when Commissioner of Education Robert Scott stepped to the microphone. He said, “You know, you have been superintendent of the same school district for several decades. Why don’t you say a few words about what it means to you to be superintendent for so long.” The superintendent was caught off guard a bit in front of several thousand people. Wearing a cowboy hat, he stood in front of the crowd, both hands in his pockets, and he paused for several seconds before saying, “Well, the best I reckon, it’s just one damn thing after another.”
He then exited the stage — a proverbial mic drop. He brought down the house.
I recall that moment quite vividly, and in fact, when I was a superintendent, it became a running joke with my board. Whenever we were dealing with some sort of challenge, someone would say, “Well, it’s just one damn thing after another.”
But that was in normal circumstances. I don’t know what words can be used to describe the current situation, but I doubt they can be printed. Even in the best of times (which those were), the role of a superintendent is enormous … almost unsustainable. Pressures come at you from all directions, and much of what you deal with is out of your control. Nonetheless, you take on the challenge because the rewards of making a difference in the lives of children, your staff and the entire community are profound.
These are not normal times. Today, you are dealing with at least two crises that are unprecedented in our lifetimes. COVID-19 is a public health, education, human and economic crisis. And you are in the center of it. During the upcoming year, you will have to make countless decisions, and each of them will be fraught with controversy and peril. There will literally be no way to appease everyone.
Meanwhile, the long history of racism and inequality in our nation, as well as the recent killings of George Floyd and other Black citizens, have led to large protests across the world. We have hard work to do in our society to end racism, injustice and inequality, and our public schools have an important role in doing just that. This crisis will also land on your doorstep, and the decisions you make will be scrutinized.
Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who safely crash-landed a commercial airliner in the Hudson River said, “You’re not a pilot till you lose an engine.”
The same could be said about school leaders. You aren’t a leader until you deal with a crisis, and this is a humdinger. Leaders are not defined by the good times; they are defined by how they respond to a challenge.
Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t be the leader we now love and admire had he not faced the greatest of adversities and held our nation together through a civil war. Every decision he made was fraught with controversy and division, yet each one was made with the intent of saving our nation. Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t be a national icon if it weren’t for leading a movement against pervasive injustice; and, chances are, Rosa Parks would be unknown today if she hadn’t shown quiet courage in a crisis. Likewise, Winston Churchill would not be the leader we know without the bombing of England and his famous words, “We shall never surrender.” Crisis reveals leadership; and crisis provides an opportunity for leadership to shine through.
One of the perks of being executive director at TASA is that I have gotten to know countless heroic leaders in Texas schools. Surely, there is no profession that has such a wealth of wise, courageous, mission-driven community builders like those in school leadership.
This year is going to be a mess. You will be damned if you do and damned if you don’t in every decision you make. But this is the time for you to stand tall, be confident, believe in yourself, and make the best decisions you can to serve your students, staff and community.
As you deal with these crises, it is critical that you stick to your values and beliefs about what is right, that you lift up others in our profession, and that you take both physical and emotional care of yourself.
This is your time.
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