Fall is upon us, and brings new seasonal rituals. The start of the school year marks a time for greater regiment in family activities. Certainly this is the case for The Goldner family. The complexity of managing a tight schedule of sports, orchestra, and dance, rehearsals, and of course academics.
But this year started with a dark cloud hanging over our school district. One of the female teachers at the high school was arrested for engaging in sexual acts with five different 15-year-old students while on school property. Yes, you hear these stories all the time, but you never think it would occur in your town.
Last week was back to school night where parents get to meet the children’s teachers and briefly hear about the year’s curriculum and each teacher’s philosophy and approach. The evening started with a gathering in the auditorium with a brief speech by the principal. This was her first back to school night as principal. And while she appears as a petite mother next-door type, she has the power of a football linemen, the motivation of Steve Jobs, and the grace of a Lady Di.
After a few introductions, she immediately addressed the thousand pound gorilla in the room. She stated, “I have the pleasure of the most stress-inducing Back to School Night ever – that is, my first as principal. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, of course, such a night would be a milestone. But tonight, is more complicated for us as parents, teachers, and school leaders, as it comes at a challenging time for our school and larger community. The past two weeks at Columbia have been, as you know, not easy. We are saddened by the news from our building, and many of us – students, teachers, and families –have struggled with the loss of the happy anticipation that we started the school year with just three weeks ago. That sadness has been complicated by news coverage, by an ongoing law enforcement investigation, by social media, and by the struggles that we are experiencing personally and professionally as members of our school community around the arrest of a staff member.”
Lesson 1 – do not try to elude controversy that your entire target audience wants to be addressed.
She went on to state, “I assure you that we meet these challenges by committing to remain focused on teaching and learning and supporting all of our students. You have reason to doubt us – to doubt me – tonight. I recognize that. But I promise to you and our children – and our community – of which I have been a proud resident for 17 years – that the existence of that doubt only deepens my resolve to make Columbia the nation’s best performing high school – and I believe that is possible. We are already on that path. My belief that that is so is the reason I choose to work here.”
Lesson 2 – Not only make a challenge strengthen you and grow from it, but drive to make the end result even better for your audience that cares.
The principal continued, “The measurements of our students’ success – whether through GPAs, AP exam results, athletic, artistic, literary, and mathematical and scientific achievements, admission to top-tier universities and colleges – are the results of their, their teachers’, and your (the parents) hard work, and the conditions we create together to support their achievement. As you know, parenting is not for the faint of heart. Neither is teaching. We thank you for the work that you do to support your learners. When these impressive results are not being attained by all of our students – whether due to their family circumstances, academic conditions, disparities in our application of procedures or policies, experiences our students may weather outside of school that shape their daily lives inside the walls of Columbia – then it is incumbent upon each and every one of us, everyday, to assure that those outcomes are achievable and to eliminate any academic achievement gaps that exist. This is the work we are committed to at CHS.”
Later the principal asked for participation to make her audience part of the positive solution … “So I ask tonight for your commitment to me and to those who teach and work here to continue to work on building a culture at CHS that is collaborative and sustained by the education, skills, talent, and professionalism of our staff members, and the support and guidance that you give us. I ask that you work with us to show our students and your children by example that we are all part of the same team, with the same goals. We must work together, and not against each other. Though we may not always agree about decisions to make or steps to take, our mutual goals must be the success of all of our students. And our conduct, conversation, and communication with each other should always reflect these ideals.”
Lesson 3 – Rally your audience to participate in driving results you look to achieve.
The principal’s speech had many more excellent and inspiring statements, but I will skip to her conclusion where she said – “I will conclude tonight by promising you that we believe that all students are entitled to benefit from and achieve excellence in a Columbia High School in which race, family background, socioeconomic circumstances, or any other characteristic should not and will not determine a student’s experiences in a classroom, on a playing field, in how we manage school discipline, in how policy is implemented, or in how our students experience school and life in our building every day.”
Lesson 4 – Be totally inclusive.
OK – so that is four lessons I captured from our high school principal’s speech (and actions I fully expect to be carried out by her.) The last lesson is one of omission by her.
Lesson 5 – against popular claims, a leader should not be transparent. HONEST, yes. Transparent, no. Honesty means that everything you say and do has every ounce of truth and complete lack of deception. Transparency means that you are a complete open book. The principal’s involvement and participation in the ongoing investigation and case were not divulged and need not be. The principal’s plans for weeding out other “tenured” inadequate staff need not be discuss with her target audience. Politics do exist, to a very strong level, in our town’s school system. But it is time for her to use politics to her advantage to deliver winning results her audience demands. Transparency means that everyone sees everything in your strategy and plan – including the enemies or competition.
I will end by stating the following. Executives have an obligation to be leaders. Non-executives can also be leaders, but do not have that obligation. The bottom line is that successful businesses (and all organizations) need leaders that will truly inspire and lead. If you are a leader there are many more lessons to learn, but start here.
Make It Happen,
PS – If you would like to read the principal’s entire speech, you can find it at http://villagegreennj.com/schools-kids/great-pride-deepened-resolve-aaron-vows-chs-will-soar/ .