Leadership 101 -- John Stanford's Book
Again and again, former Seattle schools Superintendent John Stanford, who lost a battle with leukemia last year, talked about the key ingredients of leadership: love and vision. In this last excerpt from his book, he explains his philosophy.
Most people don't expect a general to talk about love. But we talk about love all the time, because love is a key leadership principle. Love is what the most famous military commanders use to inspire their troops to risk their lives in battle. It's what the most effective CEOs use to elicit maximum performance from their employees. It's what the best parents use to encourage their children to learn and grow. It's certainly what teachers and principals must use to get academic performance from their students. And it's what superintendents must use to lead their districts to achieve their visions.
Unfortunately, what I've found in the world of education is that most school districts don't have a vision that lives. Instead, after years and years of trying, and being beaten up, most school districts have essentially become dormant. They no longer believe that change is possible. They no longer believe that every child can learn.
My first year in the district, I went to several education conferences, and at every one, a superintendent took me aside. "You know, John," he or she would say, "you are new and too naive about the business of education. You must understand two things: one, that the School Board hired you to fire you; two, that you better start looking for someplace to fall."
What they meant was that no one - not my School Board, not my staff, not even my community - expected me to succeed. They seemed to share a common belief that there are no solutions for public education.
Now, I don't mean that those superintendents didn't want their children to succeed. They did! They and their administrators, principals and teachers were working incredibly hard to make that happen. But their strenuous and well-intentioned efforts were being sabotaged by an undercurrent of defeat. It was as if they were bound by a "culture of the Purple Heart," a culture in which they expected to fight hard and get wounded rather than fight hard and win.
This culture is endemic in public education. Educators have been persuaded that a child's social condition is a determinant of learning, and they carry this belief into the classroom. As a result, when homeless, or poor, or single-parent children begin to fall behind, they are allowed to slip rather than be held to the higher standards that have been set for their more advantaged peers.
This isn't intentional; no qualified teacher would knowingly let his or her students fail. But given the bleak circumstances of the children's lives, given the fact that many of these children fail time and time again, given the appallingly limited resources available to teachers in our public schools, it's easier to accept that the fault is in the child or in the family or in society as a whole than to believe that the responsibility and power to make change is in the schools.
The only way we can defeat the "culture of the Purple Heart" is with vision backed up with belief. When educators stop believing that change can't happen and start enthusiastically envisioning how it will, we will begin turning our schools around.
Find the child's strengths
I knew from the Army that all people don't excel in the same way. Time and again, I'd seen soldiers in training for one specialty moved to another if they didn't have the skills to make it in their chosen field. The Army found a way to work with the individual's strengths in order to help that person succeed. Well, I thought, schools need to be encouraging, flexible and accommodating, too. All our children can excel at something; our job is to find their strengths and then work with them until they succeed.
There was also another reason I believed we'd have to offer more than the basics. As I watched the children in our district, with their expensive sneakers and their logo-emblazoned clothes, as I listened to their conversations about computer games and MTV, as I thought about the world that some of them came from, a world of gangs and drugs and the illicit excitements of the streets, a world of 24-hour-a-day entertainment, I realized that for our schools to be successful, we would have to compete for our students' attention. If we wanted to reach them, we'd have to offer subjects they found meaningful and relevant. We'd have to use computers, videos and the Internet to create dynamic learning environments that matched the high-tech pace they were used to.
The burden was on us. If we wanted all our children to learn, then we would have to change the way we taught.
What I began to imagine was a different kind of school; not a school that focused on the basics with a sprinkling of art, music and sports on the side, but a school where a wealth of nontraditional experiences was integral to what and how the children learned; a school where students would study painting, music, dance and drama and then use those skills to demonstrate their understanding of history and literature.
How could we offer such a range of programs? Obviously we couldn't if we had to do it by ourselves; it would cost a fortune and we were losing $35 million. But we didn't have to do it by ourselves! The reading campaign had shown us that we could use the community to bring excitement and relevance to the schools and have an impact on student performance. Why not engage our community's strengths to make this expanded curriculum possible?
`Love them and lead them'
Sometimes I imagine the year 2050: I imagine a group of historians gathered at a table, discussing the world powers of the past. They mention the Incas, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Soviet Union . . . and to this list they add the United States. Why the United States? When was American supremacy lost? It was lost, in my fantasy, at the turn of the 21st century, when we failed to educate our children.
As an Army general, I had intimate knowledge of our nation's most pressing external dangers. Now, as a public-school superintendent, I see that the internal threat to our nation's survival is every bit as great. But we need not succumb. With a new kind of army, a citizens' army, we can win the battle for our schools. A community that is mobilized to help its schools is an unbeatable force. That's all it takes to create the public schools we need.
America, our children are waiting and we must not disappoint them. Let's all love them and lead them.
From the book "Victory in Our Schools: We CAN Give Our Children Excellent Public Education," by Maj. Gen. John Stanford.
Copyright 1999 by John Stanford. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
------------------- How to help schools -------------------
John Stanford's efforts to improve Seattle schools were tightly linked to the work of the Alliance for Education, a nonprofit, business-based support group established not long before he came to Seattle.
In his book, Stanford wrote, "The Alliance is our fund-raising partner, our vital link to the business, government and nonprofit communities, our purveyor of outside resources and our research and development lab all rolled into one."
The organization provides a number of ways for the public to support the city's schools, from volunteer activities to financial gifts or contributing expertise.
"Many school districts have nonprofit organizations that `adopt' a school, raise money, or help with school district governance," Stanford wrote. "The Alliance differs from those organizations in that its work is broader. Its purpose - like everything else in the district - is to support academic achievement, to ensure that all students learn."
For information, contact the Alliance at 206-343-0449.
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.