Leadership

by Jean Swearingen, August 7, 2013

A few months ago my older son came to visit me in Ukiah en route from Oregon (where he had been living for several years) to southern California, where his younger brother lives, and where he has since moved. During that time, I took advantage of his offer to drive me to Davis to help me sort through boxes of “stuff” from my two storage units, eliminate a substantial amount of it, and consolidate the two units into one. One of the items that I located in the midst of that process was my brother’s 1958 (the year he graduated from eighth grade) AV Junior/Senior High Argus yearbook. Pulling out my copy of the February 13th AVA, I had a great time comparing the photos on page 5 of the members of the first group who spoke at the AV Historical Society’s Roundtable on Sunday, the 10th, to their photos in the yearbook, envisioning their younger counterparts engaging in all of their many “extracurricular activities,” the details of which they shared with the audience members at the event, which I was fortunate enough to attend.

It has occurred to me that now, 55 years after graduating from AVHS, having achieved elder status at age 73, these individuals, at least some of whom, I’m sure, have watched their children and perhaps even grandchildren graduate from high school, would be in a unique position to serve in an advisory capacity, as one component of a general community advisory committee, to assist with mitigating some of the issues preventing AVHS from being a higher-performing school. I recognize that the Valley in particular, and education in general, has gone through a lot of changes in the past 55 years, but I don’t believe that is any reason to discount the contributions of its elders, at least some of whom, obviously, have remained in the Valley while these changes were occurring.

My knowledge of the current school “climate” (for lack of a better word) at AVHS is restricted to only what I have read about it in the AVA, and since I am not a Valley resident, and have not been for 54 years (when I was far too young to know much about what was going on at the high school, even then), I can only respond from a more general educational perspective, as a high school graduate, the parent of two high school graduates, a former teacher in three different high school special education programs, and a graduate of the educational leadership program at CSU, Sacramento. The instructor in one of my first few classes there had two favorite pieces of advice for beginning administrators, neither of which, I suspect, were his original quotes: 1) “Choose the hill on which you want to die,” and 2) “It is always better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” I’m not sure how either of these applies in particular to the current change in leadership at AVHS, but they have both given me a lot to ponder.

During the two years (1997-98 and 1998-99) that I taught fifth grade in Stockton (a district that struggled for years with under-achieving schools), I also participated in the district’s Aspiring Administrators Program, one feature of which was the opportunity to listen to presentations given by several district administrators. One of these was delivered by one of the vice-principals at the middle school across the street from the elementary school where I was teaching, who stated that one of her greatest challenges was being promoted to an administrative position at the same school where she had formerly been a teacher, and thus being put in the position of supervising and evaluating former colleagues. When I asked her how that ultimately affected her relationships with them, she replied that as long as she viewed her role as that of being in service to her entire school community, and her former colleagues recognized that she was there to assist and support them, their relationships continued to thrive, even in the midst of the change in the nature of their dynamic. That seemed to me to be the most succinct and appropriate definition I have ever heard for the most important quality of an effective administrator at any level — to “be in service to the entire school community,” and all of its stakeholders, including not just students, staff, parents, administrators, and elected officials, but everyone in that community with a vested interest in the school’s success.

As far as my own interpretation of the two pieces of advice that our instructor shared with us, I believe that “choosing the hill on which you want to die” refers to the inevitability of the fact that regardless of the locale, situation, or general school “climate,” every administrator will have days during which he/she will feel extremely effective, just as there will be days during which he/she will want to chuck it all for a management position at Wal-Mart or Costco. You don’t get to choose whether or not your critics voice their opinions about your effectiveness (or lack thereof), you only get to choose how you respond; whether you perceive it as a vicious attack or as a construc-tive “opportunity for improvement.”

What the other piece of advice conveys to me is that, as the school’s leader, you have to trust your own judgment enough to be willing to take some risks in terms of relying on your own instincts to institute changes geared toward improving student performance. In the end, that’s what all of the stakeholders really want — they want the students to be happy, safe, and successful. Once those three conditions are met, it is inevitable that a “trickle-down” effect will occur; parents will be able to relax and focus on other aspects of their lives, teachers and other staff will feel that their work is valued and appreciated, and all of the other stakeholders will feel like part of a winning “team.”

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