“I Wouldn’t Want Your Job”
In the early 90’s Ohio was experiencing a much worse than anticipated winter. I was a school superintendent and ended up cancelling classes for over twenty days. Games were postponed, events scrapped, and people for most of two months remained largely huddled in their homes trying to cope with unrelenting bad weather. In this pre-Internet era, there were state legislative arguments on how days should be or could be made up. Extend hours each day? Extend days into summer? Cancel spring breaks? Everyone had an opinion. I remember going to a grocery store and a lady whom I didn’t know approached me and asked, “Are you the school superintendent?” After I said yes, she shared her views about what she thought I should do and added, memorably, “I wouldn’t want your job.”
“I wouldn’t want your job” is the clarion call for leadership. When others say that about you is when they need your leadership most. I mean, if it were easy, anybody could do it. And COVID-19 is providing challenges for government, business, education, and healthcare leaders that are anything but easy. Today’s school leaders are trying to provide learning paths that accommodate parents who are fearful about sending their children to school as well as those who want to send kids to school with safety protocols in place. Included are staff members who are fearful to return to school to those who can’t accommodate student remote learning using hyper charged technology tools.
Add to that complexity the difficulty of transporting students safely, serving lunches, and protecting each other against the spread of the virus. Thinking about not just the academic needs of students but the toll this is taking on their social-emotional needs as well. Can primary literacy really be taught remotely? Who will watch children if parents go to work? What happens if a student or staff member at school tests positive for the virus? You get the idea. You don’t have to drink a gallon of milk to know it’s spoiled. This is why this is a “I wouldn’t want your job” moment for school superintendents.
How are local education leaders responding in a sea of noise from federal and state leaders? With myriad paths for students and parents. With empathy and understanding because those leaders live in the communities in which they lead. With common sense but not risk-free solutions. They don’t have time to tweet, appear on national news channels, or simply offer opinions. They are too busy doing the actual grunt work of leading—deploying safety measures for an uncertain future, assigning staff, contracting third parties for specialized services, listening to parents, getting technology to those who don’t have it, supporting new innovations, etc. Doing the job that nobody wants.
I’ve never been prouder to be a retired school superintendent because of these current day folks. Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many of them as they make plans, not speeches. As they take action, not continually debate. As they demonstrate compassion, not callousness. As they decide, yet remain flexible in light of new information.
Former CEO Max De once said” The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.” These school leaders today want this job, represent servant public leadership at its best and, thank God for all of us, they do. Someday, sunset will fall on COVID and we all will be left with lessons. The pain of all this will be temporary but the pride forever. Thank you to our education leaders who are stepping up to take and do well the job nobody wants to do.