Former supts. praise K-12 leaders
June 29, 2020
Editor’s note: Former California Superintendents Rene Townsend, Walt Buster and Jim Brown wrote the following open letter to today’s education leaders in classrooms, schools, district offices and board rooms. Dear colleagues: As former educators with decades of service in California schools, we three recently discussed today’s educational leaders. Our continued involvement with public education and valuable connections with today’s district staff, board members, principals, teachers and support staff enable us to see firsthand the new world they confront and how they demonstrate the leadership skills we expect from those who focus on the needs of students, colleagues and communities. We strongly believe today’s leaders deserve accolades.  We note that, like most in charge of any institution, they face a divided and sometimes hostile environment of demanding and often harsh rhetoric about their work. Much more so than in our time, they face rapidly increasing demands and an insistence on instant response. Today, technology of every sort is in the hands of virtually every person with a connection to, or opinion about, education. As we have come to know all too well, the internet, social media, and an increasing polarization of our society present a whole series of new challenges to today’s leaders. The educational leaders we read about, observe, and personally know understand that they may have a title and hold a position, but the values they hold and the actions they take define the kind of leaders they are.  The ones we admire are not those who use leadership positions in self-serving ways or by taking actions that are destructive to the betterment of society. Instead we like to see the new generation of educators understand that inappropriate language, lack of appreciation of others, and a failure to demonstrate modesty create mistrust and cynicism in learning environments and the community as a whole.  When a crisis such as COVID-19, one of the largest to beset our planet over the last 100 years, confronts us, we see clearly into which category the people who try to lead us fall.  The good news is that we have recently observed and are gratified by the actions of our education leaders who have had to make very difficult decisions often without adequate time, information and resources. They then communicate their actions often using means that were not available to us previously. How they act speaks volumes about what good leaders do when they do the right thing: They keep their eyes focused on the welfare of students and our most important mission — teaching and learning. They demonstrate that good leaders must be ready for unanticipated events and be able to acquire new skills following in the footsteps of those who previously took courageous steps to make the world a better place.  In talking with each other during these perplexing times, we realize that we are grateful for the opportunity to serve in leadership roles in California school districts in prior years. We had solid mentors and colleagues who through their daily work taught us what good leadership was all about. They inspired us to stay focused on students and to help each one of them become a successful, productive, and contributing citizen.  Now we find ourselves fortunate to live in a time when we can remain part of educational organizations where we see this generation’s leaders consistently rise to new challenges.  They use new skills and strategies while simultaneously exhibiting the qualities of good leadership we have seen throughout history. We laud the efforts of those in every position they occupy in board rooms, schools and classrooms to support our learners with knowledge, wisdom, food, safety and support.   We recently heard from a superintendent in a large urban district about the challenges he faced in balancing the health needs of students and staff with limited resources and various opinions about the effectiveness of particular policies and actions. When schools closed due to the virus and hundreds of computers were distributed to students without computers, it became apparent they didn’t have internet  access either.  While considering how to open schools, there are those who feel the risk is too great, while others argue that schools should never have been closed. Then there are the controversies surrounding grading. Today’s leaders have to demonstrate the skills that have served well historically: empathy, patience, humility, compassion and the ability to act.  These characteristics and qualities serve as reminders that as much as today’s educational leaders adapt to crisis and change, they also draw on the lessons from past leaders who confronted major crises.  One such example was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led America out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II. His calm, reassuring fireside chats and willingness to develop new social and economic structures even in the face of strong opposition made a huge difference in many lives. Likewise, his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member in our history, never worried about her image but stayed focused on building the systems that sustain us to the present day. Abraham Lincoln put together a “Team of Rivals,” thus demonstrating the importance of reaching out to your critics and emphasizing teamwork and collaboration. We note that the educational leaders we observe build teams based on need, not their own egos. They bring in people with diverse views and do their best to create a common voice for positive change. Sometimes unanimity is not possible, but the resulting decision is stronger by having heard diverse opinions. Leaders like Frederick Douglass not only taught us to listen, collaborate and build coalitions but also that there is a time to take decisive action. We are impressed by the courage of today’s leaders to openly address racial injustice, gender equity and generational poverty in more assertive ways than in the past. We fought for these issues and now see them being called out strongly in strategic plans, ongoing communications and, most importantly, in the classroom. Rhetoric is replaced with specific actions and limited resources applied to areas of greatest need. Budgets are being built to serve those who have been neglected far too long. Here in our own state, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta taught us the importance of undertaking what started out as an unpopular cause but became a movement, one that called the country’s attention to the plight of those workers who through their intense labors every day, make it possible for the rest of us to eat. They showed us that if leaders are persistent and patient in addressing the inequities around us, their efforts will make a difference. Their counterparts today are leaders in the classroom, school and district who stress that issues of equity must be addressed and resolved if we are to help every child be successful.   To those of you leading in today’s underfunded and sometimes unappreciated educational environments, what we appreciate most of all is your honesty and integrity. You remain the face of the districts and schools for all learners and are models for staff, students and community. We are grateful for your thoughtfulness and openness to dialogue, new ideas, collaboration, equity, fairness and open communication. What we find most encouraging is that you operate as transformational leaders with truth and ethics.  You admit it when you don’t know but also pledge to find out. This is an admirable skill that we find missing too often in today’s complex political environment. We sorely need inspirational leaders like you who lead, take chances, obtain and provide feedback, take responsibility, and communicate clearly.  Thank you for your steadfast message that we do not pit people or groups against each other, but rather acknowledge we are in this together and only together we will succeed.  We want you to know that you are respected and appreciated. Thank you!
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