Reframing the Path to School Leadership, Bolman and Deal
A Talk About Values
His Wednesday breakfast meeting with Brenda Connors was the most sacred item on Jaime Rodriguez’s calendar. As their relationship deepened, both had come to value their own two-person support group that served as vital nourishment for mind and spirit. Over time, they delved ever more deeply into issues that principals often recognized but rarely voiced.
On a particular Wednesday in February, only a few weeks after the weekend retreat, Rodriguez wanted to talk about values. He had grown up in a family that put a strong emphasis on doing the right thing. His parents always had clear answers to every question of right and wrong. Now that he was a school principal, things often seemed fuzzier. “Somewhere I heard that the difference between management and leadership is that managers do things right and leaders do the right thing,” he mused. “That sounds good, but how do you know what the right thing is?”
“Doesn't it come down to what you believe in and what your values are?”
“Sure, but that’s what I’m trying to sort out,” replied Rodriguez. “It’s easy to say that I’m committed to education for all children. I really believe that. But I’ve been thinking about some of the tough situations I was up against last year. What made them so hard was trying to sort out conflicting values.”
Brenda smiled. “You figured that out a lot quicker than I did when I was a young principal. Value conflicts are the real struggles. That’s when it’s real hard to tell the difference between a ball and a strike. It’s like shifting from being an umpire to being a philosopher.”
“I’ve been thinking about an article I read that talked about four important values in education,” said Jaime. “Excellence, caring, justice, and faith. I like all of them, but they’re often in conflict.
“The first value, excellence, is one that we always hear about. Our job is to help kids achieve as much as possible. In terms of that, the role of the leader is like an engineer or an architect-diagnosing how things are working and figuring out how to do it better.”
“I’m all for excellence, but how can you champion mediocrity?” Brenda replied. “But I worry when that’s the only thing people focus on. A school is not a factory. We’re dealing with people, not widgets.”
“That’s why the second value is caring. It’s the whole idea of schools as families, that people have an obligation to care about one another and to look out for each other’s welfare. At its deepest, it’s the whole issue of love,” said Jaime.
“I like that,” Brenda said. “It fits with the idea of the leader as servant – that my job is to understand people’s needs and concerns, and to serve them as well as possible by building a caring community.”
“But then sometimes you run into a conflict between caring and excellence. Maybe that’s what I was wrestling with in dealing with Sam Shepherd. I didn’t like what he did with kids, but I still wanted to treat him with respect. If I’d hurt him, it would have set a bad example for everyone else. I was caught between caring and excellence, and I had to find some way to balance them,” said Rodriguez.
“That’s exactly what you did,” Brenda responded. “But where does justice fit in?”
“Well, as I understand the article, the basic idea, of justice is fairness. It’s like the statue of the blindfolded goddess with the scales. People have a right to fair and equal treatment. In dealing with Shepherd, it was important to be fair to him and to the students.”
“That makes sense. Maybe the newsletter is another example. You felt that people didn’t care about you, and they felt that you didn’t care about them. Maybe the deeper issue was justice: They felt you weren’t being fair. Like when Leckney said you were favoring the Chicano teachers.”
“These things are really complicated,” said Jaime. “Everything is layered on top of something else, and a lot of times different layers are pitted against each other.”
“Was that true for the discipline issue, too?”
“Probably. On the one hand, we were trying to do what’s best for children, so it was an issue of excellence. But we were also trying to balance the interests of teachers, parents, kids, and others. It wasn’t going to work unless people felt that the process and the product were fair.”
“But I think there’s even another layer. Maybe this is where that fourth value comes in. You could say that the whole process was a ceremony in search of a cultural anchor for your school community. You wanted something that everyone could believe in. The search for justice was also a search for faith.”
“In a way, that’s what my whole first year was about. That’s what I think I was trying to do with my vision speech last fall. Teachers need to believe they make a difference. We both know a lot of teachers who burned out somewhere along the line. Education is so tough, and the rewards are so intangible: It’s a challenge to keep the faith, particularly when so many people are bashing schools and teachers.”
“Jaime, that’s the most important thing a principal does. Keep the faith, so everyone else doesn’t lose theirs.”
“Sounds right, but I sure had some moments of doubt this past year.”
“We all do. Every year. But the longer I’ve been a principal, the more I’m convinced that a principal has to be a spiritual leader. We have to help people recapture the meaning of their work, and we have to talk about the things that touch their hearts. Remember the Fiesta de Pico? When the Pico faculty anointed you as their new principal, I got goose bumps. When you’re dealing with a generation of children in a school, every day should give people goose bumps.”
Passing the Torch
Joan’s promise reverberated on the drive from the hospital to her apartment. When she arrived to an empty apartment, she had an impulse to call Larry, just to have someone to talk to. But she resisted, remembering how rarely Larry had understood her dedication to teaching. Instead, she picked up Tracy Kidder’s book and started to read the final chapter again. As she drifted off, the last few sentences kept replaying in her mind. “She belonged among schoolchildren. They made her confront sorrow and injustice. They made her feel useful. Again this year, some had needed more help than she could provide. There were many problems that she hadn’t solved. But it wasn’t for the lack of trying. She hadn’t given up. She had run out of time.” (Kidder, 1989, p. 342)
It was still dark when the sound of her telephone woke Joan the next morning. Startled, she looked at her clock to see that it was only 5 A.M. She was almost afraid to answer. Her worst fears were confirmed when Jaime Rodriguez said, “Joan, she’s gone.”
“Margaret? Oh, God, no! What happened?”
“They aren’t sure yet. The operation and the chemotherapy took a lot out of her, but even the doctors were surprised.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Joan, crying softly as she spoke. “I saw her yesterday. She looked tired, but I never expected this.”
“I’m planning to have a brief school wide assembly this morning. I think we should tell everyone at once. I’d like to say a few words and then have a couple of teachers talk about her. I’m hoping to get someone like Phil Leckney or Vivian Chu – someone at Pico who’s known Margaret for a long time. Bill Hill will be great because so many of the kids know and trust him. I also wanted you to say something, because I know how close you and Margaret have become.”
“I don’t know, Jaime. I’m not sure I can do it. I might just stand up there and cry.”
“I’m not sure I can do it either, but I figure as the principal, I have to give it my best. I’m pretty sure that if there’s anyone Margaret would want up there, it’s you. You’re the last person who saw her alive.”
“That’s why this is so hard to believe.” She was crying softly as she spoke. “But you’re trying to do too much too soon. Have the assembly today, but make it brief. We need more time to plan the right way to remember Margaret.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Rodriguez agreed. He went to work to plan for a brief assembly. Joan began to think about how Pico could celebrate Margaret’s life.
The news of her death had spread quickly. There was hardly a sound as students and staff filed into the auditorium later that morning. The mood was somber. Only a few muffled sobs punctuated the heavy silence. Rodriguez was calm and controlled as he made the brief announcement of Margaret Juhl’s death. He informed them when the funeral would be, and when visitors could pay their last respects. He also announced that Pico would hold its own memorial assembly the day after the funeral. “And now,” he said, his voice beginning to crack, “let’s make the rest of the day just what Ms. Juhl would have wanted it to be – a day when everyone learns. That’s the highest tribute we can pay to a teacher we all loved and admired.”
Many staff and students sat in silence for a few moments before slowly moving to the aisles. The only noise was the shuffling of feet. The usual din of conversation gradually picked up as people moved back to their classrooms. At the end of the day, several teachers remarked that even though students were subdued, they seemed focused and eager to do their best.
On the day following the funeral service at Largren’s Mortuary, Pico held its own celebration of Margaret’s life. Jaime Rodriguez and members of the Pico Pride Pack had spent hours planning an event that would mirror Margaret’s importance to the school. But without her steady hand and unflappable spirit, the planning process had little of the joy and humor always there in the past. Everyone felt her absence, but it spurred them on to work with more intensity and focus than ever before.
Pico’s memorial service was comforting, moving, and uplifting for everyone. Before it started, Joan Hilliard felt almost like an emotional wreck. Yet as she began to speak, the words flowed. Steadily, smoothly, and straight from her heart. Only after sitting down did she see the visible signs of her impact. Staff and students were in tears all over the auditorium. It was then that Joan herself began to feel the full force of what she had said.
As the service drew to a close, Joan’s mind wandered back to her first days at Pico and especially to the day that Margaret first came into her classroom, just after Roscoe and Armando had destroyed her day. She beamed through her sadness as she reviewed how far she and the school had come since then. She thought about Roscoe and how well he had been doing in Margaret’s class before she died. Just as she began to wonder how well Roscoe would cope with Margaret’s loss, she saw him enter the room with Heidi, Armando, and several other students pushing a wagon toward the podium. Perched unsteadily on the wagon was a large tree, its burlap wrapped root ball hanging over the sides. As the entourage approached with its swaying cargo, Joan’s eyes met Roscoe’s, and she noticed the tears rolling down one of the largest grins she had ever seen on his face. It was different from the mischievous grin that she had seen so many times in the past. This was the earnest, self satisfied look of someone who was confident he had done something really right.
The tree was not in the script, but a smiling nod from Phyllis to Rodriguez was the only signal he needed to welcome the group and invite them to the stage. To Joan’s astonishment, it was Roscoe, not Heidi, who came to the microphone. His words came out in a confident tone. “Ms. Juhl is going to heaven, but we don’t really want to give her up. So we students took up a collection and bought this tree. We want you all to come outside with us, and watch as we plant it in front of the school and water it. That way, we can keep Ms. Juhl’s spirit with us and remember what she done for us.”
Heidi Hernandez followed Roscoe to the microphone and read a poem that she had written. It was about a teacher who planted seeds of learning every day. All the seeds began to grow into beautiful plants, each different from the other. Over the years, so many plants grew that no one could even count them, but everyone could see how much more beautiful the world had become. Joan tried unsuccessfully to hold back the onrush of tears, but gave up as she noticed that she was not alone.
As she left the auditorium, Joan was approached by a man wearing the kind of dark suit that she associated with lawyers and bankers. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’m a former student of Margaret Juhl. She was the best teacher I ever had, and she made a big difference for me. I just wanted to thank you for the eulogy – it meant a lot to me.”
“Margaret meant a lot to me, too,” Joan replied. There was something about the stranger that felt very comforting to her, and she wondered who he was.
“Have we met before?”
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “I’m Steve Riley. I’m a lawyer in Rosehill, and I do some work for the school board.”
“Of course,” Joan replied. “Margaret told me about you. She was very proud of you.”
“It was herself she should have been proud of. I was a pretty confused kid when I came into her class. Anyway, thanks again for what you said. Maybe we can get together some time, and share reminiscences.”
“I’d like that.” She hoped he meant it when he promised to call.
“Where did the years go,” Jaime Rodriguez asked himself, as he was about to begin his sixth year as Pico’s principal. His mind had begun to wander as he sat in the first principals’ meeting of the new school year, half listening to the associate superintendent’s announcements of new district policies. His thoughts floated over Pico’s past five years. Being recognized as a school of excellence had been an enormous satisfaction to everyone at the school. But he felt even more gratified at how far he, the staff, and the community had come. Just then, his thoughts were interrupted when the associate superintendent asked, “Why are you smiling? Is there something funny about this policy?”
“I guess I was admiring all the work you put into it,” Jaime responded. The associate superintendent droned on, and Rodriguez returned to his memories. This time he thought about Brenda Connors and what an important force she had been in his career. She had retired and moved to Florida, and Rodriguez often thought about how much he missed her. If she had been there, he would have expected a note under the table complimenting him on his quick recovery. He thought about how much of her wisdom had been incorporated into his own philosophy. Just then, his eyes wandered down the table to Sandy Dole, the new principal at Hillview Elementary School, only a few miles from Pico. She definitely was not smiling. She seemed to be losing a difficult struggle to follow every word in the associate superintendent’s presentation. More than anything, she looked plain scared. Was she feeling the same way he had five years ago?
At the end of the meeting, he made a special point of pulling her aside. He introduced himself and asked her, “How’s it going?”
She paused, gulped, and stammered, “You want the truth?”
“Well,” she hesitated, then plunged ahead. “I'm buried in paper. The school secretary quit two weeks before I started, and we still don’t have a replacement. Classes start next week, and I’m short two teachers. I’m not sure I’ll make it through the week.”
Jaime felt a wave of nostalgia. Smiling warmly, he said, “That sounds pretty much on target for your first week. I felt the same way my first year at Pico. How about a cup of coffee?”
Two weeks later, Joan Hilliard found herself sitting with a new teacher, Francesca King, on the carved wooden bench by the oak tree in Pico’s Margaret Juhl Patio. It was a beautiful September day, and Francesca had asked if they could meet somewhere away from her classroom. Joan automatically suggested the patio – whenever she went there, she felt Margaret’s presence.
As Francesca started to talk, it was clear that she had wanted a setting well away from the chaos that had been her classroom that day. When Joan asked, “How's it going?” Francesca’s words tumbled out in an almost frantic stream.
“It’s going downhill fast. My class is out of control, and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m afraid I’m in over my head. Maybe I should quit now before it gets any worse. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, but I never thought it could be this tough. I’m working day and night, but I’m still losing my class, and my love life is going to hell. I feel like I’m drowning!”
Joan smiled as memories of her first encounter with Margaret flooded back. “This tree is beautiful, isn’t it? It was planted here six years ago in honor of a wonderful teacher, Margaret Juhl. She was my best friend. “Joan noticed the puzzled look on Francesca’s face and went on. “You’re probably wondering what that has to do with you. At about this point in my first year as a teacher, 1 was ready to quit, too.”
“That’s hard to believe,” Francesca protested. “People say you’re one of the best teachers here.”
“That’s where the tree comes in,” said Joan with a smile. “I wouldn’t have made it through the first term if Margaret Juhl hadn’t taken me under her wing. Tell me about your day. If we put our heads together, we might be able to figure out some ways to make it a little easier.”