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  • Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

Listening to TED
October 31, 2011 - 8:16am

At our annual Board of Education retreat, this year’s session began with a TED Talk segment on leadership.  Ted Talk is a well known non-profit organization whose goal is to highlight “Ideas Worth Spreading,” and this particular segment featured a discussion on leadership led by Simon Sinek, an author and speaker who focuses on leadership.  For Mr. Sinek, the key to success for a person or a product, is to focus on understanding “why” something is needed, and only subsequently focus on what is to be done and how it is to be done.   Mr. Sinek indicates that, rather than first designing (for example) a 12 point program to deal with an issue (which is certainly an example of what we are doing and how we are doing it), we should focus on fully understanding why an action is needed.  In other words start with a clear indication of what we are trying to accomplish.  What is our purpose, what is our cause, what is our belief?  And a few of the examples Mr. Sinek provided dealt with the goals of Apple Corporation as well as those of Dr. Martin Luther King.

I have indicated previously that I am a school board member and have also indicated that this is a difficult time for public K-12 education.  Tax caps and increased unfunded mandates severely limit what we can and can’t do, and this is compounded by the reality that both tax caps and unfunded mandates are likely to remain in place for a long run.

I believe that there is one key “why”  that informs and guides school board members and school administrators and explains why we exist.  And absent that key “why,” we are in a real danger of losing sight of the forest because of the trees. The “why we do what we do” for us as school board members, especially in a time of constrained resources is to best meet the educational needs of the greatest number of school kids given the resources we have available.  Within this context we can move on to consider the what and how questions: do we limit elective choice or increase class size or both; do we substitute on-line learning (run jointly with other districts); should enrichment programs be curtailed; do we reduce the athletics program or do we reduce the arts program or do we do both; do we reduce the number of languages offered; and finally should we reduce administrators.  By and large, not pleasant choices and by and large, the preferred response would be “none of the above.” It just won’t be possible going forward to choose this alternative.  The resources for all but a few districts simply will not be enough.

In a time when members of the public should and will be lobbying hard to preserve what each of them feels is the most important ingredient in the education of their kids and when the available resources just won’t make it possible to please everyone, it is especially important that our educational leaders are guided by how to best serve the needs of the greatest number of kids. Our reason for existing is clear.


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