Saturday, July 29, 2000

School leaders

Aspiring educators must learn realities

By Krista Ramsey
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One lingering myth in education is that — parTEE! — everybody gets the summer off.

        In truth, many teachers and administrators are far more likely to walk out their school doors the first week of June and onto a college campus the next.

        Among that group, perennially, is the next crop of school administrators. Summer is the season when teachers turn into principals, and principals turn into superintendents. Both moves were never gutsier than now.

        Why would anyone want the hassle, people are likely to ask. Who would take a job where every resident is your boss, every one of them has an idea how things should be run and many of their solutions begin with firing you?

        Few people are better prepared to answer such a question than Gary Payne. For 14 years, he served as superintendent of Wyoming City Schools, a district known externally for high achievement and internally for high expectations. Dr. Payne, a no-nonsense, no-excuses leader, had no small hand in that.

        For the last nine years, he has been an associate professor of educational leadership at Miami University, the only school in the state whose educational administration programs were rated “exemplary” by the Ohio Board of Regents. At Miami, he tells would-be administrators to be “brave and bold,” ready to keep a crazy schedule and a calm head, and prepared to run a school more like a good family than a business.

        In Dr. Payne's class, the myths come crashing down. “Many students come into the program feeling that, as superintendent, they're going to have the power to do all the things they couldn't do as principal or assistant principal — to fix all the problems they've seen in the district.” He smiles a fleeting smile. “That's not very accurate at all, as they quickly see,” he says.

        “Power,” he wants beginning administrators to understand, is always preceded by the adjective “shared.” He is frank. “There are people in schools who don't believe that the schools belong to the community,” he asserts. “They believe they are the educators, trained for the role and that they know best what the students need.”

        That kind of thinking, he says, “tends to blow up in their faces.”

        Today's successful leaders know they must create a “shared vision” of what a good school is and does, he says.

        Easy to say, tough to do. And never done by sitting inside the superintendent's office. Gary Payne smiles the fleeting smile again. He well remembers 14 years worth of monthly neighborhood coffees and weekly senior citizens lunches in Wyoming.

        Which leads him to three bits of advice for aspiring superintendents:

        • If you're the kind of person who likes to arrive home every day at 5 p.m. and resents having to go out in the evening and believes Saturday and Sunday are personal time and shouldn't be infringed upon, don't seek the position.

        • If you don't like working closely with other people, don't seek the position.

        • If you're not strong enough to make decisions that you don't want to make but you know are in the best interest of your students, don't seek the position.

        Gary Payne knows who is left after those conditions. He knows those brave souls who still believe schools can be wonderful, still count teachers among their heroes, still love children enough to demand the best of them and for them.

        To them, he says welcome aboard, hold onto your desk blotter. The adventure is about to begin.


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