The mountain before us does not impede us from our destination — it is the solution.
It is no secret that Steve Jobs embraced may tenets of Buddhism. Although I am a Christian by practice and belief, as a principal I saw much value in the ancient wisdom written in the ancient verses of the Tao. One of the concepts of eastern philosophy that I found particularly helpful to me as a leader was the idea that the solution to most problems was realized when the leader embraced the authentic reality of a problem as being one and the same as the solution.
Think of it this way: What if our planet were threatened by an enormous astroid? We could try to blow it up and break it into small parts, but we would still have to contend with meteorites striking our planet and causing harm. The reality of the problem is not so much the asteroid, but that the asteroid is being pulled toward our planet by gravity. Were scientist to position an opposing mass near the asteroid and then used the natural gravitational pull between the positioned mass and the asteroid to shift the trajectory of the asteroid enough that our planet was spared a collision, the problem for us is resolved peacefully. This proposition can be used as a corollary to help us examine and solve educational problems.
Too often, whether it be low test scores, poor attendance, teacher moral, or community disengagement, school leaders focus the majority of their energies in trying to eliminate what they perceive to be a road block to a solution that they have identified as an educational goal. This type of thinking is only beneficial if the goal one has in mind is to drive those who are working on the solution insane. It is akin to trying to hold back the ocean tides in the middle of a hurricane. Metaphorically speaking, rather than building more dikes and storm walls to combat rising waters, the innovative leader builds boats or moves the people to higher ground.
In the world of education I can think of one particularly good example of how the problem and the solution are integrally tangled together. The progressive and creative leader understands the futility of forcing children living in poverty to attend more remediation classes or giving them longer school hours; instead, they respond by creating schools that engage children so thoroughly and creatively that the students then find themselves being pulled upward by their own intrinsic curiosity and desire to explore. Literally, children in schools that partner with the natural gravitational force of a child’s innate desire to learn find their students rising to the occasion of success in boats of their own making and therefore freeing themselves from the ravages of poverty and social injustice.
Families living in poverty and beaten down by institutional social justice are not complacent or naturally accepting of their situation. Perceptive educators use the reality of these conditions to become the kindling that ignites the thirst for self-improvement and self-actualization. In order to do this successfully, leaders must be willing to rethink their organizational mindsets and beliefs and be willing to expand their thinking in a way that illuminates the reality of who they serve. With this mindset in place, teachers can develop and implement new and innovative pathways to success and education. Leaders must be given the mandate to creatively reimagine everything their school does and begin the process of working with the community to create life-rafts and floating ladders that are accessible to everyone in the murky waters of economic and social disparity. Solutions that may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, more often than not are the only solutions that can bring resolution.
The answer to the question, “What would your school district be doing differently if Steve Jobs were your superintendent?” is “We would be changing the world and making it a better and more beautiful place for everyone.”
In 1997 when I was hired by The School District of Riverview Gardens, I told my new Superintendent, Dr. Chris Wright, that they had just hired a dreamer. She laughed and told me I would get over it. I remember looking her in the eyes and telling her in a matter-of-fact way, that I wouldn’t. And I never did.
I didn’t go into school leadership to become a principal. The truth is, that was the last thing I wanted to be. However, I did want to change the way schools were operated and the way they engaged neighborhoods, teachers, parents, and students so that the overall effect of education would be to create a system that empowered everyone with whom the system touched. Like John Dewey, it is my belief that the primary agency of schools is to foster democratic decision-making through both practice and intent. Just as the monolith in the novel 2001 was a vehicle that initiated self-awareness, the school system should and can be a place where students and parents experience becoming empowered individuals who learn to impact their immediate environment and the world at large for the better. Conversely, and just as importantly, these learners also comprehend how the world and those who live and have lived in it speak and act upon them as well, both directly and indirectly. Effective education creates and empowers learners to live in a harmony that frees individuals from the slavery of isolation and helplessness and equips them to communicate fluently with their own inner selves and the world in which they live; all balanced by a reciprocality of influence where the learner understands that not only does the world influence the learner but that he or she is capable of influencing the world as well. As Paulo Freire stated, this become the new definition of literacy.
I was eager to work as a principal for Dr. Wright because of something she stated in a class I was taking at Saint Louis University. She was the adjunct instructor for my Personnel class and I remember her telling us the story of how she came to work as the superintendent for The School District of Riverview Gardens. At one point during the interview, the board asked her how they would know that she was the right candidate for the job. Her answer was remarkable, “Because the property values will increase.”
What makes this bold statement all the more remarkable is that Riverview Gardens was in an area in North Saint Louis County that had been devastated by white flight, crime, and gang violence, all in a matter of a decade. The outgoing superintendent had been in charge for 29 years and decay was rampant throughout the school district. The school district, which was composed of cities that had long seen their prime come and go, was barely able to stay afloat. But here was this woman, the human resource assistant superintendent for the Ritenour School District, a district with a similar history, promising to create a place where everyone in Saint Louis would want to send their children to be educated.
It was clear to me that her vision was one of boldness and possibly extreme hot air. But what did I care. Under her direction and working with her as a partner, I knew that no matter how big I dreamed, I would have to keep up with her. And did I ever have to take big steps.
In the four years that I was there, I watched every part of that school district reimagine itself and in the end, become a regional leader in how education services were provided. There were many failures during that time, but when we succeeded, did it ever taste sweet.
I can’t imagine being a school leader and doing anything less than dreaming large. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet,
“To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause……
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
What dreams may come. This is why we go into education and this should be the main reason we become school leaders. Education is the breath that gives life to humanity's dreams. It provides fuel to mankind’s hopes and ignites the possibilities that become the enterprises of innovation and creativity. This noble field deserves and demands leaders who engage those that they lead to climb higher mountains then they thought possible and see the world from a more elevated vantage point then they could have imagined was possible.
So my answer to the question, "What would you do differently if Steve Jobs was your superintendent?" is this: I would create a school district where teachers and parents were set free to dream dreams of of a peaceful world without end and the students were inspired to have visions of unyielding and unlimited successes! The mechanics of how this would happened are not important for in truth, they would be detailed in the partnership of the work and love produced by each and every teacher in each and every classroom. More importantly, the teachers, parents, students, and their leaders would be unleashed and set free to create and follow the road that was and is best for each learner!
Why this blog?
The Tao of Douglas Sexton
The Third Way
For nearly two decades I have had the privilege of teaching various educational leadership classes. To my amusement, one particular cohort of teachers collected many of my off-hand quips and compiled them in what they called, “The Tao of Dr. Sexton”. On the last day of class, they stood up and gave me a standing ovation and presented me with many of the sayings found on this list.
By itself, this list of thoughts and ideas have no earth shattering truths in and of themselves. It is my belief, founded through my own observations and experiences, that while there are indeed certain truths that are self-evident and unalienable, such truths, void of the context experienced by human beings, are for the most part without meaning and have no instructive value. It has become my conclusion that our universe exists to be observed and to be interacted by sentient beings whose individual and collective awareness provides context, purpose, and meaning to even the most smallest of the fundamental laws that govern our world. Stated in more simple terms, while the facts of a matter may speak for themselves, the truth of a situation is often difficult to perceive because it can not and does not exist separate from the context in which it is found. In the end, this list of sayings, thoughts, and ideas is my attempt to create a way - a tao (so to speak) that helps clarify and guides me to the truth defined by the context of life's challenges and struggles. The end result being that as a leader and a follower, I able to make good and healthy decisions that are in harmony with my own purposes and the purposes of those I either serve or lead.
As you begin your own journey in leadership, I know that you will create your own list. I wish you all the best and know that you will find your own way – a way that is neither the road most taken or the less taken, but is instead your own road -the road you make with everyone you touch.
How this book is organized
Truth is not linear. Neither, are the universe and its laws. Readers seeking to find a system of thought that are predicated on one truth building on another will be disappointed. This book is not a blue print for how to build a better school or a set of directions on how to proceed in becoming a better leader. Rather, it is more like a wood fire stove or a campfire where the glow of individual embers float on and above the fire. The individual light from each ember at first seems to be no different from any of the light that is emitting from the other embers, but with patient observance, differences do emerge.
Watching the embers rise, it becomes apparent that there are many movements occurring all at once. Some embers rise faster than others, while some move to the back of the fire and others seem to dance in all directions, rising and falling independently of each other. There is a harmony to this dance. But unlike music, the harmony is multidimensional; it is unpredictable; the possibilities of movement are unlimited and it flows in many directions simultaneously. This multidimensional harmony reflects, connects and gives expression to the fire below and the embers floating above. It causes some embers to burn more brilliantly and others to wane and disappear quickly. But whether an ember lasts for minutes or disappears in seconds, the truth of what is happening is best understood in the totality of the whole event; not just a momentary slice.
The many principles that are explored in this book are connected. Some are only themes and a variation of others while some are stand alone truths that are self-evident and need no explanation. But all of these principles are nevertheless connected. While they cannot be understood in words alone, they can be known. The Tao, as expressed in this book, are principles expressed in both eastern and western thought and have been known for ages; yet for whatever reasons, they are principles that seem difficult for leaders to embrace and put into practice. It may be that these democratic principles represent only one side of an equation that is balanced by a negative inverse of fascism and machiavellian leadership. Certainly, the pull and allure of fascist leadership has been observed and written about for thousands of years. However, it is my belief and thinking that the absolute value of this equation is best reflected in the democratic principles of leadership and that these principles represent our best response for solutions that require effective, creative, and innovative leadership.
Douglas Sexton, Ed.D.
I've been in education for over 32 years. During that time, I've served as a bus driver, teacher, principal, and an assistant professor. Throughout the years, I've often thought about leadership and to this day, I continue to think about it. I find myself wondering, "What makes a leader successful?" These musings, as my graduate students put it, are my Tao.