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!
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.