See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
(Bob Nolan, Sons of the Pioneers)
Whenever I hear the song “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” (which is not too often, mind you) I think of school district superintendents. Like the tumbleweeds in the song, they kinda go from one place to another, stopping for a while when they get stuck on a fence, then off to the next place, rolling along, never staying for too long.
I wonder if superintendents in school districts think about their long-term legacies, about what people will be saying about them 5, 10, 15, 20 or more years after they leave? They really don’t have a lot of time to make a mark on an organization. One survey of urban superintendents in the US found that the average term of service in a district is about 3.6 years.
Less than four years to mold an organization into their image. That is a hard trick for anyone, but it is even more difficult since we all know how the superintendent game is played throughout our nation: If a superintendent is “super” and does a great job, he or she will catch a fresh wind and tumble on to another job somewhere else that pays a ton more cash and has more perks. If they do a not-so-super job, they trundle off to a position as a consultant, where they will probably make more money as well.
So good for them. They worked to get where they are, and they are pretty much set no matter what happens. However, when they leave, they do leave behind a city or a school district that, for better or worse, has to put up with whatever was created during their stint sitting in the big chair.
There’s a typical pattern when they go
I’ve been in education for many years and seen my fair share of superintendents come and go. And I’ve noticed this pattern arise once a superintendent leaves a district:
After 1 year: Most of the people who’d been brought in to be on the super’s team will have left for greener pastures.
After 2 years: All curricula and programs are replaced with newer, shinier, brighter curricula and programs.
After 5 years: No one will be talking about the old super. The former curriculum that cost tons of money and thousands of man-hours to create and train on will be gone. The programs that were so meticulously put into place will have been replaced. The school board that loved the “best superintendent we ever had” will have been either re-elected with a new agenda or defeated by others with an different agenda who didn’t think that the former super was “all that.” Out of sight, out of mind.
After 10 years: The superintendent will either be a fond memory of the old timers still in the system or maybe a punchline in a lunchroom conversation. (That all depends on the circumstances of departure.)
In 15 years: No one will be talking about the plans and dreams of the past; in fact, they won’t remember them at all. That once authoritative and visionary superintendent is a long-gone memory, except perhaps for an occasionally heard phrase like “We used to do that, but we stopped for some reason.”
So how do superintendents build a legacy?
There is only one thing: Build a school.
That’s right, a new school. Much like a President’s Supreme Court nomination, the building of a school will be the only nearly-permanent legacy that will have any truly lasting consequence.
Fifty years from now, the plaque on the wall of the school will still bear the name of the district leader in charge when construction took place. Until they tear the dang place down, the plaque remains, advertising the names of the super and the school board he or she served.
So, if buildings are the only way to have a lasting legacy — the only thing of permanence — how does one make that building special? People 30 years from now will be able to say one of two things when they look at any building constructed during any superintendent’s tenure:
• They will say: “That superintendent sure had vision. That superintendent sure was able to see where education was headed when s/he led the design planning for that school.”
• Or they will say: “That superintendent built the exact same school every other superintendent built.”
How many supers are visionary builders?
I wonder how many superintendents put as much thought into new campuses as they do into new principals, or new curriculum, or new school buses? I wonder if most of them just leave the decisions to a bunch of architects who really never had any background in education and could cookie-cut a high school and a state prison all from the same basic set of plans?
When they hire architects, do they hire ones that actually specialize in school design, like Fielding Nair, or do you hire a local company that just finished designing the big-box discount store on the corner, or were just awarded the local KFC remodeling contract?
Do they consider what education will look like in 20 years? The school will still be there. They won’t be. Will it be designed to grow with technology or are the classrooms all based on the same 4-wall, 4-outlet, 4-window model from the 1950’s?
I wonder if all those “21st century skills” we keep telling the teachers and principals are important will be taken into account as the school is designed? For example, could someone point to the blueprints and actually say, “This is where collaboration takes place in this school. This is the setting for powerful informal learning.”
Are superintendents looking at how the best schools are being designed, beyond just their immediate geographical locale? Remember how we were told that Thomas Friedman was right when he said the world was flat? Okay, if that is true, are we looking at school design in China? Australia? Germany? Scotland? What are they doing that we aren’t?
Will a parent be able to look at the newly opened school and get the sense that education is now fundamentally different than it was when they were in school? Or will they look at it and get a sense of nostalgia because it looks so much like their good old alma mater of 20 years ago?
So, my dear Tumblin’ Tumbleweed, before you roll on to your next barbed-wire fence, I hope that you will consider your legacy and build something brilliant and inspiring, something that will be attuned to times ahead.
Because if you don’t, we’ll be occupying your lack of vision for decades to come.