Bennett on Bennett
By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
I talked with an Indiana Superintendent last Friday after spending two days working with him on content analysis for a new, statewide licensing examination. As much conversation did this past week, our talk drifted toward the results of this past week’s State Superintendent election in Indiana where a 30+ year elementary teacher unseated arguably the most prominent State Superintendent in the country by more than 130,000 votes. We agreed to watch the resultant fallout in the press that weekend and beyond.
Tribune-Star writer Mark Bennett offered his perspectives in an article this past Sunday on the unseating of Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett (last names a coincidence, I think, but don’t know for sure). In doing so, he mentioned that as Indiana has 62,258 public school teachers, this wasn’t just a teacher-created margin of victory (November 11, 2012, B5).
Many of my graduate students and faculty colleagues this past week have contended that Superintendent Bennett’s upset is a mandate from “the folks” who are concerned about WHERE the state is heading and WHAT is happening to education. I agree with most of their analyses, yet see this as more a HOW thing, not only in Indiana, but also across the nation.
Mark Bennett wrote, “Maybe Hoosiers don’t like the concept of for-profit corporations running their public schools, or high-stakes standardized tests, or public-funded private school vouchers. Or all of the above, all at once” (Tribune-Star, November 11, 2012, B5). He might have a point on that part of the WHAT.
However, I’ll bet Hoosiers like the idea that educators should be accountable for their next day’s best work, as well as transparency in performance. I’ll bet they like that it is now much easier for school leaders to remove incompetent teachers who formerly were entrenched in thicker collective bargaining and tenure protections. I’ll bet they like that they now have more of a choice in attending a variety of public schools that meet their needs, rather than being limited by their own geographic location and mailing addresses.
Granted that although many of these newfound realities are a result of legislative and gubernatorial leadership, Dr. Bennett championed them as well, to his credit.
These WHAT’S, I believe, are not all that bad.
Writer Mark Bennett offered an even better point, prior to his WHAT, on the HOW that has taken place in Indiana.
He wrote, “ … maybe Hoosiers were glad – even relieved – to hear the woman voters chose to be the next state superintendent suggest that Indiana’s educational change bulldozer find a lower gear. If the dust never settles, it’s hard to see where you’re going.”
This was an excellent point for you to highlight, Mark – that the dust, every so often, needs to clear.
For a number of years now as a student and teacher of school reform, I have made a point to distinguish the journey from the destination – the need to focus on the HOW (journey), while we’re focusing on the WHAT (destination).
In closing my Ed. Leadershop election reflections for this week, I’ll share a few leadership lessons that I have learned (some from good teachers; others by just messing things up, myself) that may help put things in perspective on this past week’s unseating of a national figure.
As leaders moving forward with complex initiatives in times of challenge and uncertainty, we must:
1. Make an attempt to understand those who have differing perspectives than we; then work through openness and mutual respect to find common ground.
2. Establish relationships and communication with even our most vehement critics with an I’m OK; You’re Ok perspective.
3. Surround ourselves with followers who are not “Yes men” or “sheep.”
4. Ensure that those reporting to us are not afraid for their jobs if they find fault with our analyses or initiatives.
5. Measure twice and cut once before moving forward with something that will be difficult to undo.
6. Understand that people who are resistant to the changes we present may naturally be worried about being less-than-capable at what we are asking them to do. Help them.
7. Refrain from over-measuring people who are moving through natural implementation dips when navigating new challenges, as they will perceive it as “bludgeoning.”
8. Realize that sometimes in order to go fast, we must go slow.
9. Change course when prudent and admit that we do not know everything, as others, especially our opponents, teach us new ways of thinking.
10. Look over our shoulders every once in a while to see if anyone is following.
Mark Bennett wrote, “Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels and Indiana legislators should respect the votes of 1,315,026 Hoosiers. That’s how many people voted to change the leadership of K-through-12 education in Indiana” (Tribune Star, November 11, 2012, B1).
I wonder if that number would have been quite as high if 1 – 10 above would have been more the rule than the exception in the way state and national leaders have presented themselves in conducting the people’s educational business.
Dr. Ryan Donlan is a lifelong learner of leadership and would like to learn from you as well, if you would find time to comment or contact him at (812) 237-8624 or firstname.lastname@example.org.