Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What makes a great sports team could also make a great school board

Kansas statutes require that boards organize themselves formally at their first July meeting. I’s must be dotted and t’s crossed. Technical processes and procedures operationalized. But the most important thing the board does at the July meeting is select a president and vice president. I was thinking about this while reading a book called “The Captain Class,” by Sam Walker.

Walker takes an interesting (and fun) approach to the study of what makes teams successful. Using specific criteria, he identifies the 16 best athletic teams of all time. (Since publication, he added the New England Patriots as a 17th.) The teams range from the early 1950’s Yankees to the more recent San Antonio Spurs, from the 1970’s Steelers to the Cuban Women’s Volleyball team. If you enjoy sports, it is a fun read just to learn more about these and other dynasties.

Walker then explores the reason for the great success of these teams. We live in a culture that believes in the cult of charismatic leadership, so the tendency is to go to the coach, or the superstar player. What he found was something different, these teams all had a team captain or captains who had a certain set of characteristics.

In brief, what Walker calls the Seven Traits of Elite Captains are:
  1. Extreme doggedness in competition
  2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of rules
  3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows
  4. A low-key, practical and democratic communication style.
  5. Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
  6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
  7. Ironclad emotional control.
Considering these traits in the terms of dynastic athletic teams is interesting. What if we applied these to school districts, or school boards? Some apply better than others, but all deserve consideration.

At KASB we are fortunate to have members of our Board of Directors who exemplify these traits. These people have tended to rise to leadership positions at KASB and we are better for it. As you consider leadership on your local boards, take a minute and review Walker’s traits.

Would these be good characteristics for a board member and more so for a board president or vice president? Would all our associations be better places for students if we had leaders who exemplified a willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows, who have ironclad emotional control and who use a low-key, practical and democratic communication style?

Making our organizations great isn’t always comfortable. It sometimes requires the courage to stand apart, but that courage needs to be paired with the ability to motivate others. Doggedness is a good trait if it is paired with strong emotional control. Walker found that it required all of these traits combined to achieve elite status.

As you elect your leadership teams this summer, I encourage you to give this some thought. For those of you who are chosen to lead, these might be some good personal goals. I wish you all a good summer and a great first meeting in July.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What do we want for our kids?

As the school year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about the mission and challenges of public education in Kansas.

Each year in August, we welcome more than 400,000 Kansas kids to our schoolhouse doors. Some of those kids have spent the summer playing sports, going to camp, hanging out at the pool or working on their 4-H projects for the county fair. Some have been flipping burgers, mowing lawns or babysitting to save for a car or other fun stuff. Maybe they’ve done an internship somewhere.

Other Kansas kids hit school in August after working not for pocket change but to put food on the family table. Still others spent the summer hopscotching from food banks to community meal sites and even to the local emergency shelter, one step ahead of hunger, neglect or abuse.

Kansas public schools in 286 districts around the state welcome all of those kids with open arms and a commitment to preparing them for life. We teach them reading, writing and math and how to be a good citizen. We teach them to be rocket scientists, farmers, chefs, teachers, auto mechanics and small business owners. That’s our mission and we’re proud of it.

And we go to bat for those kids when they need us.

Over the years Kansans have gone to the state’s legislature or courts and said, “There are kids in our state who aren’t getting the education they need and deserve. We need your help to fix that.”

In the 1970s and 1990s, the legislature responded to statewide inequities in local tax support for public schools by passing laws to ensure a kid’s education doesn’t depend on where they live. Those laws were prompted by court cases, but the legislature said in effect, “We recognize the problems and we’re going to fix them. Your lawyer can stand down.”

The 2000s brought No Child Left Behind and a focus on educational progress and lots of testing. Although NCLB is now moldering on the dust heap of history, it forced Kansans to hold ourselves accountable for educating not just the lucky kids but EVERY Kansas kid.

That focus on educating all Kansas kids triggered the Montoy case, which was brought on behalf of a kid whose parents felt he wasn’t getting the education he deserved. The Kansas Supreme Court, in that case, found there were wide, funding-based disparities and told the state legislature to fix it.

That’s how government works: the legislature passes laws and citizens have the right to seek legal help if the laws aren’t working.

Now we’re waiting for our Supreme Court to rule on the state’s commitment to our kids’ educational needs. We’ve had a cost study and a study of the cost study and both said schools need more money to serve kids. The legislature did its work and now the Court is doing its Constitutional duty.

In the end, it is simply a matter of what do Kansans want for our kids.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Everyone is fighting a battle

Libby Strout, one of two main characters in Jennifer Niven’s book ‘Holding Up the Universe,” was once known as “American’s Fattest Teen” and was so big they had to cut a hole in her house to get her out. Imagine a student in your school who comes back after several years of home school, during which this extrication took place on national TV for all to see. 

Niven captures the moment so well from the point of view of Libby, and also gives a hyper-realistic look at the other student’s reactions to her. Needless to say, the bullying is heartbreaking.

My internal thoughts of “what would you have done” were laid bare when, referencing two characters in the book, my wife flat-out asked: “Which of these boys would you have been?” The question is one we should all ask ourselves.

Jack Masselin is the other main character in the book. On the outside, Jack has it all going on. So as not to divulge any spoilers let’s just say Jack has issues of his own. Issues no one can see because of his philosophy: “Be charming, be hilarious, don’t get too close to anyone.” These are the students who are so good at “playing school” that no one knows their pain.

You will have to read the book to get the rest. “Goodreads” gives it five stars. I simply couldn’t put it down. My wife complains about our shared Kindle and audible library being all war books and scary thrillers; I have been trying to expand my horizons. My niece suggested this one. It’s not about history and it’s not scary; unless you have ever been a victim of a bully. Which means it is all about history and it is scary for pretty much everyone.

The October 11 edition of the New York Times Magazine included an article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” One could ask more provincial question: Why is Kansas’ suicide rate 25 percent higher than the national average? These questions have no easy answers, and the problems have no easy solutions. Reading and discussing “Holding up the Universe” would be a good place to start learning the lesson that everyone is fighting a battle, even if we can’t understand it.

If you are an educator I recommend you read this book. Student’s in our schools struggle for so many reasons beyond academics. A wise person once said everyone we meet is a mirror. This book provides us with a mirror in which we can see the pain and joy of being a teenager.