Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be Like Steve?

     I'm typing this post on my ipad2, which I got the day after Steve Jobs died. I can't say I was inspired by his passing, as I already had placed the order. Similarly, Walter Isaacson's superb biography of Jobs came out soon after his death, on the previously set date.  I would have read the book anyway, because of both the subject and the author. Years before Jobs had requested that Isaacson write the book, and he had amazing access to Jobs and many other people. Jobs wanted the book to be honest, and it certainly seems to be, given the complexity in which it presents him.
     The book is stunning in many ways, from the level of research to the quality of writing. I found myself reading bits whenever I had the chance, even a couple of pages at a time. The entire time, I found myself wondering about one basic question: Would I want to be Steve Jobs?
     Near the end of the book, Isaacson makes a list of the innovations that Jobs spearheaded. You know the details, so I won't bother running it down. Surely Jobs, as he set out to do, made "a dent in the universe." If you want a more objective measure, based on rate of return, Jobs is the most successful CEO of all time. No one can seriously question his singular greatness and historical significance.
     Yet, I have to ask, at what cost?
     If asked to choose one adjective to describe Jobs, I would say haunted. Whatever his demons--and, in classic armchair psychiatrist fashion, I diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, type 1 with some raging narcissism--Jobs found life painful. He raged. He sobbed. He abandoned. He embraced. He scoffed. He honored. All these often in rapid succession, frequently at the same target. He ended up enemies with some he had seen as best friends; he even basically abandoned Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and kept him from getting some stock options. One thing I don't recall him ever doing, and that is apologizing.
     Jobs obsessed over every detail of each product--not just the function, but the design. In fact, the latter sometimes overruled the former. Once Jobs decided on a design, he simply expected engineers who called it impossible to achieve Herculean feats to make it work. Usually they succeeded. But Jobs could become neurotic about certain design aspects, such as when he wanted internal screws on a computer, which had nothing to do with performance, to have a certain finish that added greatly to the cost. Jobs had to control everything, mainly because he was truly convinced that only he could be right. For this reason, he also was known to blast ideas, change his way of thinking, and then take credit for having had the idea in the first place.
   Brilliant? Truly visionary? Revolutionary? Without a doubt. Greatest CEO ever? Maybe.
     In pondering that, I have to raise questions about my leadership as a head of school. After all, as one of my trustees likes to ask when we're discussing something, "What does the CEO want to see happen?" Well, I certainly don't ever see myself operating like Jobs. I like to think I still function like a teacher, but with a different classroom. The greatest teachers help others realize what they can become and help them fulfill that potential. They also know how to set things up and get out of the way. Yes, I want to be a great head of school. But that doesn't mean that I have to set out to change the world on my own. Instead, I have to strive to make the most positive difference I can in my corner of the world, the trust that the ripple effect will spread the benefits. That's my goal in all aspects of my life. Then my life and work will have mattered.
     At the same time, I hope that I can keep my ambition in perspective. True excellence comes with costs. If he weren't so driven, Jobs could not have achieved all he did. Therein lies another lesson for us a educators. We need to be very careful about the mixed message we send to young people when we encourage them to achieve excellence and to maintain balance. The concepts are mutually exclusive. Similarly, we preach the values of altruistic service, yet we remind students to build their resume. We also need to make sure that we don't let the wrong payoffs cause us to forget our values. Recently a Dallas principal was receiving all kinds of accolades for how much the reading and math scores had risen at her school. Then it was discovered that her teachers had been told to abandon all science and social studies instruction to focus on test preparation. Now what is her legacy?
     When he died, Jobs was with several family members. His last words were "Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!" People have interpreted this in a positive fashion--that he was finally gratefully in touch with the people who had stuck with him. I'm not so sure. Jobs always had been obsessed with his own mortality, and I think he was commenting on his imminent death more than anything else.
    So back to that one question: Would I want to be Steve Jobs? I am in awe of his talents and grateful that he saw what people wanted even before we knew it. As I learn more and more about what I can do on my ipad, I believe it is the best device for kids to have in school. Yet rather than being the creator of the ipad, I'm very content conceiving of the possibilities it holds for education. What about you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Giving Thanks

     Each work day, I finish by making a mental list. I select the three best things that had happened that day. There are no specific criteria. One might be some way I believe I had helped someone. A finished task. A great meeting. Positive feedback. Even negatives can usually reveal a positive glimmer if you look hard enough.
    I do this somewhat for practical, personal reasons. It helps me sleep better at night, and it keeps me optimistic. But there also are some larger philosophical reasons: as I've written previously, I think our society--individually and collectively--is losing a sense of gratitude.
     So here we are, near Thanksgiving; and at the risk of being totally cliched, I want to share with you some of the things for which I am grateful. Since this is my head of school blog, I'm going to stick to professional points. I could go on and on about my family and personal blessings. For many reasons these also will be generalities. More than anything, don't want to hurt anyone through inadvertent omission.
  • I feel very fortunate to head a school with a meaningful mission--and that the school is true to its mission. At a time when many schools are cutting programs and taking a very narrow academic approach, we continue to take a truly holistic approach. We work on every aspect of human development: intellectual, physical, artistic, social, emotional, spiritual...and probably some I'm forgetting. We also see them as totally integrated.
  • The faculty here (and when I say faculty, I refer to all the adults who work at a school and thus somehow influence kids). They work tirelessly and truly care about the students. Even though many have extensive experience, they are quite growth oriented, always seeking ways to improve their craft and thus better serve the students. The relatively long average tenure speaks to their dedication.
  • We have a committed board of trustees. Individually and collectively, they take their responsibilities very seriously and provide tremendous support. Their talents mesh beautifully. I always feel enlightened--and a bit in awe--after watching them in action, either working on a task force, doing committee work, or convening as a full board. Like the faculty, they strive to grow even stronger.
  • Our school community is a very generous one. People here give and give in many ways--time, talent, and treasure. Two amazing statistics bear this out. A recent study revealed that approximately 85% of our parents volunteer in some way at the school. That's an amazing number, and it doesn't capture how much energy and time so many of them give. For some it's like a second job. The second is our five-year streak of 100% family participation in our Annual Fund.
  • Parents here are involved in their children's education, and they place great trust in the school. Many studies show that parent engagement is perhaps the most important factor in a successful school.
  • Great kids, who work hard, act respectfully, and inspire everyone mentioned above. Two quick stories. Recently our dean was talking to a student about a small disciplinary issue. Rather than make any excuses, the student simply said, "I wasn't being a very good person." In the second story, a teacher heard during a class from an alum whose mother has died. A student instantly wrote a letter for the teacher to deliver.

      I wanted to avoid being cliched in taking on this topic, and now I realize that my list of items is rather cliched. There's a lesson there. The things that make for a great school are not that complicated. But they can prove elusive. Often at least one is missing, or they are out of balance in some way. It comes down to culture. So, along with being so thankful for the opportunity to head this school, perhaps I'm most grateful that our culture is so healthy. It's what will enable us to keep growing better and better as a school and as people.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Educational Value(s)

                Three things recently have converged to prompt this post. The first two are entwined: it’s budgeting season, and that means we have to look at tuition rates for the coming year. Those topics have been foremost in my mind. In fact, early Monday morning I was thinking about them when CNN had a piece on whether or not a college degree is a worthwhile investment.
                In fact, that’s a rather hot topic right now. I Googled “Is college worth it?” and received 725,000,000 hits. The recent press about the Thiel Fellows who were granted $100,000 to skip college and begin start-up businesses drew some attention. It’s prompted, of course, by the epic tales of people like Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg having not completed college and endingd up incredibly rich and influential. (I’m reading Isaacson’s biography of Jobs—stay tuned for my thoughts when I finish.)
                I understand the concerns. After all, in a few years my ninth grade daughter and sixth grade son will be deciding on college. The costs have skyrocketed to what a few years ago would have been incomprehensible levels. Most of the anger is directed at the colleges, but I think there is plenty of blame to go around. Certainly colleges took advantage of the economic prosperity we enjoyed for a while, and they also reveled in the demographic bubble and consumer anxiety that led to hyper-competitive admission activity. At the same time, though, people began looking for features and amenities that really had little to do with the ultimate goals of college. Take a look at some of the luxurious student centers. Heck, take a look at some dorms.
                Let’s briefly recap the general points on each side of the argument. Yes, I know that I will be oversimplifying.
The anti-college side argues that one can succeed without college. After all, look at the examples above. These are people who dented the universe, and they didn’t finish college. The anti-college folks also say that most of what one needs can be better learned through experience; that one needs to be in the real world, not the ivory tower.
The pro-college side points out that the average person’s potential income is much higher with a college degree. The CNN piece pointed out how unemployment levels drop as degrees grow higher, i.e. people with a master’s are less likely to be unemployed than those with a bachelors, who are less likely than those with just a high school degree, and so on.
With just a little bit of basic Internet research and a modicum of logic, I could support or refute either one of these arguments. Even without the research, I would ask some simple questions. For example, I’d ask if Steve Jobs really makes for a compelling example since he is such an outlier. But I’m not interested in intellectual debate here, particularly over what strikes me as an ultimately unsolvable issue.
My issue with both sides is much more basic than that. It’s one in which my idealism trumps my practicality. It’s one at which I can hear some people scoffing. It’s one that I sometimes forget amidst the realities of life. It’s one I hope I never lose.
My issue is simple…but it’s not. Both sides reduce the value of a college education to pure dollars. To return on investment. By extension, I guess this thinking applies to all education.
It’s worth more than that. At least, it is when done right.
It’s about the growth that happens when someone discovers potential she had never perceived in herself. It’s about a person becoming enamored with a topic he had once dismissed. It’s about being challenged by the experiences and perspectives of those around you. It’s about those aha moments. It’s about a young person figuring out what sort of person he or she wants to become…and doesn’t want to. It’s about pondering the ever-morphing complexities of the human experience. It’s about training the mind for even heavier lifting. It’s about making a contribution. It’s about life-long learning.
I’d also contend that society would be much better off with a more highly-educated populace. Imagine, for instance, if people were better critical thinkers when it comes to political elections. In another example, we might be less doomed to repeat history if we understood its arc better. Perhaps we would consider meaningful discourse to be more than the current cacophony of sound bites and vitriol.
I know these are rather quixotic musings. Sometimes I also wonder if all the tuition I pay for my kids is worth it. But I believe that, ironically, when we think of education in purely financial terms, we actually cheapen it. We shouldn’t think of it in terms of price point. After all, ultimately it’s priceless.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Successful Thinking?

     This morning Ian Jukes’ Committed Sardine blog alerted me to John Maxwell’s How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life. More specifically, a link brought me to this slideshow highlighting the main topics of the book. If you don’t feel like clicking over, here’s the list:
·         Figure out where you need to focus your energy, and then use the 80/20 rule
·         Smart thinkers expose themselves to different ideas and types of people
·         It's one thing to have an idea, another to follow through
·         Thoughts need time to develop. Don't just settle on the first thing that comes to mind
·         Smart people collaborate with other smart people
·         Reject popular thinking (which often means not thinking at all)
·         The best thinkers plan ahead, while leaving room for some spontaneity
·         To think differently, do different things
·         To appreciate others' ideas, you need to value other ideas
·         Have an agenda -- for the day, and when you meet with people
·         Reflective thinking gives you perspective and confidence in your decision-making skills
·         Get over negative self talk. Winners think in terms of "I will" and "I can"
·         Creative people are dedicated to ideas
·         Naturally optimistic people find it hard to be realistic thinkers
·         At the end of the day, it's important to remember we can all change the way we think
·         Smart people make good decisions
This, of course, prompted some big, hairy questions:
·         How is success being defined in here?
·         What do I think about each of these items?
·         Can these be taught/learned?
·         If these are common to successful people, and they can be taught, shouldn’t these be near the top of any curriculum?
What do you think?