Good Work: Enough but not too much Challenge

I climb not only for the solitude, beauty, phsical exertion, or bonds of friendship I found in the mountains, but also because of an attraction to danger.
-Jim Wickwire

In sports, recreation, and in my work, I have always enjoyed a challenge.  But more than anything before or since, being a public school superintendent is a challenge. I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks after meal with current and former superintendents.  It’s a challenging job the way it is constructed–reporting to a revolving door elected body, inheriting a maze of contracts and policies, and whipsawed by state politics and budgets.
There is so much that I didn’t know when I took the job.  It is hard to explain to the onlooker the shock of jumping in with both feet.  The leadership agenda is quite similar to other sectors, but there are three fundamental differences: the people, the politics and the economics.
People drawn to education as a profession are usually mission-driven and caring, but often risk adverse.  The bulk of veteran teachers signed up for an employment bargain that valued longevity and loyalty and granted classroom independence. Given who they are and what they signed up  for, it’s important (for folks like me) not to assume that performance incentives and attempts to measure contribution won’t work the same way they do in business.  Another surprise about the people in education is that it is even more seasonal than retail–you get one shot to change stuff in the spring around budget time and then you’re not supposed to change things during the school year.
Working with the other half of the people equation–parents–was a whole different shock.   Parents can be either very critical or completely disengaged (or worse); in twenty years we have gone from “the teacher is always right” and “wait until your father gets home” to “my child is always right” and “my attorney will be contacting the governor”.  Emotions are at an all time high as parents and teachers, who share the common experience of the American comprehensive high school, try to figure out why everything is changing so rapidly.  They recall a high school experience that worked for them but fail to realize our high schools are not preparing most of our young people for their future.
The politics of public education are like a big red union, intense and multi-layered.  Working between five elected officials and nine unions is topped only by the thousands of pages of state and federal regulations that govern education.  Education is the most over-regulated, and as a result inefficient, segment of the economy.  Decades of well-intentioned legislation have created layers of special programs, each having gained a vocal constituency, which now weigh down a system struggling to improve outcomes.
The economics of public education are convoluted.  Money comes from a variety of sources in little buckets with lots of strings attached.  School districts are required to monitor and report on program compliance not whether it made a difference for children.  The accounting requirements look like they were designed by waves of politicians (because they were).  All too often the schools that face the greatest challenges receive the lowest per pupil funding.  Super majority requirements for renewal of local funding in some states give residents one of the few opportunities they have to say “NO” to the high cumulative tax burden which they bear.  The inability of districts to fund school construction is a national problem created by the collision of the baby boom echo and an aging population growing weary of tax increases.
In my mid 30’s I was clear about my calling to work in education but found it frustrating and occasionally overwhelming.  During my first few years as superintendent, I frequently found myself driving around wondering “what makes you think you can actually do this job?”.  The weight is heavy, the questions are complex, the temptation to simplify and blame is great.
The superintendency can be frustrating and draining, but, like mountain climbing, the rewards are occasionally equal to the challenge.  The greatest reward is watching students grow, whether it is seeing thousands of graduates becoming productive citizens, or receiving one letter from a child whose life was turned around by a teacher that cared.  The challenges are greater than they could have described, but so are the rewards.
Every job has its own unique challenges and rewards.  The challenges are often self evident, but the rewards can be subtle, long-term, or indirect.  Take time to remind yourself of the rewards that make the work worthwhile.  Taking up your calling, living into your voice and living out your convictions will challenge you physically, mentally and spiritually.  Pick challenges great enough to stretch, rewarding enough to satisfy, but not so big that it will devour you.  Don’t attempt a superintendency unless, like Wickwire, you have a strange attraction for danger.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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